October 26, 2012

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book XII: The Conquest of Mexico

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book XII recounts the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which took place between 1519, when Cortés landed on the coast with just over 100 men and a few horses, and 1521, when Tenochtitlan was taken and the Aztecs subjugated. The story is told from the perspective of indigenous elders who were living in Tenochtitlan at the time of the conquest and witnessed firsthand the events described. Sahagún gathered these accounts around 1553–55, when he was working at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. The Nahuatl narrative begins with an evocation of the “signs and omens” that were said to have appeared before the arrival of the Spanish and concludes with the surrender of Tenochtitlan after an 80-day siege. By drawing upon primary accounts, Sahagún was able to capture the astonishment felt by the Aztecs and the trauma that followed their defeat at the hands of the Spanish. Among the key factors that determined the Spanish victory were the ruthlessness of the Spanish soldiers and of Cortés in particular, the use of horses and firearms, which the Mesoamericans had never seen, and Cortés’s intuition that the peoples of the Aztec Empire were prepared to join forces with him to shake off Aztec rule. Book XII contains numerous illustrations depicting scenes from the conquest, including the arrival of Cortés, an image of the Templo Mayor (Great Pyramid) in Tenochtitlan, battles between the indigenous people and the Spanish, and destruction of Aztec temples by the Spanish.

Commentaries by Domizio Calderini on Works by Juvenal, Statius, Ovid, and Propertius

Under the influence of Italian humanism and of his book-collector tutor János Vitéz, the Archbishop of Esztergom, Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1443–1490), developed a passion for books and learning. Elected king of Hungary in 1458 at the age of 14, Matthias won great acclaim for his battles against the Ottoman Turks and his patronage of learning and science. He created the Bibliotheca Corviniana, in its day one of Europe’s finest libraries. After his death, and especially after the conquest of Buda by the Turks in 1541, the library was dispersed and much of the collection was destroyed, with the surviving volumes scattered all over Europe. This codex, originally in the Corvinus Library and now preserved in the Medicea Laurenziana Library in Florence, dates from the late 1480s. It contains works written in the mid-1470s by Domizio Calderini (1447–78), a courtier, scholar, humanist, and controversial literary commentator, who was born in the province of Verona and died in Rome. Included here are his commentaries on Juvenal’s Satires, Publius Papinius Statius’s Silvae, Ovid's Letter of Sappho, and works by the elegiac poet Sextus Propertius. The Bibliotheca Corviniana Collection was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2005.

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Introduction, Indices, and Book I: The Gods

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Sahagún followed the typology of earlier medieval works in organizing his research into “the divine, human, and natural things” of New Spain and addressing these topics in order. Book I thus deals with the gods. It describes the principal deities in the Aztec pantheon, listing their distinctive physical features, attire, main functions, and the festivals dedicated to them. To make these gods more comprehensible to European readers, Sahagún sometimes likens them to figures from Greek and Roman mythology. Huitzilopochtli (“Uitzilobuchtli” in the codex) is called “another Hercules,” Tezcatlipoca “another Jupiter.” Huitzilopochtli was the patron god of the Aztecs, who guided them on their pilgrimage from Aztlán, the mythical “white land” of their origins, to the “promised land,” where in 1325 they founded the city of Tenochtitlan. He was the god of war and of the sun, huge, immensely strong, and warlike, and to him was dedicated one of the two shrines of the Templo Mayor (Great Pyramid) of Tenochtitlan. The other shrine was dedicated to Tlaloc, the lord of rain, who lived on the highest mountains where clouds form and was associated with the agricultural world and the fertility of the land. Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc, and two other major gods are depicted on folio 10r. For Sahagún, religion was the key to Aztec civilization. As he wrote in the prologue to Book I, “in religion and the adoration of their gods, I do not believe that there have ever been idolaters more devoted to their gods, nor at such great cost to themselves as these [people] of New Spain.”

General History of the Things of New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún: The Florentine Codex. Book II: The Ceremonies

Historia general de las cosas de nueva España (General history of the things of New Spain) is an encyclopedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after completion of the Spanish conquest by Hernan Cortés. Commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex, the manuscript consists of 12 books devoted to different topics. Book II deals with the feasts and sacrifices to the gods, made in accordance with the 20-day ritual calendar. It includes the 20 sacred canticles or hymns to the gods, which Sahagún gathered from oral testimony at an early stage in his research. This book also describes ceremonies involving human sacrifice, which so shocked the Spaniards when they arrived in Mexico. Sacrifices were offered so that the cosmic cycle might continue and the sun rise every morning. In a perennial process of regeneration, it was thought that Aztec gods died and then returned to life stronger than before, and it was their death that was “relived” in the sacrifice. The gods were embodied in the sacrificial victims—their ixiptla (images) or representatives—and received sustenance from human hearts and blood. The illustration at folio 84v depicts the sacrifice of the ixiptla of Tezcatlipoca, god of the night sky and of memory. The victim was to be a fit young man, without physical imperfections, who was granted a year to live at leisure, learning to play the flute and to carry “smoking tubes” in the manner of the chiefs and nobles. He was then carefully dressed and adorned and, after various ceremonies, taken to the foot of the pyramid where he was killed. The sacrificial victims were generally soldiers captured in battle, but they also could be slaves, men found guilty of some crime, or young women or children (offered to the deities of the rain and the waters). In battle, the goal was not to kill the enemy, but to take prisoners, who were grabbed by the hair and destined to be sacrificed. Warfare for the purpose of securing sacrificial victims is depicted in the illustrations on folio 74r and folio 74v of this book.