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Joseph Aubin, portrait in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France

The extraordinary story of the Tonalamatl de Aubin (1)

The fate of the codices painted by Mesoamerican scribes is tragic (most were burnt by the Spanish soon after the invasion), indeed in the case of the precious few that survived, often tragicomic. That of the Tonalamatl de Aubin is no exception. Tonalamatl can roughly be translated as ‘Book of Days’, though the two Nahuatl root words have more complex meanings: tonal(li) can mean fate, destiny, name, vital life force, and amatl strictly refers to native (bark) paper (the Nahuatl word for ‘book’ is amoxtli). (Joseph Marius Alexis) Aubin (1802-1891), is the name of the French scholar and collector (pictured) who owned the manuscript for much of the 19th century. Instead of exploring the (complex) meaning of the original codex, here we tell the story of its bizarre, secret journeys from Mexico to France – and back again… (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Page 5 of the Tonalamatl de Aubin
Pic 1: Page 5 of the Tonalamatl de Aubin (Click on image to enlarge)

In the first major scholarly directory of Mexican codices (Glass & Robertson, 1975: 91), the Tonalamatl was classified as a ‘native paper screenfold painted on one side’, a ritual-calendrical work in ‘early unacculturated style’. Experts are uncertain of its dating: its indigenous style points to it being pre-invasion, ‘but it was more likely copied during the early years of the post-Conquest period’ (Quiñones Keber, 2001: 62). Its current custodian, Baltazar Brito Guadarrama, Director of Mexico’s Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, locates it firmly in the pre-invasion fold ‘because it shows no element of European influence at all’ (BBC Mundo interview 2020).

Pic 2: The original codex is prepared for exhibition in Mexico City in 2014
Pic 2: The original codex is prepared for exhibition in Mexico City in 2014 (Click on image to enlarge)

Generally believed to have been painted in the region of Puebla-Tlaxcala, it is clearly rooted in Nahua (loosely, ‘Aztec’) as opposed to Mixtec or Maya culture. An extremely rare divinatory ritual almanac or handbook, it is comparable only to – though not as finely drawn as - the tonalamatl in the Codex Borbonicus, and has ‘contributed significantly to our understanding of Mesoamerican ritual and religion’ (Quiñones Keber, 2001: 62). Estimates of its physical length, unfolded, have varied from 4m 95cm to 5m 64cm (both given by Boban) – today we know it measures exactly 5m 48.34 cm (Brito, personal communication). We know it originally would have consisted of twenty pages or panels (one for each of the twenty 13-day periods or trecenas that made up the 260 day Mesoamerican ritual calendar) – each measuring 24 x 27 cm (Franch, 1992: 84). Today it has only 18 original pages, two having been lost (the missing two were reconstructed by 18th century Mexican astronomer and anthropologist Antonio de León y Gama, supposedly based on the Codex Vaticanus 3738 [Franch]) – though Boban questions this. Their whereabouts today are unknown (Brito, personal communication). The pages are read from right to left.

Pic 3: Portrait of Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci, from ‘México a Travez de los Siglos’ Vol. I by Alfredo Chavero; note the image of Guadalupe in the scroll
Pic 3: Portrait of Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci, from ‘México a Travez de los Siglos’ Vol. I by Alfredo Chavero; note the image of Guadalupe in the scroll (Click on image to enlarge)

History 18th century (1740-1799)

It is only in the mid-18th century that we find the first documented record of its existence, thanks to the inventories relating to its first European owner, the Italian aristocrat, bibliophile, and cavalier of the Holy Roman Empire Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci (pic 3) (c. 1702-1755) who, it seems, originally travelled to Mexico in 1736 to collect the 1,000 pesetas arrears of a pension due to a descendant of Moctezuma, Doña Manuela de Oca Silva y Moctezuma, who lived in Portugal (Brinton 1893), and with the proceeds to ‘help aid the handicapped peoples of Mexico’ (Sten, 1979: 56).

Pic 4: Boturini presents his case for the crowning of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Pic 4: Boturini presents his case for the crowning of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Click on image to enlarge)

Once in Mexico, sidetracked from his mission and prompted ‘by a lofty and tender impulse’, and in a noble, almost quixotic quest to find documents – and to raise funds - to prove the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe and to bestow a gold crown on her statue, the chevalier Boturini succeeded in gathering a vast and impressive collection of rare, exquisite and precious codices and prose manuscripts, including some of the most valuable items from the collections of 17th century historians such as Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl and Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (Nicholson, 1998: 37). According to his own estimation these treasures ‘exceeded all the mines of gold and silver in the country’ (Bullock 1824: 28).

