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The original Tonalamatl de Aubin

The extraordinary story of the Tonalamatl de Aubin (2)

This is the second part of the story of the codex known as the Tonalamatl de Aubin and of its bizarre, secret journeys from Mexico to France – and back again… (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: William Bullock’s ‘Ancient and Modern Mexico’ exhibition, London, 1824
Pic 1: William Bullock’s ‘Ancient and Modern Mexico’ exhibition, London, 1824 (Click on image to enlarge)

Waldeck, already extensively travelled in other parts of the world, had visited William Bullock’s pioneering exhibition of Mexican antiquities – the first of its kind anywhere – at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London, in 1824, designed as a ‘Temple of Mexico’ – paralleling the recent remodelling of the Egyptian Hall as an Egyptian Temple. The first decades of the 19th century had seen increasing scholarly interest in Europe and the United States in ancient Mexico: partly thanks to the impact of Humboldt’s accounts of his travels in the early 1800s and to ‘the deluge of information about ancient Egypt, following Napoleon’s ill-fated military expedition there… Mexican antiquities, thought to resemble Egyptian ones, reinvigorated scholarly conjecture about the nature of the relationship between the Old and the New Worlds’ (Achim, 2017: 14).
The walls of the Temple were bedecked with codices (pic 1), both copies and originals from the Boturini collection, which Bullock professed to have consulted, copied and ‘procured’ from the School of Mines (Seminario de Minería).

Pic 2: The Mexican historian Dr. Miguel Alamán played a pivotal role in establishing Mexico’s Archivo General de la Nación
Pic 2: The Mexican historian Dr. Miguel Alamán played a pivotal role in establishing Mexico’s Archivo General de la Nación (Click on image to enlarge)

Bullock (1773-1849), an English impresario experienced in mounting hugely popular exhibitions in England primarily based on foreign curiosities, had travelled to Mexico in 1823 and amassed a large assortment of Mexican antiquities – originals and casts – that are now in the British Museum. The first of many to come, Bullock represented ‘that increasingly stock character in 19th century Mexico, the foreign traveller turned speculator and collector’ (ibid: 43). Quite how he persuaded the Mexican authorities to lend him precious codices is explained by the timing of his travels and on his successful negotiations with the Mexican government of the time, specifically with minister for internal and external relations Lucas Alamán (pic 2).

Pic 3: A ‘sticky’ note attached to p. XXII of the original Codex Boturini (Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia) when it was exhibited at the Egyptian Hall in London
Pic 3: A ‘sticky’ note attached to p. XXII of the original Codex Boturini (Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia) when it was exhibited at the Egyptian Hall in London (Click on image to enlarge)

Bullock explains: ‘The ancient manuscripts… are articles of such interest, and so much prized by the government, that, though I experienced from the public authorities the greatest liberality, and every assistance in my pursuit of information concerning the ancient state of the country, yet no offers of mine could induce them to part with these manuscripts until I had given them an assurance that, after they had been copied in England, I would transmit them again to Mexico’ (Bullock 1825: 2: 66). He was also helped greatly by the fact that at the time ‘there were no regulations in place to hinder the commerce in Mexican antiquities’ (Achim 2017: 42).

Pic 4: ‘Bringing out the silver’, from ‘Campbell’s Complete Guide to Mexico’, 1906
Pic 4: ‘Bringing out the silver’, from ‘Campbell’s Complete Guide to Mexico’, 1906 (Click on image to enlarge)

In 1825 Waldeck, inspired by Bullock’s exhibition, applied for a job as an engineer with an English mining company in Mexico; the job was to last less than a year. From 1826 to 1832 he lived in Mexico City, starting work as a portrait painter for the capital’s élite. The following autumn he found work at the National Museum. Icaza employed him to do drawings of antiquities for the Museum’s first publication (the Colección de las antiguedades mexicanas que ecsisten en el Museo Nacional Catalogue, 1827) (pic 5).

