In the more advanced chronological phases of the pre-Columbian era, identified by scholars as pre-classical (ca. 1500 BC-early vulgar era), classical (9th century) and post-classical (10th-1522 century), the southern regions of Mexico they were home to a complex of cultures that fit into the largest cultural area of Mesoamerica characterizing it for the importance of the artistic manifestations that refer to them. It is problematic to comparatively follow the succession of these chronological and stylistic phases in the different areas of Mexico, both for the gaps in the data in some of them and for the overlapping of the areas of influence of the different cultures and their alternation on the same area; the impossibility of adopting a uniform methodology imposes recourse to classifications that are now geographic, now ethnic, now stylistic, mutually integrating, and perhaps leads to a preference for the latter whose reasons, internal to the work of art itself, can be confirmed or corrected by the proceed with the scientific investigation. Classical cultures find common support in the great archaic style of Mesoamerica, present in the appropriations of the last phase of the formation (ca. 5000-1500 BC); in the valley of Mexico, one of the oldest (VIII millennium BC), that of Chalco. In the lower pre-classical (1500-1000 BC) the finds from Zacatenco and Tlatilco, centers of cultures that will reach their peak in the middle pre-classical (1000-500 BC), and those from Ecatepec, Ticomán, Cerro de Tepolcate, Cuicuilco, sites of the mountain slopes that surround the valley of Mexico, mark important stages in the evolution of the formal, as well as ideological, structures that will characterize classical cultures; in this phase the type of the step pyramid appears in Cuicuilco, La Venta (Olmec civilization) and Uaxactún (pyramid E VII lower, in the Mayan area) and some types of monumental plastic are configured; abundant clay production characterized by female figurines called pretty ladies. The centers of La Venta, Cerro de Las Mesas, Tres Zapotes, San Lorenzo in Veracruz and the territory along the Chiquito River constitute the heart of Olmec culture, whose stimulating functions on the classical cultures of the entire Mexican area are documented by isolated finds but spread over a large part of the territory: it develops from the lower pre-classical to reach its highest achievements, especially in the monumental stone sculpture, in the upper pre-classical (500 BC – beginning of the vulgar era). According to businesscarriers, the western regions of Mexico are endowed with a particular and relatively constant archaeological physiognomy in its motifs from the preclassic to the Spanish conquest: today’s states of Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco, Guerrero and the southern part of Guanajuato are in fact characterized by a predominantly clay production in which figured and painted ceramics dominate, now lively up to the grotesque (from Ixtlán del Rio), now more refined (from Chupicuaro), but which reveals the absence of the symbolic or religious references that animate other Mexican cultures. The Mezcala (Guerrero) style sculpture is vigorous. The post-classical culture of the Tarascans left particular architectural forms in the yacatas of Michoacán (Tzintzuntzan). At the beginning of the classical era, Mexico offers a panorama of multiple and coexisting cultures, first of all in the valley of Mexico, where the post-classical cultures of the Toltecs and the Aztecs will succeed it, the one that takes its name from the monumental complex of Teotihuacán characterized by an imposing religious architecture (pyramids of the Sun and the Moon), from the diffusion of wall painting (Tepantitlan) and monumental stone sculpture (Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, god of rain), from finds of a refined clay art with fresco decoration from ritual or funerary masks in hard stone. The culture of the Zapotecs, in the Oaxaca region, had roots in the pre-classical but reached its peak in the sec. Monte Albán and Mitla; the very ornate figured clay urns are characteristic; its post-classical phases were largely influenced by the Mixtec culture who made Mitla their capital (15th century); among the finds of Mixtec art dominate jewels, semi-precious and semi-precious stones, a type of refined ceramics (from Cholula), illuminated manuscripts (Borgia, Vatican B). In the northern area of the gulf coast (SE of Tamaulipas, E of San Luis Potosí, N of Veracruz), where the earliest settlements date back to the eighth millennium, the Uasta culture flourished (see Huaxtecos); while the initial phases of this culture, studied in the Pánuco site, developed in the pre-classical era, the classical phase flanks and reveals contacts with the cultures of Teotihuacán and Monte Albán, despite the elaboration of numerous and original architectural typologies.
Important monumental sculpture (adolescent from Tamuín, Mexico City, National Museum), with characters of hieratic geometrism. The city of Tajin, seat of the homonymous culture (4th-10th century) or totonaca in Veracruz and along the coast of the gulf (see Totonachi), not unlike Monte Albán, Uxmal and Copán in the Mayan area (from Xochicalco or from the same second totonac capital of Cempoala), and more generally from all the great Mexican ceremonial centers, stands on a regular and organized urban layout, inside which the pyramid of niches marks the compositional fulcrum; characteristic forms of Totonac art are the “axes”, the “yokes”, the “palms” of carved stone, whose functions are still uncertain, the “smiling” clay heads of the Mistequillas region and the clay plastic of Las Remojadas. Remains of the Totonac culture still partially unexplored are found in Misantla and Paxilila. Maya culture, perhaps the most complex and richest among Mexican cultures, developed from the preclassic in the states of Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Chiapas, reaching Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala; in the pre-classical layers two ceramic styles are identified: the older Mamon, of rudimentary workmanship, and the Chicanel, refined and decorative. The pinnacle of Mayan culture, in Uxmal, Cobá, Kabah, Piedras Negras, Tikal, Yaxchilán, Bonampak, Palenque and in the other ceremonial architectural complexes, it is arranged between the century. IV and X, date of the Toltec invasion. Among the structural innovations of Mayan architecture, which is articulated in a flowering of architectural-decorative styles (puuc, chenes), are the extensive use of stucco relief, painted clay, stone, and painting (Bonampak), and the false time. The culture of the Toltecs that in the post-classical era overlapped that of the Maya, whose territory they occupied from the century. X, giving rise to the Mayan-Toltec style of Chichen-Itzá (Castillo, Temple of the Jaguars, Caracol) and Mayapán, had its first capital in Tollán (Tula) and originally occupied the area of the States of Morelos, Hidalgo and Puebla. The figured pillar is frequent in architecture and the Chacmool type in sculpture, a semi-reclining figure carrying offerings. The last culture in the valley of Mexico was that of the Aztecs, founders of the empire destroyed by Cortés, which developed in the post-classical period (XIII-X century); the finds from Tenayuca and Tenochtitlán (today’s Mexico City), the capital founded on the lake by Malinalco, are an expression of an artistic culture which, linked by architectural typologies to Toltec culture (Colhuacan, Texcoco) and for decoration to Mixtec culture, in monumental sculpture he reaches formal syntheses of abstract rigor and symbolic suggestion (Coatlicue, Mexico, National Museum).