Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 1, 2013
Gerhard Wolf and Joseph Connors, eds. Colors Between Two Worlds: The Florentine Codex of Bernardino de Sahagún Cambridge, MA: Villa I Tatti in association with Harvard University Press, 2012. 506 pp.; 288 color ills.; 11 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780674064621)

The Florentine Codex, also known as the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (1576–77), is unrivaled in its centrality to an understanding of the contact period of central Mexico. Although it has been amply appreciated and studied since the late nineteenth century, its ongoing ethnographic, linguistic, and historical utility cannot be overstated. The Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún spearheaded the encyclopedic colonial project in collaboration with a team of indigenous scribes and painters. His final edition has a richly laden content recorded in three modes: Spanish, Nahuatl (the Aztec language), and an extraordinary array of images that constitute a third “text.” The original 1,200 folios in three volumes were transported, at times with diplomatic sleight of hand to avoid censorship, from Mexico to Madrid, and then to Rome and Florence into the collection of the Medici. The final destination of Sahagún’s work in 1783 was the Laurentian library in Florence where it is housed today as the Laurentianus Mediceus Palatinus 218–220.

Colors Between Two Worlds fills an important scholarly lacuna in its focus on the Florentine as physical object. Other recent multi-authored studies, such as Sahagún at 500: Essays on the Quincentenary of the Birth of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún, OFM (John F. Schwaller, ed., Berkeley: Academy of American Franciscan History, 2003), provide a broader philosophical and literary overview of the entire Sahaguntine corpus. Colors Between Two Worlds is the outcome of a June 2008 conference held jointly by the Kunsthisorisches Institute and the Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, and is edited by Gerhard Wolf and Joseph Connors, respective directors of those institutes at that time. The title not only signals the bridging of two discrete traditions in the Florentine Codex, the European and the indigenous American cultures, but also gestures to the modern project’s transoceanic, multi-national collaboration.

The cooperation of Ida Giovanna Rao and the Laurentian library staff permitted close, firsthand scrutiny of the codex’s make-up and construction and, for the first time, the scientific analysis of select portions. To identify many of the chemical elements of the pigments used in the Florentine Codex, Piero Baglioni and five collaborators microscopically examined 102 samples in 48 paintings from 8 of the 12 books. Their work was able to elucidate, as one example, the different shades of blue in the Florentine palette dependent on the indigo dye but controlled by the quantity of rare white clay known as palygorskite. This degree of sophisticated analysis allows scholars to appreciate how and why the artists selectively deployed specific colorants to achieve the desired, culturally determined, effects.

The multiple essays in the volume move in ever-widening circles beyond the Florentine, with a few chapters only tangentially shedding light on the codex itself. Of the seventeen chapters plus two afterword essays, seven closely examine the material and symbolic nature of the colors used by the painters; four explore the early modern trade in pigments; and another four position the Florentine within the artistic and historical terrain of viceregal New Spain and Peru. On the one hand, the lack of subdivisions in the book reinforces the interdigitation of the subjects: for example, the international trade in certain colorants allows for a better comprehension of the bicultural tools available to Sahagún’s indigenous painters at the Colegio de Santa Cruz. On the other hand, since the chapters are ordered loosely along thematic lines, their separation into parts or sections might have been useful for the reader to grasp the armature of the volume at one glance. Given the input of some twenty-six authors, I am unable to cover every individual’s contributions in this review.

With her double expertise as an art historian and painting conservator, Diana Magaloni Kerpel’s chapter is pivotal. Stressing the intentionality of artists, Magaloni Kerpel (and her team of Italian and Mexican collaborators) provides several examples of the selective usage of pigments. The choices were, at least in the cases described, dependent on the content of the representation; in other words, the very nature of what was being reproduced was reflected in how the subjects were painted. Using a meticulous analysis of the rainbow in the Florentine Codex (Book 7, fol. 238v.), an oft-repeated leitmotif in the anthology, Magaloni Kerpel notes the combination and alternation of European-derived and indigenous pigments. At the lowest earth-bound levels red lead oxide (minium), a Spanish import, was painted over gypsum, both minerals with subterranean sources associated with the underworld. By contrast, the upper arches of the multihued rainbow alternate yellow floral-based hues with tones of Maya blue and a more translucent green to convey the celestial realms.

The majority of the codex was illustrated with colored images (with the exception of Book 6), but the artists abruptly ceased doing so in the middle of Book 11 (after folio 330v) when images were rendered exclusively in black ink drawings with gray shading. This traditionally has been explained as the result of a rushed timetable, but Magaloni Kerpel provides an alternative explanation: the final stages of the codex’s production coincided with one of the most virulent plagues to devastate central Mexico. Along with the alarming loss of life among the native peoples, the radical disruption of social and economic networks must have also interrupted the availability of pigments. Remarkably, even in black-and-white images, the artists manage to convey a chromatic world using their traditional associative and evocative pictographic text; a lady bug or tomato is drawn adjacent to the object they are describing to mentally render it red. Clearly color was neither superficial nor neutral, but metonymic, an organic part of the object being recreated visually.

