Codex Mendoza is one of the most thoroughly studied Mesoamerican pictorial manuscripts. For centuries Western scholars relied on its contents, both pictorial and textual, to reconstruct aspects of Mexica history, economy, daily life, and logophonetic writing, to the extent that the manuscript came to be known as the Rosetta Stone for the decipherment of the Nahuatl writing system.1 At least since the twentieth century, Western fascination with this iconic document also depended on its presumed historical association with specific individuals: according to past scholarly interpretations, it was commissioned by Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, painted by the Nahua tlacuilo (painter-scribe) Francisco Gualpuyogualcal, and alphabetically annotated by a mysterious individual variously identified with the Nahua (Tlatelolca) intellectual Martín Jacobita, the Spanish priest Juan González, or another unknown person.
I myself admit that I was fascinated by the possibility of linking the Indigenous pictorial imagery to a specific Nahua tlacuilo. The name “Francisco Gualpuyogualcal,” conjoining a Catholic and a Nahua one, refers to an otherwise completely unknown person. But it nonetheless sounds like a promise, a tenuous but still concrete base to align Codex Mendoza’s pictorial sections with a Western, Vasarian-derived, art historical paradigm based on the “the artist” as the key, central figure of any art historical narrative.2 More broadly, to glimpse the presence of a specific Native artist behind such an iconic (and anonymous) artwork perfectly matches the expectations of the many scholarly attempts to reveal evidence of Indigenous agency in the early colonial Americas.
Surprisingly enough, recent studies have debunked the abovementioned hypotheses, especially the connections with Antonio de Mendoza and the Indigenous tlacuilo Francisco Gualpuyogualcal. According with these new interpretations, the Codex Mendoza was probably painted at the turn of the 1550s (1547–52, according to J. Gómez Tejada) in a cultural milieu characterized by sustained interactions between Indigenous artists and Catholic friars.3 Detailed studies of its painted imagery have revealed that while the (black) design of the figures could have been the work of one or two artists,4 the coloring process was most probably carried out as a collective enterprise by various Indigenous painters, likely acting in a workshop.5 And all of these artists would have worked with the aim of producing a stylistically uniform manuscript, where their individual identities were hidden behind the prized visual homogeneity of the collective work.6
The dissolution of the specific individual identity of the Indigenous artist(s) who painted the Codex Mendoza—as disappointing as it can be—provides nevertheless an opportunity to look from a different perspective at the role and identity of artists in early colonial New Spain. One could argue that this was quite a novel social role, a fruit of those sociopolitical processes that transformed pre-Hispanic tlacuiloque (plural of tlacuilo) into “painters,” as also witnessed by Codex Mendoza’s image of a tlacuilo glossed as el pintor.7 Nevertheless, it is also clear that in pre-Hispanic times the tlacuilo was perceived as a specific kind of toltecatl, a term hardly translatable for its dense meanings associated with the notion of toltecayotl (something like “civilization”) but clearly entailing a significance in many ways conjoining those of early modern Western notions of “artist” and “craftsperson.” For instance, the tlacuilo’s ability to produce aesthetically appealing works mainly rested on his or her mastery of specific technical knowledge. In the words of Bernardino de Sahagún’s informants, “The tlacuilo: the black [paints], the colored [paints], the black water [are] his special skills. [He is] a toltecatl, a craftsman, a user of charcoal, a drawer with charcoal; a painter who dissolves colors, grinds pigments, uses colors . . .; a judge of colors, an applier of the colors, who makes shadows, forms feet, face, hair. He paints, applies colors, makes shadows, draws gardens, paints flowers, paints with flowers, creates toltec things [i.e., works of art].”8
This emic stress on the technical work of the tlacuilo brings us to the suggestion proposed as the starting point for the present Dialogues, that is, to seek the colonial artist through his or her engagement with materials and/or techniques. Sidestepping issues such as personal or even ethnic identity, we can focus our attention on the materiality of artistic practices, in line with a non-essentialized view of cultural identities that locates cultural practices, rather than genetics and genealogy, at the core of identity building. Taking full advantage of the data recently provided by nondestructive scientific analyses aimed at the chemical characterization of painting materials, we can now look at the material dimension of Codex Mendoza. Which kinds of painting materials did the different persons who took part in the creation of the manuscript select? To what degree were their choices determined by local painting traditions and/or by the availability of new materials of European origin? And how can these choices be located within the wider process of change that affected artistic practices and artists’ identity in early colonial times? What did it mean, from a material point of view, to be a tlacuilo in early colonial New Spain?
