Fifteenth-Century Spanish Poetry

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David H. Darst (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Darst, David H. “Poetry and Politics in Jorge Manrique's Coplas por la muerte de su padre.Medievalia et Humanistica 13 (1985): 197-205.

[In the following essay, Darst emphasizes the political motivation behind Jorge Manrique's elegy Coplas por la muerte de su padre.]

Jorge Manrique's moving elegy to his father has been a perennial favorite with the masses as well as the critics since its diffusion shortly after the soldier poet's own death in 1479.1 Since the appearance of Pedro Salinas's fundamental study of the poem in 1947,2 this monument of fifteenth-century Spanish poetry has received an especially large number of valuable studies.3 The political background has been exhaustively detailed by Antonio Serrano de Haro;4 and the basic three-part structure, consisting of exposition (strophes I-XIII), evocation of don Rodrigo Manrique's generation (strophes XIV-XXIV), and laudatory dirge (strophes XXV-XL), has been analyzed repeatedly, most recently by Charles V. Aubrun and Gustavo Correa.5 Few scholars, however, have bothered to examine the interrelationship between the content of each section and the way Jorge Manrique chose to express it. The only significant advance in that direction has been by Leo Spitzer, who tentatively approached Manrique's manipulation of language and syntax in a 1950 essay, noting a number of peculiarities. One of the most striking, according to Spitzer, was “la manera ‘temática,’ como de predicador en el púlpito, de adelantar lo que se piensa será su sujeto, reforzándolo con un demonstrativo, sin preocuparse de la alteración sintática en que la oración acabará por resolverse: ‘Esos reyes poderosos / … fueron sus buenas venturas / trastornadas’ (XIV), ‘Pues aquel grand Condestabe / … non cumple que dél se hable’ (XXI), ‘tantos duques excelentes, / … di, Muerte, dó los escondes’ (XXIII).”6

It is not by pure chance that Spitzer's examples are all from the second section of the Coplas (strophes XIV-XXIV), which describes “lo d'ayer” (XV) in Castile and Aragon. The demonstrative adjective aquel, for example, appears only once in the first part (strophes I-XIII): “Aun aquel fijo de Dios” (VI). The pronoun also occurs in a single stanza: “aquél sólo m'encomiendo, / aquél sólo invoco yo” (IV).7 It is significant that these uses are metonymical references to Jesus Christ, and the only other appearance of aquél outside the central stanzas is as a metonymical pronoun in strophe XXV: “Aquel de buenos abrigo,” which refers to the poet's father. In contrast to this sparse use in the first and last sections, strophes XIV-XXIV contain abundant instances: “Esos reyes pederosos” (XIV), “lo d'aquel siglo passado” (XV), “¿Qué se hizo aquel trovar / … / ¿Qué se hizo aquel dançar, / aquellas ropas chapadas” (XVII), “Pues aquel grand Condestable” (XXI), and “aquella prosperidad” (XXII).

Spitzer's last example concerned the adjective tanto. It is interesting that this word does not even appear in the first thirteen stanzas, and the adverb tan has only two uses: “tan callando” (I) and “tan crescida” (X). In the second part, however, one finds “¿Qué fue de tanto galán, / ¿qué de tanta inuinción” (XVI), “las vaxillas tan fabridas / … / tan sobrados” (XIX), “¡qué corte tan excellente” (XX), “tan privado” (XXI), “maestres tan prosperados / … / truxieron tan sojuzgados / … / qu'en tan alto fue subida” (XXII), “Tantos duques excelentes, / tantos marqueses e condes / e varones / como vimos tan potentes” (XXIII). In the description of don Rodrigo that forms the third section of the poem (strophes XXV-XL), one could deduce that there would be a dearth of phrases...

(This entire section contains 3624 words.)

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withtan and tanto, yet those stanzas in fact possess eight items: “el maestre don Rodrigo / Manrique, tanto famoso e tan valiente” (XXV), “fizo tratos tan honrosos” (XXX), “tantas vezes por su ley / al tablero; / después de tan bien servida / … / después de tanta hazaña” (XXXIII), “fezistes tan poca cuenta” (XXXIV), and “Non se vos haga tan amarga” (XXXV).

The question that arises from this selective usage of the demonstrative aquel and tan and tanto is why Jorge Manrique would write his verses in such a way. Depending on the section of the Coplas, the poet evidently has either stated things that do not require these forms, or he has omitted or inserted them to enhance the sense of the phrases in which they appear. The latter is more plausible, for the many uses of aquel and tanto in strophes XIV-XXIV add nothing to the content or the meaning of the poem. Their function is therefore principally formal and—mutato nomine—poetic.

What is it about the second, “lo d'ayer” section that is so different from section one? Principally, as Pedro Salinas reiterated throughout his study of the Coplas, stanzas I-XIII present ideas in general formulations, while the later sections offer progressively more particular examples of the general rules.8 The first six stanzas thus elaborate various metaphors on the Peregrinatio Vitae (I-VI), and the next seven declare the transitoriness of “las cosas” (VIII), “la hermosura” (IX), “la sangre de los godos” (X), “los estados e riqueza” (XI), and “los plazeres e dulçores” (XIII). The next eleven stanzas particularize these five generalized ephemeralities.

Clearly, neither Manrique nor any other moralist of his age considered goods, beauty, noble blood, riches, and pleasure to be ends in themselves or laudable aspects of a proper spiritual life; and the poet stresses that point in strophe VII with his juxtaposition of “corporal” and “angelical.” As in the other De Contemptu Mundi poems of the time, such as Ferrán Sanchez Calavera's famous Decir, material goods are no more than “las vanidades del mundo” and should be eschewed. Likewise, it is not without significance that six of the seven personages cited in the second section of the poem were known by all to be bitter enemies of Jorge's father.9 Juan II, the Infantes de Aragón (don Enrique in particular), and Enrique IV are treated as one group (XVI-XIX); don Alonso “el inocente,” whom Rodrigo Manrique tried to make king in 1465, is given a laudatory strophe to him alone (XX),10 and the three maestres Alvaro de Luna, Juan Pacheco, and Pedro Girón are treated as another group (XXI-XXII).11 There is thus a cleverly contrived progression from the first section to the second that moves from general things one should abhor to particular things one should abhor. The poet has arranged the syllogistic argument of his elegy in such a way that even if the readers were predisposed toward the people he mentions, the cumulative advance of the poem would induce them to consider those persons unfavorably.