Pic 5: Painting on cloth depicting the genealogy, landholdings, allies and dependants of a Mexican citizen named Chalchihuitzin Vásquez, from San Salvador, Tlaxcala, Mexico, 16th century
Pic 5: Painting on cloth depicting the genealogy, landholdings, allies and dependants of a Mexican citizen named Chalchihuitzin Vásquez, from San Salvador, Tlaxcala, Mexico, 16th century (Click on image to enlarge)

He assembled his archive ‘while acting as representative of merchant-corregidores while the Nahua [descendants of the Aztecs] were struck by the matlazahuatl epidemic in Tlaxcala. The epidemic forced many Tlaxcalans to part with family heirlooms, along with property and lands, to pay their debts’ (Cañizares-Esguerra, 2019: 179). Misfortune was to befall him, however. He fell foul of the colonial regulations of the Council of the Indies and on the orders of the Viceroy was arrested on January 31st 1743 and imprisoned, with his precious collection (his ‘Historical Museum of the Indies’) confiscated. Now penniless – Brinton describes him as ‘an Italian of long lineage but of light purse’ - he was expelled from New Spain late in 1743.

Pic 6: Spanish sailor and infantryman c. 1807; from ‘Estado del Ejército y la Armada de S.M.C., Musée de l’Armée, Hotel National des Invalides, Paris
Pic 6: Spanish sailor and infantryman c. 1807; from ‘Estado del Ejército y la Armada de S.M.C., Musée de l’Armée, Hotel National des Invalides, Paris (Click on image to enlarge)

To add insult to injury, his ship home (La Concordia) was raided by English pirates who stole his few remaining possessions – and his fine clothes! He returned, dressed as a common sailor, with just one remaining item: the draft of his Idea de una Nueva Historia General de la América Septentrional - Catálogo del Museo Indiano, which was finally published in Madrid in 1746. In it, he describes the Tonalamatl (see below).

Pic 7: Frontispiece to ‘Idea de una Nueva Historia General...’ by Boturini
Pic 7: Frontispiece to ‘Idea de una Nueva Historia General...’ by Boturini (Click on image to enlarge)

It turns out that not one but ‘a long series of ever shorter inventories’ (Glass 1975: 473) of Boturini’s valuable manuscripts was made, each drawn up by a different official, whose names we know (Vicente de la Rosa y Saldívar, Don Diego Valcárcel, Don Patricio Antonio López, Don Ignacio de Cubas…) thanks to the biography of Boturini written by Eugène Boban (1893) and to Glass’s indefatigable research (1975): in 1743 (while he was in prison), 1745, 1791, 1804 and 1823. Each time, in what Boban calls the ‘progressive destruction of this rich collection’, the number of document pages diminishes drastically: from 200 in 1745 to just 38 a generation later (Sten, 1979: 59) (Bullock, 1824: 29, writes of as many as ‘five hundred maps, pictures, manuscripts and other valuable remains...’) In fact, it was ‘to avoid further destruction and extraction, [that] Cubas recommended that Boturini’s “museum” be incorporated into a national museum’ (Achim, 2017: 31).

Pic 8: One of the first manuscript inventories, dated April 1801, of the archives of the office of the Viceroy’s secretary
Pic 8: One of the first manuscript inventories, dated April 1801, of the archives of the office of the Viceroy’s secretary (Click on image to enlarge)

From the 1740s onwards, not only was Boturini’s collection transferred from one disinterested institution to another – the Real Caja (exchequer), Escribanía de Gobierno, office of the Viceroy’s secretary (pic 8), university library (in 1771), Secretaría de Estado y Relaciones (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), national museum – and through the hands of private owners and scholars such as Mariano Veytia, Antonio de León y Gama and José Pichardo – but it was constantly at the mercy of collectors, speculators and sundry officials who cherry-picked the neglected manuscripts (even parts of some) at will, the worst losses occurring between 1771 and 1788 (Glass, 1975: 475). Two centuries later it would take John B. Glass over thirty years of dedicated research to track down the names and locations of approximately two-thirds of Boturini’s collection (Cañizares-Esguerra, 2019: 178; Glass, 1975: 478).

Pic 9: Tonalamatl de Aubin page 21, showing the Boturini catalogue number 23-6
Pic 9: Tonalamatl de Aubin page 21, showing the Boturini catalogue number 23-6 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Tonalamatl appears to have been catalogued in both 1743 and 1745 inventories with the number 6-23 (section 6, item no. 23) and the title ‘Kalendario Ydolátrico’ (Glass, 1975: 479; Quiñones Keber, 2001: 62). Tellingly, it then disappears from the later inventories. In the 1743 inventory, the document is described as ‘Un Calendario idolátrico de las fiestas movibles é inmovibles que se debían observer todos los días del año, en diez y seis fojas pintadas en papel de maguey grueso, y dentro de él puso D. Lorenzo cinco papeles de apuntes tocantes á su explicación’, according to Antonio Peñafiel ‘Monumentos del Arte Mexicano Antiguo’, Berlin 1890, quoted by Seler, 1900: 1 (but note the mistake: there were in fact 18 sheets, not 16). If only we had access to Boturini’s five pages of explanatory notes he inserted into the original!

