How would you try to understand a culture that was completely unknown to you? In the sixteenth century, shortly after the Spanish arrived in what today is Mexico, one of the first things they created was a 12-volume encyclopedic work, known as the Florentine Codex, or The General History of the Things of New Spain. The 12 volumes document the culture, religious and ritual practices, economics, and natural history of the indigenous central Mexican peoples in the years immediately preceding the Spanish Conquest, as well as the events of the Conquest itself.
The Codex is quite large with 1,200 folios (pages) and 2,468 painted illustrations! The Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, and a group of Nahua (one of the indigenous groups that occupied Central Mexico) writers and illustrators, conceived of and compiled the Codex. Today, we think of the Florentine Codex as one of the most remarkable manuscripts created in the early modern era (roughly the period from the late 15th through late 18th centuries).
When it was completed in 1579, they sent the Codex to Madrid, where it was likely meant to train Spanish missionaries about Nahua people and customs. Exactly when and under what circumstances the book traveled from Madrid to Florence is unclear. We refer to the work of Sahagún and his collaborators as the Florentine Codex because of its present-day location. The Medici family of Florence, Italy, assumed ownership of the manuscript no later than 1588. It first appeared in a catalog of the Medicea-Laurenziana Library in 1793, but it remained untitled for nearly a century until 1886 when it acquired its current title.
The creation of the Codex
Sahagún’s preparation for the creation of the Florentine Codex began shortly after his arrival in 1529 to New Spain, an area that included modern-day Mexico, Central America, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Philippines, Florida, and most of the southwestern United States. A viceroy (like a governor) ruled New Spain on behalf of the King of Spain. During his first years in New Spain, Sahagún prepared for the creation of this encyclopedia through the training of young indigenous students who became his collaborators in the creation of the Codex. He also produced an earlier manuscript, known as the Primeros Memoriales (First Memorials) in Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Nahua and other indigenous groups in Central Mexico before the Conquest. Primeros Memoriales served as the foundation for the Florentine Codex.
By about 1549, Sahagún began the process of assembling the Florentine Codex, collaborating with two groups. First, the principales (literally, the chiefs), a group of Nahua wise elders, answered questionnaires about their culture and religion. They recorded the answers as paintings, using pictographs (icons that communicate meaning by resembling a specific object, like drawing two parallel squiggly lines to suggest a river). Painted manuscripts with pictographs had been a traditional Nahua practice. Second, the grammarians, a team of Christianized indigenous nobility who were trained in Latin, Spanish, and Nahuatl, interpreted the principales’ paintings, expanded the answers, and transcribed them into alphabetic Nahuatl. By 1569, this information took the shape of twelve books, and the grammarians had completed the alphabetic Nahuatl text. By 1576, Sahagún and his collaborators began to create and include new illustrations and to translate the text into Spanish. They completed the entire project by 1579, when they sent it to Spain.
The structure of the Codex
The Codex is composed of twelve volumes, each of which documents a specific component of Nahua culture. They include:
Book 1: The gods
Book 2: The ceremonies
Book 3: The origin of the gods
Book 4: The soothsayers
Book 5: The omens
Book 6: Rhetoric and moral philosophy
Book 7: The sun, moon and stars, and the binding of the years
Book 8: Kings and lords
Book 9: The merchants
Book 10: The people
Book 11: Earthly things
Book 12: The conquest
Each page of the Florentine Codex contains parallel columns of Nahuatl and Spanish text. The Nahuas recorded their culture and history in their own language in the right text column, and Sahagún had the Nahuatl translated into Spanish in the left text column. These translations are abbreviated, so the Spanish text is not as long as the Nahuatl. This provides numerous opportunities for the insertion of illustrations–thousands of these appear throughout the 12 volumes.
In the illustrations of the Codex, we see the ability of the Nahua artists to continue working in a style characteristic of the Mesoamerican (or pre-Hispanic Nahua) painted manuscripts, but they also demonstrate the ability to adapt to European methods of perspective and shading.
