Viajes Pintorescos y Arqueológicos
Khristaan D. Villela discusses the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedia of Mexico created about 1575-1577; a lecture on the subject by Diana Magaloni Kerpel takes place at the New Mexico History Museum
One of the most understated treasures in the current exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art, The Red That Colored the World, is the Florentine Codex. The book is opened to the pages that deal with the production of the cochineal red pigment in Mexico, beginning with bugs crawling on cactus paddles and ending with men painting manuscripts with the color those beetles produce. On Sunday, June 21, scholar and Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Diana Magaloni Kerpel gives a talk at MoIFA entitled “Painting the Florentine Codex,” in which she will present the results of more than a decade of research on the manuscript. Named after the Italian city where the manuscript is housed in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, the Florentine Codex is an encyclopedia of Mexico, written in parallel columns of Spanish and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire. It was created about 1575-1577 at the Real Colegio de Santa Cruz Tlatelolco, located roughly a mile north of the Zócalo, the heart of both ancient and modern Mexico City. The work was a collaboration between up to two dozen native Mexican writers, scribes, and artists, and on the Spanish side, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), a Franciscan friar. Sahagún arrived in Mexico in 1529, just eight years after Tenochtitlan, the Aztec imperial capital, capitulated to the forces of Hernán Cortés and his army of about 100,000 native Mexican allies (enemies of the Aztec). In the early years after the conquest, the Franciscans and other regular clergy (Dominicans, Augustinians, etc.) were tasked with converting the pagan natives to Christianity.
To do so, many of the friars learned native languages, such as Nahuatl, but also Otomi, Mixtec, Zapotec, Yucatec Maya, and many others. At the same time, the friars and other Spanish colonials in Mexico destroyed untold quantities of pre-Columbian material culture, sculptures, books, textiles, and architecture, because they were believed to be works of the devil. Unfortunately for us, even the Aztec books of medical knowledge were filled with images of deities abhorrent to Spanish eyes. But amid this cultural genocide stood men like Sahagún, who clearly believed that to convert the natives it was necessary to learn as much about their lives, culture, religion, arts, and industries, as they existed before the conquest. Sahagún and his native Mexican team labored for more than 30 years to collect the information that would eventually be set down in the Florentine Codex. He employed techniques still used by contemporary anthropologists, such as questionnaires and interviews. The work encompasses more than 2,000 pages of text, covering topics as diverse as the origin of the universe, the gods, ceremonies, soothsayers, omens, rhetoric and moral philosophy, kings and lords, merchants, the common people, earthly things, and finally, in book 12, the history of the conquest of Mexico, told from the native perspective. The text was composed in Nahuatl and then translated into Spanish. Sources relate that Sahagún’s team made at least two complete copies of the 12 books. He sent one to the Spanish King Philip II in early 1578. That copy is lost.
Although there were always those in colonial Mexico who distrusted Sahagún’s interest in native culture, and who felt he had “gone native,” things were about to get more difficult for our Franciscan. Unbeknown to Sahagún, a year earlier, in 1577, the Spanish Inquisition began to enforce the recommendations of the Vatican’s Council of Trent, first convened in 1545 to address the menace of Protestantism. Among many other actions, the Inquisition officers halted all projects, like Sahagún’s, that involved the collection of information about the pagan past of America’s native peoples. All such documents were to be sent to Seville, and the Council of the Indies, the ultimate governing body over Spain’s
The Florentine Codex is an encyclopedia of Mexico, written in parallel columns of Spanish and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire.
American colonies. The Florentine Codex was taken from Sahagún and carried to Spain in 1580 by his friend and protector Friar Rodrigo de Sequera. He never saw the manuscript again, and never learned that Sequera failed to deliver it to the Council of Indies, where we imagine it might have been destroyed. Recent research by Lia Markey, published in the edited volume Colors Between Two Worlds: The Florentine Codex of Bernardino de Sahagún (Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, 2011), helps to illuminate how the codex traveled from Mexico City to Florence. Markey found a document written in 1587 by Cardinal Fernando de’ Medici’s librarian that mentions the codex. The scion of the powerful Renaissance mercantile family, Fernando de’ Medici was a collector of objects from the Americas, including the Florentine Codex. When he left the Vatican hierarchy in 1587 to become the Grand Duke of Tuscany, he brought Sahagún’s work with him. And since that time, it has been housed at the Laurentian Library, founded in the 1520s, and first opened to scholars in 1571 by Francesco’s father, Cosimo I de’ Medici.
