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The Florentine Codex: A Treasure of Indigenous Mexican Culture

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Lunar eclipse in Book 7 of the Florentine Codex, 1577. (Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.)

Thursday, November 16, 2023
5:30 PM - 7:30 PM (Pacific Time)Fowler Museum, Lenart Auditorium

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Public Event at UCLA
Free admission, RSVP required

November 16, 2023, 5:30–7:30 p.m.
UCLA Fowler Museum, Lenart Auditorium

he UCLA Latin American Institute will host a public event about the Florentine Codex, a 12-book manuscript of Indigenous Aztec (or Nahua) culture and knowledge, on November 16. The evening event will feature many members of the UCLA-trained team who contributed to Getty's Digital Florentine Codex, a new online edition of the manuscript, who will give short presentations on many unique and fascinating aspects of the codex, including:

> How to use and navigate the digital codex published by Getty on October 26

> The colors and dyes that Indigenous artists used to make the over 2,000 images in the

> How women are portrayed in the manuscript

> Words used in the Spanish text of the codex that were actually borrowed from Nahuatl (the
language of the Aztecs)

 > The importance of the codex for the language and culture of the Nahua people of Mexico today

 > And... the experience of a K–12 teacher already teaching lessons on the Florentine Codex in
    her classroom

Opening Remarks: Abel Valenzuela, Interim Dean of Social Sciences, UCLA

Kim Richter, Alicia María Houtrouw and León García Garagarza (Getty Research Institute)

Diana Magaloni (LACMA and UNAM)

Lisa Sousa (Occidental College)

Eduardo de la Cruz
and Sabina Cruz de la Cruz (UCLA, IDIEZ)

Veronica Zavala (Latin American Institute, UCLA)

Reyna Kauil Cervantes (History Teacher, K–12 and Community College)

Moderator: Kevin Terraciano (UCLA)

The event is cosponsored by UCLA's Latin American Institute; American Indian Studies Center; Center for Mexican Studies; César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies; Department of History; Department of Spanish & Portuguese; UCLA College, Division of Humanities; UCLA College, Division of Social Sciences; and the UCLA International Institute.


Download the event flyer and/or poster



Huitzilopochtli. Image from Florentine Codex, 1577. (Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea
Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.)



The 12-book Florentine Codex is an encyclopedia of Aztec (or Nahua) knowledge written by Mexica scholars and artists working with a Franciscan friar from Spain in mid-16th century Mexico at the Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. The 2,500-page codex was written in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and translated into Spanish by friar Bernardino de Sahagún. The two texts appear side by side in the handwritten manuscript (and in the digital edition), along with more than 2,000 images drawn and painted by Indigenous artists.

The codex is regarded as the most reliable early colonial source of information about central Mexican Nahua culture, Mexica life and the conquest of Mexico (1519–1521). The final book of the manuscript (Book 12) is the longest written Nahuatl history of the conquest from the Aztec point of view.

The manuscript is housed at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy, hence the name, “Florentine Codex.” In 2015, the codex was incorporated into UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.

Modeled on European encyclopedias, such as Pliny’s Natural History, the codex captures information about central Mexican culture, life, rhetoric, astronomy, people, history, flora, fauna and the Nahuatl language. It was created in the midst of a major epidemic that swept through Mexico and killed millions of Indigenous people (observations about that epidemic are recorded in the codex).

The illustrations and images in the codex are not simply decoration, but derive from the pre-Hispanic tradition of recording history and esoteric knowledge in painted codices, which rely on images and pictographic signs — they form their own narrative that is equal to the written texts.

Getty's Digital Florentine Codex Project, helmed by four co-founders (including historian and former UCLA Latin American Institute Director Kevin Terraciano) and a team of people who earned their PhDs and MAs at UCLA, has produced a digitized, annotated version of the original codex. Getty will launch the digital version on October 26, 2023; making the manuscript easily available for public access for the first time in its history.


Mexica jaguar and eagle warriors in Book 2 of the Florentine Codex, 1577. 
(Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence,
and by permission of MiBACT.)


The Digital Florentine Codex will provide unprecedented access to the manuscript and its three narratives: the images and two texts. The enhanced online edition of the manuscript — complete with Nahuatl and Spanish transcriptions, English and Spanish translations and searchable texts and images — will stimulate new lines of scholarship on Nahua visual arts and culture and foreground Nahua voices. Additional scholarly and educational resources about the conquest of Mexico will transform public understanding of this history by re-centering Indigenous perspectives.

Getty's project team was assisted by scholars at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico.


Hummingbirds (huitzitzilin) in Book 11 of the Florentine Codex., 1577. (Courtesy of the
Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.)


 The UCLA Connection

The UCLA- and Latin American Institute-affiliated experts who have contributed to Getty's Digital Florentine Codex Project are:

Eduardo de la Cruz, Nahuatl instructor, UCLA; director, Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas (IDIEZ), Zacatecas, Mexico; research consultant, Getty Research Institute

Sabina Cruz de la Cruz, Nahuatl instructor, UCLA; instructor, IDIEZ, Zacatecas, Mexico; research consultant, Getty Research Institute

Rebecca Dufendach, UCLA PhD, history; assistant teaching professor, Loyola University Maryland

León García Garagarza, UCLA PhD, history; research specialist, Getty Research Institute

Alicia Maria Houtrouw, UCLA MA, Latin American Studies; senior project manager, Getty Research Institute

Jeannette Peterson, UCLA PhD, art history; emeritus professor of art history, UCSB

Kim Richter, UCLA PhD, art history; senior research specialist, Getty Research Institute

Lisa Sousa, UCLA PhD, history; professor of history, Occidental College

Kevin Terraciano, UCLA PhD, history; Robert N. Burr Endowed History Department Chair, UCLA

Roxanne Valle, UCLA MA, Latin American Studies

UCLA has offered courses in Nahuatl, the modern version of the language in which the Florentine Codex was written, since 2015. Nahuatl is the mother tongue of UCLA's instructors, who work at the Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas in Mexico. Bruins can study Nahuatl through the advanced level (three full years) at UCLA.

