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Mexicolore contributor on the Codex Cospi Davide Dominici

The Codex Cospi

We are hugely grateful to Davide Domenici, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Cultures, University of Bologna (Italy), for this illuminating study of the Codex Cospi, one of the precious few extant pre-Columbian Mexican codices in the world. In 1997-2010 he directed the Rio La Venta Archaeological project (Chiapas, Mexico), and since 2011 he has been director of the Cahokia Project (Illinois, USA). His research themes include the study of Mesoamerican writing systems and ancient scribal techniques.

Pic 1: The ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Cospi was the highlight of Mexicolore’s Codex Study Box, loaned to schools back in the 1990s...
Pic 1: The ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Cospi was the highlight of Mexicolore’s Codex Study Box, loaned to schools back in the 1990s... (Click on image to enlarge)

[NOTE: For nearly three decades the Mexicolore teaching team has taken a facsimile of the Codex Cospi (pic 1) into schools throughout England in support of our workshops on (ancient) Mexico. We originally fell in love with the Codex after seeing a copy of the ADEVA facsimile in the library at Canning House, London; we were especially privileged to be allowed to study the original Codex, first hand and close up, resting on a small pedestal in a singularly obscure room deep in the basement of the Bibilioteca Universitaria in Bologna, on January 31st. 1994. As the Codex is so close to our hearts, we have decided to part illustrate this article with photos of primary pupils working with the facsimile in different English schools...]

Pic 2: The original Codex Cospi in the main room of the ancient Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna, where it has been held since 1803
Pic 2: The original Codex Cospi in the main room of the ancient Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna, where it has been held since 1803 (Click on image to enlarge)

Codex Cospi is a pictorial manuscript pertaining to the so-called Borgia Group, probably proceeding from the Puebla-Tlaxcala area of Central Mexico, a region inhabited by Eastern Nahua peoples. The precise dating of the codex is unknown, but it was probably painted in the later part of the Late Postclassic period, between the middle of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries.
The codex is composed of five strips of animal skin, most probably deerskin, joined in a single 3.64 m strip and screenfolded in order to form 20 pages, approximately measuring 18x18 cm each. All its pages are covered on both sides by a white background layer, even if only thirteen pages of the front side (obverse) and eleven of the back side (reverse) were painted with colorful imagery. Actually, the obverse appears to have been painted by a skilled artist, with a style suggesting that he could have worked in the city of Cholula or in a neighboring area. A much less skilled artist, on the other hand, worked on the reverse, whose style and thematic contents suggest that it was painted later than the obverse, probably near Tehuacan, in the border region between Puebla ad Oaxaca.

Pic 3: Children act as ‘scribes’ working on the first 8 pages of the facsimile Codex Cospi in a Mexicolore workshop on the Aztecs, Woodville Primary Schoool, South Woodham Ferrers, May 2004
Pic 3: Children act as ‘scribes’ working on the first 8 pages of the facsimile Codex Cospi in a Mexicolore workshop on the Aztecs, Woodville Primary Schoool, South Woodham Ferrers, May 2004 (Click on image to enlarge)

The codex’s obverse is a tonalámatl, or “Book of Destinies”, that is a ritual book used by diviners or soothsayers in order to forecast the destiny of people and events on the base of calendric calculations and astronomical phenomena. Actually, the first section of Codex Cospi obverse is a tonalpohualli (“Count of the Days”), or 260-day divinatory calendar, formed by the association of twenty day names and 13 numeral coefficients (20x13 = 260). It is composed of red lines forming a grid-like pattern; each of the resulting 260 squares contains one of the twenty day names flanked by the distinctive sign of one of a group of nine gods, known as the Nine Lords of the Night. To read the whole calendar, the diviner would have needed to fully extend the first eight pages of the manuscript (see pic 3), starting his reading from the lower left corner, proceeding on the same line all along the eight pages, then starting again at the far left of the second line from bottom, and so forth to finally reach the last day of the calendar at the upper right corner.

Pic 4: One of the double-page sequences in the Codex Cospi (facsimile), showing a ‘trecena’ calendrical sequence
Pic 4: One of the double-page sequences in the Codex Cospi (facsimile), showing a ‘trecena’ calendrical sequence (Click on image to enlarge)

The spatial arrangement of the signs in the horizontal lines ensures that every couple of pages contains a group of thirteen days, that is, a trecena, or Mesoamerican “week” (pic 4). Every horizontal line is thus formed by four trecenas, each of them associated with a cardinal point in an East, North, West, and South sequence. The Codex Cospi tonalpohualli does not make explicit the numeral coefficients of the days, but they can be inferred counting the columns from left to right, so that – for example – a day Rabbit in the eighth column should be read as 8 Rabbit.
Rectangular spaces along the upper and lower borders of the pages host the so-called “mantic” figures: we do not know precisely how they were read, but they surely conveyed additional meanings to be used during the divinatory sessions.