For example, in Book 9, we see a representation of Nahua featherworking (left), another artistic practice that predated the arrival of the Spanish, in which artists “painted” by pasting brightly colored feathers to sheets. The artist who illustrated this scene for the Florentine Codex worked in a manner similar to the earlier, indigenous painted manuscripts. For example, the profile views and the heavy outlines of the bodies and objects are characteristic of the pre-Hispanic Nahua painted manuscripts. Yet, the imagery also demonstrates clear shifts from Nahua graphic systems to European modes of representation. For instance, in these same scenes, the backgrounds also feature typical classical Renaissance architecture, like doorways flanked by columns. The artist, or artists, also use linear perspective (in which parallel lines appear to converge in the background, creating a convincing illusion of space) in their depiction of the tiled floors in each illustration, thus recalling European artistic methods. The Nahua did not use linear perspective prior to Spanish colonization.
The subject matter of the three scenes on folio 64v depict the artists working in both European and Nahua modes of representation. For instance, in the top scene (above, left), an artist paints a man who has his arms outstretched. He has used shading to convey roundness of form, a technique that was not typical of Nahua painted manuscripts. Also, in the middle and bottom scenes, we see featherwork artists at work—pasting brightly colored feathers to create beautiful imagery. In fact, in the middle scene of folio 64v (above, right), a disembodied hand appears to rest atop a blank white mat to suggest and emphasize an artist’s involvement in creating a featherwork “painting.” Featherworking not only pre-dated the Spanish but also continued and transformed after their arrival. In fact, the conquistador Hernán Cortés marveled at featherwork objects and sent them back to Spain. In these scenes, we get a sense of both the Spanish appreciation of this practice, and its importance to the Nahua.
A Nahua perspective?
In the Florentine Codex, the Spanish text is not a strict, literal translation of the Nahuatl text, but rather in some instances an approximation or summary. For this reason, discrepancies occur between the two sets of text. These discrepancies are in no way arbitrary, and, through them, some of the European biases become clear. In the image to the left (folio 74v), the Nahuatl text describes Nahua tactics of warfare and the failed Spanish attempt to use a catapult. The Nahuatl text takes up two full-page columns, but the Spanish translation only amounts to two lines. Sahagún leaves the column reserved for the Spanish translation blank, as he was unlikely to translate in great detail the failings of Spanish forces. Sahagún also possibly planned the empty spaces for more images, but we know that epidemics prevented the images’ completion.
Even though the Spanish text often attempts to de-emphasize the “unpleasant” aspects of the Conquest in Book 12, the illustrations cannot conceal its sheer violence and destruction. We see this in an illustration of the Toxcatl massacre, an event that took place on May 20, 1520, during the celebration of a main deity. The Nahuatl text describes the massacre in which the blood of warriors “ran like water,” and the ground became “slippery with blood.” The Spanish text leaves much of this text untranslated. However, the event is illustrated in chapter one of Book 12 (below), directly below the title of the book. It shows Spanish soldiers hacking away at a group of Nahua people at a temple, with bodies strewn about the temple base. So while the Spanish text and the Nahuatl text do not correspond precisely, if we consider the two texts with the illustrations, we get a more complete understanding of the events of the Spanish Conquest. This is true in many instances in the Florentine Codex, which often conveys the conflicting views and ideas of the time period. Importantly, we get a sense of the Nahua perspective from this period through some of these discrepancies.
Reading the Florentine Codex today
Due to its unparalleled wealth of information regarding the people and culture of central Mexico immediately preceding the Conquest, and its discussion of the Conquest itself, scholars have made the text of the Florentine Codex accessible to a larger audience through comprehensive translations of both the Nahuatl and Spanish. A full digital version is also now available at the website of the Medicea-Laurenziana Library. Together, the images and text in the Florentine Codex demonstrate the complex negotiation of culture, tradition, and identity in the years immediately following the Spanish Conquest.
Gauvin A. Bailey, Art of Colonial Latin America (London; New York: Phaidon, 2005).
Diana Magaloni Kerpel, “Painters of the New World: The Process of Making the Florentine Codex,” In Gerhard Wolf and Joseph Connors, eds. Colors Between Two Worlds: The Florentine Codex of Bernardino de Sahagún (Florence: Villa I Tatti and Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 47-76.
H.B. Nicholson, “Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: A Spanish Missionary in New Spain, 1529–1590.” In Eloise Quiñones Keber, ed. Representing Aztec Ritual: Performance, Text, and Image in the Work of Sahagún, (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2002), pp. 21-42.
Kevin Terraciano, “Three Texts in One: Book XII of the Florentine Codex,” Ethnohistory 57, no. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 51-72.