A unique pre-Columbian manuscript and the mystery behind its colors

A unique pre-Columbian manuscript and the mystery behind its colors
The Nahuan (i.e. “Aztec”) divinatory manuscript, also known as Codex Cospi, represents a rare example of a pre-Columbian “book”. Credit: Luca Sgamellotti

The Codex Cospi is one of the few Aztec ‘books’ in the world and it is kept at Bologna University Library. A new research project will investigate with unprecedented detail the painting techniques and tools with which it was made.


There are very few pre-Columbian manuscripts in the world; the Codex Cospi is one of them. These days, this manuscript is being analyzed at Bologna University Library in collaboration with Palazzo Poggi Museum (University Museum System). Using cutting-edge non-invasive techniques, researchers will try to figure out the composition of the bright colors with which the codex was embellished between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th.

Carisbo Foundation provided the funding (Art and Culture grant) to the Department of History, Cultures, and Civilization of the University of Bologna. Thanks to this funding, these analyses will be carried out exploiting the MOLAB platform.

“We will employ fluorescence and hyperspectral imaging techniques to map the distribution of compositional material (both organic and inorganic) on every page of the manuscript,” says Davide Domenici, Professor at the University of Bologna and head of the project. “The level of detail these techniques are able to provide is unprecedented and will shed new light on the pictorial and technological practices developed by pre-Columbian artists.”

A unique pre-Columbian manuscript and the mystery behind its colors
Using cutting-edge non-invasive techniques, researchers will try to figure out the composition of the bright colors with which the codex was embellished between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. Credit: Luca Sgamellotti

The Nahuan (i.e. “Aztec”) divinatory manuscript, also known as Codex Cospi, represents a rare example of a pre-Columbian “book.” Very few of these “books” made it through the centuries and survived the destructive madness of conquerors and evangelizing missionaries. For this reason, the Codex Cospi exemplifies an entire book heritage largely doomed to oblivion. The manuscript came to Bologna thanks to Domingo de Betanzos, a Spanish Dominican friar, who probably brought the Codex to this city on the occasion of his meeting with Pope Clemens VII on March 3, 1533. Since then, this precious book was kept in Bologna, initially as part of the Ferdinando Cospi collection. Then, it entered the collection of the Academy of Science, and finally it got to the University Library, where it found its definitive location.

In 2006, researchers carried out a first non-invasive analysis on the Codex. This was a pioneering experiment as far as pre-Columbian manuscripts are concerned. From that first experience, the researchers involved (Davide Domenici, Antonio Sgamellotti, Costanza Miliani) started analyzing most of the existing pre-Columbian manuscripts around the world currently kept in institutions like the Museo de América in Madrid, the British Museum in London, the World Museum in Liverpool, Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the Vatican Apostolic Library. 15 years later, advances in technology have made it possible for researchers to use cutting-edge imaging techniques to better

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