Brilliant Ancient Codex Detailing Aztec Culture Goes Online

After centuries of remaining largely inaccessible to the public, a rare manuscript featuring 2,500 pages of detailed illustrations and text documenting the history and culture of 16th-century Mexico is now available online. The Digital Florentine Codex, a seven-year project by Los Angeles’s Getty Research Institute, features new transcriptions and translations, updated summaries, searchable texts and images, and more.

Modeled after medieval European encyclopedias, the Florentine Codex is a three-volume, 12-book collection written in Spanish and Nahuatl documenting the daily life and customs of the Mexica (Aztec) people, as well as other information including astronomy, flora, and fauna, during the time of Spanish conquest. It was originally created by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan friar who began logging information about the Indigenous communities in central Mexico with whom he worked closely. Although Sahagún is frequently credited as the primary author, the 12-book manuscript was created with the help of numerous elders, grammarians, artists, and scribes from the Nahua community. As a result, the codex maintains an important Indigenous perspective that is often missing from other historical accounts of the time.

Feather worker (amantecatl) in Book 9.

In 1577, the codex was sent to Spain, where it then somehow traveled to Italy to fall under the ownership of Cardinal Ferdinando I de’ Medici, who brought the work to Florence. The codex was stored away in one of the Medici family libraries and remained forgotten for several centuries. In 2012, a scanned edition of the work was made digitally available through the World Digital Library, and in 2015, it was incorporated into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

But, as the Digital Florentine Codex’s project manager Alicia Maria Houtrouw told Hyperallergic, the manuscript still remained largely out of reach for the public.

“Access to codex was partial in that published transcriptions and translations tackle either the Spanish or the Nahuatl column of text or just a selection of the codex,” Houtrouw said, adding that reading these reproductions often required knowledge of both early and modern Spanish and Nahuatl. Many pubished versions also didn’t include the manuscript’s crucial illustrations, or if they did, excluded context.

“The Nahuatl and Spanish texts provide two complementary, though distinct, narratives, and the images go beyond the alphabetic texts, providing unspoken details and communicating yet another layer of knowledge,” Kim Richter, senior research specialist and the principal lead of the Florentine Codex Initiative, told Hyperallergic.

Lunar eclipse in Book 7.

Unfortunately, the codex’s multi-cultural illustrations, influenced by a combination of Nahua and Renaissance European styles, were largely overlooked by scholars and historians for many years, as they were “deemed to be ugly and lacking aesthetic value,” Richter explained. “Today we see them as an important testament of a tumultuous period in Mexico in the early decades following the conquest of Mexico.”

Now, the public can access the entirety of the codex through an online portal released by the Getty Research Institute last month, and learn a wide span of subjects including the origin of ancient Aztec deities, theology and philosophy, cooking, and gardening. In Book 11, Sahagún documents the plague of smallpox, writing of the “infinite number of people” who succumbed to the illness.

The final book in the codex documents the Spanish invasion of Mexico, including the Massacre in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan that occurred on May 22, 1520 under Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado.

“There was a stench, as if of sulfur. Those who tried to escape could go nowhere,” the Nahuatl translation describes of the bloodshed.

Healer tending to people suffering from smallpox in 1520 in Book 12.

The digital codex was created with the help of native Nahuatl speakers out of the Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas (IDIEZ), who translated thousands of sections of the codex and wrote the summary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. As a result, the Digital Florentine Codex now makes available a historical narrative about Indigenous resistance and heroism in the face of Spanish colonizers that has largely been absent from many educational curricula. Part of the initiative involved outreach with local K-12 educators in and around Los Angeles as a way to engage students and teachers with primary source material.

“Indigenous people in Mexico, as in the US, face discrimination — so to have access to such important historical sources restores a sense of pride and also supports language revitalization — the primary mission of IDIEZ,” Richter said.

Two-tailed tiger swallowtail butterfly (xicalpapalotl) in Book 11.
Mexica women selling their goods, including chocolate beverages and saltpeter, in Book 10.
Butterfly and jaguar fish (papalomichi and ocelomichin) in Book 11.

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