Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 December 2021
The reshaping of the material world was an essential part of the process of urbanization in Late Formative Mesoamerica, as it was in other parts of the ancient world. These material reconfigurations took many forms, each inextricably entwined with the others in the matrix of urbanism. Monumental art was one of the most prominent and visually accessible vehicles through which Mesoamerican elites configured new urban identities. In fact, recognition of the vital role that monumental imagery plays in establishing visual codes is, according to Robert Maxwell (2007), art history’s major contribution to the study of urbanism. But this fundamental premise – that monumental art is an integral aspect of urbanism’s “three-dimensional features” and central to its “expanded visual discourse” – hinges on the understanding that art was more than an epiphenomenal accessory of urbanism or a decorative afterthought inspired by city living. We take as a given, in this chapter, that images did more than occupy physical space: we view image making as a recursive act that both reflected and actively created the urban landscape. To borrow Maxwell’s words, art generated meaning and established the visual codes that were fundamental to the expression of new urban identities. Among the first modern scholars to recognize the role of art in the “urban revolution,” or the complex processes of economic and social change that culminated in the development of the first cities, was V. Gordon Childe (1950). While of enduring value, Childe’s observations concerning art and urbanism benefit from new and sustained scrutiny of the complex interface between artistic programs, the built environment, and the goals and ideological agendas of the ruling elites who commissioned monuments in Late Formative Mesoamerica.
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