TCU Magazine: Ancient Manuscript Describes Assimilation of Aztecs

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Art historian Lori Boornazian Diel decodes the story of Spanish invasion and the struggle to find a new identity after defeat.

The Codex Mexicanus is a small 16th-century book written in Nahuatl, a native Aztec language. Courtesy of Lori Boornazian Diel

The Codex Mexicanus is a small 16th-century book written in Nahuatl, a native Aztec language. Courtesy of Lori Boornazian Diel

 

In late 2016, Lori Boornazian Diel cracked a passage of mystifying hieroglyphics in an old pictorial manuscript known as the Codex Mexicanus. The breakthrough proved a watershed moment for the art historian, who began studying codices in graduate school as part of an interdisciplinary curriculum focused on pre-Columbian culture and art.

Written in Nahuatl, a native language, the Codex Mexicanus offers rare insights into how the Aztecs struggled to assimilate following the Spanish conquest in 1521. Like other Aztec pictorial manuscripts created after conquistador Hernán Cortés’ decisive victory, the Codex Mexicanus was small enough to carry in a pocket and probably was intended for daily use.

Written at the end of the 16th century on paper made from the fibers of a ficus plant, the 100-page book measures only about 4 inches by 8 inches. “The Codex Mexicanus had actually been dismissed because it wasn’t that pretty,” said Diel, professor of art history at TCU. “There are other codices that are much more beautifully painted, more like the European illuminated manuscripts.”

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