Pic 5: Title page of the catalogue of items in the National Museum’s collections; the illustrations are credited to Federico Waldeck
Pic 5: Title page of the catalogue of items in the National Museum’s collections; the illustrations are credited to Federico Waldeck (Click on image to enlarge)

Icaza even allowed Waldeck to take pieces home to draw – for instance, in February 1828 he borrowed a teponaztli (Aztec tongue drum) to complete a sheet on musical instruments (ibid: 85). His lithographs of ancient (Maya) architecture were to partly inspire one of the designs for Mexico’s ‘(Aztec) Palace’ at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 (Tenorio-Trillo 1996: 73). In 1829 he met Carl Nebel (1805-1855), a young architect from Hamburg, and they worked together to draw Museum pieces. Waldeck was the only foreigner to have been given permission to take objects home, raising his credibility and status within the intellectual community. Indeed, his house became a key place for antiquarians to meet, his diaries recording meetings with collectors, scholars of antiquities and visits to several private museums.

Pic 6: ‘It was easy at this time to start a collection...’: ‘Mixtec Jade Idols and Heads, Zapotec Idols, Mixtec Pottery’ - part of the collection of Constantine George Rickards
Pic 6: ‘It was easy at this time to start a collection...’: ‘Mixtec Jade Idols and Heads, Zapotec Idols, Mixtec Pottery’ - part of the collection of Constantine George Rickards (Click on image to enlarge)

We should mention here that it was easy at this time to start a collection: ‘Many foreigners had money and ties with Mexican élites who were collectors themselves’ (ibid: 90).
Crucially, on 24th October 1831, after relationships between Waldeck and Icaza had begun to deteriorate (for starters, Waldeck refused to allow the museum to make copies of his drawings) – as had those with Nebel, whom he suspected of selling fakes - Waldeck wrote in his diary ‘I’ve found a nest of manuscripts!’ (ibid: 119). No further details were given, but weeks later an unnamed person offered to sell him a ‘calendario idolátrico’ which Waldeck was sure had been in Boturini’s collection: specifically, the one listed as entry no. 23, section 6, in the early Boturini inventories (Achim 2013: 119). Achim makes it clear that the item in question was very possibly (part of) the Tonalamatl de Aubin, also known as the Kalendario idolátrico. Moreover Boban explicitly states, in the major catalogue of Aubin’s manuscripts he would prepare years later for Eugène Goupil (see below) that the Tonalamatl was ‘Provenant de la collection Boturini’.

Pic 7: A Robert Roskell gold-and-diamond watch from 1820; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Pic 7: A Robert Roskell gold-and-diamond watch from 1820; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Click on image to enlarge)

Waldeck didn’t have enough money to buy the manuscript but offered in exchange ‘a fine watch made by [Robert] Roskel[l]’; the seller agreed, and Waldeck was delighted with the deal. Apparently he had bought the gold and diamond watch five years earlier, paying 270 piastros for it (4 pairs of shoes had cost him 10 piastros - the piastre/piastro/piastre, a term used by foreigners in Mexico, was the rough equivalent of the Mexican peso). It was a dodgy ‘negocio turbio y ambos sabían que había información comprometedora que debía ocultarse’ (ibid: 120). It’s quite possible that the seller was Carl Nebel: in the comprehensive catalogue of Mexican manuscripts in the BNF, after Boturini and ‘Universidad de México (?)’, pages 9-20 are attributed first to Nebel and then to Waldeck (Galarza & Bejarano, n.d.: 28).

Pic 8: An anonymous painting of the historic centre of Mexico City, 1840
Pic 8: An anonymous painting of the historic centre of Mexico City, 1840 (Click on image to enlarge)

How did Waldeck and Aubin manage to secrete their portions of the Tonalamatl from Mexico to Europe? Both had to resort to subterfuge, since on the 16th November 1827 the Mexican government of Guadalupe Victoria introduced a law prohibiting the exporting of silver and antiquities from the country (Achim 2013). It was still legal to collect, but no longer legal to export.
Aubin, who in the 1830s had ‘bought’ (see below) a large part of Boturini’s collection of manuscripts, had founded a Franco-Mexican college in 1837 in the street known as Puente del Correo Mayor (Boban 1893: 24) – the same street that housed the printing workshop of Venegas Arroyo, where José Guadalupe Posada was to work - which he sold in 1840 to return to France with his unrivalled collection of Mexican manuscripts.

