If he despaired at the end, maybe God understood.
Nearing 80 and plagued with tremors in his hands, Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary living in Mexico in the 16th century, painfully, painstakingly wrote to King Philip II of Spain.
He asked if the king had received his book, the one he and those closest to him had devoted most of their lives to completing. The book that had consumed their days and nights, that they’d pored over in sunlight and by candlelight, that they had fallen asleep still obsessing over, fingers sore, eyes burning. The book they had laboriously researched and edited, written and rewritten, illustrated and re-illustrated and handled, leaf by leaf, at least a hundred times so that it was imbued with life as its creators poured their own lives into its pages, preserving the memory of their people within.
There would be no royal reply. Sahagún died in 1590; neither he, nor anyone else who had worked on The General History of the Things of New Spain, ever knew what happened to it.
A Cryptic Manuscript
For centuries, it was something in the vein of The Da Vinci Code: a key to a civilization’s long-buried secrets in the form of a book that powerful officials initially sought to suppress before time and obscurity claimed it.
Completed in 1577, The General History of the Things of New Spain is an exhaustive encyclopedia of the Nahua (Aztec) people and the world as they saw and lived it. Handwritten in both Spanish and Nahuatl, it consists of 2,000 pages and nearly 2,500 illustrations that provide an incredible glimpse into Indigenous life through the keyhole of time.
Not until the late 18th century would the work miraculously resurface in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, inspiring its popular nickname, the Florentine Codex. For hundreds of years, the only way to study the codex was to come and physically see it — an impossibility for all but a select few. Even as reproductions became available, they did not provide a thorough level of detail in the illustrations or full translations of the text. The complete wisdom of this masterwork remained just out of reach.
That is, until a conference held by UCLA and the Getty Research Institute in 2015. It inspired a conversation between a group of colleagues and experts: Diana Magaloni of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Jeanette Favrot Peterson Ph.D. ’85 of UC Santa Barbara; Kim Richter ’00, M.A. ’04, Ph.D. ’10 of the Getty; and Kevin Terraciano ’85, M.A. ’89, Ph.D. ’94 of UCLA. The quartet began to discuss a wildly ambitious potential project: to digitize the entire codex and make it accessible to everyone.
Undaunted by the enormous obstacles — where to find the money to underwrite a massive, yearslong project, coordinating with multiple international stakeholders, the sheer scope of work it would require for all involved — the group began its efforts in earnest.
The work included lining up a team that turned out to be impressively Bruin-powered, tapping into the longtime strength of Latin American studies at UCLA. Some of the team’s members had been trained by giants in the field, such as James Lockhart in history, H.B. Nicholson in anthropology and Cecilia Klein in art history; many were also already classmates, advisees or colleagues. Key participants included six UCLA doctoral alumni (Peterson, Richter and Terraciano; researchers Rebecca Dufendach Ph.D. ’17 and León García Garagarza ’03, Ph.D. ’10; and collaborating scholar Lisa Sousa ’90, M.A. ’92, Ph.D. ’98); a UCLA master’s alumna (project manager Alicia Maria Houtrouw M.A. ’08); and a former UCLA instructor of Nahuatl language (research consultant Eduardo de la Cruz Cruz).
“That was the beginning of the idea that we could do something really remarkable,” says Terraciano, history professor and department chair. “And what better place to do something remarkable than here in Los Angeles?”
Illuminating a Lost History
Ostensibly written as a tool to aid the Spanish in more effectively converting the Nahua people they had conquered a generation prior, the Florentine Codex turned out to be much more than Catholic propaganda.
“In 12 books on a variety of topics, it contains Nahua legends and stories and histories and parables,” says Terraciano. “There are even actual speeches rulers would make when they took office, or mothers would make to their daughters, recorded in the original language.”
In a move that would inspire certain thinkers to dub him “the first anthropologist” hundreds of years later, Sahagún, the 16th century missionary, had approached his assignment with a surprisingly modern nuance.
Taking a humanist approach, he not only conducted interviews with the Nahua themselves, but he also employed 10 Nahua scribes and at least 19 Nahua artists to contribute to its creation. Each page features a Nahua perspective in Nahuatl along with vibrant art, all of it written and drawn by Indigenous hands; the opposite columns feature Spanish “translations” that are frequently not faithful transcriptions. In this way, Sahagún ultimately shaped the book into an expansive anthropological record of a civilization in its own words — a threatening idea in the eyes of his Spanish superiors.
“We often bemoan the fact that victors write our histories. However, the Florentine Codex is one exemplar where we have the ‘vanquished’ not only writing their history in their language, but also illustrating it,” says Dufendach, a visiting assistant professor in the history department at Loyola University Maryland. “The Florentine is a peerless manuscript in North American history, as it is one of the few surviving Indigenous accounts of Nahua culture and the interactions between Native Americans and Europeans during the 16th century.”
