On the Pre-Columbian Stage: Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Design for Fernand Cortez

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 2:00 PM
Senate Room (Omni Shoreham)
John F. López, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In 1808, the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel designed a theater set for the opera Fernand Cortez, a production undertaken by Gaspare Spontini at the request of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s behest was not for love of the arts, but a calculated move on his part to gain support for his planned invasion of Spain. In the performance, Cortés symbolized Napoleon and the former’s victory over the Aztec would represent the latter’s conquest of Spain. In Act 1, Cortés and his men can be seen encamped on the shores of Lake Mexico with the pre-Columbian city of Tenochtitlan in the background. In Act 2, the Spanish attack the city, and in particular, a twin-temple pyramid, Templo Mayor. In Act 3, Cortés defeats the Aztec before they can sacrifice Amazily, the Spaniard’s Indian lover, at the pyramid. The premiere, with Napoleon in attendance, was performed in Paris on November 28, 1809. However, with French military misfortunes in Spain, the opera did not parallel the historical facts of Cortés’s successful conquest. Declining in popularity, after only thirteen performances the opera was canceled.

This presentation examines Schinkel’s set design for Fernand Cortez to explicate how and why the pre-Columbian past was reconceived to support Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. I situate Schinkel’s neo-classical design for the pyramid within a visual vocabulary of a French Revolution aesthetic that the audience would have recognized as a style of the people. Schinkel’s Egyptian motifs and obelisk-like structures recall Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, and thus the idea of conquest. Needless to say, Schinkel’s depiction of Templo Mayor was not an accurate representation of the pyramid, but instead an embellished portrayal of the pre-Columbian past that would garner support for Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.