Manrique reinforces his subtle predisposition of the readers to hold common general and specific particular examples in contempt by accentuating the things he will want the readers to despise with those very terms lacking in the first section. All the adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and infinitives that follow aquel and tanto are held in disrespect by the poet, including the gilded clothes, dancing, and singing of the ladies and gentlemen at court. Manrique utilizes his linguistic articulations most especially for the abuses of Enrique IV, Alvaro de Luna, and the other two maestres, where every tan is followed by a denunciatory term: “fabridas,” “sobrados,” “privado,” “prosperados / como reyes,” “sojuzgados / a sus leyes,” “alto … subida,” etc. The aquello functions to set the same contemptuous tone. “Aquel siglo passado,” “aquel grand Condestable,” and “aquella prosperidad” all breathe an overbearing air of denunciation of the referent.

Added to these linguistic manipulations, already noted by Spitzer, are others that also serve to turn the reader's allegiance from the people and things mentioned in the center part of the poem. The very nature of the rhetorical questions “¿Qué se hizo … ?” requires the answer to be negative, which in turn nullifies any regard for the deeds of the subject.12 For this reason, the phrase “¿Qué se hizo … ?” is not used at all to describe the faithful don Alonso “el inocente,” who receives an affirmative ¡Qué! and a ¡Cuánto! instead (strophe XX). This technique in turn reflects by contrast the derogatory use of the same exclamations in strophe XVIII, where ¡Cuánd! in reference to Alonso's impotent brother was followed by the insulting terms “blando,” “halaguero,” “enemigo,” “contrario,” “cruel,” etc.

To summarize, the poetic and linguistic techniques used in stanzas XIV-XXIV are there to predispose and sway the reader to view the people and things mentioned in an unfavorable way. The obvious reason Manrique would want to do this is because the personages to whom he refers were all enemies of his father. Now, however, Manrique has the creative problem of relating his father's deeds, which he obviously desires to extol and hold up for the reader's esteem, within a denunciatory context, since the laudatio follows twenty-four stanzas intended to force the reader to hold anything mentioned in contempt, especially particular political figures personifying authority, nobility, and the life at court.13 How can he sway the reader to glorify these very characteristics in don Rodrigo while still retaining instilled disdain for the other people in the poem?14

The poet initiates the endeavor by opening the third and final section of his elegy with the phrase “aquel de buenos abrigo,” whose only antecedent outside the middle portion was in reference to Christ. This does not mean that Manrique wishes the reader to see his father as a Christomimetes, but it is patent that the son has created at least some resemblance between don Rodrigo and Christ wherein his father would function analogically on a secular level the way Christ does on a religious one. The “oración” at the end (strophe XXXIX) is clearly an epitomized credo and a summary, mutatis mutandis, of travails in Rodrigo Manrique's life. The parallelism also appears in the last stanza, where Manrique writes “Dio el alma a quien gela dio.

It is also in stanza XXV that Jorge Manrique returns to the fundamental idea of remembrance and oblivion that has reverberated throughout the poem by stating that he will not praise his father (which is precisely what he will do) because everyone is cognizant of the Maestre's deeds:

sus hechos grandes e claros
non cumple que los alabe,
pues los vieron;
ni los quiero hazer caros,
pues que el mundo todo sabe
cuáles fueron.

These words belie everything the poet has said in the earlier fifteen strophes, where all was described repeatedly as “olvidado.” The contrast later becomes the keystone of the poem's structure because Manrique will end what began with the exordium Recuerde by noting that the greatest consolation for his father's death was “que aunque la vida perdió, / dexónos harto consuelo / su memoria” (XL).

The poet also establishes a number of brilliant contrastive relationships between his father and the personages in the middle section of the Coplas. First, he uses the adverb tan in reference to his father for opposite values: “famoso,” “valiente,” “honrosos,” “bien servida,” “poca cuenta / por la fama,” etc. The contrast created to the earlier stanzas is startlingly polar, especially in regard to the three maestres, who were so different from the final maestre, “el maestre don Rodrigo.” Second, Manrique lauds his father with the same technique of the exclamatory ¡Qué! that he used for don Alonso, which countermines radically the interrogative and negative ¿Qué? employed to describe “lo d'ayer.” In effect, the entire final section contains no interrogatives at all, whereas every stanza dedicated to the six personages in section two contained them. By the same token, and as would be expected, the first thirteen stanzas lack interrogatives also, creating thereby a pattern of affirmation-negation-affirmation for the three parts. Third, Manrique places a number of names—fifteen Roman ones, to be exact—in this last section (strophes XXVII-XXVIII) to contravene the personages cited in the middle portion of the elegy. It is significant that all the classical allusions appear as predicate nominatives of his father: Rodrigo Manrique was “en ventura, Octavïano,” etc. Since the poet has repeatedly told the reader that all past heroes have been forgotten, the roster of these fifteen arrests the mind and leads to the observation that the Romans he mentions are remembered solely by reference to don Rodrigo, who, by reincarnating their attributes, gives cause for their rescue from oblivion. Fourth, Manrique makes direct comparisons between don Rodrigo's actions and those of his contemporaries by repeating words and phrases, but with opposite connotations. Enrique IV had “los edificios reales / llenos d'oro” (XIX), while don Rodrigo ended his life “en la su villa d'Ocaña” (XXXIII). Enrique lunched on “las vaxillas tan fabridas” and possessed “los enriques y reales / del tesoro” (XIX), while Manrique's father “Non dexó grandes tesoros, / ni alcanço muchas riguezas / ni vaxillas” (XXIX). In the same vein, don Alvaro de Luna was known for “sus infinitos tesoros, / sus villas y sus lugares” (XXI), and don Rodrigo found “sus villas e sus tierras, / ocupadas de tiranos” (XXXII).

These are only a few of the many syntactical and verbal similarities among the poem's parts. More exist, ranging from direct juxtaposition of words, where Enrique IV is “cuánd enemigo” (XVIII) and don Rodrigo “enemigo de enemigos” (XXVI), to subtle comparisons of meaning, as noting that the maestres had everyone “tan sojuzgados / a sus leyes” (XXII) while don Rodrigo was “¡Qué benino a los sujetos!” (XXVI), or that Pedro Girón and Juan Pacheco were “tan prosperados / como reyes” (XXII) while Manrique's father died “después de tan bien servida / la corona de su rey verdadero” (XXXIII).15

Finally, Manrique manipulates his subject matter in such a way as to guarantee eternal salvation for his father and, by default, eternal damnation for the enemies discussed in section two. After the extensive description of don Rodrigo's career (XXVI-XXXIII), Death arrives to tell the warrior—and the readers—that eternal life, the third and final one attainable,16

non se gana con estados
ni con vida delectable
donde moran los pecados
mas los buenos religiosos
gánanlo con oraciones
e con lloros;
los caballeros famosos,
con trabajos e aflicciones
contra moros.