Equally important to the codex, and providing a third narrative along with those of the bilingual text, are its illustrations. Almost 500 years after its creation, most of the Florentine Codex still pops with comic-book color. (A series of European-brought diseases further ravaged the Indigenous population — Sahagún would write of burying more than 10,000 bodies, as well as falling ill himself — and made it impossible after a certain point to obtain the supplies to fully pigment each page.) In any form, the images reveal a vibrant, complex world and a distinctive worldview, reflecting something of each of their creators.
An illustration of a small pig in Book 11 has become so dear to Kim Richter that she keeps a copy of the image on her computer. In the codex, the pig’s ears and back foot cheekily push beyond the decorative frame; its bristles nearly touch the Spanish text above. It casts an enigmatic look toward the right half of the page, where it faces the Nahuatl text with what may be the flicker of a smile — a sort of porcine kindred spirit to the Mona Lisa, perhaps, which had been painted only decades earlier.
“You turn to this page and you see this realistic pig stepping outside of its frame against a very impressionistic, abstract landscape, all done by a 16th-century artist so ingenious they can blend all the visual tools from Renaissance Europe,” says Richter, a senior research specialist at the Getty Research Institute. “It’s maybe even a little bit humorous. It’s remarkable how the artists found ways to comment and even play — you get a sense that through their work, they’re speaking right to you.”
Determined to make sure that these messages could be interpreted with the participation of a native speaker, Terraciano brought on de la Cruz Cruz, director of the Instituto de Docencia e Investigación Etnológica de Zacatecas.
“A large majority of foreign researchers exclude native speakers in projects related to an Indigenous language, seeing them only as informants or information facilitators,” says de la Cruz Cruz. “Personally, I believe this is a seed that researchers should plant and follow, to incorporate native speakers of Indigenous languages into their teams.” It’s especially meaningful to de la Cruz Cruz, who was beaten as a child in school in Mexico when he and his friends would speak Nahuatl. (Once the land’s dominant language, it is now considered endangered, with an estimated 1.5 million speakers.)
As an adult, he made it a point to return to his home community and visit a middle school to ask students what they knew about the arrival and actions of the Spanish in the 16th century.
“Eduardo gave a moving speech at a symposium describing this, and how he could hear the indoctrination in these students’ answers that the conquest was a good thing,” remembers Richter. “But when afterward he had them read through the codex text, they were stunned by a different narrative than they had ever encountered.”
An Audacious Project Takes Shape
The importance of the codex as a record of the language, as well as a fuller picture of history, kept the Getty/UCLA team inspired to ensure that this cultural treasure — incorporated into the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Memory of the World Register — would become more accessible than ever.
Launched in October at a virtual symposium about online Indigenous language projects, the Digital Florentine Codex is the result of a $1.9 million project funded by the Getty Research Institute. The project involves a collaboration between the UCLA/Getty group and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to create an interactive web version of the manuscript, which will include introductory material, a glossary and labels of images to make it more approachable and useful for nonspecialist audiences.
“The digitized site will make working with the Florentine Codex on research projects much easier and more efficient, because it will provide links to existing translations, it will be searchable, and the high-resolution imaging will allow us to see fine details in the illustrations and the text,” says Sousa, a professor of history at Occidental College. “It will also make teaching with the Florentine Codex much easier. Students will have access to materials, including the facsimile of the original manuscript, that are not widely available.”
“A fourth-grader could type in any search they’re interested in — anything from weapons to animals to even beards — and get results they could then become engaged with,” says Richter. “We want to put this in the hands of people of all ages and expertise in a way where they can read and interact with it.”
“This type of project enables us to reach a much broader audience and engage them without imposing our interpretations on this manuscript,” adds Terraciano. “The beauty is that anyone who uses this site can do their own analysis — this digital site will be interactive and open access, and we invite everyone to explore it.”
The digitization project drew on many of the unique talents of the collaborators. For example, de La Cruz Cruz created chapter summaries of Book 12, dealing with the conquest, as well as an audio recording of the text. As a native speaker of the Huasteca variant of Nahuatl, it was a challenge for him to work with classical Nahuatl, but his efforts paid off — he also translated a list of terms from the codex into Huasteca, adding descriptions of each.
For his part, León García Garagarza translated the Spanish text in the first 11 books into English, something never completed before. (Famed experts Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble had published the English translation of the Nahuatl text of all 12 books; Lockhart had translated the Spanish text of Book 12.) Adding to the complications was the fact that Sahagún’s Spanish text frequently does not align with the Nahuatl, even when the two share the same page.
“This situation was surely due to the fact that translating the Spanish text of the codex is a monumental task. One has to be well-versed not only in 16th-century colonial Spanish, but also in classical Nahuatl, since all the obscure passages of Sahagún’s Spanish text can only be elucidated by consulting the Nahuatl parallel text that he was translating and commenting on,” says Garagarza. “The task took me five years to complete, thanks to the support of the Getty and the outstanding team of scholars on the project.”