To tackle these questions, I will rely on the results of a research project I carried out together with the personnel of the MOLAB mobile laboratory of the University of Perugia in Italy, a European infrastructure that allowed nondestructive analyses of a number of pre-Hispanic and colonial Mesoamerican manuscripts, including Codex Mendoza. The results of the scientific analyses, also carried out by other research teams, provide unprecedented possibilities to study in detail the technology of codex painting in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, to identify different technological traditions, and to evaluate the modes and pace of their transformations in early colonial times.
To better understand the material dimension of Codex Mendoza, a brief synthesis of what these studies have revealed about precolonial codex painting practices is in order. The analyses so far performed on late Postclassic pre-Hispanic manuscripts such as the codices Madrid, Cospi, Borgia, Vaticanus B, Fejérváry-Mayer, Nuttall, Laud, Bodley, and Colombino revealed a high degree of diversity (no two codices are alike in terms of palette), but also recurrent patterns that allow for the sketching of a relatively coherent and consistent picture of pre-Hispanic codex painting traditions.9 In extreme synthesis, besides the pan-Mesoamerican use of vegetal carbon black for black and gray colors, two main technological families can be defined. On the one hand, the still-under-studied group of late Postclassic Maya codices are characterized by the predominance of a calcium carbonate white substrate of the pages and by a very restricted palette, mostly including inorganic, hematite-based red colors and the organic-inorganic “hybrid” pigment composed of indigo-and-paligorskite clay universally known as Maya blue. On the other hand, the central and southwestern Mexican family—including Nahua and Mixtec codices—is defined by the predominance of calcium sulfate white substrates and by the use of a rich and complex palette, including a huge variety of lakes (pigments composed of a soluble dye precipitated on an inert binder, or “mordant,” usually a metallic salt) and organic-inorganic hybrids (pigments composed of a soluble dye embedded within a clay substrate). Given the complexity of the hybrids, their production required high technological investments. Each of these pigments involved the use of an organic chromophore, that is, the component responsible for the chromatic aspect of the painting material. Red and pink lakes were based on cochineal; yellow, orange, and brown lakes and hybrids were based on different vegetal dyes; while the variety of blue hybrids owed their chromatic aspect to vegetal dyes such as Indigo sp. and Commelina sp. Green colors were usually mixtures of the abovementioned yellows and blues.
The most striking element of central and southwestern Mexican codex palettes is the almost complete lack of mineral pigments such as hematite and ochers, materials that were widely used for other applications such as mural painting and polychrome sculpture. Such preference for organic colors—the lakes and hybrids mainly created out of plants and flowers—was noticed in the sixteenth century by various European observers. We already saw that Sahagún’s informants described the tlacuilo as an artist who “paints with flowers”; similarly, the Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinía, wrote that “Indian painters produce many colors with flowers, and when they want to change color they clean the brush in their mouths.”10 I have elsewhere proposed that the preference for organic colors was due to their peculiar brightness, a highly esteemed material property in Mesoamerican aesthetics.11 Significantly enough, the only purely mineral pigment so far detected (arsenic trisulfide, or orpiment) produces a very bright yellow hue. The clear preference for organic chromophores—most of them derived from flowers—could be linked to a deeply entrenched Mesoamerican association between elegant speech and flowers’ emission of color, dew, and fragrance, as clearly expressed by the well-known Nahua diphrasism in xochitl, in cuicatl (the flower, the chant), used to denote not only singing and poetry but creative activities more broadly. To state it briefly, it is possible that a specific notion of color materiality, that is, a complex set of meanings associated with the material composition of colors, induced Indigenous painters to use mainly vegetal colors. In that way they would have produced brilliant “flowery pages” adequate to embody the “flowery speech” produced when they were enunciated—probably even chanted—during ritual performances.
A more thorough description of the available scientific data would allow us to glimpse the existence of different technological traditions and to group the manuscripts in families and subfamilies, but this would lead us too far from the aims of the present Dialogues. Rather, our brief sketch of the materials employed on late Postclassic pre-Hispanic codices can serve as the backdrop against which we can contrast the technological and material characteristics of colonial manuscripts, including Codex Mendoza, and thereby reveal the cultural practices that were at the core of artistic identity.12
Some of the earliest colonial manuscripts do show a fully traditional format and palette, being almost completely devoid of innovative traits, as in the case of codices Selden and Borbonicus. The latter, a screenfolded strip of amate paper, is especially interesting for our purposes, since it was probably painted in the basin of Mexico soon before (1530s–40s) the Codex Mendoza. According to the analyses carried out by Fabien Pottier and colleagues, the palettes of the two sections of the manuscript (including calcium sulfate background, carbon black, cochineal lake, yellow and brown dyes and lakes, blues from Commelina, and Maya blue) are fully coherent with the pre-Hispanic tradition.13 The colonial date of Codex Borbonicus is materially witnessed only by the alphabetic glosses written with ferrogallic ink, introduced from Europe, as well as the blank spaces obviously left by the painters to accommodate the glosses.