The A-B / B′-A′ parallelism of the verses brilliantly summarizes the dirge's progress. “Estados / mundanales” is a clear reference to the second portion of “duques,” “marqueses,” “condes,” and “varones” (strophe XXIII); and “vida delectable” epitomizes the “cosas,” “hermosura,” “sangre,” “riqueza,” and “placeres” of the first section (especially strophes VIII-XIII). As opposed to the latter, Manrique offers “los buenos religiosos,” who deny the delightful life with prayers and tears. As opposed to the worldly estates, the poet puts forward “los caballeros famosos” who won their fortresses and villages with travails and afflictions. Since no religious personages are even mentioned in the poem, the only ones who could go to the heaven mentioned by Death are therefore the warriors. Did the Infantes de Aragón or the courtiers around the throne of Enrique IV or any of those other people from “lo d'ayer” fight against the Moors? On the contrary, they participated solely in fake battles—“las justas e los torneos” (XVI)—or in civil wars among themselves (strophe XXIV). Don Rodrigo, by contrast, “fizo guerra a los moros, / ganando sus fortalezas / e sus villas” (XXIX). Therefore he alone, as Death makes clear in strophe XXXVII, will gain fame as well as eternal life:

E pues vos, claro varón,
tanta sangre derramastes
de paganos,
esperad el galardón
que en este mundo ganastes
por las manos;
e con esta confiança
e con la fe tan entera
que tenéis,
partid con buena esperança,
qu'estotra vida tercera

Manrique thus achieves for his father in one stroke of the pen what he has earlier denied to the family's enemies. All of those who populated the immediate past are forgotten: “Vengamos a lo d'ayer, / que también es olvidado / como aquello” (XV). In fact, they and “lo d'aquel siglo passado” are the only ones for whom the term “olvidado” is applied, since in the first thirteen stanzas Manrique never described how people and things have been forgotten, but merely how all inevitably passes away. For don Rodrigo, however, solely “esta vida mesquina” (XXXVIII) is lost by death; “la fama glorïosa” (XXXV) remains, and eternal life is gained. No one else in the poem is granted either the one (based on memory) or the other (based on wars against the Moors).

In closing, while it is certainly true that Coplas por la muerte de su padre is “el gran poema consolatorio de la lírica española, … la gran elegía del hombre en la tierra,”17 it is equally correct to view the epicedium as a direct and often sarcastic political statement about the times immediately preceding the successful overthrow of the Trastámaras and their Portuguese allies by Fernando de Aragón and Isabel de Castilla.


  1. Edition consulted: Jorge Manrique, Poesía, ed. Jesús-Manuel Alda Tesán (Madrid, 1976), pp. 144-63.

  2. Pedro Salinas, Jorge Manrique o tradición y originalidad (Buenos Aires, 1947).

  3. See Matjastic M. Appolonia, The History of Criticism of “Las coplas” of Jorge Manrique (Madrid, 1979).

  4. Antonio Serrano de Haro, Personalidad y destino de Jorge Manrique (Madrid, 1966).

  5. Aubrun: “La mort du père (Coplas de Jorge Manrique): Structure et signification,” Mélanges de langue et de littérature médiévales offerts à Pierre le Gentil (Paris, 1973), pp. 75-84. Aubrun separates the poem into the following parts: Introspection (I-III), Invocation (IV-V), Distanciation (VI-IX), Oraison (X-XIII), Evocation du passé (XIV-XXIV), Dithyrambe (XXV-XXXIII), Débat tragico-lyrique (XXXIV-XXXVIII), Prière et finale (XXXIX-XL). Correa: “Lenguaje y ritmo en las coplas de Jorge Manrique a la muerte de su padre,” Hispania 63 (1980):184-94: “1) unidad tématica inicial (5 estrofas, I-V); 2) tema ético de la desvaloración de las cosas mundanas en oposición a la valoración de las eternas (9 estrofas, VI-XIV); 3) tema de la evanescencia de las cosas humanas, a través de casos recientes a la vida del poeta o contemporáneos con ella (10 estrofas, XV-XXIV); 4) elogio del muerto don Rodrigo (9 estrofas, XXV-XXXIII); 5) muerte de don Rodrigo y su oración final (6 estrofas, XXXIV-XXXIX); 6) pervivencia del desaparecido en el recuerdo del poeta (1 estrofa, XL),” pp. 189-90.

  6. Leo Spitzer, “Dos observaciones sintáctico-estilísticas a las Coplas de Manrique,” Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 4 (1950):9.

  7. The “aquél” in the fifth line of strophe VI is discounted because it is juxtaposed to “Este mundo” in the first line.

  8. Salinas, Jorge Manrique, pp. 156, 160, et passim.

  9. For a historical survey of the epoch and the role the Manrique family play in it, consult Serrano de Haro (note 4) and Gualtiero Cangiotti, Le “Coplas” di Manrique tra Medioevo e Umanesimo (Bologna, 1964).

  10. Don Alonso also occupies the central strophe (XX) of the poem. For a lucid discussion of the Infante's role in the elegy, see Peter Dunn, “Themes and Images in the Coplas of Jorge Manrique,” Medium Aevum 33 (1964):169-83.

  11. As Salinas astutely noted, the order of personages is not chronological, but hierarchical: “Primero los reyes, don Juan y don Enrique, en seguida el príncipe don Alfonso, después el gran Condestable don Alvaro y los dos maestres” (p. 177). Alda Tesán adds: “Puede notarse también cómo esa ordenación está relacionada con la estrofa VIII, en la que habla de las cosas desaparecidas por la edad, o términos naturales, por casos desastrados, o desastres súbitos, y por caídas de la privanza” (p. 58).

  12. In effect, Manrique never answers his own rhetorical questions, since he avoids citing any “hechos” for his father's contemporaries. As explained by Enrique Moreno Castillo: “Cuando se pasa revista a los altos personajes ya desaparecidos se habla de lo que poseyeron, de lo que disfrutaron; nunca de lo que hicieron. … En el caso de don Rodrigo, por el contrario, lo que resalta es su actuar: hizo guerras, ganó fortalezas, venció lides, ganó rentas y vasallos, hizo tratos honrosos, alcanzó dignidades, cobró sus villas y sus tierras y, finalmente consintió en su morir. La diferencia es perceptible incluso a nivel gramatical: los personajes de la segunda parte no suelen ser sujetos de verbos de acción” (“Vida y muerte en las Coplas de Jorge Manrique,” Papeles de San Armadans 82 [1976]:151).