And there was always something new to learn. While examining the original codex in person in Florence, some of the digitization team members made important discoveries that had not been visible in previous digital versions.
“With a UV flashlight, we’ve been able to see what’s been whited out, rewritten and even pasted over with images, and have been able to ask why these changes were made as the manuscript was being written,” says Peterson, a research professor and professor emerita of art history and architecture at UC Santa Barbara. “These documents from the past still speak to us and expand our understanding in the present.”
A Landmark Achievement
The launch also provided an opportunity to bring additional Bruins into the conversation, including event speakers Stephanie Wood M.A. ’79, Ph.D. ’84 of the University of Oregon and Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial ’02, M.A. ’05, Ph.D. ’15 of California State University, Northridge.
“It’s a huge honor to be part of the celebration of the Digital Florentine Codex, which will be a magnificent resource for both teaching and research, and I hope to serve as a liaison between the project and the newly emerging InDIGenius initiative,” says Wood. “It is a thrill to see the beautiful accomplishments of the team in bringing the project to fruition. All digital humanities scholars, not just those who work on Mesoamerican topics, will be impressed by its functionality and ease of use. To us, it will be a model for building an interactive tool for accessing texts and images in primary sources.”
Listen to an audio recording in Nahuatl from Book 12:
Inic matlactetl omume amoxtli, itechpa tlatoa in quenin muchiuh iauiotl in nican ipan altepetl Mexico. Inic ce capitulo vncā mitoa in nez, in mottac in machiotl yoā in tetzavitl, in aiamo valhui españoles, in nican tlalli ipan, in aiamo no iximachoa in nicā chaneque. In aiamo vallaci españoles, oc matlacxivitl, centlamātli tetzavitl achto nez, ilhuicatitech, iuhqui in tlemiiaoatl, iuhqui in tlecueçalutl, iuhquin tlavizcalli, pipixauhticaca inic necia; iuhq͗n ilhuicatl quiçoticac: tzimpatlaoac, quapitzaoac: vel inepantla in ilhuicatl; vel yiollo
Nahuatl to English translation: Twelfth book, which speaks of how war was waged here in the altepetl of Mexico. First chapter, where it is said that before the Spaniards came here to this land, and before the people who live here were known, there appeared and were seen signs and omens. Ten years before the arrival of the Spaniards an omen first appeared in the sky, like a flame or tongue of fire, like the light of dawn. It appeared to be throwing off [sparks] and seemed to pierce the sky. It was wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. It looked as though it reached the very middle of the sky, its very heart.
“Historically, Indigenous peoples have not had access to our own material culture or our own intellectual history, so these types of resources are one element that brings us closer to having a form of research justice,” says Flores-Marcial. “A digital version of the Florentine Codex in which native Nahuatl speakers have been involved, available to all through open access, really gives us hope and reminds us of our larger goal: to further the type of scholarship that should have been done from the beginning.
No artificial intelligence or visual learning tools were used in the making of this digital resource; like the creation of the codex itself, this was a hands-on production that would not have been possible without a truly collaborative effort.
“It was all done with hard research, hard labor and a lot of love for the manuscript. We’re trying to harness the digital medium in order to open new avenues of research, which I find so exciting,” Richter says. “Our hope is that in five years, what we’ve done will be outdated because people will have used the Digital Florentine Codex to uncover new revelations. That would be the best outcome, if this tool can advance our research and understanding of this manuscript that much.”
Ultimately, it’s the human connection that carries through and keeps the researchers eagerly engaged with the Florentine Codex as they strive to better understand and honor the people of yesterday who are represented in its pages.
“I have been working with this manuscript since I was an undergraduate more than 30 years ago, and I continue to learn more from the work every time I look at it,” says Sousa. “The collaborative intellectual project of Nahua scholars and elders and Fray Bernardino de Sahagún represents the value Indigenous people placed — and continue to place — on cooperative labor and respect for knowledge of elders. I would like to think that our Digital Florentine Codex project reflects our own recognition of the importance of collaboration, mutual respect and appreciation of Indigenous knowledge.”
It’s crucial, the team members agree, to trace the story all the way back to the Nahua collaborators who may have felt the literary loss of their life’s work almost 500 years ago, but who had actually lost so much more. As they worked on the codex, they may have feared, as Sahagún did, that one day the Nahua people would be extinct.
“And as for the Nahuas, they were writing for a Nahua audience — unlike the Spanish [who were aiming] at a European audience — and I think they would be moved to know that Nahuas today have access to this knowledge of their ancestors,” Terraciano says. “The Nahuas who participated in our project didn’t even know about the codex before they began. It’s beyond inspiring to share this with them. To share this with everyone.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Winter 2024 issue.