Compared with Codex Borbonicus, Codex Mendoza shows a series of innovative traits, the most obvious being the European paper folios bound along the edge in a Western book format, with whole pages occupied by alphabetic texts written with ferrogallic inks. Despite this radically new format, the painters’ palette—as revealed by our recent analyses, which also showed its consistency all over the three sections of the manuscript—looks mostly traditional, being composed of vegetal carbon black, red cochineal lake, organic yellow and brown dyes and lakes, proper Maya blue (that is, composed by indigo and paligorskite), and a green that is a mixture of the blue and yellow colors in the palette. An intriguing deviation from the pattern is the ample use of orpiment (arsenic trisulfide), both as a yellow color and as a component of green colors. Our previous analyses revealed that orpiment was definitely in use in pre-Hispanic times, but had a rather restricted pattern of employment, predominant only within a subgroup of the Borgia Group (codices Laud and Fejérváry-Mayer) and in related manuscripts (Cospi verso and Nuttall recto), suggesting that its usage could have been a rather late introduction, perhaps originating in the southern Puebla or northwestern Oaxaca region. Unfortunately, no secure pre-Hispanic manuscript from the basin of Mexico is known, and possible candidates (such as the Matrícula de Tributos, especially relevant in this context for being one of Codex Mendoza’s sources) have not been submitted to scientific analysis. Thus, it is at present impossible to know if orpiment was commonly used in the pre-Hispanic basin of Mexico. Its absence on Codex Borbonicus, together with the fact that it is not mentioned in the list of painting materials recorded by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún in Codex Florentine Book XI, suggest that it was not.14 If so, its usage on Codex Mendoza should be interpreted as a colonial innovation, maybe induced by novel patterns of pigments’ production and circulation within New Spain.
Finally, other painting materials used on Codex Mendoza were clearly colonial innovations, as in the case of a lead-based gray, an orange ocher, a light brown produced by mixing orpiment and goethite, and a darker brown where the presence of manganese has been detected. These colors seem to have a rather restricted use on the manuscript; manganese, the extreme case, was detected only in a single brown area. With due caution not to overinterpret limited results, one has the impression that the Indigenous painters working on Codex Mendoza mainly employed a traditional palette, with only marginal use of innovative materials. Nevertheless, even when using traditional colors, the Indigenous painters had to face the challenges posed by the new format: a case in point seems to be the use of a traditional and ubiquitous cochineal lake. In Codex Mendoza this color often violates canonical pre-Hispanic practice by exceeding the frame line of the images. While this might be dismissed as a certain sloppiness on the part of the painter, it is also possible that the liquid nature of the cochineal lake was unsuited to absorbent European paper devoid of any white substrate, as suggested by the fact that it also trespasses through the pages.
In sum, the Indigenous painters of Codex Mendoza, working on an object that was probably meant to demonstrate to the Spanish king the high degree of civilization (policía) attained by Nahua society, seem to have aimed at collectively producing an extremely elegant, uniform, and anonymous (meaning, not including any artists’ signatures) manuscript whose refined, brilliant, colorful images, bound in the prestigious form of the European book, would impress the observer. The images’ peculiar brightness was guaranteed by the prevalent use of a time-honored and technologically complex traditional palette mostly based on organic chromophores. Nevertheless, this aim would have not prevented them from experimenting with more innovative materials, such as lead-derived gray (of European origin) and ochers (locally available but traditionally used for other applications). The translation of the complex meanings embedded in the images would then have been recorded by a Spanish scribe using another, equally prestigious, medium for knowledge recording in the European tradition: alphabetic writing penned with ferrogallic ink.
If in Codex Borbonicus the Indigenous and the European traditions of manuscript production seem juxtaposed only in image and alphabetic writing, in Codex Mendoza the process of material mediation appears to have gone a bit further, with innovative traits representing the first steps of the process that I have elsewhere called early colonial material experimentation.15 Significantly enough, a similar, parallel process is also suggested by the style of Codex Mendoza’s paintings, which are highly traditional in their format but also show innovative traits such as linear perspective and three-dimensionality.
