The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript

The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript

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by Gisele Díaz, Alan Rodgers

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First publication of remarkable repainting of outstanding Mexican codex — priceless original is in Vatican Library — thought to have originated in the Cholula area, ca. AD 1400. 76 large full-color plates show an astounding array of gods, kings, warriors, mythical creatures, and abstract designs. A work of rare power and beauty. Introduction.See more details below


First publication of remarkable repainting of outstanding Mexican codex — priceless original is in Vatican Library — thought to have originated in the Cholula area, ca. AD 1400. 76 large full-color plates show an astounding array of gods, kings, warriors, mythical creatures, and abstract designs. A work of rare power and beauty. Introduction.

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A Full~Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1993 Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15521-0




The Present Edition of the Codex Borgia

The present edition is a new hand-painted restoration of the Codex Borgia designed to recreate the sense of awe and wonder that the original manuscript must have inspired before the depredations of time and ill treatment took their toll. Over the five or more centuries since the original was painted by some unknown Mexican scribe or scribes, much has happened to it. It has been opened and closed countless times. Its fragile pages have been touched and manipulated, folded and rubbed, photographed and drawn. It has been exposed to heat and humidity. It has survived the abuse of children, who folded some of its pages and burned others. It has lost its original wooden end pieces. The result of all this activity is that the images painted so carefully by the original artist or artists have been damaged. In many places flakes of pigment have been rubbed off and lost, thus obscuring the original images to varying extents. Most seriously, parts of three leaves have been damaged by fire.

This has left a document which, though still recognized as one of the finest and most important original sources for the study of pre-Columbian religion, has been seriously compromised. Ms. Gisele Diaz and Mr. Alan Rodgers are to be commended for their efforts to recover the grandeur of the original manuscript. The Dover edition will, for the first time, make a reproduction of the manuscript accessible to the general public. That it is not a photographic or precise facsimile may possibly trouble some among the corps of professional codex scholars, though they are among the few who have access to the costly photographic facsimiles already published (Kingsborough 1831-48, Ehrle 1898, Seler 1904-09 |Spanish translation as Seler 1963], Nowotny 1976). Although these rare, expensive editions remain preferable for serious scholarship, that does not lessen the inspirational and broad educational value of this restoration.

Just as Dover's edition of Zelia Nuttall's copy of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall is not an exact rendition of the original, the reproduction published here is not an exact copy of the Codex Borgia., even in its current state. It is, rather, an informed attempt at a restoration, a careful reimagining of the original beauty of the manuscript. Even though the restoration has omitted the glosses added to the manuscript by a European hand after the conquest, it is not intended to be a definitive reconstruction of the original as it was painted before the arrival of the Spanish. It is not a precise copy of the extant portions but rather a redrawing that includes tiny differences of detail throughout. (Any significant differences will be pointed out in the commentary later in this introduction.) Colors are rendered close to their appearance in the original as it exists today, not as they were when the Codex Borgia was new; for example, some original greens are now a shade of tan, and it is the tan that appears here.

Because of its very availability and because of the care that Diaz and Rodgers have put into this faithful restoration of the manuscript, students can learn much from it. Those who want to study the original in fine detail should first use this edition as a guide but should also seek out a copy of the fine photographic facsimile published by ADEVA (Nowotny 1976). They should also look for the outstanding commentaries on the codex published by Nowotny (1961a) and Seler (1963). In addition, the serious student should not neglect the important studies of the Codex Borgia and the other members of the Borgia Group of codices published by Humboldt (1810), Caso (1927), Noguera (1927), Robertson (1963), Spranz (1964), Glass (1975), Sisson (1983), Biedermann (1989) and others. The present edition will become a starting point for study of the religious codices of highland Mexico just as the Dover publication of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (Miller 1975) has become the principal introduction to the Mixtec historical codices for so many modern students.

The original codex was painted on a long strip of folded animal skin as a screenfold book. Fourteen strips of skin were attached end to end, trimmed to a standard height of 27 cm, folded into a screenfold and prepared for painting with a white lime-plaster ground. The artist or scribe then painted the manuscript with an extraordinarily artistic hand, using both mineral and vegetable pigments. The book was intended to be read in continuous fashion from one end to the other, from right to left, on one side and then turned over so that the reading could continue on the other side. Even though the current binding does not reproduce that screenfold format, the reading order in this edition does recreate the linear form of the original by binding the pages in reverse order so that the text begins at the back and is read from right to left and from back to front, in much the same way as the Dover edition of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

The History of the Codex Borgia

The Codex Borgia has long been recognized as one of the most elegant and beautiful of the few surviving pre-Columbian painted manuscripts. Its special significance has been seen in its detailed depiction of highland Mesoamerican gods and the ritual and divination associated with them. Substantial portions of the codex convey various aspects and attributes of the 260-day ritual calender. The more detailed ceremonial aspects of the images have been harder to understand.