  13. It goes without saying that Francisco Caravaca's thesis postulated in “Foulché-Delbosc y su edición ‘crítica’ de las Coplas de Jorge Manrique,” Boletín de la Biblioteca de Menéndez Pelayo 49 (1973):229-79, claiming anteriority for strophes I-XXIV, is patently false. The linguistic and argumental cohesiveness of all forty stanzas is undeniable.

  14. One thing Manrique does not do is to relate the bare facts about his father. María Rosa Lida de Malkiel noted some time ago “la intencionada vaguedad de las Coplas” when compared to the true history of Rodrigo Manrique: “Reticencia inicial (25g y sigs.), gracias y virtudes agrandadas por ponderaciones admirativas (26) o por referencias a los arquetipos antiguos (27 y 28), hechos de armas patéticamente encuadrados por sus abnegadas hazañas de Reconquista (29 y 33), confirmadas en las últimas palabras de la Muerte (37). La acomodación de la turbulenta biografía a la vida ejemplar de ‘caballero famoso’ equiparable a Fernán González o al Cid queda cumplida con sutil perfección” (La idea de la fama en la edad media castellana [Mexico, 1952], p. 292 n. 122).

  15. The adjective verdadero, preceded by a reference in strophe XXXII to “nuestro rey natural,” was a blatant sarcastic remark directed at the pretentions of the unnatural, false monarch Juana la Beltraneja, whose claim to the throne was advanced by those two brothers Juan Pacheco and Pedro Girón.

  16. Cangiotti astutely observes that “il llamar a su puerta (vv. 395-96) della morte si carica di un suo significato molto preciso, ancora una volta in contrasto con versi 286-88 [‘cuando tú vienes airada, / todo lo passas de claro / con tu flecha’]” (p. 100). The significance of the three lives is discussed admirably by Stephan Gilman, “Tres retratos de la muerte en las Coplas de Jorge Manrique,” Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 13 (1959):305-24.

  17. Salinas, Jorge Manrique, pp. 230-31.

Giovanni Caravaggi (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Caravaggi, Giovanni. “Petrarch in Castile in the Fifteenth Century: The Triunphete de Amor by the Marquis of Santillana.” In Petrarch's Triumphs: Allegory and Spectacle, edited by Konrad Eisenbichler and Amilcare A. Iannucci, pp. 291-306. Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, Inc., 1990.

[In the following essay, Caravaggi identifies Petrarchan structural, stylistic, and thematic features in Santillana's Triunphete de Amor.]

The fortune of Petrarch in Spain is usually linked to the meeting in the autumn of 1526 between the poets of Charles V's court in Granada (that is, Juan Boscán, Garcilaso de la Vega and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza) and the ambassadors of the Republic of Venice and of the Pontiff (Andrea Navagero and Baldassar Castiglione respectively).

An important record of this meeting is the Prólogo to the second book of Boscán's poetic works. Boscán was a prominent figure in the sixteenth-century attempt to renew Spanish poetry. In the letter “A la Duquesa de Soma,” which serves as the preface to the second book, Boscán recounts in great detail his conversation with Andrea Navagero, and in particular Navagero's invitation to him to compose “en lengua castellana sonetos y otras artes de trobas usados por los buenos autores de Italia.” Boscán then recalls his first awkward attempts, the encouragement he received from Garcilaso de la Vega, who was engaged in the same undertaking (“porque quiso él también llevar este camino”), and his ultimate conviction of the greater suppleness and versatility of the Italian hendecasyllable vis-à-vis the octosyllable of the Castilian arte menor. Boscán's letter indicates clearly how Petrarch's Canzoniere marked a decisive turning-point in the development of Spanish lyricism, which was ready to reflect the subtle modulations of the Petrarchan model. However, by this time Petrarch's works had been well-known in Spain for more than a century, and had already brought about some change, though not as systematic or decisive or as consciously literary a change as would occur later on.

Íñigo López de Mendoza, Marquis of Santillana, may be considered with good reason the most distinguished precursor of a precise poetic orientation towards the fourteenth-century Italian tradition. He is not, however, the first poet to look to Italy for inspiration; at the very beginning of the fifteenth century, for example, Francisco Imperial, the Sevillian poet of Genoese background, had attempted to impose Dantesque allegory at the court of Enrico el Doliente. Santillana was thoroughly acquainted with the poets of the dolce stil nuovo, as well as with Dante (Divine Comedy), Petrarch (Canzoniere and Trionfi), Boccaccio, and the most significant French, Provençal, Catalan and Galician-Portuguese poets. He therefore possessed an extraordinary, panoramic vision of Romance literature.

Santillana's constant stylistic experimentation led him to insert innovative motifs and formal patterns, drawn from his rich knowledge of European poetry, into the native Hispanic poetic tradition. His “sonetos fechos al itálico modo,” his allegorical decires, and his elegant choreographic “visiones” made Petrarch familiar to an aristocratic public unaccustomed to such novelty. The decires, in particular, reveal clearly the incessant interference of the Italian models. Petrarch, as well as Dante and Boccaccio, is recalled constantly and even directly in a complex series of adaptations and interpolations which often produce suggestive results. The Comedieta de Ponza, for instance, celebrates the Neapolitan exploits of Alphonsus I of Aragon, which, though catastrophic at first, later proved triumphant. The very title of the play alludes to the Divine Comedy, although in a consciously adopted reductive process, as one gathers from the dedicatory letter to Doña Violante de Prades:

Muy noble señora, quando aquella batalla naval acaesció çerca de Gayeta, la qual fue asy grande … yo començé una obra a la qual llamé “Comedieta de Ponça.” E tituléla d'este nombre, por quanto los poetas fallaron tres maneras de nombres a “quellas cosas que aquí fablaron, es a saber: tragedia, sátira e comedia … Comedia es dicha aquella cuyos comienços son trabajosos e tristes, e después el medio e fin de su vida alegre, gozoso e bien aventurado; e d'este usó … Dante, en el su libro donde primeramente dise aver visto los dolores e penas ynfernales, e después el purgatorio, e alegre e bien aventuradamente después el parayso.”1

If the inspiration for the work is Dantesque, the choreographic apparatus is Petrarchan, especially with respect to the solemn allegorical parade of Fortune.2 The figure of Boccaccio himself takes part in the action; when the Aragonese court is mourning the military catastrophe of Ponza, Boccaccio appears as a spiritual guide and teacher, undoubtedly by virtue of a work that was making him influential on this matter, the De casibus virorum illustrium, translated into Spanish in the fifteenth century with the title Caída de príncipes.

