‘The Codex Mendoza was used to legitimize the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs’ | Culture


“The Codex Mendoza embodies a crushing tragedy: the dissolution of a civilization.” So reads the foreword to a new analysis, accompanying a new facsimile, of the famous sixteenth-century manuscript, one of the most famous documents of artistic collaboration between indigenous artists and Spanish performers in the history of Mesoamerica, which was created between 1542 and 1552. The 71 folios of the codex feature a combination of Nahua painting and writing, accompanied by passages of Spanish text, which tell the story of the Mexican people from the founding of Tenochtitlan (the present-day Mexico City) in 1325, until his death two centuries later. by Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (Moctezuma II). Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, the colonial administrator who commissioned the creation of the book, intended to produce a document on the economic, political and social life of the land recently conquered by Spain. And, according to a new study, also to use it as propaganda. “This codex was used to legitimize the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs,” says Jorge Gómez Tejada, professor of art history at San Francisco University in Quito in Ecuador and publisher of a new facsimile edition of the manuscript, co-published by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.

The new volume is the first interpretative reproduction of the Codex Mendoza, which analyzes the text from an artistic and literary point of view, and the first to be published simultaneously in Spanish and English. In addition to the facsimile of the codex itself, the new volume includes a book of essays and articles divided into 14 chapters and composed by 13 scholars, which explore the history, interpretation and reception of the codex. The results of this collaborative research project were presented at the Colegio Nacional, a prestigious honorary academy in Mexico City, where the director of the Proyecto Templo Mayor, archaeologist Leonardo López Luján, hosted Gómez Tejada who gave a lecture on the codex, which is an essential document for understanding the history of pre-Hispanic Mexico.

Detail of the new Codex Mendoza facsimile.NATIONAL COLLEGE

“The Codex Mendoza is one of the finest examples of tlacuilolli, the Nahua art of painting and writing”, explains Gómez Tejada, pointing out one side of the contradiction suggested by his new thesis: “The document was created with the intention of sending it to Europe to influence a national debate ongoing in Spain, raised by Bartolomé de las Casas, among others, regarding the legitimacy of conquest, which essentially boiled down to the question: does a nation have the right to dominate another simply because it consider it inferior? The original account of the codex shows that the Mexica were a sovereign nation with laws and a political system, that they possessed humanity – a revelation which the conquerors received with displeasure, considering that their justification for the occupation of Tenochtitlan was that the inhabitants were ungovernable,” explains Gómez Tejada.

The codex’s juxtaposition of Nahua iconography and Spanish gloss, or marginal textual annotations, is not the only way the manuscript contrasts two systems of thought: rather than using deerskin or Amate, a traditional Aztec paper made from tree bark, the Codex was painted by Mexican scribes using sheets of Spanish paper. It was also bound in the tradition of Spanish bookmaking. The original Codex Mendoza is currently held at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in England, where it has been kept for 363 years. Before it was donated to the library by the executors of John Selden’s estate around 1659, the contents of the manuscript were available for study through a series of woodcut reproductions, published in the third volume of Buy his Pilgrims, a collection of travelogues published by the English cleric Samuel Purchas in 1625.

In 1831, the Codex Mendoza became the first manuscript to be reproduced entirely in color, as part of the first volume of Antiques from Mexico, a collection of lithographic facsimiles compiled and published by Lord Kingsborough, an Irish antiquarian. This publication, like that of later photographic facsimiles published in the 20th century, would prove too expensive to enjoy wide distribution. But in recent years, new technologies have made it possible to reproduce its pages digitally and online, in addition to allowing more precise studies of the original colors through non-destructive instrumental analysis and multispectral imaging. Thus, the new version of the codex presents more accurate images and colors, in addition to a closer approximation to the actual size of the pages, which measure approximately 31 by 21 centimeters in the original.

“There is a part of the codex that shows the type of education that Mexican society offered its children, that shows how that society had the capacity to administer public policy,” explains Gómez Tejada. “The debate at the time centered on whether the people of Tenochtitlan had any humanity, were able to love, to live in a society; this book shows us the case for Mexica sovereignty, and it shows that the Mexica was a civilized society. The most comprehensive edition and study of the codex before this most recent was published by the University of California in 1992. Its authors, Frances Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, produced a complete facsimile edition with translations and accompanying analysis. In 1997 they published a summary edition titled Codex Mendoza Essentials. Until now, they had yet to use the new cameras, printing presses and digital media available today to create a new version of the original Oxford edition. “The approach we had to the manuscript is the one we could have of a work of art by trying to understand its materiality, its internal dynamics; analyzing its narrative priorities and how images work as rhetorical tools to convey an idea and persuade,” Gómez Tejada told EL PAÍS.

Ultimately, however, the Codex’s narrative reveals the prejudice and ignorance of the colonial worldview, according to López Luján, a Mexican archologist and director of the Colegio Nacional. “It refers to tributes to be paid in gold objects, but in all the offerings we encountered during our research, we found practically no gold,” says López Luján. “To date, in 44 years of excavations, we have encountered less than a kilogram of gold objects in Mexico. In countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia or Costa Rica, there are large gold museums, associated with the Central Bank. What we have found in our excavations, and what also appears in the codex, are live eagles. Our findings indicate that live eagles were brought to Moctezuma’s vivarium, which was located where Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional stands today. They were kept in cages and served as entertainment for the king and his court, but also as raw materials. [for making garments and other items].” Most of these animals were used for rituals and sacrifices at the Templo Mayor.

A copy of the new Codex Mendoza facsimile.
A copy of the new Codex Mendoza facsimile.National College

The history of Codex Mendoza is as rich as it is controversial. Throughout the 16th century, the manuscript is quoted in the works of André Thevet, cosmographer at the Court of France, and in the writings of English geographers Richard Hakluyt and Purchas, historians of exploration whose works have been reproduced throughout throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in texts on American history and treatises on ancient writing. In the 19th century, the codex served as an important source for Mexican historians and geographers, and as the basis for Antiques from Mexico, Lord Kingsborough’s extravagant attempt to prove a connection between the original inhabitants of the Americas and the Lost Tribes of Israel. In the 20th century, the Codex Mendoza established itself as an important source of historical knowledge about the Mexican people, beyond the biographies of the great leaders of civilization. And now, with an analysis that focuses on the manuscript as a work of art, the materiality, iconography and narratives of the codex, explicit and implicit, allow us to appreciate the document in a new light and to create new contexts to understand it. , and new avenues of research.

Since its creation, the Codex Mendoza has acquired great international importance, as evidenced by its first voyages across the Atlantic. The European paper on which it was created must have crossed the Atlantic back and forth in rapid succession in the early 1540s. On his last folio, the Spanish commentator notes that the manuscript, when completed, remained in Mexico less ten days before the fleet that would transport it to Europe would set sail. After a period in Renaissance France, he arrived in Oxford. Throughout nearly five hundred years of history, the codex has had many faces, each complementing each other, representing different angles of interpretation, reflecting and celebrating a culture in decline through recording and interpretation not only of its history, its geography and its daily life, but also of its art, its language and its pictorial writing. “The Codex Mendoza is a constantly evolving text; thinking about it from an art and storytelling perspective can help us understand it better,” says Gómez Tejada.


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