Pic 10: Title page and p. 70 of Boturini’s ‘Idea de una Nueva Historia General...’
Pic 10: Title page and p. 70 of Boturini’s ‘Idea de una Nueva Historia General...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Boturini (we should remember that he didn’t produce the inventories himself) describes the codex in the catalogue of his 1746 Idea de una Nueva Historia…), towards the end of his book, in a section titled ‘Kalendarios Indianos’, as follows:-
‘Año Ritual, XXX, Original. 2. Tengo de este año Ritual un antiquissimo Mapa en papel gruesso Indiano apolillado, y que en una parte tiene pegadas algunas plumas de Paxaro, y se recoge, y dobla como una pieza de paño, en el qual los Sacerdotes de los Idolos, à cuyo cargo quedaban los Ritos, distribuyeron las Fiestas Movibles y Fixas de sus Dioses en 20. Paginas, ò quarteles… aunque le faltan las dos ultimas paginas para acabalar los 20. principales Symbolos de los dias del año…’ (Boturini 1933 [1746]: 70).

Pic 11: The Governor’s Palace, Tlaxcala City centre
Pic 11: The Governor’s Palace, Tlaxcala City centre (Click on image to enlarge)

Its Tlaxcalan provenience is based on a statement in the 1745 inventory (Glass & Robertson, 1975: 91), and on our knowledge of Boturini’s travels to the province (see above).
In Boturini’s own entry he mentions the presence of feathers placed between the leaves in one part of the original screenfold. Both León y Gama and Pichardo confirm this, in notes added to the copy of the Tonalamatl made by León y Gama – for which he added his reconstructions of the missing two pages. At planch 10 León y Gama took care to indicate that ‘in the old days a feather was placed diagonally’ to the right of the large rectangle (each page depicts the patron deity of the relevant trecena in a large box); and Pichardo adds, in the margin: ‘En esta trecena en el lugar A, se hallaban las plumas cruzadas, en el Tonalamatl original: y todavia permanece parte de una de un hermoso verde, que tiene su dirección acia [sic] B, esto es, encima de Huitzlilopochtli’ (Boban, 1893: 296).

Pic 12: A feather as a bookmark...
Pic 12: A feather as a bookmark... (Click on image to enlarge)

Boban gives little importance to the feather(s), suggesting that no self-respecting Aztec priest would think of sticking feathers in a book of this importance –‘une idée enfantine’ – it could have damaged the artwork, so it must have been done after the conquest. He also comments in a footnote that it must have been a souvenir, in the same way that Catholic children would mark pages in their prayer books). Boban examined the manuscript with care, under a magnifying glass, and ‘happily can confirm’ he only found one hole – probably pierced by the feather mentioned by Father Pichardo (Boban, 1893: 296-7).

Pic 13: Antonio de León y Gama, with the title page of his classic book ‘Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras....’
Pic 13: Antonio de León y Gama, with the title page of his classic book ‘Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras....’ (Click on image to enlarge)

History 19th century (1800-1899)

Pichardo’s copy of the Tonalamatl was itself based on the copy made by León y Gama – a logical development since José Antonio Pichardo (d. 1812), a liberal priest from the Oratory of San Felipe, was executor of León y Gama’s estate. Pichardo produced two copies, one for Aubin and one that he gave the Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt in Mexico in July 1803 (both are in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France together with that of León y Gama’s).
Within Pichardo’s ‘Album 1’ are catalogued, amongst other manuscripts, two colour copies of the Tonalamatl: no. 88-1 (containing leaves 3-10) and 88-3 (with only four leaves) and nos. 88-2 and 88-7 (the latter, with only two leaves, is the continuation of the former).

Pic 14: The Convent of San Francisco, Mexico City; detail from a late 17th century screen mural of the Conquest of Mexico
Pic 14: The Convent of San Francisco, Mexico City; detail from a late 17th century screen mural of the Conquest of Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Humboldt obtained several manuscripts from León y Gama that had been in Boturini’s collection and gave them to the Royal Library, Berlin (Nicholson 1998). Intriguingly, Boban claimed to know of five colour copies of the codex, one of which he owned himself, the others owned by Mexico’s national museum. Boban is sure that several original codices in Boturini’s collection were sent to the Convent of San Francisco (pic 14) from the National Museum for copies to be made by León y Gama, and that Aubin purchased the original Tonalamatl – or at least part of it (see below) - directly from the Convent.