The three allegorical “visiones,” closely connected to the model of the Trionfi, reveal that Santillana delights in staging spectacular parades of characters in which sumptuous and decorative choreographic elements are juxtaposed, and in so doing refuses to explore the metaphoric significance of their presence. The Triunphete de Amor, the Sueño and the Infierno de enamorados do not constitute a unified trilogy, as Chandler R. Post supposed.3 They represent, instead, three distinct phases of a poetic reflection incessantly attracted to poetry “fecha al itálico modo.”4

The shortest of the three “visiones” (merely 164 verses long) and perhaps the earliest one is the Triunphete de Amor. In using the diminutive, the title itself undoubtedly points to Santillana's deferential attitude towards Petrarch. As Rafael Lapesa indicates,

se percató de las diferencias que hay entre su poema y el que le sirvió de modelo, los Trionfi de Petrarca. Los Trionfi pretendían mostrar la succesión de ilusiones y desengaños que jalonan la vida del hombre hasta que se refugia en la esperanza de la eternidad. De este conjunto Santillana sólo se interesó per el triunfo del Amor, que, aislado, pierde todo alcance filosófico.5

This restrictive process, by analogy with that of the Comedieta de Ponza, reveals Santillana's intention to underline the lesser significance of his undertaking at the very moment when he is about to bring into play the more demanding title of a greater work. While the Triunphete does not exhibit the characteristics of a poetic compendium, neither does it limit itself to a passive reflection of Petrarchan themes. Instead, it delineates a narrative composed of many elements, some of which, according to P. Le Gentil, “peuvent avoir une origine française ou correspondre au goût français.”6

It is certain that from the point of view of narration, the Triunphete presents a rather simple linear structure. The author, who recounts the entire event in the first person, narrates the extraordinary adventure he had during a hunt. One day in the late spring, while chasing his prey in a vast flowery expanse, the poet-hunter saw two steeds near a spring and, close by, two elegantly dressed pageboys. Their garments attracted his attention, especially the allusive embroidery depicting the flames of Love and Cupid's arrows.7 Full of curiosity, the poet-hunter drew closer and, after courteous compliments, enquired as to the reason for the presence of the two young men. They, in turn, announced the imminent arrival of Venus and Cupid with their noble entourage of devotees. Immediately thereafter an impressive procession arrived. It consisted of a group of lovers composed of famous heroes from antiquity. A golden triumphal chariot, pulled by four horses, followed. Cupid was seated on the throne, wearing a glittering crown of precious stones. Venus sat next to him. Her retinue consisted of famous heroines who had submitted to her. Suddenly, by order of the goddess, a “dueña muy notable” belonging to the second group raised a fearful bow and shot a deadly arrow towards the astonished poet-hunter, who was wounded and lost consciousness. In this manner the wonderful vision disappears and the perpetual unhappiness of the poet-hunter, now incurably wounded by love, begins.

Through interpretative efforts that are not always convincing, Chandler R. Post has tried to connect the Triunphete to the tradition of the French “courts of love.” Post writes: “The Triunphete may be considered a Court of Love with additions from Petrarch,” and makes specific references to an extremely heterogeneous series of texts, from the Lay Amoureux by Eustache Deschamps to the Paradys d'Amour by Froissart, not overlooking, as distant founder of the tradition, Andreas Cappellanus.8

Pierre Le Gentil repeated, in principle, the same hypothesis, but much more cautiously: “Comme le note très justement Post, il semble que nous ayons à faire, dans le Triunphete, à une sorte de compromis entre le cortège des Triomphes et les descriptions françaises de la cour d'Amour.”9 Nevertheless, Le Gentil did not go so far as to support the suggestion that Santillana may have utilized certain French allegories, like the Paradys d'Amour by Froissart, with such divergent results, and he prudently limited himself to noting how “l'atmosphère qui y règne est semblable,” thus avoiding any direct comparison that would be difficult to support.10 As a matter of fact, Le Gentil admitted as a characteristic of Santillana the fact that “son style se ressent de ses nombreuses lectures italiennes.”11

Rafael Lapesa has offered a much more balanced evaluation. He points out Santillana's tendency to rely on a synthesis of three heterogeneous components: a Petrarchan schema, a Latin stylistic tendency, and a background of medieval reminiscences:

El Triunphete toma de Petrarca el plan general: desfile de enamorados célebres en torno al dios—aquí en torno a Venus también—y vencimiento del poeta. Apetencias cultas incrementan el latinismo en el léxico y en la sintaxis … Pero ni la serie de nombres clásicos ni el prurito latinizante quitan a la obra su fuerte sabor medieval; sobre todo en el comienzo—la caza, el encuentro y conversación con los pajes—, tan ajustado a los hábitos del ambiente señorial.12

Azáceta's point of view on the connection between Santillana and Petrarch is much more explicit:

La dependencia es tan evidente que consideramos totalmente desacertada la opinión de Post, que da como base de la obra de Santillana una corte de amor con adiciones de Petrarca.13

On the other hand, I do not see the value of attempting to identify at all costs in the Triunphete a subdivision into parts which are symmetrical and, in turn, separable into balanced nuclei. The structural schema proposed by Joaquín Gimeno Casalduero answers the need for an almost geometrical clarity. Nevertheless, the intention of “establecer la forma del conjunto” often bends the text in order to establish rigorous correspondences among narrative nuclei and among strophic groups:

El poemita, cuidadosamente construido, se divide en tres partes: la primera, de nueve estrofas, presenta, en torno al ejercicio de la caza y mediante la descripción del tiempo y del espacio, la dicha del Marqués y los anuncios que preceden al alegórico suceso; la segunda, también de nueve estrofas, relata el desfile de Venus y Cupido y enumera los personajes que lo constituyen; la tercera, muy breve—tres estrofas—explica la llaga de la flecha y el dolor que entonces aparece y que desde entonces dura. Se nos conduce así de la alegría de la primera parte a la tristeza de la última pasando por el amor. Eso es lo que nos dice la alegoría: la felicidad es el estado del que no ama; el dolor, el estado del amante. Esa es también la razón de los tres momentos: del no amor (Parte I) al amor (Parte II) y de ahí al dolor (Parte III). El número idéntico de estrofas (nueve) en las dos primeras partes equilibra los dos estados (no amor/amor) y los contrapone; en cambio, la brevedad de la tercera (tres estrofas y más corta la última) contrasta con la intensidad de la pasión que entonces se produce.14

Moreover, a reading such as the one suggested by Gimeno Casalduero undoubtedly has the merit of exalting the formal values of Santillana's work. It also highlights the clever device that joins the various narrative components of the Triunphete.