The material innovations within the painters’ palette, as well as their adoption of selected European visual resources, partially disrupt an overly binary view of the manuscript’s creation as neatly divided between an Indigenous phase (painting and Nahuatl oral recitation) and a Spanish one (Spanish oral translation and written transcription). And actually, other elements add further complexity to this scenario: on page 1v, a series of years named according the Indigenous calendar is depicted as a sequence of traditional square blue cartouches painted with indigo-based Maya blue, thus deploying a well-entrenched semantic pun based on the multiple meanings of the Nahuatl term xiuhuitl as “indigo,” “turquoise blue,” and “year” (Figure 1). Above the sequence, red alphabetic glosses in a rather elegant calligraphy transcribe the Nahuatl names of years; below, more cursive black glosses written with ferrogallic inks translate them into Spanish. If one or more Indigenous artists painted the years’ sequence and a Spanish scribe wrote the black glosses, what do we imagine of the scribe who penned the red Nahuatl glosses?16 Was this person a Native capable of alphabetic writing, or a Spaniard proficient in Nahuatl? Posing the question in ethnic terms seems not very productive. If we look instead at the material dimension of the page, we find interesting hints revealed in practice as to the identity of the artist.17 As expected, the employment of Indigenous (Maya blue) and European (ferrogallic inks) materials closely matches the juxtaposition of Indigenous and European languages and writing systems. But what about the red Nahuatl gloss? What can its materials tell us? Interestingly enough, it was penned using cinnabar, a material widely used both in Europe (where it was usually called vermilion) and in ancient Mesoamerica but that, as far as we know, had never been used before in Mesoamerican codex painting. The use of cinnabar for the red gloss thus defies a too-simple Indigenous-European dichotomy. Too local to be merely seen as a Spanish-induced colonial innovation but also too unusual to be a simple variation within a traditional Indigenous pattern of use, the cinnabar-red alphabetic Nahuatl gloss, hardly understandable in terms of ethnic attribution, seems a perfect instantiation of the dynamic cultural and material nature of Codex Mendoza.
Apparently, the processes of cultural and material mediation were rapid in the following decades. The data recovered from the analyses so far performed on numerous colonial manuscripts shows the progressive employment of painting materials that had been absent in central and southwestern Mexican pre-Hispanic palettes, such as iron oxides (for example hematite), various ochers (including goethite), cinnabar, lead-based whites, grays and reds (minium), manganese, azurite, and limonite, often in unprecedented mixtures also including more traditional materials (orpiment and ocher, cinnabar and cochineal, goethite and orpiment, goethite and cochineal, et cetera). The most striking aspect of colonial palettes employed on codices is not the presence of new materials of European origin, but rather the introduction of a host of local materials that were widely used as pigments in pre-Hispanic times but not in codex painting. These innovations are hardly explainable in terms of cultural hybridization between two different painting traditions: rather than being merely caused by the availability of new materials, they were perhaps induced by the changed contexts of manuscripts’ performance and enunciation. No longer perceived as ritual amoxtin (that is, Indigenous manuscripts) to be chanted in ritual contexts, the colonial books were not required to be made of a brilliant, mostly “flowery” matter.
The breaking of this deeply entrenched cultural norm opened up new possibilities for Indigenous colonial artists, who actively widened their palettes and transformed their artistic practices in order to face the challenges posed by the novel forms of cultural production that characterized early colonial society, where their works were often addressed to institutions such as convents and law courts. In doing so, they perhaps also took advantage of new patterns of pigment and dye circulation in New Spain, as suggested by the ample use of orpiment in the basin of Mexico during the second half of the sixteenth century. The new material landscape inhabited by colonial artists was composed of new materials of European origin (both imported and locally produced) as much as of local ones whose patterns of usage in artistic practices were being rapidly reconfigured. Early colonial tlacuiloque seem to have acted creatively within this landscape, their choices being driven neither by a conservative adherence to local traditions nor by a passive reception of exogenous materials and technologies. Rather, as shown by Codex Mendoza—a manuscript that appears as a veritable locus of incipient material mediation—they were capable of purposefully transforming and widening the range of accepted painting materials, acting in accord with equally transforming notions of the materiality of color in order to produce a document that could appeal to both Indigenous and European eyes.18
Scientific analyses of the painting materials employed in pre-Hispanic and colonial Mesoamerican codices have a great explanatory potential. Beyond shedding light on specific technological aspects of codex painting practices, they can also offer unexpected insights on painters’ choices and preferences. The example discussed so far shows that artists’ choices in early colonial times, rather than being mechanically induced by the new political, economic, and technological landscape, were still based on changing Indigenous, emic meanings attributed to the materiality of colors. Seen from this perspective, the actions of colonial Indigenous painters—even if not attributable to any prominent artist’s subjectivity—represent another facet of that Indigenous artistic agency that is being revealed by recent insights into New Spain’s art history, and which underpinned the transformation of pre-Hispanic tlacuiloque into colonial artists.19