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The Florentine Codex Describes Early Aztec Life and Is Now Accessible Online

What was early Aztec life like? The Florentine Codex gives viewers an inside look at Mexico’s early pre-Hispanic indigenous culture.

By Elizabeth Gamillo
Jan 4, 2024 4:00 PM
The Florentine Codex, Aztec Ceremonial Artifacts
(Credit: General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex, World Digital Library)


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A 16th-century manuscript is getting a modern-day update and will now live online. The text, the Florentine Codex, is a visual and written encyclopedia of the history of the Aztec people in Mexico, pre- and post-colonialism. As an online source, the codex, initially written in Nahuatl and Spanish, was translated into English. Viewers can search the 12 books online for specific texts and images within the manuscript.

“The goal of the Digital Florentine Codex is to bring the three narratives — the two alphabetic texts and the nearly 2,500 hand-painted images — together in a format that makes them easily accessible to the public,” said Kim Richter, the project’s lead at the Getty Research Institute in a press release.

Who Wrote the Florentine Codex? 

The Florentine Codex, also called the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain), was written by Spanish Franciscan Friar Bernadino de Sahagún between 1545 to 1590 in collaboration with Nahua elders, scribes, artists, and grammarians. Writing the codex between Sahagún, his students, and Nahua collaborators at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco took nearly three decades.

The encyclopedia is known as the Florentine Codex because it is held in Florence, Italy, at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. Sahagún was interested in noting information about Mexican indigenous culture but was also recruited to convert the Aztecs to Christianity. The Spanish Monarchy requested the text as a way to understand and gain further control of the natives, according to Columbia College.

Read More: Who Built Teotihuacan, One of the Largest and Most Impressive Ancient Cities in Mesoamerica?

What Does the Florentine Codex Contain? 

The codex consists of 12 books that detail religion, cultural practices, and the first few decades detailing the fall of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Events, such as the invasion of Mexico City by the Spaniards, are found within the manuscript. Information about Aztec gods, the origins of their gods, calendars, festivals, omens, and philosophy are also detailed. Other topics include astrology, kings, everyday life, rituals, food, people and their occupations, and botanical knowledge.

Accompanying the text are 2,468 illustrations that show Nahuatl life and symbolize the Nahua people’s traditional way of combining stories with paintings and Europe’s style of Renaissance paintings, according to The Library of Congress. Illustrations found throughout the codex are drawn in the traditional Mexica style.

Read More: How Do Archaeologists Crack the Code of Ancient Languages?

(Credit: General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex, World Digital Library)

How Was the Florentine Codex Digitized? 

The Florentine Codex has been accessible online since 2012, but reading it was difficult as it required knowing either Spanish or Nahuatl. The digitization project began in 2016 after the Getty Research Institution partnered with collaborators in Italy, Mexico, and the U.S. to enhance the digitized manuscript further for anyone interested in learning more about the indigenous culture of Mexico and the endangered Nahuatl language. It took 7 years to add the translations and provide the new data about the codex.

“The website makes it easy to search for any topic about Mexica culture and language,” said Alicia Maria Houtrouw, the Digital Florentine Codex project manager for the project, in a press release. “This ability to search the codex’s texts and images in various languages makes the content of the codex readily discoverable.”

Book 12 of the Florentine Codex: Nahua Visions and Voices of the Conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan is expected to launch in 2025, along with lesson plans for K-12 educators interested in teaching perspectives of Mexico’s conquest. These resources aim to transform the understanding of this time in Mexico’s history and provide more indigenous perspectives, per the Getty Foundation.

Read More: The Fall of the Aztec Empire: What Really Happened in the Battle of Tenochtitlan?

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