It is not necessary to extend this series of critical comments, cited here in a synthetic perspective; they become more or less convincing depending on the aptness of the examples that support them. On the other hand, quite a few aspects of the genesis and the transmission of the decir remain obscure.

Undoubtedly, the general schema of the narration is connected to Santillana's “visión” of Petrarch's Triumph of Love. Furthermore, numerous details confirm this link, which is, however, more than servile imitation. Santillana follows the structure of a work that should already have been quite authoritative, but he does not renounce his own interpretation of the motif. Choreographic and spectacular elements prevail in it, while moralistic reflections and complex allegorical metaphors are given very little space.

The nucleus of the visione, the parade of character that accompany the triumphant chariot of the god of Love, certainly does not belong to the tradition of the French “courts of love.” In fact, not just images and specific situations from the Triumph of Love but even Petrarchan stylistic features can easily be identified. One need only mention one of the numerous examples pointed out by scholars of comparative studies. The god of love, “monarca en los potentes / príncipes” (vv. 106-107), advances in “un carro triunphal e neto, / de oro resplandeciente,” pulled by “quatro caballos andantes” (vv. 114-119). What we have seen is a reductive adaptation of the Petrarchan description:

Vidi un vittorioso e sommo duce
pur com'un di color che 'n Campidoglio
trionfal carro a gran gloria conduce …

(Tr. Cup., I, 13-15)

There are obvious echos, such as the “quattro destrier vie più che neve bianchi” (Tr. Cup., I, 22) and the same glittering “carro di foco” (Tr. Cup., I, 23).

As we shall see later, the list of characters that make up the parade acquires a different meaning in the various editions of the Triunphete. The appearance of the lovely feminine figure that determines the end of the two admirable visions resolves itself with distinctive techniques: Petrarch's long contemplative lingering and an imminent dramatic development in Santillana. In this episode as well, often cited to document the non-Petrarchan borrowings, Íñigo López de Mendoza follows the usual approach by synthesizing and also by making use of a Castilian mediation already singled out by many scholars.15

Petrarch's young girl, “pura assai più che candida colomba,” did not seem to have, in fact, a threatening look, and managed to overcome the poet's resistance:

Così parlava, ed io, come chi teme
futuro male e trema anzi la tromba,
sentendo già dov'altri anco nol preme,
avea color d'uom tratto d'una tomba,
quand'una giovinetta ebbi dal lato,
pura assai più che candida colomba.
Ella mi prese, ed io, ch'avrei giurato
difendermi d'un uom coverto d'arme,
con parole e con cenni fui legato …

(Tr. Cup., III, vv. 85-93)

Nevertheless, the poet clearly perceived the peril attendant upon this gentle apparition:

So come Amor saetta e come vola,
e so com'or minaccia ed or percote,
come ruba per forza e come invola …

(Tr. Cup., III, vv. 175-177)

Later, especially in the Triumph of Chastity, the threat acquired concrete form in the conventional image of “Cupid's dart”:

Quel vincitor che primo era a l'offesa,
da man dritta lo stral, da l'altra l'arco
e la corda all'orecchia avea già stesa …

(Tr. Pud. I, vv. 34-36)

In a conjunction not devoid of theatrical effects, Santillana connects the episodes to each other: it is the woman herself who, on the explicit order of Venus, shoots the poet with an arrow of love which, as is well known, is inescapable:

Por expresso mandamiento
de la deesa honorable,
sin otro detenimiento,
una dona muy notable
enbraçó un arco espantable
e firióme tan sin duelo
que luego caí en el suelo
de ferida irreparable.

(XIX, vv. 145-152)

The experience of another poet, Francisco Imperial, who has already been mentioned as an early mediator between the two cultures, intervenes between these two texts. The Cancionero de Palacio has attributed to him a decir whose authorship has been contested at length:

Solo en l'alva pensoso estando
en una floresta de rosas e flores …(16)

The author makes reference to an allegorical episode that has many features in common with the Triunphete. He imagines that he was surprised, at daybreak, in a delightful flowering field, by the appearance of a woman as bright as the sun in May. The lady is holding “en su mano … un arco d'amores,” and her manner presages misfortune. Despite his repeated prayers, the poet cannot avoid becoming the victim of the lady's fatal arrow:

Enbraçó el arco muy maestrado,
e tendió la flecha fasta el fierro,
e sin fazer nengún otro yerro
firióme sin duelo la despiadada,
e la flecha era tan enfeccionada
con yerva d'amor que luego mortal
caí en el prado de la desleal
sacó la sayeta en sangre moxada.

(vv. 57-64)

The entire scene is drawn with the elegance found in the mannerist elaboration of the topos, emphasizing the formal traits of the established courtly tradition. Santillana, who had been molded by this tradition, seems to treasure the experience. He may also have been attracted by the spectacular effects of the solution. Obviously, by adopting a similar epilogue, Santillana places a pathetic importance on the event, while sacrificing the investigation for the consequences of the occurrence, an investigation extended at length by Petrarch in a complex anaphoric succession:

Da quel tempo ebbi gli occhi umidi e bassi
e 'l cor pensoso, e solitario albergo
fonti, fiumi, montagne, boschi e sassi;
da indi in qua cotante carte aspergo
di pensieri, e di lagrime, e d'inchiostro,
tante ne squarcio e n'apparecchio e vergo;
da indi in qua so che si fa nel chiostro
d'Amor, e che si teme e che si spera,
e, chi sa legger, ne la fronte il mostro,
e veggio andar quella leggiadra fera
non curando di me né di mie pene,
di sue vertuti e di mie spoglie altera …

(Tr. Cup., III, vv. 112-123)

Santillana, who seems by now to have exhausted the narrative interest of his own “visione,” shortens the conclusion and makes it into an envoy (or finida) that excludes the possibility of describing in detail the outcome of the experience, and uses the rhetorical formula of ineffability:

Non puede ser numerada
mi cuita desde aquel día
que ví la señora mía
contra mí desmesurada.

(vv. 161-164)

The Triunphete has come down to us in various versions, and they raise a number of questions. According to the most authoritative manuscripts, the Triunphete consists of twenty coplas of eight octosyllabic verses, with a three-fold rhyme scheme that juxtaposes a cuarteta in alternate rhymes (ABAB) and a redondilla in rima pari (BCCB); the finida (envoy) repeats, appropriately, the rhymes of the last redondilla.

