Document : The Boturini-Aubin-Goupil collection of Mexicana

Le 10 mars 1893, la revue Science1 publiait un article de l’archéologue Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837-1899), intitulé « The Boturini-Aubin-Goupil collection of Mexicana ». Il était consacré à la collection de manuscrits mexicains Boturini-Aubin-Goupil, avant qu’elle n’entre à la Bibliothèque Nationale. A ce jour, il s’agit du plus ancien article en anglais que nous ayons identifié consacré à la collection. La lecture de l’article révèle que D. G. Brinton se contente de résumer la communication donnée par Auguste Génin à la huitième session du Congrès international des américanistes, tenue à Paris en 18902.

Science, march 10, 1893, vol. XXI, n° 527, p. [127]-128.

NEW YORK. MARCH 10, 1893.

THE BOTURINI-AUBIN-GOUPIL COLLECTION OF MEXICANA3

BY D. G. BRINTON, M.D., LL.D., PHILADELPHIA, PA.

In the year 1736, an Italian of long lineage but light purse landed at Vera Cruz[.] His name was Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci, and the business which took him to Mexico was the collection of the arrears of a pension due some of the descendants of Montezuma who then resided in Portugal. This naturally led him to a study of the native history of Mexico, a pastime which soon grew to an enthusiasm, when he learned that the Blessed Virgin herself had appeared and talked with a poor Indian on the hill of Guadalupe. Fired by a noble frenzy, he decided to devote his whole life to these two objects, — the collection of every document which would throw light on the ancient history of the indigenous population, and the vindication of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

To these aims he gave up nine consecutive year’s, and all the money that he could borrow or beg; for his own supply of that useful article was uncomfortably limited. But a foreigner, a begging foreigner, and that foreigner an archaeologist, was a combination too repugnant to the Spanish constitution to be stomached long; so, in 1745, the vice-regal government seized Boturini, threw him into prison, and sequestrated his collections of books and manuscripts, so precious in his eyes, as he pathetically wrote. “That I would not exchange them for gold, nor silver, nor diamonds, nor pearls.” How the true spirit of the collector breathes in those lines ! But, alas ! he was destined never to see them again. Removed from prison, he was sent to Spain for trial, where he died in 1749. His priceless collection was presented by the viceroy to the University of Mexico, whence it was scattered to different private and public owners.

Boturini was born in 1703. Precisely a century later, J. M. A. Aubin was christened, in a little town in the south of France. He was destined to partake of the same divine antiquarian fervor, and to re-collect for all posterity the scattered jewels of his predecessor’s cabinet. With a liberal fortune and the best of introductions, he resided in Mexico from 1830 to 1840, and with singular tact and energy succeeded in securing a large part, and the best part, of the documents gathered with such toil by the Italian antiquary. He brought them to Paris, where 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. Why this misanthropic narrowness ? The reply should be guarded. A cloud hung over Aubin’s lonely life. He, too, was imprisoned ; as he claimed, by malignant enemies; but on a charge which forever blasts a life. I even heard indignant protests at his mere presence, when poor, old, and senile, he was led into the hall of the Congress of Americanists, in 1890, at Paris.

Enough of this sad subject. At any rate, M. Aubin merits the lasting gratitude of investigators that he preserved with scrupulous care his wonderful collection. When I saw him in 1890, it was no longer his. Financially ruined by investments in “Panama,” he had accepted an offer for the whole of it from M. Eugene Goupil, a native of Mexico, French on the paternal side, tinctured with the blood of the native race through his mother. He bought it, not as an antiquary, but as an enlightened lover of his country and an intelligent patron of antiquarian studies. He placed the manuscripts in native tongues, Spanish or Latin, the wondrous colored pictographic scrolls on maguey paper, or on skins of animals, the ancient Codices, maps, and titles, in the hands of M. Eugene Boban, a distinguished antiquary, well known in the cities of Mexico, New York, and Paris, from his long residence in them all. To his kindness I owe the privilege, enjoyed by few, of a leisurely inspection of this wholly unrivalled collection of Mexicana.

M. Boban’s task was to make an analytical catalogue of the three hundred and seventy-two pieces of which the collection consists. He has completed that task in a manner in the highest degree creditable to his own scholarship and to the discriminating liberality of M. Goupil. His work is comprised in two very large quarto volumes of text, together of more than a thousand pages; and a third thick volume or atlas, containing photographic reproductions of some of the most remarkable documents. Yet this huge publication is but the mere beginning of the labor which must be expended on this mass of material before its value is extracted. As for myself, after seeing what it contains, I made up my mind that all that has yet been written about Mexico previous to the conquest has no more importance than have the histories and descriptions of ancient Egypt which were composed before the method of hieroglyphic interpretation was discovered.

