The Uppsala Map is a 16th-century map of Mexico City, one of a handful of known maps that illustrate the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán as it was within a few decades of the Spanish conquest of 1521. The other surviving maps of the era include the Nuremberg or Cortes map of 1524, and the Maguey Plan made about 1558. The Uppsala Map is a colonial-era map believed to have been made by an unnamed indigenous person or persons to present to the Spanish king Carlos V.

The Uppsala map, so-called because it is currently located in the Uppsala University Library in Sweden, was painted in watercolor on two sheets of parchment paper, joined together at the center. The existing map measures 114x78 centimeters (24x31 inches), and it is oriented with the west to the top.

Tenochtitlán was built in the middle of a swamp, and the Uppsala map illustrates the city in its watery environment including canals, lagoons, and rivers: but it also includes mountains, forests, small towns, and roads in the vicinity of the capital, from Chilmahuacan Chalco to Jilotepec and from Teotihuacan to Santa Fe.

Who Made the Map—and When?

Debate over the date of the map continues, based on the presence or absence of buildings that appear to be illustrated on the map—and those interesting but fairly esoteric arguments are not suitably addressed here (see Kubler's 1952 review of Linné for a blow-by-blow). Relevant scholars agree that the Uppsala map was likely drawn between 1550 and 1557, and most simply peg it at 1550.

Debate over who drew the map, alternatively, has faded. The map has a badly damaged dedication, written in Latin in the lower right-hand corner, which reports that Spanish cosmographer Alonso de Santa Cruz (1505–1567) presented this map of Tenochtitlan (spelled Tenuxititan) to his employer, the Spanish Emperor Carlos V. Early scholars believed that Santa Cruz had himself drawn the map. However, today scholars believe that the inscription was added after the map was completed, and apparently not included in the original design.

The Indigenous Students of Alonso de Santa Cruz

Portrait of Alonso de Santa Cruz. Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology, drawing by Eulogia Merle
Portrait of Alonso de Santa Cruz. Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology, drawing by Eulogia Merle

Alonso de Santa Cruz was the Royal Spanish cartographer for the court of Carlos V, and he came to the Americas with explorer Sebastian Cabot. It is clear that his cartographic style influenced the map's construction: but Santa Cruz never lived in Mexico City. Linné and other scholars since have argued that the map was likely the work of indigenous pupils at the Colegio de Santa Cruz at Tenochtitlan's sister city Tlatelolco.

The Colegio de Santa Cruz was said to have been founded by Santa Cruz and the Viceroy of New Spain Antonio de Mendoza. Uppsala map has several cartographic elements that resemble those found on Santa Cruz's 1542 map of the world, including borders, banners, and a coat of arms. But the presence of nearly 200 indigenous place names has convinced most scholars that the mapmaker was a local person or persons, perhaps students of Santa Cruz.

The Map's Content

Detail of the countryside, 1550 Uppsala Map
Detail of the countryside, 1550 Uppsala Map

Art historian John López (2013, 2014) points out that the map has two parts: city and countryside, and they are treated differently. The lakes and countryside are lively with colorful drawings of human activity. There are people hunting with bows and arrows, canoers capturing waterfowl, Spaniards on horses and pochteca (Aztec traders) with their packs; there are people herding sheep, cutting wood, fishing, walking, and even under attack. The section of the map which illustrates the city has only one person illustrated—who López calls the mapmaker/narrator—and its representation is not nearly as colorful or lively.
Detail of Tenochtitlan City, 1550 Uppsala Map
Detail of Tenochtitlan City, 1550 Uppsala Map

López argues that there is ample evidence for Spanish draconian city planning efforts in the city—even the conquistador Cortés was told to comply with Spanish rules or have his buildings torn down. As a result of these efforts, the streets intersect at right angles to form a gridiron plan with rectilinear blocks. The buildings illustrated in the city are shown with their front facades facing the reader, no matter what their orientation.

According to Konig (2005), among the details presented on the map are the Iztapalapa gardens, located in the southwestern part of the basin of Mexico. The Spanish conquistadors reported that the gardens were tended by Cuitlahuac II, the younger brother of the last Aztec king Motechuzoma Xocoyotzin. It was said to have included a square pool surrounded by broad pathways, filled with fish and aquatic birds.
  • You can freely download and investigate a high-resolution version of the Uppsala Map on your own at Alvin.

The Mapmaker/Narrator

In his 2013 thesis and a paper in the journal Ethnohistory in 2014, López identified a singular character in the upper left hand (southwest) corner of the city, a figure of an adult Spanish male, looking at us, the readers, with his head tilted to one side and with his arms in a position that seems to be presenting the map. He's holding something plant-like in his left hand, but it's unclear what that is, although López suggests it might be a palm—a Christian symbol referring to the "victory of the 'faithful' over the unfaithful'" (as described in López's thesis).
Mapmaker Detail of Tenochtitlan City, 1550 Uppsala Map
Mapmaker Detail of Tenochtitlan City, 1550 Uppsala Map

López also points out that the character is pointing to the most regulated part of the city but standing outside of it, in the section that corresponds to San Juan Moyotlan, a pre-Columbian sector of the city. Is this the mapmaker? If the preponderance of scholars is right and the map was drawn by indigenous students of Alonso de Santa Cruz; and López is right in that it represents a Spanish gentleman, could it alternatively be an indigenous representation of their teacher?

Other Studies Worth Investigating

Scholars continue to investigate the Uppsala map in interesting ways not discussed here.
  • Apart from John F. López's extensive investigations, the most recent work on the Uppsala Map has been under the direction of Lily Diaz-Kommonen, who worked on digitizing the map and its wealth of information. See her pages on the Map of Mexico Project 1550.
  • Luis Barba (2003) used the map in conjunction with other maps to address the progress of the environmental transformation of Mexico City from a city on an island in a swamp to a dry basin.
  • Viola Konig (2005) discussed the map among others as part of the study of indigenous representations of gardens.
  • Jennifer Saracino (2018) looked at the stylistic elements and conceptual innovation of the artists.
  • The best source of information about the map itself is from Sigvald Linné's 1947 text, El Valle y la Ciudad de México.

Sources and Further Reading

''This article was originally published on or, but is not longer available there. The earliest version of this article first appeared on November 11, 2014 in as"'