A more detailed examination of the texts available to us confirms this analysis. The Triunphete has come down to us in a dozen manuscripts, of uneven value. They are schematized in the table below, which is based on the cancioneriles catalogues and on editions referred to in the notes.17 Evidently, some manuscript sources are useless. Apart from the case of the lost ZZ3, it must be pointed out that MT1 possesses little value; it can be used only for the two initial coplas since the copyist has erroneously joined two different decires by Santillana, that is, the preamble of the Triunphete and the coplas V-L (full of gaps) of the Infierno de Enamorados. Moreover, the hybrid is attributed to Jean de Meun.18 Other manuscripts are full of blanks, for instance MN54 and RC1, and contain only the first XII coplas, or have mistaken attributions (to Jean de Meun, in the case of MN54). Still others appear to be incomplete, though not to the extent of MH1, which lacks copla XIII.

The textual tradition of the Triunphete has only recently been the object of serious research. This has taken place more than one hundred years after the investigation carried out by Amador de los Ríos, whose critical edition represents to this day the most significant fruit of early philological investigation. Nevertheless, for his edition of the Triunphete (pp. 365-372) Amador de los Rios relied on only three manuscripts (MN8, SA7 and SA8), and preferred the first of the three, often on questionable grounds.

For his own edition, Vicente García de Diego, who took issue with his predecessor, sought to make use of the same three manuscripts and came up with divergent editorial choices. However, García de Diego did not in fact use SA8, but rather SA1, which he mistook for the other “salmantino” manuscript, also in the Biblioteca de Palacio, and which bears a call number that would lend itself to such a confusion.19

The operative criteria adopted by Manuel Durán appear to be even more questionable. Durán, on his part, claims to make use of three manuscripts, two already considered (MN8 and SA8), and one (YB2) found in the United States. In his apparatus, however, one can find only the variants relative to copla I. The limitations of this edition, whose value for textual criticism is negligible, have been exposed by Regula Langbehn Rohland, who refers specifically to allegorical poems such as the Triunphete, the Infierno de Enamorados and the Sueño.

The recent critical edition of the Poesías Completas by Santillana edited by Miguel Ángel Pérez Priego is based on a rigorous examination of almost all the manuscripts available; it establishes a text that is definitely more trustworthy. In so doing Pérez Priego clarifies the very concept of archetype. Pérez Priego, in fact, does not base his own editorial criteria solely on the premise of a progressive deterioration of Santillana's text, as far as the definitive original is concerned.

In the very limited space offered by a final footnote, Rafael Lapesa had already mentioned, though only in passing, a possible change of mind on the part of the poet in the definition of some details of his “visión.” This observation made it possible to consider from a new perspective the problem of the definitive edition of the decir. Lapesa, in making reference to a restricted number of verses, noted that “El texto del Triunphete ofrece doble redacción para las estrofas XI, XII y XIV,” since “la versión que parece más antigua” places in the parade of love figures “que no deben su celebridad a casos de amor,” whereas “la versión segunda los sostituyó por enamorados famosos.”20 By making use of expressions such as these, Lapesa explicitly posits corrective editing by Santillana himself, not a corruption produced by the transmission of the text. Actually, the nature of the variants, both in these coplas and in others, lends credence to the idea that Santillana did revise his work; this notion is supported by direct evidence in the copies made from different autograph manuscripts over a period of time. Naturally, the reason for such changes ought to be considered, especially if they appear not to have happened sporadically, but in fact “afectan a todo el sistema del texto.”21

Coplas XI and XII in particular (but one could also take into consideration coplas XVII and XVIII) present variants that it is difficult to attribute to a simple process of deterioration. In substance, they include the parade of the male figures in the procession of the god of love. The collation of the manuscripts points to two lists with rather divergent names. All the figures included in the first grouping, with the exception of Dante, belong to antiquity and are listed without apparent sequence or coherence; they consist of heroes from history, poets and philosophers, and legendary and mythological figures of the classical world. Among others we find, in an apparently casual arrangement, Nembrot, Samson and Solomon. A very different list appears in MN8, SA8 and ML3. It gains little in coherence, although there is a tendency to group the figures in three categories: classical and mythological heroes, biblical heroes, and heroes of Arthurian romances, plus Dante, the poet par excellence. The schema is identical to the one adopted by Petrarch in the Triumph of Love; furthermore, the second list reduces the selection to those figures that “poseían probada condición de amantes famosos.”22 The first and the second list (the “escasas variantes” reproduced by Pérez Priego on p. 188 are excluded) contrast in the following manner:


Allí vi a Magno Ponpeo
e a Çipión el africano,
Menbrot, Nino, Perseo,
Paris, Étor el troyano,
Aníbal, Ulpio, Trajano,
Archiles, Pirro, Jasón
Ércoles, Craso, Sansón,
Çésar e Otaviano.
Vi al sabio Salamón,
Uclídes, Séneca e Dante
Aristótiles, Platón,
Virgilio, Oraçio amante,
al astrólogo Atalante
que los çielos sustentó,
segund lo representó
Naso metaforizante.


Vi Çésar e vi Ponpeo,
Antonio e Octaviano,
los çentauros e Perseo,
Archiles, Paris troyano,
Aníbal, de mano en mano
con otros que Amor trayó
al su yugo e sometió
agora tarde o temprano.
Vi David e Salamón
e Jacob, leal amante,
con sus fuerças a Sansón
e Dalida más puxante;
de los christianos, a Dante,
vi Tristán e Lançarote
e con él a Galeote,
discreto e sotil mediante.

From this point of view, it would be just as interesting to collate strophes XVII-XVIII, the parade of the heroines in Venus' procession.

In fact, the systematic nature of the poet's corrections is clearly evident. As has already been emphasized, various corrections can be grouped into a coherent whole “legato da rapporti organici.”23 A comparison of the two drafts of the final part of copla I will support this. Copla I in MN8, SA8 and ML3 refers itself directly to the auctoritas of the Petrarchan Trionfi:

vi lo que persona humana
tengo que jamás non vió,
nin Petrarcha, qu'escrivió
de triunphal gloria mundana.

(vv. 5-8)

However, the oldest manuscript suggests another source, authoritative not so much on the poetic plane as on the plane of erudition, or encyclopedic knowledge.

nin Valerio, qu'escrivió
la grand estoria romana.