The title of M. Boban’s work is: —

“Documents pour servir à l’Histoire du Mexique, Catalogue Raisonné de la Collection de M. E. Eugene Goupil (Ancienne Collection J. M. A. Aubin).” Paris, Ernest Leroux, Editeur, 1892. Price, 180 francs.

The first volume begins the catalogue with the celebrated Historia Chichimeca, an ancient Codex on agave paper, painted in blue, green, and brown, and giving in hieroglyphic characters the history of pre-Columbian Mexico, from A.D. 963 to 1438. It was translated by the early native chronicler, Ixtlilxochitl, and for that reason all the ten leaves of which it consists are reproduced in phototype with the explanations. Following this, a full description is given of what are called the “Maps” of Tlotzin, Quinatzin, and Tepechpan, long pictorial scrolls, partly published by M. Aubin, relating the migrations and traditional history of the Nahuas. Next comes the curious Codex Cruciformis, an original, painted, figurative manuscript relating to Tezcuco and Tenochtitlan. It is painted in four quarters, of thirteen compartments each, somewhat like a Maltese cross, whence the name given it.

The famous Tonalamatl, or “Book of Days,” is then taken up. This is an original, hieroglyphic book of eighteen leaves, magnificently colored in red, black, green, and brown. Its purpose is that of a religious and divinatory calendar, serving at once as a ritual and as the basis for astrological prognostics. None of the documents in the collection presents to the eye a more striking appearance than this venerable pictograph, concealing under its strange and vivid coloring the dark wisdom of the Aztec diviners.

Relating to the same subject, perhaps, is a remarkable painting on a tanned deer-skin, representing a disk with fifty-two points, that being the number of years in a Mexican cycle. A phototype is given of this, and M. Boban thinks it is intended to prescribe days for the worship of the sun, Tonatiuh ; but it is more likely to be simply the computation of a calendar.

Another historical pictograph is the Codex Mexicanus, an original, of forty-seven leaves, narrating the history of the Mexicans from their departure from the mysterious land of Aztlan down to the year 1590. This is native work, though late in the
sixteenth century. The Codex de Vergara is another figurative document, defining boundaries and titles, whose date is 1528. Like many of these title deeds, it contains valuable hints as to the nature of the Mexican pictographic system.

The collection is peculiarly rich in books written in the Nahuat language. There are the Historia Tolteco-Chichimeca, the Historia de Tlascala, the Codex Chimalpopoca, the Anales de Cuauhtitlan, manuscripts of Ixtlilxochitl, Leon y Gama, Father Pichardo, and others. Very curious are the catechisms of the early missionaries written in the Mexican hieroglyphic characters, the maps, charts, plans, “Titulos de Tierra,” legal documents, and royal ordinances, throwing light on the early history and settlement of the territory of Mexico.

M. Boban concludes his long and arduous task by adding a comprehensive and well-arranged index to his volumes; and I should not omit to mention that he increases the practical value of his work by inserting a series of biographical notices and many quotations and references to contemporary Mexican archaeological literature.

I have reserved the best piece of news to the last. I learn from good authority that it is the intention of the enlightened M. Goupil finally to concede to scholars the access to this marvellous storehouse of American antiquity by placing it in the possession of the Manuscript Department of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Certainly no one in this generation will more deservedly receive the thanks of all genuine Americanists than the donor of such a treasure to public use.


  1. Science, march 10, 1893, vol. XXI, n° 527, p. [127]-128. []
  2. Génin, Auguste (1862-1931), “Collection Boturini-Aubin-Goupil de manuscrits figuratifs mexicains”, in Congrès international des américanistes, compte-rendu de la huitième session tenue à Paris en 1890, Paris : Leroux, 1892, p. [647]-652. Disponible en ligne url : <https://ia800503.us.archive.org/29/items/proceedings1890inte/proceedings1890inte.pdf> (consuté le 7 avril 2019). []
  3. Head before the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia, March 2, 1893. []

Olivier Jacquot

Coordonnateur de la recherche > Délégation à la Stratégie et à la recherche > Bibliothèque nationale de France

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