Mexico: from picture to print

This exhibition provides ten extremely rare examples of Mexican books drawn from the Bodleian Library’s collections. The celebrated Codex Mendoza is accompanied by nine printed books which illustrate the beginnings of printing in the New World.

The books displayed give an insight into Spain's colonisation of New Spain, including the ways in which new printing technology was transferred from Europe to the Americas. We also see the methods used to impose European thought and religion on the indigenous peoples, and the emergence of the New World as a modern landscape.

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For full details of each exhibit, please see our Exhibition Catalogue. The gallery can be browsed at the foot of the page.

Spain's colonisation of New Spain

The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on the American mainland from Cuba in 1519, conquering the Aztec capital two years later. Central and southern Mexico became the colony known as New Spain, which was elevated to a viceroyalty in 1535. This territory was gradually conquered and colonised by the Spaniards with the help of indigenous allies.

The Codex Mendoza was commissioned by Viceroy Mendoza, and is one of the treasures of the Bodleian. This fascinating codex depicts life from birth to death in traditional Aztec pictograms, with annotations in Spanish made by a Nahuatl-speaking Spanish priest. The printed books in this exhibition reflect both the disappearance of that world during the process of colonisation of New Spain and the expansion of the Spanish empire from that colony. In 1564 a fleet under Miguel López de Legazpi set off from the port of Navidad, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, to conquer the Philippine islands, which became Spain’s most distant colony.

The transfer of printing technology from Europe to the Americas

The first printer to operate in the New World, the Italian Juan Pablos (Giovanni Paoli), was sent across the Atlantic in 1539 to set up a press with equipment and typographical material supplied by his master Juan Cromberger. Pablos had worked for many years in Cromberger’s press at Seville. Cromberger, the son of a German immigrant printer, ran what was probably the most important printing firm of his day in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula.

As New Spain began to be colonised, Juan Cromberger had been commissioned to print books in Amerindian languages in his Seville press. However, it was impractical to set up works in those languages so far from where they were spoken, and it was decided to send a press to Mexico. Cromberger was induced by the Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga, Bishop of Mexico, and the Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza (after whom the Codex Mendoza is named), to found a Mexican branch-office of his Seville press. Among his rewards were to be monopolies on the printing of books in New Spain and on the export of printed material to the colony, land for cattle ranching there, and an interest in Mexico’s rich silver mines.

In about 1540 Juan Pablos began to print books in the old Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, later to become Mexico City. This was a century before books were first printed in the English colonies in the Americas. Pablos worked in a three-man team: he served as compositor; Gil Barbero, who had been recruited in Seville and whose nationality is unknown, was the puller; the third man, a skilled black slave of sub-Saharan origin called Pedro, was the property of Juan Cromberger and doubtless worked as the beater in the new press.

Over the course of the sixteenth century several other printers began to work in the colony, their products being represented by exhibits displayed here. Printing remained to a large extent a family affair, the presses and their expensive material passing from husband to widow, and from father to son or daughter.

The typographical material used at first in Mexico had come from Cromberger’s Seville press, much of it being old and worn. The images below illustrate how an obsolete woodblock, once used to depict Muslims in the Old World, was pressed into service in Mexico to portray the Zapotec people of New Spain.

The imposition of European thought

The printing press was an essential tool in the imposition of European ideas in the new colony. A major preoccupation of the Spanish authorities was the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity through the technology of the printed word and image. Once missionaries had learned Amerindian languages (several of the exhibits are grammars and word-lists), they wrote religious books in them. Examples are provided of editions printed partly in the Nahuatl and Zapotec languages. The Codex Mendoza provides an example of the importance of the image in the pre-conquest culture of Mesoamerica. Some of the earliest books printed in New Spain make use of woodcuts to print images intended to aid the process of indoctrinating the indigenous peoples.

At the same time that they were using printing to convert indigenous peoples, the Spanish authorities, and especially the Inquisition, were wary of printing’s potential to spread subversion. Two of the printers represented in this exhibition were imprisoned by the Inquisition in Mexico on suspicion of harbouring Protestant sympathies.

The New World as the modern world

The earliest editions printed in New Spain were largely for the use of missionaries, the Catholic church, or administrators. Once the colony was settled and the first university in the Americas — founded in Mexico City — began to function in 1553, more sophisticated editions of works written by academics and required by their students began to be printed in New Spain. The vast majority of books read and used in the Spanish colonies were printed in Europe, many being products of the major presses of the southern Netherlands but exported to Mexico from Seville. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, books for a more general readership were being printed in the colony in editions of good quality.

This exhibition was curated by Joanne Edwards, Subject Librarian for Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, and Clive Griffin, Emeritus Fellow in Spanish, Trinity College. Particular thanks are due to Alan Coates, Sallyanne Gilchrist, Madeline Slaven, and all those members of the Design, Exhibitions, and Web teams of the Bodleian Libraries who have made both the physical and online displays possible.

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