Pic 15: Chateaubriand’s book ‘Génie du Christianisme’
Pic 15: Chateaubriand’s book ‘Génie du Christianisme’ (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Purchased’ is a misnomer: Aubin persuaded the Franciscan monks to accept in exchange for pages from the precious codex a copy of M. Le Vicomte De Chateaubriand’s 1800 classic The Genius of Christianity – a book worth all of eight pesos! (Sten, 1979: 59). Whilst Seler (1900) disputes this, Boban is emphatic on this point:-
‘Pour l‘édification de mes lecteurs, j’ajouterai que le fameux Tonalamatl se trouvait au convent de San Francisco; lorsque M. Aubin le marchanda [haggled], les moines lui demandèrent, en échange, un exemplaire du Génie du Christianisme, édition Cumplido, vendue couramment huit piastres’. (1893, p 42-3) It wasn’t the only time the Tonalamatl was to be outrageously undervalued…

Pic 16: A commemorative plaque to Aubin in the village of his birth, Tourrettes-les-Fayence, Le Var, SE France
Pic 16: A commemorative plaque to Aubin in the village of his birth, Tourrettes-les-Fayence, Le Var, SE France (Click on image to enlarge)

Joseph M. A. Aubin had struck lucky in Mexico, ending up owning ‘one of the richest collections of Mexican pre-conquest and colonial manuscripts (384 in all, including codices, maps and plans, drawings and texts)’ (Achim 2013). His timing was serendipitous. A scientist and mathematician by training, he left France in 1830 to undertake astronomical research in Mexico, but after losing his scientific equipment, whilst at the same time developing a fascination for Mexico’s archaeological monuments, he decided to stay in the country. In his own words: ‘Unable to accomplish the main goal of my trip, I sought compensation in a more profound study of the monuments found there. I was able to acquire some manuscripts and paintings from the legacy of the son of the celebrated Mexican astronomer Gama, who was highly esteemed by Baron von Humboldt’ (Sten, 1979: 52-53).

Pic 17: ‘Les Français au Mexique’ - a satirical 19th century French poster; Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Pic 17: ‘Les Français au Mexique’ - a satirical 19th century French poster; Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Click on image to enlarge)

It was a time of political turmoil in Mexico. There were 26 changes in the Mexican government between 1830 and 1848, made worse by actual or impending wars with and invasions by France and the United States. Studying the ancient civilisations of Mexico was not a priority – Mexico was ‘poor in the midst of riches’. Just five years before Aubin’s arrival in Mexico, and four years after the country’s independence, the National Museum of Mexico was founded, amongst a wave of other national museums being founded in South America (six in the space of 20 years, Achim 2017: 1).

Pic 18: Mexico’s Museo Nacional - yesterday...
Pic 18: Mexico’s Museo Nacional - yesterday... (Click on image to enlarge)

Yet in its early years the Museum was consistently neglected by the state. Just months before it opened, lacking a home, the dean of the university in Mexico City reluctantly offered a space for the nascent museum – in the university’s maths classroom! (ibid: 48). (And when, decades later, the Public Museum of Mexico was finally inaugurated by Emperor Maximilian, on July 6th 1866, ‘the archaeology galleries were empty. Antiquities were still in boxes, waiting to be unpacked and organised…’ [ibid: 244]).

Pic 19: ... and Mexico’s Museo Nacional today
Pic 19: ... and Mexico’s Museo Nacional today (Click on image to enlarge)

This turmoil was to prove disastrous for the remains of Boturini’s manuscript collection (by now much of it owned by León y Gama), for just at the time of its foundation – to be precise, on 19th January 1826 - the collection was due to go to the National Museum, but five days earlier Museum curator Isidro Ignacio Icaza wrote to the minister for external relations Sebastián Camacho to tell him the transfer was off, as the Museum didn’t have the infrastructure to safeguard the León y Gama collection. Was this stalling the influence of Icaza or of José Vicente Sánchez, who had inherited León y Gama’s collection as son and executor of José Pichardo? Tellingly, Sánchez – who had tried unsuccessfully to sell the collection to the National Museum - subsequently refused to allow anyone to see the manuscripts…

Pic 20: Jean-Frédéric Waldeck - a photograph published in 1878
Pic 20: Jean-Frédéric Waldeck - a photograph published in 1878 (Click on image to enlarge)

At this point in our story, the fate of the Tonalamatl diverges, since the manuscript appears to have become split into two sections: pages 3-8 (obtained by Aubin, supposedly from the Convent) and pages 9-20 (Glass & Robertson 1975), ‘purchased’ by another foreign collector, whose name remains (literally) indelibly associated with the codex, one Jean-Frédéric Waldeck (1766-1876), a French artist and explorer, who left Europe for Mexico at the mature age of 64 with the intention of drawing, at the behest of Lord Kingsborough (of Antiquities of Mexico fame), the monuments of the Yucatán, especially those of fabled Palenque.

Note: References and picture sources are listed at the end of this article.
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This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 28th 2020

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