Pic 5: The 3-page section (pp 9-11) of the Codex Cospi (facsimile) showing representations of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli
Pic 5: The 3-page section (pp 9-11) of the Codex Cospi (facsimile) showing representations of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Click on image to enlarge)

The second, three pages-long, section of the obverse is devoted to five representations of a deadly aspect of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (“Lord of the House of Dawn”), or Venus as Morningstar, throwing darts at the hearts of five different targets: the Maize God Cinteotl, the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, a water mountain, a throne, and a jaguar holding a human heart (pic 5). The images represent the different kinds of negative influences of the planet when rising, after an eight-day period of invisibility during which the planet was thought to be in the Underworld, in the groups of four days listed in the margins of the pages. The reading order goes from bottom to top on pages 9 and 11 and from top to bottom on page 10. Historical sources suggest that codices were probably read aloud, in chant-like performances.

Pic 6: The date 1-Reed, laden with associations, Codex Cospi (facsimile) p. 10 (detail)
Pic 6: The date 1-Reed, laden with associations, Codex Cospi (facsimile) p. 10 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Remarkably, a passage in a Nahuatl alphabetical text, recorded in early colonial times and known as the Anales de Cuahuhtitlan, contains some phrases that seem to be the reading of images of the kind – even if not identical to – those in Codex Cospi, as well as similar ones appearing in the related codices Borgia and Vaticanus B, and even in the Maya manuscript known as Dresden Codex. The text explains that when Quetzalcoatl died he went for four days into the Land of the Dead, then spent a further four days making darts, so that when he rises he “casts light on certain people, venting his anger against them, shooting them with darts. [...] if on 1 Reed [pic 6], he shoots nobles” (represented by the throne in Codex Cospi). “[...] And if on 1 Water, there is drought” (represented by the attack on a water mountain in the codex), etc.

Pic 7: Part of a section on scribes and writing, Mexicolore schools workshop
Pic 7: Part of a section on scribes and writing, Mexicolore schools workshop (Click on image to enlarge)

The days listed in the margin of the page do represent an entire group of twenty days, or a Mesoamerican “month” (4x5 = 20); at the same time their awkward numbering, with the first days of each group always associated with the number 1 and not with the number of their actual position, alludes to a much wider time span, since they correspond to the initial days of cycles of 13 “Venusian” years of 584 days each. The whole second section of Codex Cospi thus covers a period of 5 cycles of 13 Venusian years (5x13x584 = 37,960), precisely corresponding to 104 solar years (104x365 = 37,960), that is to two cycles of 52 years, a time span that the Nahuas called xiuhmolpilli (“Bundle of Years”) and that can be described as a Mesoamerican “century”.

Pic 8: The final 2-page section (obverse) of the Codex Cospi (facsimile)
Pic 8: The final 2-page section (obverse) of the Codex Cospi (facsimile) (Click on image to enlarge)

The third and last section of the obverse contains images of four gods burning incense in front of four temples (pic 8), indicating specific omens for the twenty days listed in the margin of the page. The reading order is from top to bottom on page 12 and from bottom to top on page 13, thus following the usual cardinal order. To the East, the Sun God Tonatiuh burns precious incense in front of a temple containing an elegant bird, probably a quetzal (good omen); to the North, the blind Itzlacoliuhqui “Bent Obsidian Knife”, God of Cold, burns incense toward a temple containing a deadly owl with a smoke column inscribed with the glyphs for Stone and Wood, a common Mesoamerican metaphor for castigation; to the West, the Maize God Cinteotl burns precious incense toward a temple with a quetzal (good omen); to the South, the Death God Mictlantecuhtli burns incense in front of a skeletonized temple containing an owl and a smoke band inscribed with human skulls (bad omen).

Pic 9: The 11-page reverse of the Codex Cospi (facsimile)
Pic 9: The 11-page reverse of the Codex Cospi (facsimile) (Click on image to enlarge)

The eleven pages of Codex Cospi reverse, to be read from right to left, are occupied by images of fully armed gods identified by their calendrical names. Below the gods there are numerical patterns expressed by means of the bar-and-dot numeral system, in which a single dot equals 1 and a bar equals 5. This system is a quite rare occurrence in Late Postclassic Central Mexico, but it also appears in codices Laud and Fejérváry-Mayer of the Borgia Group. Comparisons with rituals performed by contemporary Tlapanec Indians from Guerrero suggest that the whole section is a ritual handbook prescribing the proper offerings to be proffered during different ceremonies, with the bar and dot numbers prescribing the amount and spatial arrangement of the offerings to be proffered in front of the image of the god.

