Library of Congress Acquires Extremely Rare Mesoamerican Codex

Codez Quet.jpgThe Codex Qutzalecatzin represents one of the most important indigenous manuscripts from the earliest history of America to become available in the last century.

The Library of Congress has acquired the Codex Quetzalecatzin, one of the very few Mesoamerican manuscripts to survive from the 16th century. After being in private collections for more than 100 years, the codex has been digitally preserved and made available online for the first time to the general public at loc.gov/resource/g4701g.ct009133/.

The codex, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec, represents one of the most important indigenous manuscripts from the earliest history of America to become available in the last century. Only few examples of manuscripts of this kind have endured the ravages of time.

While digitizing the codex at the Library, the Librarian stated: “The acquisition of the map, because of its relevance to the early history of the European contact with the indigenous people of America, makes an important addition to the early American treasures at the Library of Congress, including the Oztoticpac Lands Map and the Huexotzinco Codex. It’s a rare document of world history and American history in general.”

The manuscript dates from 1593, a time when many cartographic histories were being produced as part of a Spanish royal investigation into the human and community resources in the American colonies. The Codex Quetzalecatzin serves as an example of these maps that were largely made by indigenous painters and scribes.

As with many Nahua, indigenous group, manuscript maps of the period, the Codex Quetzalecatzin depicts the local community at an important point in its history and the iconography that makes up the map reflects some Spanish influence.

“The codex shows graphically the kinds of cultural interactions taking place at an important moment in American history,” said John Hessler, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection for the archaeology of the early Americas of the Library of Congress. “In a sense, we see the birth of what would be the start of what we would come to know as the Americas.”

Hessler added: “The codex relates to the extent of land ownership and properties of the family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are portrayed on the manuscript. With Aztec stylized graphics, the map illustrates the family’s genealogy and its descent from Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480 was the major political leader of the region. It also shows churches, some Spanish place names and images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish law and rule.”

In the codex, certain features that point to indigenous authorship include pre-Hispanic stylistics, such as symbols for rivers, roads and pathways, and hieroglyphic writing. The marginal notations with alphabetic writing utilizing the Latin alphabet and the names of some of the indigenous elites, such as “don Alonso” and “don Matheo,” are clues to its colonial era composition. This is evidence that some indigenous people enjoyed the Spanish title “don” and had been baptized with Christian names.

The codex has a great provenance. The Library acquired the manuscript from the collections of Charles Ratton and Guy Ladriere in France. From previous owners like William Randolph Hearst, who also owned the Jefferson Bible, to the first Viscount Cowdray, the codex can be traced all the way into the 19th century.

The manuscript belongs to a larger group of interrelated pictographic documents, called “Pinome Group,” from northern Oaxaca and Southern Puebla in Mexico. The codices include the Tecamachalco Canvas, Cuevas Codices and Fragmented Codex, which together show the extent, the people and history of the region.

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