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Decoding a Cross-Cultural Codex

By Alexandra V. Mendez

The year is 1575. Mexico City has been struck by a plague. But behind the walls of a specialized school, painters, artists, and wise men of the Aztec tradition are working to complete a project that takes their minds away from the horror of death around them. Sometimes at night these scribes turn to drink to assuage their sorrows, but by day they meticulously compile the 12 books that comprise “La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España,” more commonly known as the Florentine Codex.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún directed the project from 1545 until his death in 1590. The work, which consists of Spanish text, Aztec Nahuatl text (in Roman script), and pictorial representations, has been an invaluable resource for historians of Mesoamerica. When it was completed, it was smuggled into Spain, where parts of it were denounced as professing idolatry. It eventually made its way to the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. How exactly the Medici family acquired the codex remains a mystery.

On April 6 the director of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, Diana Magaloni Kerpel, came to the Sackler Museum to discuss many of the mysteries surrounding the codex. In her talk “Followers of Apelles: The Nahua Artists of the Florentine Codex,” she delivered a passionate presentation that shared both her own contagious excitement for the document and the scope of the work she and others have carried out in examining the circumstances surrounding its creation and preservation. The Museo Nacional is a bit of a legend among those of us with a passion for Mesoamerica; it displays many of the grandest works of Pre-Columbian art from Mexico. The art it houses and the museum itself have been sources of inspiration for many, including the Mexican writer Octavio Paz and Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa.

In 2006 Magaloni Kerpel and a team of experts began research on the Florentine Codex, first analyzing the pigments used in the document. As an art historian, the director analyzed the stylistic trends she noticed in the pictorials and identified different individual artists. After organizing the data, she posited that four master artists had been in charge of the production, and her theory was corroborated by the fact that Sahagún mentions exactly four men by name in the one paragraph in which he discusses the making of the document.

In her presentation, the director emphasized that the document itself is a kind of hybrid incorporating both traditional Aztec and colonial Spanish elements. It is called a “Codex,” a word which typically denotes a Pre-Columbian screenfold document painted on panels of indigenous amatl paper that fold out accordion-style; but it is, in fact, a book, bound in the European way and made with expensive and time-resistant paper imported mainly from Italy and France. Moreover, the director pointed out instances of highly developed musculature in the depiction of the human body that display clear Renaissance influences, as well as hatch-marks that indicate influences from the European etchings of the time. But she also pointed out the traditional symbolism of the colors used in the pictorials: “Maya blue” and “Maya green” both indicate divinity and mimic the color of precious greenstones or quetzal feathers.

The year is 1575. Mexico City has been struck by a plague. But behind the walls of a specialized school, painters, artists, and wise men of the Aztec tradition are working to complete a project that takes their minds away from the horror of death around them. Sometimes at night these scribes turn to drink to assuage their sorrows, but by day they meticulously compile the 12 books that comprise “La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España,” more commonly known as the Florentine Codex.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún directed the project from 1545 until his death in 1590. The work, which consists of Spanish text, Aztec Nahuatl text (in Roman script), and pictorial representations, has been an invaluable resource for historians of Mesoamerica. When it was completed, it was smuggled into Spain, where parts of it were denounced as professing idolatry. It eventually made its way to the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. How exactly the Medici family acquired the codex remains a mystery.

On April 6 the director of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, Diana Magaloni Kerpel, came to the Sackler Museum to discuss many of the mysteries surrounding the codex. In her talk “Followers of Apelles: The Nahua Artists of the Florentine Codex,” she delivered a passionate presentation that shared both her own contagious excitement for the document and the scope of the work she and others have carried out in examining the circumstances surrounding its creation and preservation. The Museo Nacional is a bit of a legend among those of us with a passion for Mesoamerica; it displays many of the grandest works of Pre-Columbian art from Mexico. The art it houses and the museum itself have been sources of inspiration for many, including the Mexican writer Octavio Paz and Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa.

In 2006 Magaloni Kerpel and a team of experts began research on the Florentine Codex, first analyzing the pigments used in the document. As an art historian, the director analyzed the stylistic trends she noticed in the pictorials and identified different individual artists. After organizing the data, she posited that four master artists had been in charge of the production, and her theory was corroborated by the fact that Sahagún mentions exactly four men by name in the one paragraph in which he discusses the making of the document.

In her presentation, the director emphasized that the document itself is a kind of hybrid incorporating both traditional Aztec and colonial Spanish elements. It is called a “Codex,”  a word which typically denotes a Pre-Columbian screenfold document painted on panels of indigenous amatl paper that fold out accordion-style; but it is, in fact, a book, bound in the European way and made with expensive and time-resistant paper imported mainly from Italy and France. Moreover, the director pointed out instances of highly developed musculature in the depiction of the human body that display clear Renaissance influences, as well as hatch-marks that indicate influences from the European etchings of the time. But she also pointed out the traditional symbolism of the colors used in the pictorials: “Maya blue” and “Maya green” both indicate divinity and mimic the color of precious greenstones or quetzal feathers. The Codex is, therefore, neither definitively indigenous nor colonial; the contributions of both cultures are integral and entertwined.

As for the question of what exactly these men did behind the walls of Sahagún’s school, Magaloni Kerpel says they spent time gathering the raw materials needed to tease out the vibrant pigments still so visible in the manuscript today. They recorded their recipes in the book, mostly in pictorial form. Perhaps the most impressive of these pigments was a brilliant red gleaned from a plant that only released its color after being soaked in water for seven years.

Many artists were involved in the production of the Florentine Codex over a span of 45 years, so it is not surprising that many different voices can be heard, so to speak, in the final document—voices raised by artists who harmonized in ways that disturbed the old order and embraced the new. The Florentine Codex is a manifestation of what Latin America is today: a blend of indigenous, European, African, and global voices that creates new forms of expression. Due to this hybridity, which has flowed across borders into the now Latinized United States, we can eat burritos in the middle of Cambridge, or we can stop for a moment in the middle of Harvard Square and listen to the clear, airy voices of indigenous flutes played by Spanish speakers.

—Columnist Alexandra V. Mendez can be reached at alexandra.mendez@college.harvard.edu.

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