Aztec Florentine Codex: Summary & History

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we examine the 'Florentine Codex', one of the most valuable resources to understand the Aztec people and their culture. Within, you'll learn about the language, illustrations, content, and how it was created.

A Complex and Fascinating Book

The Florentine Codex, or the Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), is a unique manuscript from the earliest years of Spanish dominance in the New World. Created by a collaborative project between Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar, and the indigenous Nahua, the name of the Aztec people, the Codex tells of Nahua history, religious beliefs, and culture in their own language accompanied by translations. The illustrations combine indigenous art styles with Renaissance influence, telling more than the Spanish translations wanted to reveal, including embarrassing details of failings by the Spanish soldiers.

The whole story of the Codex, its creation and secrets, is much more than the scarce details above. Let's look closer at this remarkable manuscript.

Florentine Codex
Florentine Codex

Bernardino de Sahagún

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Catholic priest sent to Mexico in 1529 to help convert the indigenous people, arrived eight years after Cortes' brutal massacre in the Aztec capital city. He realized that the people he came to convert were still deeply devoted to their own gods and that he would have to remove these beliefs before they would turn to Christianity—a task which required a deep understanding of the people, their culture, and every facet of their faith.

Fray Bernardino de Sahagun
Sahagun

Research and Organization of Topics

Sahagún's research used a method that scholars today see as an early precursor to some methods anthropologists use today. He recruited town elders and had them answer a detailed questionnaire about their culture and religious beliefs. He also had help from several indigenous students of his at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, a religious institution geared toward training indigenous people for the priesthood. The elders responded by writing their answers in the Nahuatl writing system, which included pictographic writing. The students would phonetically translate these responses, writing them in Nahuatl using Latin letters. Sahagún himself translated the Nahuatl passages into Spanish.

Aztec ritual drumming
Drumming

From the information gathered, Sahagún organized the Codex into 12 topic-specific books and included a foreword entitled Primeros Memoriales.

  1. The Gods
  2. The Ceremonies
  3. The Origins of the Gods
  4. The Soothsayers
  5. The Omens
  6. Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy
  7. The Sun, Moon and Stars, and the Binding of the Years
  8. Kings and Lords
  9. The Merchants
  10. The People
  11. Earthly Things
  12. The Conquest

Language

The Florentine Codex includes Spanish, the languages of the missionaries Sahagún was likely creating the Codex for, and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people providing the information. The Nahuatl appears on the right side of the Codex pages while the Spanish translations appear on the left. Not all sections of Nahuatl were translated and some of the translations appear to be summaries or slightly skewed representations meant to downplay details unflattering to Europeans. Imagine writing a letter home—would you include parts that made you look bad?

One such example of translation problems includes the details related to the Spanish conquest. The Aztecs wrote of the graphic violence and horror of the attacks while also discussing failures of the Spanish in trying to use a catapult. The violence was summarized and sanitized while the failure was not mentioned at all. It is only through retranslating the Nahuatl sections and a close examination of the illustrations that researchers uncovered the expressive voice of the original contributors.

Illustrations

The Florentine Codex includes much more than just Nahuatl and European language; it also has over 2,400 illustrations created by Sahagún's Aztec assistants, who combined both indigenous and European art techniques to create fascinating images. They used their Nahua pictographic writing, profile views of people, and heavy outlining of bodies in their own traditional styles, yet incorporated shading and linear perspective that was developed during the Italian Renaissance. The subject of the illustrations are all Aztec, featuring gods, leaders, Aztec communities, and more, yet many images include European influence in the form of Roman architecture and European craftsmanship.

Illustration with Roman arch
illustration

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