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A Historic Manuscript on Aztec Life Is “Virtually Repatriated”

Codex Mendoza
Detail of the harodex Mendoza from its new digital platform (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of the major textual resources on pre-Columbian Mexico is now online in a digital platform launched this month. The 1542 Codex Mendoza, dating to just 20 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, is a thorough report on Aztec society, from daily life to culture and rituals.

However, since it arrived at the University of Oxford in the 17th century, and currently in the collection of the Bodleian Library, it’s only been accessible to Mexico researchers in copy form, the major reproductions being in English. The online version of the Codex Mendoza, also available as a free iOS app, was created by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute for Anthropology and History) in collaboration with the Bodleian Library and Oxford’s King’s College London. It provides interactive translations to modern Spanish and English that smoothly hover over the sharply digitized pages, maps, and timelines complementing the text on territories and expansion, and expandable research activated by clicking on individual images and information.

Codex Mendoza
Homepage for the Codex Mendoza
Codex Mendoza
Codex Mendoza, showing the text translated while hovering a mouse over the page

The Codex Mendoza is a 16th-century report intended for Charles V (the future Spanish King Charles I), named for the then-Spanish viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, elaborating on the resources and living conditions of New Spain, with 72 richly illustrated pages in Nahuatl (the Aztec language) and 63 in old Spanish. It never got to him. French privateers attacked the transporting Spanish ship, taking the manuscript away to Henri II in France. Eventually it got to England, where it was overlooked until 1831 when a rediscovery revealed it as an incredibly rare resource on a vanished life.

The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia’s Director of Academic Innovation Ernesto Miranda described the Codex project to the Associated Press as “virtual repatriation,” noting that they hope to collaborate with more European institutions to make it part of a digital series on Mexican codices. This idea of virtual repatriation is growing in museums and academia, such as with the digitizing of the Malagan masks of Papua New Guinea in 2012, the aboriginal artifacts of the South Australian Museum last year, or the ongoing work of the Digital Return online network. While even the best digital recreation isn’t the object itself, with its physical textures, its weight, its emotional presence, projects like the Codex Mendoza are still incredibly valuable in connecting a country of origin to its archives of inaccessible history.

Codex Mendoza
Page from the “daily life” section of the Codex Mendoza
Codex Mendoza
Codex Mendoza, with part of the book mapped and translated into a timeline
Codex Mendoza
Detail of the Codex Mendoza

View the digitized Codex Mendoza online, or download it for free as an iOS app

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