November 17, 2023
In 1577, Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún finished a monumental encyclopedia of Mesoamerican culture. Working in collaboration with Nahua writers, artists, and elders, Sahagún documented life in the Aztec empire around the time of the Spanish conquest, together creating nearly 2,500 illustrations and 12 books recording the daily practices and culture of 16th-century Mexico. The text is widely regarded as one of the most important resources of Indigenous knowledge, especially considering most history is derived from colonial perspectives.
The Getty Research Institute recently released a digitized version of La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, which is best known as the Florentine Codex—this name comes from the text’s mysterious storage in the Medici family libraries for centuries. Although the Library of Congres and UNESCO’s Memory of the World have offered scanned iterations of the books since 2012 and 2015, respectively, this edition is the most widely accessible because of its searchable interface and additional context.
Organized by topic, text, and images, the new platform contains both the original Nahuatl and Spanish writings alongside English translations. In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Kim Richter, a researcher leading the project, described the dual texts as complementary and offering unique perspectives on the same events. Although the manuscript was originally thought to lack “aesthetic value…Today, we see them as an important testament of a tumultuous period in Mexico in the early decades following the conquest of Mexico,” Richter says.
The books, which begin with gods and rituals and end with conquest, are available to view page-by-page, with special sections devoted to deities, animals, and other aspects of everyday life from tamales and cacao to coyotes and chapulin, or grasshoppers. Included are Nahua ritual calendars, depictions of midwives attempting to heal those suffering from a grim smallpox outbreak, and the omens and horrors that accompanied the Spanish invasion.
Since launching earlier this month, the Florentine Codex has already inspired a video game set amid the aftermath of the 1520 Toxcatl massacre. The Getty also plans to release additional resources in conjunction with the digital archive, which provides a necessary addendum to colonial history.
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