Pic 10: A page of the codex being submitted to non-destructive chemical analyses during the campaign recently carried out by the Mobile Laboratory (MOLAB) of the University of Perugia
Pic 10: A page of the codex being submitted to non-destructive chemical analyses during the campaign recently carried out by the Mobile Laboratory (MOLAB) of the University of Perugia  (Click on image to enlarge)

Pages 21-24 deal with rituals aimed at protecting from the dangerous animals listed in the margins of the pages; pages 25-26, with depictions of female goddesses sitting in the open mouth of the Earth, seem to be related to textile production, asking for success in the raising of cochineal and purpura [gastropod]; pages 27-31 are devoted to hunting rituals aimed at favoring the capture of the animals whose heads and hearts are represented on the right side of the pages.

Pic 11: Knowledge of the painting materials used by the ancient scribes is an important element in understanding the existence of different technological traditions or schools in ancient Mesoamerica
Pic 11: Knowledge of the painting materials used by the ancient scribes is an important element in understanding the existence of different technological traditions or schools in ancient Mesoamerica (Click on image to enlarge)

Non-destructive chemical analyses recently carried out on the codex (pix 10 & 11) allowed the identification of the materials used by the ancient scribes. While the white background on both sides of the codex is identical and composed of gypsum (calcium sulphate), the two painters/scribes used quite different color palettes. The artist of the obverse used lamp black, a mixture of cochineal and another red dye, three different lakes composed of clays and yellow/orange dyes, and blue dye; the blue dye and a yellow lake were mixed to obtain a greenish blue color. The painter of the reverse, on the other hand, used lamp black, cochineal, orpiment yellow (arsenic trisulphide), and Maya blue (a lake composed of indigo and paligorskite clay). The two different color palettes, matching similar palettes on other analyzed codices, confirm that the two sides of the codex were painted in different times and places.

Pic 12: Ferdinando Cospi; detail of front cover (facsimile) showing (just!) the words ‘de la China’ underneath ‘del Messico’
Pic 12: Ferdinando Cospi; detail of front cover (facsimile) showing (just!) the words ‘de la China’ underneath ‘del Messico’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Recent research has shed light on the historical circumstances that saved the codex from destruction and brought it to its current location. Codex Cospi was apparently brought to Bologna (Italy) by the Dominican friar Domingo de Betanzos, who donated it to Pope Clement VII on March 3rd, 1533. The codex remained in unknown hands until the middle of the 17th century, when it was owned by the Zani family. Then, Count Valerio Zani bestowed the codex to Marquis Ferdinando Cospi, as stated by the handwriting on the European parchment cover that was added to the codex: Libro del Messico donato dal Sigr: Co: Valerio Zani al Sig: March: Cospi il di XXVI Dicre: MDCLXV (“Mexican Book given by Mr. Count Valerio Zani to Marquis Cospi on December 26th, 1665”); curiously enough, the word “Mexican” is written on top of a previously written word meaning “Chinese”!

Pic 13: ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ - the collection of Ferdinando Cospi; note the intriguing similarity between the display layout of the objects here and the format of the calendrical section of the Codex!
Pic 13: ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ - the collection of Ferdinando Cospi; note the intriguing similarity between the display layout of the objects here and the format of the calendrical section of the Codex! (Click on image to enlarge)

From that date onward, the codex followed the destiny of the Cospi collection: in 1672 it was donated to the city Senate, and in 1743 it passed to the Museum of the Institute of Sciences; finally, in 1803 the codex passed to the University Library of Bologna, where it is still held today.

Additional thanks are due to ADEVA, in Graz, Austria, for producing such a splendid facsimile edition of the Codex Cospi!

Pic 14: Children studying the Codex Cospi (facsimile); Royal Masonic School for Girls, Rickmansworth
Pic 14: Children studying the Codex Cospi (facsimile); Royal Masonic School for Girls, Rickmansworth (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pix 2, 10 & 11: Photos by and courtesy of Luca Sgamellotti
• Pic 1: Photo by Chris Tims/Mexicolore
• Pix 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 12 (L) & 13: Images from Wikipedia (Ferdinando Cospi)
• Pic 14: Photo by Phillip Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 06th 2015

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