Pic 9: View of the port of Vera-Cruz from ‘Quelques vues du Mexique’ by E. Leroy, 1864-1867, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Pic 9: View of the port of Vera-Cruz from ‘Quelques vues du Mexique’ by E. Leroy, 1864-1867, Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Click on image to enlarge)

When Aubin left Mexico ‘he hid his manuscripts in his luggage, fearing that the Mexican customs agents would seize them. He separated and mixed up the pages of the codices, “erasing the numbers and labels from public or private libraries, so that the confused jumble looked like a pile of worthless papers and would pass unnoticed by customs. Mr. Aubin was indeed successful. He left Mexico carrying his entire collection, but in such a disarray that he himself never had the courage to catalogue it” [quoting Boban 1891]. Boban’s description leaves little doubt that Aubin removed many of the manuscripts from the museums, libraries, and archives, possibly even from the Museo Nacional. He does not say whether Aubin acquired them through purchase, trade, or theft, although his erasure of numbers and labels would indicate that his methods would not withstand official scrutiny’ (Walsh 2019: 253). Indeed, Aubin’s fellow countryman, painter Edouard Pingret later accused the Mexican authorities, especially of the National Museum, of ‘alimentar un mercado clandestino de antigüedades’ (Achim 2013: 120).

Pic 10: A mid 19th century metal and wood ‘dome top’ steamer trunk with hidden compartment in the lid
Pic 10: A mid 19th century metal and wood ‘dome top’ steamer trunk with hidden compartment in the lid (Click on image to enlarge)

When Waldeck began packing to return to Europe he bought a shipping trunk to send valuables to his wife Maria in London. ‘Para eso compró una maleta cubierta de piel de caballo, con su nombre grabado sobre una placa de piel. Una maleta de doble fondo; en la parte escondida, colocó objetos de valor’ including Mexican antiquities. He sent a list to Maria via the English consul Pakenham – ‘Commercial and consular involvements familiarized collectors with the workings and failings of the evolving Mexican political and justice systems, with the border and port controls at points of exit from Mexico and with the contraband routes that successfully evaded the Mexican customs officials’ (Achim 2017: 91). Inside the secret compartment of the trunk were ten native paper codices, including a ‘manuscrito teológico-astronómico’ and a ‘calendario de 52 años’, with an estimated total value at £5,295 14/-. (ibid: 92). Waldeck left Mexico on March 24th 1836 ‘embarking undercover on the English boat Lyre’ (ibid: 115).

Pic 11: Fragment of the Codex Xolotl, signed and dated by Joseph Aubin; image © 2017 Jerome A. Offner, courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Pic 11: Fragment of the Codex Xolotl, signed and dated by Joseph Aubin; image © 2017 Jerome A. Offner, courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Click on image to enlarge)

Five years later, the two parts of the Tonalamatl that had been separated in Mexico were reunited, when Waldeck sold his collection of manuscripts to Aubin in 1841.
A similar fate befell fragments of the Codex Xolotl: they passed from Alva Ixtlilxochitl to the Colegio de Jesuitas de México and into the Boturini collection. Antonio de León y Gama later made a copy of it, noting that it had ten painted pages. But no reference was made by either to ‘fragments’. Waldeck acquired pages 2 and 3 in 1831, and Aubin acquired pages 1 and 4-10 and the León y Gama copies in 1832 (adding his signature and the date ‘1832’ to the back of one of the fragments - pic 11). After returning to France Aubin purchased pages 2 and 3 from Waldeck.

