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Descendants of Aztec Pictography

Descendants of Aztec Pictography
The Cultural Encyclopedias of Sixteenth-Century Mexico

The first comprehensive examination of Aztec pictorial encyclopedias and their creation, this book explores how indigenous artists documented their ancestral culture in these texts for those outside their community.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2021
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264 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 115 color photos, 17 tables |

In the aftermath of the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of Mexico, Spanish friars and authorities partnered with indigenous rulers and savants to gather detailed information on Aztec history, religious beliefs, and culture. The pictorial books they created served the Spanish as aids to evangelization and governance, but their content came from the native intellectuals, painters, and writers who helped to create them. Examining the nine major surviving texts, preeminent Latin American art historian Elizabeth Hill Boone explores how indigenous artists and writers documented their ancestral culture.

Analyzing the texts as one distinct corpus, Boone shows how they combined European and indigenous traditions of documentation and considers questions of motive, authorship, and audience. For Spanish authorities, she shows, the books revealed Aztec ideology and practice, while for the indigenous community, they preserved venerated ways of pictorial expression as well as rhetorical and linguistic features of ancient discourses. The first comparative analysis of these encyclopedias, Descendants of Aztec Pictography analyzes how the painted compilations embraced artistic traditions from both sides of the Atlantic.

  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Paintings from the Past
  • Chapter 2. Graphic Complexity in New Spain
  • Chapter 3. The Encyclopedic Tradition in Europe
  • Chapter 4. The Evangelical Project and Mendicant Investigators
  • Chapter 5. Early Compilations: Codices Borbonicus and Mendoza
  • Chapter 6. The Mid-Century Encyclopedias: Codices Telleriano-Remensis and Ríos and the Magliabechiano Group
  • Chapter 7. Durán and Sahagún: Cumulative Expositions of the Late Sixteenth Century
  • Chapter 8. Memories in Figures
  • Notes
  • References Cited
  • Index

Elizabeth Hill Boone is the Martha and Donald Robertson Chair in Latin American Art at Tulane University. She is the author of many books, including Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate and Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs, and the editor or coeditor of eleven books, most recently Painted Words: Nahua Catholicism, Politics, and Memory in the Atzaqualco Pictorial Catechism.


“This illuminating and meticulous study of a sixteenth-century genre of “cultural encyclopedias” is a worthy finale to Elizabeth Boone’s comprehensive studies of Mesoamerican manuscripts. Deploying her well-honed comparative methodology, Boone unravels the tangled genealogies of the manuscripts as well as their myriad sources (some now lost) and interrelationships. The author identifies the bicultural influences at play, from precontact pictorial manuscripts to imported classical and medieval encyclopedias, travel reports from “exotic” lands, and costume books. When conventional sign systems are combined with European mimetic representations, these encyclopedic histories preserve “old forms” while creating “new content” to accommodate colonial systems of recording knowledge.”
Jeanette Favrot Peterson, UC Santa Barbara

Descendants of Aztec Pictography: The Cultural Encyclopedias of Sixteenth-Century Mexico is one of the best and most valuable academic works on the important set of pictorial histories made in sixteenth-century Mexico. This book is a necessary work for anyone working on indigenous themes, whether the sixteenth-century transformation of indigenous lore and painting traditions or pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican works and societies.”
Diana Magaloni Kerpel, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“With this book, Elizabeth Boone has hit the trifecta. It joins her two earlier, and equally masterful, books on the indigenous manuscripts of Mexico, Stories in Red and Black and Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. Together, the three are indispensable for understanding one of the world’s great book traditions, which flourished in Mexico both before and after contact with Europe. Boone seamlessly integrates an encyclopedic understanding with a lively and appealing prose, making this book both accessible for the student and satisfying for the expert. ”
Barbara Mundy, Fordham University