The Codex Borgia is today housed in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican in Rome, Italy. It was originally painted somewhere in the central highlands of Mexico as a unique manuscript. The exact place at which it was painted is not now known and is the subject of much discussion. During the summer of 1982, the Pre-Columbian Studies Program at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., spoon-sored a summer research seminar on the codices of the Borgia Group at which much attention was paid to this problem (Sisson 1983). While no final conclusion could be drawn, the opinion of most of the participants in the seminar was that the Codex Borgia was probably originally painted somewhere in central or southern Puebla, the area around Tepeaca and Cuauhtinchan or the Tehuacán Valley. Others would expand this potential area of origin to include nearby areas of the Mixteca Alta in Oaxaca. Since various aspects of the manuscript seem to point with equal validity to each of these areas, we cannot choose one over the others. Perhaps we should conclude, rather, that central and southern Puebla and northern Oaxaca shared a religious and iconographic scheme and that the pronouncements of the Codex Borgia would have had equal validity in all of these nearby regions (Pohl and Byland n.d.). Seen in that light, the precise point of origin is not so important as the information that can be gained from careful study of the codex.

It is generally believed that the Codex Borgia was originally painted in the decades immediately before the arrival of the Spanish. This presumption is based on the observation that its style shows no hint of European influence. In addition its religious content was more apt to have been repressed rather than encouraged after the arrival of Catholic priests. It is not possible now to determine exactly how long before the beginning of the Colonial period it was painted, though it probably dates to the late fifteenth or very early sixteenth century.

The Codex Borgia was sent back to Europe at some point in the early Colonial period, though when, by whom and to whom is not known. Its early movements in Europe are also obscure. It has been argued that at some time in the sixteenth century the manuscript was sent to Italy either directly from Mexico or from an intermediate stop in Spain (Ehrle 1898). This supposition is based on the paleography of a gloss on page 68 of the manuscript that appears to have been written in poor Italian (presumably in the hand of a sixteenth-century Mexican or Spaniard not fully fluent in Italian). At any rate, from then until very late in the eighteenth century nothing is known of the whereabouts of the codex.

It first came to the attention of scholarship when in 1805 Alexander von Humboldt saw it in Rome among the effects of Cardinal Stefano Borgia, who had died the previous year. Humboldt wrote, with some authority, that Cardinal Borgia had acquired the codex from the Giustiniani family, neighbors who had entrusted the document to some servants, who in turn had given it to their children as a plaything. As a result, before Humboldt ever saw it the manuscript had been burned and mistreated. When Cardinal Borgia died he left almost all of his possessions to the branch of the Vatican which he had directed for many years, the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide; his brother was to inherit the family museum. Although the codex was not located in the family museum at the time of the Cardinal's death, his brother sued for its possession. After a few years of legal wrangling the Congregatio was awarded the codex and housed it in its library. Late in the nineteenth century it was transferred to the Apostolic Library of the Vatican, where it remains today.

Pre-Columbian Manuscripts

The painted books of Mesoamerica represent an amazing legacy of the religious and historical knowledge acquired by the pre-Columbian people of Mexico and northern Central America. A scant few of these documents survive to this day. The vast majority of them were destroyed in the misguided efforts of early Spanish priests to stamp out all vestiges of the heathen religions of the native peoples. Accounts of the burning and destruction of hundreds and thousands of native books can bring tears to the eyes. We can only wonder today at the range and depth of information lost through the destruction of so vast a cultural resource. Despite this tragedy, much can be said about the manuscript-painting traditions of Mesoamerica. We have perhaps fifteen or so surviving books and manuscripts that were produced either before the Conquest or in a native style in the years directly after the arrival of the Spanish (Glass 1975:11-12). In addition to these works, there are about two dozen pictorial documents made by indigenously trained native scribes and artists for the Spanish conquerors as illustrations of native history, religion, custom and practice. Finally, there are literally hundreds of pictorial manuscripts produced by native artists during the early Colonial period in many ordinary contexts: maps to go with geographic descriptions, genealogies or histories to support claims to titles and tribute, lists of tribute actually paid or due, evidence for cases tried in Spanish courts, calendrical documents and many others.

