Skip to Content

Book Production during Epidemic

Book Production during Epidemic

The initial volumes of the Florentine Codex begin with lavish illustrations in full color. But in the summer of 1576, when book 11 was being produced, a vicious epidemic outbreak struck. Bernardino de Sahagún provides a disturbing personal account:

In this year 1576, in the month of August, a great universal pestilence began. It has been three months now since it started and many have died and continue to die, more and more each day . . . I am now at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, and I see that since it started and until today, the 8th of November, the number of dead has continued to raise; from ten to twenty, from thirty to forty, from fifty to sixty and eighty, and I know not what will happen from now on. In this pestilence, as in the other I mentioned before [1545], many have died of hunger and of thirst, and lack of care and assistance: because it often happened in the past and happens today that an entire household falls sick and there is no one even to bring a simple jar of water. (Magaloni Kerpel 2007:12)

The brutal outbreak affected the production of the codex. As more and more people died, supply chains dried up and the artists were unable to secure the pigments necessary for their drawings. Tragically, they ran out of color just as they began a section on “the different colors . . . and how colors are made.” Forced to paint in black and white, the artists employed imaginative ways of depicting color. The top drawing illustrates quetzalchalchiuitl, a stone of a slightly iridescent jade color, similar to the quetzal bird. Lacking the necessary pigment, the artist drew quetzal feathers over the rock to signify its color.

  

Image Source

  • Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Mediceo Palatino 220 (Florentine Codex), 1577, book 11, fol. 204v (3:356v). Courtesy of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. 

Further Reading

  • Brittenham, Claudia. “Disease, Inequality, and Resilience in Sixteenth-Century Mexico.” Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies, July 15, 2020. YouTube video, 6:38. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRyJl-msuX0.
  • Magaloni Kerpel, Diana. The Colors of the New World: Artists, Materials, and the Creation of the Florentine Codex. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2014.
  • Magaloni Kerpel, Diana. The World of the Aztecs, in the Florentine Codex. Florence: Mandragora, 2007.
 

More Exhibit Items

The College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco
The College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco

Florentine Codex
Florentine Codex

Book Production during Epidemic
Book Production during Epidemic

Empty Pages
Empty Pages

Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Epidemic Outbreaks in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Epidemic Outbreaks in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

An Unfinished Manuscript
An Unfinished Manuscript

Tira de Tepechpan
Tira de Tepechpan

Cocoliztli Outbreaks of 1545 and 1576
Cocoliztli Outbreaks of 1545 and 1576

Illness, Famine, and an Abrupt Ending
Illness, Famine, and an Abrupt Ending

Codex Mexicanus
Codex Mexicanus

Epidemic Outbreaks in the Codex Mexicanus
Epidemic Outbreaks in the Codex Mexicanus

Incessant Calamities
Incessant Calamities