Beginning June 22, UCLA’s Latin American Institute will host a five-day online workshop for K–12 teachers in Los Angeles centered on the Florentine Codex, an important text that chronicles Spain’s conquest of the Aztec empire nearly 500 years ago and documents the language, culture, politics and sacred practices of the empire’s indigenous Nahua people.

Originally written in both Spanish and Nahuatl, the 12-volume codex has been translated into modern Spanish and English since its discovery in a library in Florence, Italy, in the mid-19th century. Remarkably, its final volume tells the story of the conquest in the voices of the conquered, a perspective carefully preserved by a Spanish priest who feared the world of the Nahuas would be lost forever as a result of Spain’s invasion of Mesoamerica, an area that today includes central Mexico and Central America. 

The teacher workshop evolved out of a desire by UCLA scholars to introduce this powerful text to children in Los Angeles public schools, 75% of whom are of Latin American descent.

Organized in collaboration with the Getty Research Institute’s Florentine Codex initiative and led by Latin American Institute outreach coordinator Verónica Zavala, the program will feature lectures that facilitate both introductory and advanced study of the topic and provide a broader context for studying Mesoamerica. It will also include curriculum-design sessions on integrating new materials and resources into K–12 classrooms; teachers will have access to key primary sources, including the codex itself, along with other materials.

Kevin Terraciano, director of the Latin American Institute, is an expert on this unique historical document and co-editor of the most recent publication related to it, one that puts a special emphasis on the illustrations made by Nauha artists. Terraciano shared his insights about the importance of the codex in a recent Q&A with Bryan Pitts, assistant director of the institute, excerpted below. 

Tell us a little bit about the Florentine Codex. Who wrote it and for what purpose? Why is it so important?  

The Florentine Codex is the most impressive manuscript produced in the early modern Atlantic world. Its 12 books, bound in three volumes, contain nearly 2,500 pages of Nahuatl and Spanish text in parallel columns, with about 2,500 hand-painted images made by Nahua artists. 

 The manuscript is “encyclopedic” in that it attempts to articulate the sum of what was known about the Nahua world in a pictorialized book form. Its format and sequence of 12 books align with the hierarchical organization of classical and medieval compendia, progressing from the realms of the divine and celestial to human matters, flora and fauna, and the mineral world. Only Book 6, on rhetoric, and Book 12, on the conquest, break with this sequence.  

Dozens of Nahuas contributed to the collection of knowledge and the production of texts and images for the Florentine Codex over the course of three decades, from the 1540s to the 1570s. They worked under the supervision of a Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, at the Colegio de Santa Cruz, the first European college founded in the Americas, in the 1530s, in what is now Mexico City.  

Eventually, a royal decree forced Sahagún to complete and send the manuscript to Spain. He sent it with a trusted friend who apparently brought it to Ferdinando I de’ Medici in Rome, a cardinal who became Grand Duke of Tuscany. The duke brought the manuscript with him to Florence, where it was deposited in the family library designed by Michelangelo. If it had gone to Spain, it is likely that the Inquisition would have destroyed it, for it contained ample information on sacred Nahua beliefs and practices.

The codex was written as an epidemic ravaged Mesoamerica, one of many in the century after the conquest. What role did the epidemic have in the generation of the codex?  

Perhaps with COVID-19, we can begin to imagine what it must have been like for those Nahua scholars working in the college, who were trying to finish their magnum opus in the midst of chaos and despair. Yet nothing can compare today with the way that indigenous people were affected by the epidemics of the colonial period. The indigenous population declined by about 90 percent over the course of a century. Mexico’s population did not reach its pre-conquest level again until the 20th century.    

Nahuas are still here, despite Sahagún’s greatest fear. There are about 1 million Nahuas in some 20 parts of Mexico, in addition to several million indigenous people who speak more than 200 native languages. And that’s just Mexico. Mesoamerican cultures and languages, especially Nahuatl and Maya, extended to Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica).   

Tell us more about the work that you and the Getty Research Institute have carried out recently to make the codex more accessible to a global audience. 

I and my colleagues Kim Richter (Getty Research Institute), Jeanette Peterson (UC Santa Barbara) and Diana Magaloni (LACMA’s Art of the Ancient Americas program) are the co-founders of an initiative to digitize the manuscript and to create an open-access website that presents high-resolution images, transcriptions and translations of the Nahuatl and Spanish texts into English. The website will be launched in 2021–22. 

The Getty Research Institute is partnering with the Laurenziana Library in Florence, where the codex remains since it was brought there around 1580. It is a treasure, recognized as such by the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation. The Seaver Foundation and Getty trustees have provided funding to support a team of technical experts and scholars who are working on the long-term project.  

We are also publishing a volume focused on Book 12 of the codex, which addresses the Spanish-led invasion of Mexico in 1520–21, to which I am contributing several chapters. This final book of the Florentine Codex is by far the lengthiest indigenous account of an encounter with Europeans and subsequent war, with 160 illustrations. 

One of the UCLA/IDIEZ (Zacatecas Institute for Teaching and Research in Ethnology) Nahuatl instructors, Eduardo de la Cruz, has done an audio recording of Book 12 for the interactive website of the Getty Florentine Codex project, and he’s contributing to our volume on that text. Eduardo is also working on a summary of Book 12 in modern Huastecan Nahuatl, a draft of which he presented to his community in Veracruz. Nobody, including Eduardo, knew of the Florentine Codex before our project with the Getty.