Pic 12: Page 9 of the Tonalamatl de Aubin, marked where Waldeck stamped his name
Pic 12: Page 9 of the Tonalamatl de Aubin, marked where Waldeck stamped his name (Click on image to enlarge)

In similar fashion, Waldeck’s name is stamped on several pages (9 [see pic 12], 11, 13, 15, 17, 19) of the Tonalamatl, just as it is on the Codex Xolotl and the Codex Tepechpan, all three of which Waldeck sold to Aubin. Boban quotes Waldeck’s receipt from Aubin:-
‘Je reconnais avoir cédé à M. Aubin un Manuscrit calendaire ployé en long, de douze feuilles [note the reference to 12 pages, ie pp 9-20]; ce morceau étant marqué de mon nom comme griffe sur chaque Feuillet et ne pouvant s’effacer, je donne le present à M. Aubin pour certifier la renunciation que j’ai faite en sa faveur de ce beau morceau, pour la somme de deux mille francs.
Montmartre, ce 24 octobre 1841’. Signed: de Waldeck. (Boban 1893: 298).

Pic 13: Eugène Boban at the 1867 International Paris Exposition
Pic 13: Eugène Boban at the 1867 International Paris Exposition (Click on image to enlarge)

We’ve referenced the name Boban several times above. Though he had no role in the story of the Tonalamatl in Mexico, he becomes a crucial protagonist in its fate whilst in Europe, as we shall see…
Eugène André Boban Duvergé (1834-1908) was a French antiquarian, collector/dealer, fortune-seeker and self-taught archaeologist who had ‘spent more than 50 of his 74 years of life in the amassing and selling of antiquities and collectables’ (Walsh, 2019: 272). He is also the now notorious inventor of ‘Aztec’ crystal skulls – which he successfully palmed off on some of the world’s leading museums. During his many years living and travelling in Mexico he participated in archaeological excavations, studied Nahuatl, owned a well-known antiquities business, and became a key advisor to the imperial government of Emperor Maximilian during the ill-fated French Intervention of 1862-1867.

Pic 14: Craniological collection of the old Museo di Antropologia Criminale Cesare Lombroso, University of Turin, at the turn of the 19th century
Pic 14: Craniological collection of the old Museo di Antropologia Criminale Cesare Lombroso, University of Turin, at the turn of the 19th century (Click on image to enlarge)

Indeed, his position as advisor to the Commission scientifique du Mexique (1864-1867) enabled him to reap plenty of personal benefits from digs financed by the French: ‘The antiquarian profited greatly from these organised excavations, as he matter-of-factly states: “They sent only the bones and skulls [to Paris], and the pottery, vases, and terra cotta idols became part of our collection”’ (Walsh, 2019: 64). In the mid-19th century ‘French anthropology principally encompassed the study of human skeletal remains. There was much less interest in the material culture of past eras…’ (ibid: 64). At the same time a debate began to emerge in Europe ‘between hard-core physical anthropology and the ethnographic approaches that included race, but not such purely physical aspects as skull measurements’ (Tenorio-Trillo, 1996: 91).

Pic 15: Display of objects gathered by the Commission scientifique du Mexique, from Le Monde illustré, 31 August 1867
Pic 15: Display of objects gathered by the Commission scientifique du Mexique, from Le Monde illustré, 31 August 1867 (Click on image to enlarge)

Aubin was also a member of the Commission, though he never travelled (back) to Mexico during its tenure. In fact, back in France Aubin became more and more introspective, jealously guarding his collection of manuscripts. To quote Brinton: he ‘lived surrounded by them for fifty years, making very little use of them himself, and never permitting a single student so much as to look at them.’ Boban noted that on his return from Mexico Aubin ‘n’avait pas pris la peine de classifier, de cataloguer ses richesses; à peine en a-t-il décrit quelques-unes, dont on retrouve la liste dans une petite notice publiée par lui en 1851… Aucune pièce n’était marquée; manuscrits, peintures, imprimés, copies, documents d’importance diverse, étaient mêlés au hazard; des feuilles détachées de pieces uniques se trouvaient intercalées dans des cahiers différents; ici, un original était parmi les copies; là, une copie parmie les originaux’ (‘Documents’, p. 26).