Marina Garone Gravier’s study focuses on the “visual space” of the Florentine folios, that is, on the relationship of text to image in the book design and calligraphy. To answer how the graphic design of the book came into being, she examines the education received by the indigenous population at the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco, the resources in their library, and the working conditions in their scriptorium. Garone Gravier astutely reconstructs the sequence of the Florentine’s production with the column of Nahuatl text preceding the Spanish text and the illustrations; she identifies seven scribal hands each with his own ductus. Less convincing is the exact count of artists who might have participated on Sahagún’s team, which varies from Garone Gravier’s estimate of twenty to the twenty-two suggested by Magaloni Kerpel, although each isolates four “masters.” In differentiating one artist from the other, the authors invoke human-based criteria, such as “Master of Long Noses” or “of Complex Skin Tones.” In addition to leaving open the question of how we identify the hands that created the non-figural images and decorative flourishes (presumably the apprentices?), the imposition of Western criteria contrasts with the sensitivity otherwise used to assess the indigenous aspects of the Florentine Codex.

Much attention is given the Amerindian tradition of using flowers and organic materials as pigments and dyes that persist in the Florentine. Salvador Reyes Equigas fruitfully explores the Nahuatl nomenclature for plants as sources for colorants, while Berenice Alcántara Rojas expands these physical traits into the metaphorical realm by discussing the centrality of a “flower world” in the work of Sahagún. In Mesoamerica, the fragrance, colors, and iridescence of flowers evoked an otherworld, and flowers were perceived to be a conduit to the sacred, a connection the Aztec elites exploited. Alcántara Rojas further notes that in the Florentine the most potent flowering trees are composed in an indigenous four-sided cosmogram (Book 11, fol. 189r.), thus uniting European concepts of paradise with the indigenous “flower world” to construct a colonial garden-heaven. It is not surprising that this Amerindian belief in the sacredness of flowers and colors was linked to the legend of Guadalupe’s miraculous origins, where flowers were the pigments that transferred the visionary image of Mary onto Juan Diego’s cloak, as traced by Clara Bargellini.

Of the four interrelated (and in places, redundant) chapters that examine the global trade in dyes, pigments, and binders, two essays focus on the European trade. Louise C. Matthew broadly comments on the intercontinental commercial routes (bringing lapis lazuli and red lakes from the Levant, for example); the brisk interchange between hubs of color production in Flanders, Lyon, and Venice; and the impact of New World products that begin entering Europe in the late sixteenth century. Roland Kreschel focuses on Venice, Europe’s “largest drugstore,” as apothecaries added a flourishing trade in colors, since dyes and resins were also purposed as medicinal substances. Exploring the European-New World trade, Rocio Bruquetas Galan addresses the sources of those colors imported to the Americas, including lead white, red lakes, and verdigris (green glazes), and those that were available locally, such as indigo (añil), azurite, and red cochineal. Many authors underscore the importance of the commercially successful New World cochineal; tons of the insects were exported, esteemed for the range of rich crimson dyes they produced and their long-lasting qualities.

Elena Phipps and Gabriela Siracusano explore a similarly diverse palette of imported and local colors in the Andes. Both point out the charged significance of certain colors for Andean society that endured into the viceregal period. Phipps concentrates on the influential role of textiles and clothing whose polychrome patterns literally endowed the wearer with special status; Siracusano points to the “mediating chromatic presence” (373) of colored materials that actively expressed certain beliefs within the Andean worldview. In discussing the scintillating effects of the imported bicolored tornesol silks that so appealed to Andean sensibilities that they were replicated using native fabrics, Phipps echoes the analogies drawn by Alessandro Russo in her postface between featherworking and the mutability of colors in the Florentine Codex. In Russo’s poetic commentary, colors have a variability as well as a transformational quality (summed up in the Italian as vaghezza) that was esteemed in Mesoamerica for its relationship to the Nahuatl concept of tonalli, the heat or energy that mediated between the celestial and terrestrial realms. Featherwork (and colors) could embody transformation, leading Russo to draw parallels with the Christian belief in transubstantiation.

Sandra Zetina et al. similarly speak of the “internal semantics” of colors in the De la Cruz-Badiano Codex, an herbal and medical text produced in 1552 at the same college in Tlatelolco by two indigenous authors. Zetina’s contribution is one of three chapters that bring in comparative historical material as a foil for better understanding Sahagún’s place and time. Bargellini’s chapter reconstructs the artistic world of sixteenth-century Mexico City with its extraordinarily productive workshops of indigenous painters whose sophisticated skills met the increasing demand for images. Thomas Cummins speaks to the vast differences in the Andean environment, bereft of any pictorial precedents. The authors of the three extant illustrated Peruvian manuscripts—the Mecedarian friar; Martin de Murúa; and the indigenous Andean, Guamán Poma de Ayala—encountered daunting challenges in translating and recording knowledge. For their histories “without any writing” (361), they relied on oral transmission and the obtuse system of khipus, or knotted strings, as well as the “truth value” of their own direct, eyewitness accounts.

The Peruvian examples call into stark relief the singularity of the Florentine Codex. It was the product of a determined Franciscan friar and a cohort of talented native collaborators whose inspiration was drawn not only from European sources, but from a storehouse of native-authored and illustrated pictorial manuscripts and codices. The artists had access to and training in a well-established tradition of pictographic sign systems, images that inherently conveyed meaning and contained a large and varied lexicon. Like the images of which they are an integral part, colors take on a symbolic cadence and open up another interpretative layer into the indigenous codes embedded in the Florentine Codex. Colors Between Two Worlds will be edifying not only to scholars of Latin American visual culture but also to art historians interested in the history of the book, the global circulation of painters’ colors and dyes, and the intercultural processes of transmitting knowledge.

Jeanette Favrot Peterson
Research Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara

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