Pyramide de Cholula
The four-stepped, low-rising Pyramid of Cholula, covered in sparse vegetation, stands in a flat valley, surrounded by distant mountains. A stairway leads up from the base of the pyramid to the small Spanish church on its crest. A herd of cattle cross the near center of the image, walking away from a small city at the far right. Two men, wearing cloaks, hats, and carrying walking sticks, converse in the left foreground. A semi-nude woman sits nearby, in proximity to a small grove of trees.
Copyright 2009, Rare Book Collection, Archives of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Pyramide de Cholula was printed for the first time in Humboldt’s Vues des Cordillères: et Monumens des Peuples Indigènes de l’Amérique in 1810. The book was wildly popular in Europe, running to several editions (in a number of languages) throughout the duration of Humboldt’s life.
After four years in South America, Alexander von Humboldt arrived in Mexico City from Lima in 1803; he spent a year there devoted to archival research (Pratt 117). His only major archaeological or natural history excursion was to the sites of Cholula (where he produced Pyramide de Cholula) and Xochicalco, a site contemporary to Cholula and located eighty miles from Mexico City.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)
Alexander von Humboldt was a prolific author of works on natural history, meteorology, archaeology, botany, and geography. These writings lay the foundation for the field of biogeography while also setting a precedent for Romantic travel in the Americas, and they continue to serve as a source of national pride for a number of Latin American countries. Humboldt was born in Berlin on September 14, 1769 to an upper-class family. After completing his studies in natural history, he took a position as a consultant to a Prussian mining company, and from there began to develop his interest in travel, particularly travel outside of Europe (Pratt 117). After a number of failed expeditionary attempts, Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist, received the patronage of Don Mariano Luis de Urquijo to go to Spanish America. Humboldt’s 1799-1804 expedition to the Americas is generally regarded as the first systematic attempt to study American natural history and geography in a scientific manner. During his time there, Humboldt traveled to what is now Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador—where he was 400 meters short of scaling Chimborazo volcano, then thought to be the highest mountain in the world—Peru, and the United States, recording botanical specimens and geographic features. He discovered many archaeological remains, sites, and artifacts, especially in Mexico. Humboldt would publish over thirty volumes dedicated to his findings, the most famous of which are Ansichten der Natur (Views of Nature, 1808); Vues des Cordillères: et Monumens des Peuples Indigènes de l’Amérique (Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of Indigenous Peoples of America; 1810, 1814); and his three-volume Relation Historique (Personal Narrative; 1814, 1819, and 1825) (Pratt 116-117).
Humboldt’s writings on Spanish America have had a long-lasting and powerful influence. As the first scientific discussion of American geography, they provided inspiration for nationalist aspects of Latin American independence movements, and they were simultaneously used by the Spanish Crown to increase intellectual and colonial control over its territories. His studies of the relations between botany, fauna, and geography established the foundation for the modern field of biogeography, and his works on meteorology in the Americas were also the first of their kind, exerting a great influence over contemporary meteorological studies. Following his Latin American expedition, Humboldt returned to Europe a hero. In 1811 and 1818 he undertook expeditions to Russia and the Arctic, but he would ultimately spend the rest of his life completing his works, including his magnum opus, Kosmos (1845-1847). Humboldt suffered a minor stroke in 1857, and passed away quietly in Berlin on May 6, 1859.
City of Cholula
Cholula was an important Mesoamerican population center from around 200 BCE until the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521, at which time it had a population of around 100,000 and was the second-largest city in the Americas (after the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan). It is located in the modern Mexican state of Puebla, outside the modern city of Cholula (which derives its name from the site). Over the course of its history the city was affected by a number of cultural influences—Teotihuacan, Veracruz, Toltec, and Aztec—many of which contributed to the construction of the Great Pyramid at Cholula.
The Pyramid of Cholula
The Cholula Pyramid was one of the few Mesoamerican archaeological sites to be recorded by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt during his expedition through Spanish America between 1799 and 1804. Considered by many to be the largest man-made monument in the world in terms of volume, the Pyramid of Cholula is unquestionably the largest pyramid in the Americas, and possibly the largest pyramid in the world. Almost twice as large (in volume) than the Great Pyramid of Giza, the pyramid’s initial size has been covered over and re-constructed by succeeding rulers of Cholula over the course of nearly two thousand years; finally, following the Spanish conquest in 1594, a Catholic church was constructed on top of the pyramid. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the structure remains unexcavated by modern archaeologists.
Humboldt produced one other view of Cholula in Vues des Cordillères: et Monumens des Peuples Indigènes de l’Amérique (1810).
This image depicts the Pyramid of Cholula, possibly the largest pyramid in the world. Because it was used as a site of construction by generations of rulers—and finally as a site for a Roman Catholic church—the majority of the pyramid remains unexcavated.
This is the only major landscape image Humboldt produced in Mexico. It positions Humboldt as a figure influenced by Enlightenment notions of authentic re-creation and encyclopedic recording of native flora and fauna, while at the same time revealing his concern with Romantic aesthetics of the picturesque landscape (Dettelbach).
This is one of a long series of images produced for Vues des Cordillères: et Monumens des Peuples Indigènes de l’Amérique, a study of the peoples, cultural artifacts, geography, and natural history of Latin America, particularly South America. Humboldt’s concern was to give an encyclopedic overview of all the aforementioned topics in his book. Given his short time in Mexico, it is significant that Pyramide de Cholula incorporates a city and artifact of Mexican archaeology, a rendering of the Mexican landscape, and representations of native botanical specimens, many of which were collected by Humboldt.
Coe, Michael D. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 4th ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994. Print.
Dettelbach, Michael. "Alexander Von Humboldt between Enlightenment and Romanticism." Alexander von Humboldt's Natural History Legacy and Its Relevance for Today. Spec. Issue of Northeastern Naturalist 8.1 (2001): 9-20. Print.
Humboldt, Alexander von. Vues Des Cordillères: Et Monumens Des Peuples Indigènes De L'amérique. 2 vols. Paris, 1816. Print.
Humboldt, Alexander von, et al. Vistas De Las Cordilleras Y Monumentos De Los Pueblos Indígenas De América. 2 vols. México, D.F.: Smurfit Cartón y Papel, 1995. Print. Hombre y sus obras. Biblioteca Humboldt.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Vues des Cordillères: et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique