A Petaca Chest

Tuesday, May 31st 2022

a 18th century New Spain piece of luggage

New World codices and chronicles describe petacas, chests used by indigenous Mesoamerican peoples to store and transport goods, at length

The fact that this piece of luggage would house valuable items is clearly indicated in a drawing found in the ca. 1541 Mendoza codex, which depicts a thief stealthily opening a petaca. The robber can be seen lifting the lid, which not only serves a practical purpose – protecting what is kept inside the chest – but also symbolizes the private sphere.

Items deemed valuable enough to be kept in petacas could be cotton blankets, rare feathers, clothes, religious objects or even sweets, such as cocoa. Deploring the native people’s idolatry, Bernal Díaz del Castillo mentions another use for the petacas: "They kept in wooden chests and other kinds that they call petacas what was found in their domestic altars: idols of various sizes, but also stones, flints or booklets in which they wrote about their lives and stories."

Our petaca seems to be in the same vein as those held in the collections of the Cluny Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which were created for the Spanish elite of New Spain, who had the exclusive use of horses. A 1532 document kept in the Archives of the Indies in Sevilla, Spain also mentions natives in the service of Hernán Cortés carrying on their shoulders a petaca loaded with gold jewels that the Marquis del Valle had tried to send clandestinely from the port of Veracruz to Spain...

Sometimes poorly identified, these luxurious chests that were once at the heart of the transatlantic trade combine the most skillful techniques of pre-Columbian craftsmen with the clever iconography of the great aristocrats of the Old Continent. Every time one appears on the market is an event participating in the affirmation of a globalized economy.
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