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Photos of pages from the SAR Archives, SAR Press, Book Projects, Florentine Codex, book 11, part 1, chapter 1 (Earthly Things, left), and book 12, part 3, chapters 31–41 (The Conquest of Mexico, right).
To search the archives for information about SAR’s groundbreaking English translation of Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, co-published with University of Utah Press beginning in the 1950s, is to experience time in the form of paper: notes written by hand on hotel stationery, copies of telegrams, letters typed on sheets of tissue and soft, thick deckle-edged paper. The codex was written by Sahagún and his Native collaborators in the “New World” of the mid-1500s on handmade paper imported from Spain. This “General History of the Things of New Spain”—written in side-by-side columns of Nahuatl and Spanish—covers topics ranging from natural history to ritual to the conquest itself.
Correspondence from the 1950s about the translation of the Florentine Codex, SAR Archives.
 

In 1938 Edgar Lee Hewett, the first director of the School of American Archaeology (which would become the School for Advanced Research), sent Lansing Bloom to photograph the Florentine Codex at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in hopes of producing the first complete translation of this monumental work.

“Fray Bernardino de Sahagún was the first capable ethnologist of America and if he were of the present century, he would rank with the ablest students of man, both as to method of work and recording of results,” wrote Hewett in the Papers of the School of American Research in 1944.

Singular among his Franciscan peers, Sahagún believed that he needed to understand the people he had come to convert. Hewett quotes Fanny Bandelier in Fray Bernardino DeSahagun and the Great Florentine Codex to describe how different he was from both his brethren and other scholars of the day:

Sahagún “resorted to a quite unusual, even unique method, never practiced before. Fully aware of the fact that ancient Mexican history was contained in hieroglyphic signs, many of which had been destroyed . . . he made a sort of glossary in Spanish in his attempt to reconstruct that part of the ancient lore he was particularly anxious to have explained. The Indians, especially the old men, responded immediately and painted the corresponding glyphs, while the Spanish-speaking members of his advisory board explained them to him.”

Hewett’s booklet of 1944, SAR Archives.
Photos of pages from the SAR Archives, Florentine Codex, book 11, part 1, chapter 1 (Earthly Things).

 

After Hewett’s death, Sylvanus Morley brought together Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble to translate the codex into “readable English,” a project they completed in 1969, exactly four hundred years after Sahagún finished the original. SAR’s Exploration of 1973 called the “initial publication of this immense manuscript, written more than 400 years ago, . . . a landmark.”
 

Copies of Bloom’s photographs are held in the SAR Archives and clearly show the Florentine Codex—in all its historical complexity—as a work of both scholarship and art.

The pages of the codex are now 450 years old. I wonder what the paper feels like.

SAR Archives, Florentine Codex, book 4, part 1 (The Soothsayers).
You can see images from the Florentine Codex, along with the other treasures of the SAR campus, by taking one of our historic estate tours.

 

Learn more and sign up for a tour today.

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