What is the Florentine Codex?

An opened book showing text on both pages with illustrations of fish.

Butterfly-and Jaguar-Fish in Book 11 of the Florentine Codex (“On Earthly Things”). Ms. Mediceo Palatino 220, 1577, fols. 62v and 63. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT

In 1577, a generation after the conquest of Mexico, a unique illustrated book was completed. Called the Florentine Codex, because it’s housed in Florence, the manuscript documents the culture, politics, natural science, and history of the Aztecs (a group of Nahuatl-speaking people who dominated large parts of central Mexico between 1428 and 1521). It does so in a period of Mexican history that was marked by great cultural transformation, social upheaval, and recurrent epidemics.

The codex may be thought of as an Encyclopedia Britannica of early-modern Mexico and of Nahua knowledge. It is written in two languages, native Nahuatl and Spanish. Nahuatl, once the lingua franca of Mesoamerica, is one of 68 Indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico. It is considered an endangered language today with an estimated 1.5 million speakers. The codex is therefore not only invaluable for its content but is also an important historical record of this language.

Green water surrounded by a land. An island in the middle.

Map of Lake Texcoco showing Tenochtitlan, the Mexica capital, and Tlatelolco, its neighboring city. Courtesy of Tomás Filsinger

A Bilingual and Bicultural Manuscript

Composed of twelve books, the codex was created in 16th-century Mexico City at the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, Mexico’s first college. There, the Spanish Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, and a large team of Indigenous authors and artists worked on compiling the information for thirty years.

We know the names and identities of a handful of the Nahua authors and artists who created the codex: Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegerano, Martín Jacobita, Pedro de San Buenaventura, Diego de Grado, Bonifacio Maximiliano, and Mateo Severino. They documented invaluable information about Aztec life and, in the case of Book 12, recorded eyewitness accounts of the conquest of Mexico.

Each manuscript page features two side-by-side columns of writing—the primary Nahuatl text and a Spanish interpretation of the Nahuatl text by Sahagún. These columns are interspersed with exquisite illustrations painted by Nahua artists or tlacuilo (Nahuatl for “one who paints or writes”).

The codex, modeled after ancient Roman and medieval encyclopedias that were available to the makers of the codex at the library at Tlatelolco, is regarded as the most reliable source of information about central Mexican Nahua culture. After its completion, the manuscript was sent to Europe, where the Medici ultimately acquired it. Today, it is still housed in Italy at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. In 2015, the codex was incorporated, along with other works by Sahagún, into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

Since 2016, the codex has been the focus of a collaborative research and publication initiative of the Getty Research Institute in partnership with the Seaver Institute and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, and is part of Getty’s Ancient Worlds Now initiative.

A page with text on the right, and three illustrations on the left showing a person placing feathers on a white sheet.

Amantecatl or feather worker preparing tropical bird feathers for a feather mosaic in Book 9 of the Florentine Codex (“The Merchants”). Ms. Mediceo Palatino 219, 1577, fol. 64v. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.

Digitizing and Understanding the Codex

Books, some opened, some stacked, on a light-wood table.

Finding the concordance between a facsimile of the Florentine Codex and various published translations and transcriptions of the texts.

The Getty Research Institute’s Florentine Codex initiative aims to make the codex and its content more accessible through online publications, scholarship, and the contribution of 4,000 multilingual entries to the Getty Vocabularies in English, Classical Nahuatl, Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl, and Spanish.

In 2022, the Research Institute will publish the Digital Florentine Codex, an enhanced digital, critical edition of the Florentine Codex that will make the manuscript freely available and searchable.

The digitized codex will be presented alongside its Nahuatl and Spanish transcriptions and with English translations of both texts providing the public more direct access to the manuscript’s content.

All texts will be searchable. Likewise, the roughly 2,500 images will be tagged with keywords to make them searchable. So if a researcher would like to find all images and textual references of “Moteuczoma” or “flower,” for example, she would be able to do so.

For Book 12 on the history of the conquest of Mexico, users will also be able to listen to audio recordings of the Nahuatl text, and access summaries in contemporary Eastern Huasteca Nahuatl.

The digital edition is being built using international standards (including IIIF) and is advancing the development of a viewer that supports the joint presentation of multiple texts and associated images.

Studying Book 12 and the Alternative Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico

A colorful man wearing a loincloth and carrying a spear and shield fights a helmeted soldier in black and white. Fallen bodies are behind and beneath them.

Mexica warrior against Spanish conquistadors in Book 12 of the Florentine Codex (“Of the Conquest of New Spain”). Ms. Mediceo Palatino 220, 1577, fol. 34. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.

The Research Institute will also produce a standalone study of Book 12 of the Florentine Codex as a digital anthology of new scholarly research that foregrounds Indigenous perspectives on the conquest. Book 12 describes the arrival of Spaniards in 1519 to what is today Mexico, and the war on Tenochtitlan, the Mexica capital of the Aztec Empire, and Tlatelolco, the neighboring sister city, between 1520 and 1521.

In the decades following the collapse of the Aztec Empire, Spanish historians penned the history of these events largely based on the accounts of the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés. Indigenous voices were left out of these official Spanish histories.

Book 12 is the longest and most important surviving record of the conquest from the Mexica-Nahua point of view, and represents one of several divergent Indigenous perspectives. It documents the conquest of Mexico from the Mexica perspective. The Mexicas were one of the three factions of Nahua peoples that controlled the Aztec Empire.

A page with text on the right and illustrations on the left of indigenous people fighting against armored people on horses and in boats.

Battles between Mexica warriors and Spanish conquerors and their Indigenous allies in Book 12 of the Florentine Codex (“Of the Conquest of New Spain”); on this folio and others, the images completely substitute text in the Spanish column. Ms. Mediceo Palatino 220, 1577, fol. 60. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.

Book 12 also reveals significant discrepancies between its Spanish and Nahuatl texts. The column of Spanish text is much shorter, giving abbreviated descriptions of events. Images of vivid battle scenes, heroic deeds by Mexica warriors, and atrocities committed by Spanish conquistadors and their Indigenous allies fill the resulting voids in the Spanish column.

The digital publication on Book 12 will reveal the extent to which the two texts and images present divergent information and were aimed at different audiences. Essays explore evidence of Nahua agency and local patriotism as well as apparent degrees of caution when dealing with controversial topics, such as the killing of the Aztec ruler, Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin.

A person in a red hat, red shirt and tan trousers helps carry a body with a loincloth and cape to the river. There is another caped body already in the river.

Spaniards tossing dead bodies of Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin and Itzquauhtzin, last independent rulers of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, respectively, into the water; Book 12 of the Florentine Codex (“Of the Conquest of New Spain”). Ms. Mediceo Palatino 220, 1577, fol. 40v. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, and by permission of MiBACT.

This research will help illustrate how Indigenous authors and artists of Book 12 interpreted and judged the war, celebrated the resistance of their ancestors, and reflected upon their role in the new colonial era. It will also bring the particular narrative captured in the Florentine Codex into conversation with the latest research on other early-modern Spanish and Nahua sources to elucidate the multiplicity of accounts about this defining period in world history.

Find out more about the Florentine Codex initiative »