The surviving pre-Conquest–style screenfolds include three classes or groups of books: Mixtec histories, Maya religious books and highland religious books. The histories include the seven Mixtec historical manuscripts, which deal with local history and royal genealogies from various communities in the Mixteca Alta and surrounding regions (Smith 1973, Byland and Pohl in press). A second group comprises the three or four surviving Maya screenfolds, all of which are painted on paper rather than animal skin (Glass 1975:77). These codices are substantially divinatory and calendrical in content and are written in a distinctively Mayan style incorporating much Maya hieroglyphic text. A third group of pre-Conquest books is known as the Borgia Group, named after their most prominent member, the Codex Borgia (Nowotny 1961a). These are all screenfolds on animal skin that are concerned with religious and ritual matters. They are painted in styles very similar, though not identical, to those of the Mixtec historical codices.

The Mixtec historical manuscripts include the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (Miller 1975, Troike 1987); the Codex Colombino-Becker I, composed of two rejoined parts (Troike 1980, Smith 1963, Caso and Smith 1966); the Codex Becker II (Nowotny 1961b); the Codex Bodley (Caso 1960); the Codex Selden (Smith 1983, Caso 1964); the Codex Vindobonensis (Furst 1978, Adelhofer 1963); and the Codex Egerton (Burland 1965).

The three widely accepted Maya codices are the Codex Paris (Anders 1968), the Codex Dresden (Anders and Dekkert 1975) and the Codex Madrid (Anders 1967). Each appears to be dedicated to the calendar, the deities of the Maya pantheon and the supernatural aspects of the calendar associated with ritual divination. A fourth codex, the Grolier Codex, may also be a member of this group though it is not yet universally accepted.

The Codex Borgia is the leading member of a small group of pre-Columbian manuscripts known collectively as the Borgia Group. The Borgia Group is particularly significant because of its pre-Conquest date and its religious content. The many manuscripts treating religious subjects that must have existed before the sixteenth century were particularly sought out for destruction by zealous Spanish priests and friars who were charged with ending idolatrous practices. The manuscripts of the Borgia Group seem to have been spared this fate by the happy accident of their having been sent to Europe, probably to Spain, early in the Conquest period.

In addition to the Codex Borgia, the principal screenfold members of the Borgia Group are the Codex Cospi (Nowotny 1968), which is a ritual calendar with some ritual information on its reverse side; the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (Burland 1971), which is a ritual calendar; the Codex Laud (Burland 1966), which is a ritual calendar with several other kinds of ritual information included; and the Codex Vaticanus B (Anders 1972), which is also a ritual calendar. The other related documents sometimes included in the group as minor members are the Fonds Mexicains no. 20, a single page of deerskin, and the Codex Porfirio Diaz, a screenfold that includes a section with similar ritual and religious content.

From these extant native-tradition books we may discern several characteristics of Mesoamerican written records. We know, for example, that books were not published in a European sense. That is to say, they were all handmade in single copies without the use of any type of impression-making device: no movable type, no stamps or rollers. It is arguable that every book was unique, made in one place by one patron and for one set of purposes. Information is shared among several of the codices but its form is never identical. Of course, the very small sample size of surviving manuscripts makes this generalization difficult to prove. It is certainly possible that books were exactly copied in a scribal tradition similar to that of the European monastic tradition, though no proof of this possibility exists.

It can be argued that the written literature of the pre-Columbian peoples was divided into categories in their minds as well as ours. Historical books deal with people, places, politics and genealogy. Religious documents deal with the calendar, ceremonialism and divination. Overlap between them is found in areas where historically important people participate in divination or other ceremonies and where politically significant places have sacred significance.

The content of the post-Conquest documents suggests the possibility of other written genres that have not survived. The codices do not contain two-dimensional maps of the landscape in forms familiar as such to European eyes. Despite this observation, the fact that space is represented in the codices in various ways (Pohl and Byland 1990) and the existence of many post-Conquest maps (see Glass 1975) suggest that space had been graphically represented in pre-Columbian times. In addition, the lists of tribute obligations of towns prepared for the Spanish tax collectors suggests the likelihood of similar record keeping before the European arrival. We can imagine the rulers of native communities making a sincere effort to keep such documents, if they ever existed, out of the hands of the new oppressors.

Pre-Columbian Religion

The religious beliefs of pre-Columbian peoples in Mesoamerica were vastly complex. There was a shared religious system over much of Mexico and northern Central America with regard to the calendar, the major deities, the structure of the world and the hierarchy of the supernatural world. Nevertheless, each town and region had its own nuances of belief that set it apart from its neighbors. Different deities were held in esteem in different places and many gods, even major ones, had differing characteristics of dress and behavior. Much of this complexity is not now discernible but some has been preserved. We know, for example, the patron deities of many communities whose particular charge was the protection of the local people and land.


Excerpted from THE CODEX BORGIA by GISELE DÍAZ, ALAN RODGERS. Copyright © 1993 Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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