In keeping with the Latin American Institute’s longstanding commitment to K–12 education and community outreach, LAI and the Getty Research Institute cosponsored a professional development workshop for LAUSD teachers in the summer of 2020. A Los Angeles teacher who attended the 2020 workshop and has been teaching the Florentine Codex in her classroom will speak at the UCLA event on November 16.

Other teachers who attended the workshop, together with many current and former UCLA students of modern Nahuatl, are expected to be in attendance. Some alumni have gone on to do research on the Florentine Codex, others have taught Nahuatl at the school level in the Los Angeles region.


The Amazing Story of the Florentine Codex

The creation of the codex and its survival reads like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie. Compiled over a period of roughly 25 years in the mid-1500s by Bernardino de Sahagún, it represents what is likely the first rigorous ethnographic research ever conducted on an Indigenous culture. Sahagún solicited contributions from Nahua elders throughout Mexico and assembled these writings with the help of his Indigenous students at the Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, a European college founded by the Spanish to educate and convert Indigenous youth.

The friar persisted in compiling and protecting the codex despite numerous obstacles put in his way by the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown. At one point, for example, a Church superior took the 12 books from him and distributed them to Franciscans in other parts of Mexico for “review.” Five years later, a different superior allowed Sahagún to retrieve the books and keep working on them.

The codex was completed during an extraordinarily tense period in the 1570s — the decade when the Spanish Inquisition arrived in the Americas. Bartolomé de las Casas, who had openly criticized the Spanish king for the genocide of native peoples, had only recently died (in 1566). “De las Casas,” explains Terraciano, “was the most eloquent, articulate, outspoken critic of the Spanish Empire and a defender of native peoples. He wrote volumes extolling native culture and criticizing the Spaniards for being profit-seekers.”

Then in 1577, says Terraciano, “King Phillip II of Spain issued a decree declaring that anyone who was working on manuscripts involving the history or religion of the native peoples, or of the Conquest, should send them to Spain immediately (together with all copies).” Sagahún finally sent the finished codex to Spain in 1579, when he was 80 years old. Unlike an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to send a similar ethnographic work, this time Sahagún chose a trusted friend to hand carry it to Madrid.

Yet instead of bearing the work to Spain, says Terraciano, “This friend seems to have instead brought it to a collector of manuscripts from around the world, Ferdinando d'Medici, who was a cardinal in Rome. This man later became the Grand Duke of Tuscany and placed it in his special library — the Laurentian Library in Florence — where it remained for 200 years until it came to light in a library catalogue.” Systematic scholarly work on the volume, he notes, began only in the early 20th century.

“Sahagún died not knowing what happened to this masterpiece,” remarks the professor. “He dedicates the codex to this friend, but the friend never told him what he did with it — he never sent him a letter….. We think that this friend never sent Sahagún anything because he wanted to protect the codex, and perhaps could not admit freely that he had not brought it to the king in Madrid,” says Terraciano.

Although the friar’s purported objective was “to document Nahua religious beliefs so that [the Catholic Church] could identify and then extirpate them,” continues the historian, “Sahagún was steeped in the language and culture, totally bilingual and very sympathetic to these people. He really thought that they were on the verge of extinction — he says as much in different places in the work. He feared that they were dying off so fast that he wanted to record this great culture and language.

“He wanted to create something in Nahuatl similar to what Virgil and Cicero had created in Latin — something for all time,” he explained. “So he had all of these very wise and learned Nahua men working with him and writing on all sorts of things.” The first two books of the codex deal with religion and cosmology; other books deal with Nahua society, moral philosophy and rhetoric, flora and fauna, and the cosmos.

“The very last book is on the Spanish Conquest from an Indigenous point of view,” says Terraciano. “That’s the one I’m really focused on. It’s so unique, it’s by far the lengthiest and most interesting indigenous account of the encounter and the conquest that we have. And all in Nahuatl, with some 160 illustrations drawn by native artists...

Asked if the friar knew that he was actually preserving the Nahua account of the Conquest [in Book 12 of the codex] under the cover of his translation, Terraciano answers in the affirmative. “Some of the most sympathetic Spaniards [in Mexico at that time] were the friars and priests who set out to destroy the devil and idolatry,” he remarks, “but who really sympathized with the people for the way they were suffering. Many of these friars were angry at secular Spaniards and the nonreligious, who were there just to make a profit at the expense of these people.” 

Edited excerpt from
 "Language of the Aztecs Alive and Well in Los Angeles"
(UCLA International Institute, 2017)


 Additional materials:

KCRW Interview with Kevin Terraciano (Nov 6, 2023)

Los Angeles Times article (Nov 4, 2023)

Getty Video: What is a Codex? (Oct 26, 2023)

"Newly Digitized Florentine Codex Reveals Aztec Culture, Language" (Oct 26, 2023)

"A Rare 500-Year-Old Manuscript Gets a Second Life Online" (Oct 26, 2023)

"Indigenous History of the Spanish Colonial Era: An Interview with Kevin Terraciano" (2020)

"Bringing Indigenous Perspectives into L.A. Classrooms" (2020)

Cost: Free

Special Instructions

Please RSVP

Download File: FlorentineCodex_Flyer_Final-dp-m2t.pdf

Sponsor(s): Latin American Institute, Center for Mexican Studies, UCLA International Institute, César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, Department of History, Art History, American Indian Studies Center; UCLA College (Division of Humanities and Division of Social Sciences)