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ON The Florentine Codex: Reflections of a Reader

Winter 2015
Winter 2015
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Elena Osterwalder  is an artist who uses two age-old materials—   amatl, handmade bark paper, and Grana Cochinilla, a scale insect that gives a vibrant red dye—in her art installations, to bring forward the history and culture of the Pre-Hispanic civilization. Osterwalder is an alumna of the Columbus College of Art and Design. Her work has been exhibited in the US, Europe, and China. The experience of holding a manuscript written circa 1560 is one I will never forget. As I viewed the Florentine Codex, page after page, history unfolded in front of my eyes. I became part of this narrative documenting the Aztec culture from the perspective of a sixteenth-century Spanish Franciscan friar, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, and his Nahua scribes, over a thirty-year period from 1547 through 1577.

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1 Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), as Fray Bernardino de Sahagún titled the twelve manuscripts now commonly known as the Florentine Codex, is the only known existing record of the history of the Aztecs. The Florentine Codex, bound into three books, is in the collection of the Medicea Laurenziana library in Florence, Italy. When and how they arrived in Florence is unknown. For certain they were there in 1588 when Ludovico Buti used some of the images for one his frescoes on the ceiling of the Uffizi Gallery.2 The library had granted my request to view the manuscripts. Early in the morning on July 7, 2014, I went to the second floor of the cloister of the Medicea Basilica di San Lorenzo de Firenze where the library is located. The librarian brought Books One and Two to me, and a set of vinyl gloves to put on before handling the manuscripts. When I first picked up the books, I felt apprehension at touching paper that was five centuries old, brittle and fragile with age, and might crumble if mishandled. The manuscripts are divided into two columns: the right is written in Náhuatl using the Roman alphabet; the left is Old Spanish. The Spanish letters are smaller than the Náhuatl letters, and thus the Spanish paragraphs often ON The Florentine Codex: Reflections of a Reader elena osterwalder Libro decimo \[Book ten\], describing "the virtues and vices of the people, the parts of the body, diseases inside and outside the body, the medicines, and all the nations that have come to live in this land." Ms. Med. Palat 220, cc1r. ⓒ Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy. Printed with permission of MiBACT (Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism). Any further reproduction by any means is prohibited. are smaller than those in Náhuatl. Illustrations as small as a line or as large as a column are used to fill the space on the left column. The illustrations refer to the text. As the manuscript progresses, it becomes evident when the natives started incorporating European shadings and construction into their beautiful illustrations. Two completely different styles blended so that two cultures morphed into a single one imbued with the richness of its two components. Later that day as I walked through Florence, I was in a daze at what I had seen. The history of the Aztec civilization might have been lost if not for Fray Bernardino's vision. The enormity of this pressed down on me. This narrative had pulled me in, taken me back in time, and allowed me to envision its inception. I had ceased to be a researcher in the twenty-first century. I stood at the side of the people writing and illustrating the pages. I saw the scribes perfecting their penmanship, writing the words in beautiful straight lines with all the letters aligned, selecting the colors—organic or mineral—which are still vibrant and alive as if drawn today. The ink spots and scratched-out mistakes evoked the efforts of the scribes who had worked on them. The next morning Book Three was waiting for me. I turned the pages and pored over the illustrations. As the book progressed, the paper got thinner and almost translucent, allowing the ink on the opposite side to bleed through, making it difficult to read. The ink was light brown rather than dark. Some of the illustrations were unfinished while others were in black and white. The Codex is a history book, a work of art with incredible, luminous colors. As an artist, I went to study the illustrations; instead I saw the ugly face of the Conquest. The Codex is a humanistic story of a Franciscan friar desperate to redeem himself from the horrors of the Conquest and about the natives who foresaw the end of their culture. The thin paper, with its ink spots, scribal errors, poor quality ink, and unfinished illustrations tell the tragic story of a vanishing culture. As I turned the pages I could feel the agony, hopelessness, and anger that those people must have felt as they watched entire families dying and the near destruction of their way of life. For them, these manuscripts represented their last hope to ensure the survival of their culture. As I stepped out of the reading room, I was in a trance. The intimacy that I had felt with Fray Bernardino and the scribes overwhelmed me. I did not want to lose it. I needed time by myself to process and understand what had happened. I walked slowly several times around the cloister and came to realization that I was becoming part of the history of the Codex. I was filled with the need to spread the story of this beautiful document. The author wishes to express her gratitude to I Giovanna Rae, PhD, curator of rare manuscripts at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, for allowing the opportunity to view this manuscript; Lynette Santoro-Au, arts manager of the city of Upper Arlington, for writing the reference; and Susan Penelope James who encouraged the writing of this article. ___________ notes 1. Miguel Leon-Portilla, Bernardino de Sahagún: Pionero de la Antropologia (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1999), 115. 2. Lia Markey, "The History and Reception of Sahagun's Codex at the Medici Court," in Gerhard Wolf, Joseph Connors, and Louis Alexander Waldman, eds., Colors Between Two Worlds: The Florentine Codex of Bernardino de Sahagún (Florence: Kunshistorisches Institut and Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, 2011), 217.