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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

11/2014 manuscript  of the month

A Manuscript with an Eventful Life:

The Odyssey of Codex Florentinus

Codex Florentinus, or the Florentine Codex, is an impressive example of how eventful the biography of a manuscript could be in the late 16th century: over a period of less than five decades, it was commissioned by the Catholic Church in New Spain (present-day Mexico), then put on the List of Prohibited Books, shipped off to Europe where it initially went to the King of Spain’s court in Madrid, but ended up in the Pope’s possession in Rome, and finally became part of the Medici family’s “Kunst- und Wunderkammer” (cabinet of arts and curiosities) in Florence.

Fig. 1: Double page from the Florentine Codex, book 1, fols. 5v–6r.
> Enlarge

The reason for this contradictory reception is the manuscript’s content, or rather, the different ways in which the Church and secular authorities kept on regarding it, as the codex, which is now named after its current location, is the only surviving manuscript from the 16th century to describe pre-Hispanic traditions and rites in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica, as the Aztecs used to refer to themselves. The Franciscans originally produced the manuscript for their own missionaries to use. In contrast, the Inquisition and Philip II of Spain (1527–1598) suspected the manuscript was being employed to promote heathen rites, and they eventually decided to prohibit its use. In contrast, Ferdinando de Medici (1549–1609), who presumably acquired the codex while he was a cardinal at the Pope’s court, disregarded this Christian debate, took the codex to be a relic of the pre-Hispanic era in Central Mexico’s history and simply added it to his own collection of exotica at the end of the 16th century.

Researchers now assume that the Florentine Codex, which contains more than 1,200 richly illustrated pages featuring around 2,500 miniatures, was completed in the year 1577. The manuscript was produced by indigenous scribes and artists who had been trained at the Franciscan Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco (today known as Mexico City). The substantial project was conducted under the aegis of the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590). A monk who came from Sahagún in the Spanish kingdom of León, he had first gone to New Spain in 1529 and had lived there ever since. He was regarded as an expert on the language and rites of the Mexica. Presumably around the year 1558, Sahagún was commissioned by Francisco de Toral, the provincial of New Spain, to start collecting knowledge that was of use in instructing the inhabitants of the Spanish colony and converting them to Christianity. The interest the Franciscan monks took in pre-Hispanic cultures may seem rather strange at first, but it can be explained by the simple fact that the missionaries could only take action against the non-Christian rites and festivals that were known to them.

Fig. 2: Pen-and-ink drawing from Primeros
Memoriales, Códice Matritense, Madrid, Palacio
Real, fol. 254r. > Enlarge

After being commissioned with this task, Sahagún and his colleagues began interviewing local elites in various parts of the country, which happened in the 1560s. The result of all this groundwork was a substantial collection of texts (known as the Primeros Memoriales, now archived in Madrid), which was later used as the basis of the Florentine Codex. To record all the answers the respondents provided in Nahuatl, Sahagún’s helpers used the Latin alphabet, which had only been adopted in 1521 when the Spanish conquest of Mexico took place. Before this was employed, the Mexica did not use a script based on letters, but rather narrative pictures that included pictographs to retain their knowledge and pass it on to others. A number of coloured indigenous drawings in Sahagún’s Primeros Memoriales bear witness to the persistence of this tradition. These drawings portray pre-Hispanic rites and are presumably based on models that the respondents produced in the course of their interviews.

Using the material collected during the interviews, Sahagún ultimately compiled the texts that appeared in the Florentine Codex in the 1570s. To give the subjects a structure, he followed the model of European encyclopaedias created in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages. Divided into twelve books, the manuscript describes various areas of the Mexica’s lives, including artistic techniques like the production of pictures made out of feathers, which were much admired in Europe and sought after by collectors there. One series of pictures shows us how the feathers were initially coloured, put together to create mosaics, trimmed and finally fixed in place on a carrier.

Fig. 3: A series of illustrations
showing how feather pictures were
made; the Florentine Codex, book 9,
fol. 65r. > Enlarge

The original title of the codex, Historia universal de las Cosas de Nueva España (‘Universal History of the Things of New Spain’) can only be reconstructed today on the basis of later copies as it was removed from the original manuscript. It is unclear why this happened, but researchers continually assume that the codex was secretly smuggled out of the country, so the identity of the manuscript was meant to be concealed. The only thing we can be certain of is that Sahagún had to cope with a growing series of problems while he was trying to complete his Historia universal, the Franciscan Order confiscated the work in 1570 for reasons that are not fully known and Sahagún was only able to resume his project five years later. Spanish summaries of the texts in Nahuatl were written during this second stage of the work and were intended to make the content of the manuscript comprehensible to a Spanish audience. In 1580 the codex was at the King of Spain’s court, but soon after that, it somehow came into the possession of the Pope in Rome. Astonishingly, the reception of the manuscript changed fundamentally at this very moment, although it was now at the centre of the Christian world: Ferdinando de Medici took possession of the codex as he felt it was a valuable ‘rarity’, adding this work of art to his own collection of exotica in Florence, which he first kept at the Palazzo Vecchio and later at the Uffizi Gallery.

The odyssey of the manuscript came to an artistic culmination in a ceiling fresco painted by Ludovico Buti in 1588 (c. 1560–1611). It shows the image of a warrior based on a miniature in the Florentine Codex and bears witness to the fact that the manuscript was once kept in the rooms of the Uffizi Gallery.


BAIRD, Ellen Taylor (1993): The Drawing of Sahagúns „Primeros Memoriales“. Structure and Style. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

GARCIA QUINTANA, María José (1999): „Historia de una historia. Las ediciones de la Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España de fray Bernardino de Sahagún“. In: Estudios de cultura náhuatl, 29, 163–188.

NICHOLSON, H. B. (2002): „Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. A Spanish Missionary in New Spain, 1529–1590“. In: Eloise Quiñones Keber (ed.): Representing Aztec Ritual. Performance, Text, and Image in the Work of Sahagún, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 21–39.

SCHWALLER, John Frederick (ed.) (2003): Sahagún at 500. Essays on the Quincentenary of the birth of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún. Berkeley: Academy of American Franciscan History.

WOLF, Gerhard / CONNORS, Joseph (eds.) (2011): Colors between two worlds. The Florentine Codex of Bernardino de Sahagún. Mailand [et al]: Officina Libraria [et al].


Bibliotheca Medicea Laurentiana, Florence
Shelf mark: Mediceo Palatino 218–220
Material: 1,223 leaves, 2,468 drawings, partly in colour; European paper (watermark: Croix latine, Pélerin); script: brown ink; text: in two columns,
29–51 lines; language: Nahuatl and Spanish (parts of the prologue are in Latin); cover: brown leather, Spanish
Size: 30.8–31.0 x 21.0–21.2 cm
Place and date of origin: New Spain (now Mexico), 1577

Text by Anna Boroffka
© for Fig. 1 & 3: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence.
The publication of these pictures is authorized by the MiBACT.
Onward distribution and use by third parties is prohibited.
Fig. 2: Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid