The Dresden Codex was water-damaged in the firebombings of World War II. Fortunately for us, around 1825, a facsimile had been made by the Italian artist Agostino Aglio, commissioned by the Irish peer Edward King, Lord Kingsborough—the latter a believer in the theory, to become an article of faith for the Mormons, that the Mesoamericans were descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Aglio’s facsimile is included in Kingsborough’s colossal multi-volume Antiquities of Mexico. And when I say “colossal” I do not exaggerate. In those days before photography, Lord Kingsborough sent Aglio all over Europe, to the Vatican Library, the royal libraries of Berlin, Dresden, and Paris, and the Bodleian Library at Oxford, among many others, to copy their Mexican codices, painstakingly tracing the elaborate diagrams and glyphics, and then coloring them in. Aglio also made paintings of Mexican sculptures and other artifacts in European collections. The whole project, from making the fascimiles to the state-of-the-art color printing and luxury binding, was at once a visionary contribution to world culture and an extravagance beyond folly. It could be said that Antiquities of Mexico killed Lord Kingsborough; having exhausted his liquidity before paying for the paper, he was imprisoned in Dublin, where he contracted typhoid.*
Lord Kingsborough never made it to Mexico, but it was in Mexico City, on a tour of the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, that I saw one of those volumes of Antiquities of Mexico up close. That particular volume was part of the personal library, then recently acquired, of Carlos Monsiváis, one of Mexico’s most esteemed journalists and leftist social critics, who died in 2010. I could not tell you which volume of Antiquities of Mexico it was nor why nor how it was separated from its fellow volumes in its set, nor why nor how Monsiváis, famous for his witty musings on Mexican popular culture, had acquired it.
The librarian, wearing white gloves, strained to lift the volume off its shelf. Bound in navy-blue Morrocco leather, it was the size of a small suitcase. With the grimace of a weight-lifter, he slowly lowered it onto the table. He levered up the cover, then turned a couple of the pages. The colors of the prints of Aglio’s paintings of the leaves from a codex— red, yellow, turquoise, ochre— were as bright as if painted that morning.
I later learned that that single volume weighed some 65 pounds.
*Sylvia D. Whitmore, "Lord Kingsborough and His Contribution to Ancient Mesoamerican Scholarship: The Antiquities of Mexico," The PARI Journal, Spring, 2009
>> Read more about the Antiquities of Mexico at Dorothy Sloan-Rare Books, a description of a set that was auctioned for USD 61, 625.
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UPDATE: "Dispatch from the Sister Republic or, Papelito Habla," my long essay on the Mexican literary landscape and the power of the book, is now available in Kindle.