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A Conservator’s Virtual Examination of the “Codex Quetzalecatzin”

(The Following is a guest post by Mary Elizabeth Haude, Conservator, Conservation Division.)

As the paper conservator liaising with the Geography and Map Division (G&M) at the Library of Congress, my work involves ensuring the long-term preservation of G&M’s collections by assessing the condition of materials, as well as recommending conservation treatment and storage. A few years ago, G&M acquired the “Codex Quetzalecatzin,” a manuscript created by indigenous artists ca. 1593 that shows the Mexican regions of Puebla and Oaxaca. Recently the codex was assigned to me so that I could assess its condition and recommend possible conservation intervention and preservation-quality storage.

The Codex Quetzalecatzin. Collections of the Geography and Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

I have a special interest in the material aspects of 16th-century manuscripts created in Mexico, and have recently worked with two other important Mexican artifacts in the Library’s collections: the “Huexotzinco Codex” and the “Oztoticpac Lands Map.” Before coming to LC, I studied and analyzed the colorants on 16th-century Mexican manuscripts in the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. It goes without saying that I was thrilled to have the opportunity to examine every inch of this large and colorful codex.

I had barely begun to physically examine the “Codex Quetzalecatzin” when LC staff were directed to telework to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Yet there was much examination to do!

The “Codex Quetzalecatzin” was in the private collections of Charles Ratton and Guy Ladriere in France until it was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2017.  Its provenance has been established from about the 19th century, with William Randolph Hearst being one of its owners. Because of its age, changing ownership, and travels since its creation, the manuscript has numerous repairs and areas of restoration. These restorations, as well as the manuscript’s condition and large size, make visual examination and accurate condition descriptions challenging.

Having worked closely with the G&M staff assisting them with digital scanning of their more vulnerable collections, I knew that a high-quality 1:1 scanned image of the codex was publicly available on the LC website. Looking at the scanned image in my home office, it occurred to me that I could try to continue examining the codex remotely.

Conservation, by its very nature, requires direct physical contact with artifacts. It is precisely this close contact, both tactile and visual, that attracted me—and many conservators—to the profession. Rather than feeling frustrated by the physical separation from the Library’s artifacts, I decided to embrace new ways of virtually conducting some of my normal duties as a paper conservator. The quality of the scanned image was high enough that it allowed me to zoom in on specific areas of the manuscript to determine how it was made and its current condition.

The codex is relatively large, measuring 90 x 73 cm, or approximately 35 ½” x 28 ¾”. I found myself getting overwhelmed trying to describe its various facets while looking at the physical manuscript in its entirety. Working digitally, I was able to facilitate examination by electronically drawing lines on a digital image, dividing the manuscript into eight areas. This helped me focus on one area at a time.

The manuscript divided into eight areas to facilitate ease of examination.

Cursory examination of the manuscript revealed that its large format was, in fact, the result of joining and adhering together several smaller sheets of handmade European paper. Having created a large sheet, a painter-scribe produced a cartographic history of the local indigenous community using the Mesoamerican convention of pictographic writing. Close inspection of these colorful pictographs revealed that many of the colorants were consistent with known colorants on other 16th-century Mexican manuscripts, such as the LC’s “Huexotzinco Codex” and the Bodleian Library’s “Codex Mendoza.”

Two colorants in particular jumped out, the vivid carmine red from the Mexican cochineal dye and the turquoise pigment, commonly known as Maya blue. Inscriptions in the Latin alphabet, used to identify place names and indigenous elites, were written consistently in brown-colored iron-gall ink, the standard European ink of the period. More in-depth examination showed that smaller pieces of European paper were adhered to the surface of the manuscript, likely to make corrections. A somewhat large piece adhered in areas 1 and 2 appears to have been applied to the surface of the manuscript during its creation because the lines from the drawings and the inscriptions appear identical.

The purple dashed lines show the sheets of European papers joined on their edges. The yellow rectangle indicates an adhered paper patch used to make amendations to the manuscript (areas 1 and 2.)

After determining original aspects of the creation of the “Codex Quetzalecatzin,” I proceeded to record its condition. At some point, a large piece of brown canvas was adhered to the back of the manuscript. This is evident from the numerous small losses in the paper on the front. In addition, abraded areas as well as tears in the paper likely necessitated adhering thin paper mends. These repair papers have discolored over time and now appear brown while the original paper surrounding it is dark-cream in color. In many areas, the thin brown paper repairs are directly adhered on top of the original drawings, often obscuring them.

Discolored historic paper repair adhered on the front of the manuscript (area 5.)

Another area of concern for the conservation of the manuscript is the condition of the paints, or colorants, especially areas of loss. The most obvious losses are in the areas painted with the turquoise pigment. It is likely that the turquoise paint was applied in thick layers that were easily abraded over time. Zooming in on the scanned image allowed me to clearly examine the extent of the paint loss.

Areas of turquoise paint loss in pictographs representing years (area 1.)

I have also been recording areas of retouching, or reworking of the original drawing. It appears that in most of these areas, the original drawings were covered over by adhering thin papers or by applying white paint. It is likely that covering the drawings with paper or white paint was done in an effort to repair the manuscript’s paper. After the original drawings were covered, someone reworked the drawings, often with pencil or brown ink, to enhance the visual legibility of the drawings. Since this manuscript was in private hands until it was acquired by the Library, we will never know how it was stored, handled, displayed, or restored as it moved through its various owners. Rather than judge the quality of the repairs of the past, I prefer to view artifacts with condition issues like the “Codex Quetzalecatzin” as having been well-loved during their lifetime.

The purple arrows show previous reworking of the image (areas 4 and 6) with the application white paint and paper repairs obscuring the paper and original drawings. The yellow arrows show areas retouching of the original drawings with brown ink.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to engage with the “Codex Quetzalecatzin” while working from home, and I have the G&M digital conversion specialists to thank for generating the superb scan and making it accessible. Nonetheless, working with electronic copies of artifacts can never replace working with them in their physical form. I am eager to return to the Library so that I can compare my virtual observations with in-person observations, examining the manuscript at my bench.

Nothing can replace physical objects, nor the excitement and satisfaction of working with them. However, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to continue an essential part of my work as a conservator from home. I discovered that high-quality tiffs provide a level of magnification to aid in the visual examination of LC collection items regardless of where I am working, from home or in the conservation lab with physical artifacts. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic taught me ways to adapt my conservation work when unforeseen events occur.

Because my specialty involves the physical nature of artifacts, I have focused on the material aspects of the “Codex Quetzalecatzin.” For those interested in the acquisition, history, and meaning of this amazing artifact, I encourage reading other informative Library of Congress blogposts: “New Acquisition: Extremely Rare Mesoamerican Manuscript” and “The Codex Quetzalecatzin comes to the Library of Congress.”

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