Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Mss. Med. Palat. 218, 219, 220

Bernardino Sahagun: Historia Universal de las cosas de Nueva España Facsimile Edition

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Florentine Codex is a twelve-book codex created under the direction of Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún in Tlatelolco, Mexico, completed between 1575 and 1577. Written as a chronicle of Aztec life at the point of European contact and a guide for Catholic missionaries, the content is encyclopedic.

Subjects include mythology, religion, divination, philosophy, astronomy, history, manners and customs, natural history, songs and prayers, and the Spanish Conquest. Sahagún is considered one of the first ethnographers, working with indigenous peoples to journal their life experiences. Nahuatl and Spanish text narrate 2,468 richly colored illustrations.

Written on paper and bound in the European manner, the codex contains a total of 1,223 leaves. The twelve books have been bound into three volumes. Each volume measures three hundred ten mm by two hundred twelve mm. The codex is also known as Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España and Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España. The Florentine Codex is in the Medicei Palatini collection of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

Nahua Scribes Trained by Franciscans

Headquartered at the Franciscan institution of Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, Sahagún instructed Nahau men in handwriting and techniques of European scriptoria. Teaching methods included replicating calligraphic texts in Italian and Spanish manuals and printed books.

Scholars have identified seven scribes that contributed to the codex, some were multi-lingual and had a grasp on linguistic skills indicating they were more than copyists. Scribes worked as a collaborative group, participating in all aspects of manuscript production.

Scholars have determined that the illustration of the multi-volume codex required twenty painters, four of these were masters and the others apprentices.

Blending of Visual Traditions

Page organization of Florentine Codex reflects the layout of Renaissance Italian and Spanish manuscripts with each page being divided into columns of text and space left by the scribes for illustrations.

When each manuscript volume is open, visual content on every verso and opposite recto are mirror representations of each other. The proportion of text to illustration is the same on facing pages.

Illustrations are rendered as traditional Mesoamerican pictographs with objects and figures outlined in black and areas filled in with color. Painted areas in the codex are shaded using transparent and opaque paints imitating the European formal technique of depicting drape, mass, and depth.

These rendering techniques can be seen in images of clothing and landscapes throughout the books. However, in book nine the images have been left uncolored, creating the look of a woodblock printed page. Leaves also exhibit ornamentation in the form of stylized plants seen in Italian and French manuscripts and books.

The twelve books making up the codex each have their own themes. Page design for each book is unique, having a specific format for framing images and text. Each book employs its own color combinations.

For example, book seven uses brilliant hues to illustrate beliefs linked to the moon, stars, and sun; book six on moral philosophy is illustrated only in black and white; book ten relating manners and customs uses subtle colors.

Pigments used throughout the codex were extracted from plants, soils, and insects that were traded over a vast network within Mesoamerica. Colors include several blues, greens, purple, red, white, yellow, orange, and brown. Approximately 800 images are unfinished.

Three Decades in the Making

Sahagún began production of Florentine Codex in 1547 at the Colegio de Santa Cruz. He believed that a comprehensive record of native ethnic life would serve three purposes: to document the indigenous world, serve as a tool for missionaries in their work as evangelists, and provide sacred songs and prayers for converted Nahua Christians.

To attain this goal, he engaged a team of former students as assistants. Teams were trained to go into Nahua communities to gather information from the local people. One team member would show individuals pictographs of Nahua narratives, iconography, and cultural life, asking them to explain the images while another team representative would write down the commentary.

Pictographs included devices such as glyphs and speech scrolls adding authenticity to the images. Sahagún also sent questionnaires to educated community leaders seeking information. By doing this he was able to document aspects of the pre-colonial Mesoamerican economy, society, religious and cultural practices, natural history, and cosmology of the Aztec people of the Valley of Mexico. Sahagún and his students transcribed the oral history, wrote, and edited the text in the Coatepec Nahuatl of the region and Castilian Spanish.

During the thirty years required to complete this work, Sahagún and his assistants met with a number of hardships including the epidemic of 1576 and political setbacks. Sahagún was also relocated to Tepelco in Hidalgo during this time

In 1577 King Philip II insisted on inspecting Sahagún's work as writing about pre-colonial indigenous superstitions was forbidden. The codex was taken to Europe by Fray Rodrigo de Sequera, Franciscan commissary general, who later provided Sahagún with what he needed to finish the encyclopedic manuscript. The work was completed in 1579.

By 1588 the manuscript was owned by the Medici family in Florence, Italy. In 1793 it appeared in the catalog of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. The name change from La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España to Florentine Codex occurred in 1886. 

Binding description

The original twelve volumes have been combined into three bound volumes. The binding is dark brown tooled leather with gold leaf ornamentation. At one time the codex was bound into four volumes and later rebound in the current three volumes.

We have 1 facsimile edition of the manuscript "Bernardino Sahagun: Historia Universal de las cosas de Nueva España": Bernardino da Sahagún: Historia Universal de las cosas de Nueva España facsimile edition, published by Giunti Editore, 1996

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Manuscript book description compiled by Miranda Howard.
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Bernardino da Sahagún: Historia Universal de las cosas de Nueva España

Florence: Giunti Editore, 1996

  • Commentary (Italian)
  • Full-size color reproduction of the entire original document, Bernardino Sahagun: Historia Universal de las cosas de Nueva España: the facsimile attempts to replicate the look-and-feel and physical features of the original document; pages are trimmed according to the original format; the binding might not be consistent with the current document binding.

Slipcase (218 x 325 x 168 mm) containing three volumes.

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