The first books printed in the Americas were produced in Mexico City beginning in 1539, almost a century before British settlers in Massachusetts set the Bay Psalm Book to type. In the early years, the Mexican imprints were entirely religious in content, such as the Doctrina breve, written by Juan de Zumárraga (1544), first archbishop of Mexico. In contrast, the Florentine Codex is a handmade object. Although we do not know the names of all of the native Mexicans who worked on the project, in book 2, Sahagún acknowledges the participation of the grammarians Antonio Valeriano of Azcapotzalco, Alonso Vegerano of Cuauhtitlan, Martín Jacobita of Tlatelolco, and Pedro de San Buenaventura of Cuauhtitlan, all of whom he said could read and write Latin, Spanish, and Nahuatl; he also mentioned the names of the scribes who copied the work: Diego de Grado and Bonifacio Maximiliano, both from Tlatelolco, and Mateo Severino of Xochimilco. Diana Magaloni Kerpel and others have also identified at least 20 distinct artists who painted the 2,486 drawings in ink and colors that illustrate the Florentine Codex.
With the paintings, we turn to Magaloni Kerpel’s research. In several articles, the short book The Colors of the New World: Artists, Materials, and the Creation of the Florentine Codex (Getty Research Institute, LA, 2014), and in her essay in the exhibition catalog, A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World (Skira Rizzoli and MoIFA, 2015), Magaloni Kerpel examines how the pigments used to create the images in the codex evince a semiotics of color characteristic of the its moment of creation. Artistic practice by native painters in Mexico in the third quarter of the 16th century was a fascinating hybrid of pre-Columbian and European styles and techniques. Magaloni Kerpel focuses on book 11 of the Florentine Codex, which was modeled on the ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia (Natural History). Book 11 describes the natural world and how the ancient Mexicans exploited the earth’s resources. The section on color begins with nocheztli, the red derived from cochineal. In Nahuatl, the term comes from the
words for prickly pear cactus (nochtli), and for blood (eztli), and literally reads “prickly pear cactus blood,” an apt descriptor of cochineal dye. Sahagún’s native informants divided the colors by whether they were derived from plant and animal substances or from mineral compounds. Thus cochineal red would be in a different section of the native taxonomy from hematite, cinnabar, and other mineral reds.
When Magaloni Kerpel and Piero Baglioni, at the Università di Firenze, analyzed color samples from the codex, they discovered that the native artists used pigments derived from plants and animals, on the one hand, and from minerals, on the other, to produce the same colors. The analysis also illuminated significant patterns governing how and where the artists used native Mexican colors versus European pigments, such as minium (red lead, or lead oxide). The colors were selected not for their tone, but for the complex chains of meaning they inhabited, relating to two overarching concerns: 1.) whether the pigments were harvested from beneath the earth (minerals), with its associations of darkness, cold, and water, or if they were derived from plants and animals, which lived above ground, and were associated with the sun, light, and heat; and 2.) whether the pigments were native American or European. In the former case, Magaloni Kerpel and her colleagues discovered that objects, places, people, and even deities that were associated with the earth were painted with colors that were harvested from beneath the earth, and vice versa. In other words, there was an identity between that which was depicted and the materials used to render the images. In the same way, native Mexican pigments, especially cinnabar (mercury sulfate), were used in Florentine Codex, and in the Codex Reese (also in the exhibition) to represent ancient time, before the conquest. Of course, cinnabar was also used in European painting, but in Mexico of the 16th century, to native eyes, it harks back to the time before the Spanish. One example of how color functions in the Florentine Codex can be seen on Folio 447v, from book 12, the native Mexican account of the conquest. The image shows the Spanish disposing of the bodies of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma and that of Itzcuauhtzin, ruler of the city of Tlatelolco. As Magaloni Kerpel explains, the image is notable for its color contrast, with bright tones above and muted tones below. In the lower half of the image, the artist painted the dead Moctezuma in grayish tones, produced with diluted indigo. His headdress and that of his brother monarch are left unpainted. Elsewhere in the codex, images of these men alive show their royal headbands painted bright blue, a color associated with the sky, heat, and the center of fire. Instead, in this particular image, the artist used the brilliant undiluted indigo blue to color the Spaniard’s armor, signifying that he and his kinsmen were victorious. Fifty years after the conquest, everyone knew that the Spanish, and not Moctezuma’s Aztec people, claimed the fiery power of the sun.
Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his native Mexican team labored for more than 30 years to collect the information that would eventually be set down in the Florentine Codex.
A contemporary portrait of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590) and one volume of the codex; opposite page, illustrations from the Florentine Codex with images of Aztec artisans and rituals, and the Spanish invasion of Mexico, including the death of Moctezuma
Omens, like this comet, were said to foretell the doom of the Aztec empire.