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An Analysis of Florentine Codex in Aztec Empire

  • Subject: History
  • Category: Mesoamerica
  • Essay Topic: Aztec
  • Pages: 2
  • Words: 758
  • Published: 05 November 2018
  • Downloads: 43
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The Florentine Codex documents Aztec culture during the time of Spanish conquest from about 1545-1588. Written by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, this manuscript attempts to capture indigenous life from a native perspective. Although originally titled Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana, it is commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex in honor of the Medicea Laurenziana Library where it now resides.

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Latin American Art History – Analyzing the Florentine Codex

Fray Bernardino de Sahagun is considered an early founder of the ethnographic research method. Rather than abstractly study native culture, he decided to directly integrate himself into the Aztec lifestyle. Working with his students from Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlateloco who were indigenous to the land, he interviewed community elders to gain an understanding of pre-conquest days. While this seems like an attempt at good-will or research for the sake of social science and history, Fray Bernardino was motivated by religion.

Like most friars, he aimed to convert the natives to Christianity in order to save their souls. Yet, he believed that in order to do so he must first understand their native religion and ‘false’ Gods. In fact, about half of the books are dedicated to some aspect of religious life. Yet, the volumes also document Aztec social life, economics, myths, use of plants, calendars, and general history.

Fray Bernardino also payed particular attention to medicine, including the use of herbal remedies and surgeries. Both natives and missionaries died on a massive scale due to new diseases, thus this research helped both parties. Due to the similarity of answers, it is believed that this research was also conducted through questionairres. The book was completed in 1577 and bought by the Medici family in 1588 when it was relocated to the museum in Florence.

The Florentine Codex is divided into twelve books, with each book dedicated to a specific aspect of Aztec life. Of the collection the most prominent are Book 1, which is dedicated to the Gods, Book 2 to the ceremonies, Book 10 to general history, Book 11 to earthly things, and Book 12 to the Conquest. It is important to note that Book 12 is the only attempt to capture the native perspective on the Spanish Conquest.

The pages were formatted so that the native Aztec language, Nahuatl, was written on the right, while the Spnaish translation was recorded on the left. However, due to the nature of the responses (the church wasn’t necessarily pleased with Sahagun’s work), the translations were largely summaries in shorter paragraph form. Some sections were left completely blank, although it is unclear whether this is due to cencorship or lack of time.

These twelve volumes span over 2,000 pages and contain 2,468 illustrations. Most illustrations were done in the left column, where blocks of space were intentionally left blank and written around. We know this because some parts of the manuscript still contain blank spaces, indicating that the books were not finished upon Fray Sahagun’s death. The vast majority of images coincide with the meaning of the text, in that they line up with the Nahuatl passages, however some are merely ornamental. So, the images served as a third mode of translation to link Nahuatl to the Western world.

Book 11 was the most richly decorated because it is dedicated to “Earthly Things”, and contains almost half of the total drawings in the codex. Such images were created by first outlining figures in black, and later coloring them in. Although all images were done by the Aztec people, the style of such drawings reveals a blend of indigenous traditions and European ones, signaling the transition from pre-colombian art to colonial.

Finally, although Fray Bernardino began this research project under orders from the church, he largely disagreed with their methods by the end of his time in New Spain. He believed that the church had poor foundations in the New World, which was evident in the natives’ methods of falsifying conversion (they continued to use their own calendars in secret, for example). He also gained a new respect for native culture, even going so far as to say that “in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations that presume to be quite politic”.

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After reading the assigned Edgerton piece, I was disheartened to realize that the friars genuinely believed they were doing a good thing in the New World, despite the destruction of native culture. It’s reassuring to know that someone took the time to record and appreciate Aztec culture and preserve its history.

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