Pic 16: José Fernando Ramírez, from ‘Obras del Lic. don José Fernando Ramírez, vol. 1, Mexico, 1898
Pic 16: José Fernando Ramírez, from ‘Obras del Lic. don José Fernando Ramírez, vol. 1, Mexico, 1898 (Click on image to enlarge)

He also mentions that Aubin had a lithographic copy of the Tonalamatl made in 1854 in Paris (by Jules Desportes, Institution des Sourd-Muets, rue Saint-Jacques), at the request of Don José Fernando Ramirez (keeper of the archive in the national museum in Mexico) ‘who was in Paris at the time’. In fact Ramirez persuaded Aubin to allow lithographic reproductions of seven of his choice manuscripts, including the Tonalamatl and the Codex Aubin and in so doing managed to draw Aubin out of his retreat (Achim 2017: 187).

Pic 17: An image from the Tonalamat de Aubin, mistakenly identified as the Codex Aubin - ‘La Pintura Mural de la Revolución Mexicana’, 1975, p. 17
Pic 17: An image from the Tonalamat de Aubin, mistakenly identified as the Codex Aubin - ‘La Pintura Mural de la Revolución Mexicana’, 1975, p. 17 (Click on image to enlarge)

Intriguingly, Desportes went on to sell the Codex Aubin – not to be (but sometimes is - see pic 17) confused with the Tonalamatl – to the British Museum in May 1880. It’s quite possible Aubin himself gave Desportes the Codex as payment for producing his seven lithographic facsimiles (Berger, 1998: 14).

Pic 18: Boban’s collection of Mexican antiquities, as displayed at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889
Pic 18: Boban’s collection of Mexican antiquities, as displayed at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889 (Click on image to enlarge)

When Boban finally returned home to France from Mexico he brought with him the rump of his own collection of Mexican antiquities, and was fortunate enough to sell it, in 1888, for 8,000 francs, to a wealthy industrialist E. Eugène Goupil, who was Franco-Mexican by birth. Goupil planned to exhibit the collection at the Paris 1889 Exposition Universelle, which had at its centrepiece the new Eiffel Tower. The Boban/Goupil exhibit would end up being ‘the largest single collection of Mexican antiquities ever seen in Europe’ (Walsh 2019: 251). The two Eugènes immediately began a close and creative relationship, planning the exhibition together.

Pic 19: Mexico’s ‘Aztec Pavilion’, Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889
Pic 19: Mexico’s ‘Aztec Pavilion’, Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889 (Click on image to enlarge)

It was at this time that Boban received a letter from the Mexican physician, archaeologist and historian Antonio Peñafiel Barranco – in charge of organising the Mexican government’s exhibit at the Exposition (which had its own 70-metre long ‘Aztec’ pavilion, paid for by Mexico: it was Peñafiel’s design that was finally accepted by the authorities; his project was a reproduction of an Aztec teocalli or temple-pyramid. He claimed at the time that ‘there is no detail, symbol, or allegorical figure that has not been drawn from the true Mexican archaeology and with the only intent of bringing back to life a genuine national civilisation’ [Tenorio-Trillo, 1996: 73]).

Pic 20: Boban’s Mexican antiquities business at 35 Rue du Sommerard, Paris, which he opened in 1869; he lived just a few blocks away
Pic 20: Boban’s Mexican antiquities business at 35 Rue du Sommerard, Paris, which he opened in 1869; he lived just a few blocks away (Click on image to enlarge)

Just a month prior to the Exposition Peñafiel had asked Boban to introduce him to Aubin (who Boban had known for some years), so he could see Aubin’s collection – ‘the largest and most important assemblage of pre-Columbian and postcontact painted Mexican manuscripts in the world’ (Walsh, 2019: 251). Boban describes the meeting (which also included Goupil), held on 28 March 1889:-
‘To our astonishment, after we left Aubin’s house, Peñafiel made every effort to convince me and Goupil that these manuscripts, with their paintings and hieroglyphics, had no real rarity or value…’ (ibid: 254).

Note: References and picture sources arelisted 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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