(vv. 7-8)

Furthermore, MN8 and SA8 are the only ones to offer a precise and unequivocal title, El Triunphete de Amor. In ML3 there is no initial rubric; in the other manuscripts one can find generic definitions, such as “otro tractado,” “otras suyas,” “dezir,” “coplas,” or just the author's name. It seems to me that Pérez Priego's conclusion about what he has gathered from the examination of such phenomena has given rise to some perplexities. The poem would have been “concebido originariamente,” according to what has been attested by the oldest canzonieri “como una simple visión del poderío del amor y del cortejo de personajes ilustres (los ‘reyes nin emperadores,’ ‘dueñas dignas d'onores,’ ‘poetas nin sabidores’ de la copla X), doblegados por Venus y Cupido.” Instead, at a later time, “la lectura reciente y más atenta de los Trionfi de Petrarca determinaría que Santillana tratara de aproximar su obra al modelo italiano.”24

Without a doubt, the entire question of variants reveals a Santillana “preocupado por su obra, la cual con reiteración selecciona, corrige y enmienda.”25 Our perplexity arises from the hypothesis of a superimposition of two different projects, of which only the latter would orient itself towards the Petrarchan model. It seems that a similar conclusion is drawn by Pérez Priego in his notes: “A nuestro entender, la presencia de Petrarca obedece sobre todo a una superposición literaria que se produce en la segunda redacción del poema.”26

This entire matter seems to be the most questionable aspect of Pérez Priego's rigorous and valuable investigation. What the Triunphete owes to the Trionfi is clearly already shown in the first edition of the central coplas (the parade of Cupid and Venus), as is demonstrated by the many correspondences that cannot be accounted for from a polygenetic perspective. They document how Santillana, from his first draft, had in mind the model of the Petrarchan Trionfi. Gradually the textual approach established itself with the introduction of a coherent group of variants that determined an even closer link between the Triunphete and its Tuscan source.

To conclude, one must not forget that the auctoritas of the Petrarchan Trionfi is explicitly recalled by Santillana even in the concluding part of the Comedieta de Ponza (copla CVI), towards the end of a long list of celebrated heroes and famous heroines of ancient times who are accompanying the goddess of Fortune:

¿Pues qué más diré? que cuantos abarca
varones y duenyas, y son memorados,
en el su volumen de “Triumpho” Petrarcha,
assí fueron todos vistos e juntados,
los unos vestidos, los otros armados,
segund los pintaron las plumas discretas
de los laureados y sacros poetas
en las istorias do son recontados.

Therefore, Petrarch tends to become, almost par excellence, the champion of the crowned and anointed poets, and the Trionfi represent for Santillana the most illustrious and exemplary celebratory work.

The Comedieta de Ponza, even if the poet pretends to compose it at the time of the defeat of the Infantes de Aragón off the coast of the Neapolitan island (1435), and imagines he is exalting a later triumph thanks to a prophetic vision, was composed, or at least concluded, after the actual conquest of Naples by Alphonsus V the Magnanimous (1442). It is definitely later than the Triunphete, which anticipates therefore the exemplary formula, with an identical recognition of Petrarch's mastery.


  1. Marquis of Santillana, Poesías completas ed. Manuel Durán, t. 1 (Madrid: Castalia, 1975), pp. 237-238. The Triunphete will be cited from Obras Completas, ed. Miguel Angel Pérez Priego t. 1 (Madrid: Alhambra, 1983).

  2. Evelina Vannutelli, “Il Marchese di Santillana e Francesco Petrarca,” Rivista d'Italia 27 (1924): 141-143; and José Maria Azáceta, “Italia en la poeía de Santillana,” Revista de literatura 3 (1953): p. 43, n. 56.

  3. Chandler R. Post, Medieval Spanish Allegory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1915), ch. xiii and, particularly, “The Erotic Trilogy. El Triunphete de Amor,” pp. 209-11.

  4. Rafael Lapesa, La obra literaria del Marqués de Santillana (Madrid: Insula, 1957), pp. 112-115 where one can note opportune references to Dante and Boccaccio. Recently, Regula Langbehn-Rohland has doubted, making a good argument, the links of continuity between the three experiences in her “Problemas de texto y problemas constructivos en algunos poemas de Santillana,” Filología, 17-18 (Buenos Aires, 1976-1977): 414-31.

  5. Lapesa, 114.

  6. Pierre Le Gentil, La poésie lyrique espagnole et portugaise à la fin du Moyen-Age, 2 vols. (Rennes: Plihon, 1949-1953), vol. I, 264.

  7. Vannutelli, 138-149, in briefly describing the decir, has mistakenly indicated that the page-boys are “armati di frecce” (p. 143), but the text is quite explicit (vv. 25-32):

    Vestían de zeituní
    cotas bastardas, bien fechas,
    de muy fino carmesí
    raso, las mangas estrechas,
    las medias partes derechas
    de bivos fuegos brodadas,
    e las siniestras senbradas
    de troxas llenas de flechas.

    The verses describe embroidery whose symbolic meaning is transparent. Lapesa, 113; Manuel Durán, 30.

  8. Post, 211.

  9. Le Gentil, I, 263.

  10. Le Gentil, I, 263.

  11. Le Gentil, I, 264.

  12. Lapesa, 114-115.

  13. Azáceta, 43.

  14. Joaquín Gimeno Casalduero, “El Triunphete de Amor del Marqués de Santillana: fuentes, composición y significado,” Nueva Revista de Filología Española, 28 (1979): 318-19.

  15. Post, 143 and 211; Le Gentil, I, 263; Lapesa, 116.

  16. Francisco Imperial Micer, “El dezir a las syete virtudes” yo tros poemas ed. de Colbert. I. Nepaulsingh (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1977) ff. 155r-156r.; Cancionero de Palacio (ms. 594) ed. por Vendrell de Millás Francisca (Barcelona: CSIC, 1945) pp. 398-401, with pertinent preliminary observations (pp. 63-64). The attributive criteria of C.I. Nepaulsingh (Imperial, p. 173) lack textual support.

  17. The chart is based on the following sources: Brian Dutton, Catálogo-índice de la poesía cancioneril del siglo XV (Madison: Hispanic Seminary, 1982); Jacqueline Steunou and Lothar Knapp, Bibliografía de los cancioneros castellanos del siglo XV y repertorio de sus géneros poéticos 2 vols (Paris: CNRS, 1975-1978); Alberto Varvaro, Premesse ad un'edizione critica delle poesie minori di Juan de Mena (Napoli: Liguori, 1964); Santillana, Obras de don Ïñigo López de Mendoza, Marqués de Santillana, ed. José Amador de los Ríos (Madrid: Rodríguez, 1852); Santillana, Canciones y decires, ed. Vicente García de Diego, Cl. Cast. 18 (Madrid: La Lectura, 1913); Duran, op. cit.; and Pérez-Priego, op. cit.

  18. Giovanni Caravaggi, Miscellanea spagnola della Trivulziana (Firenze: Olschki, 1974), pp. 167-169.

  19. The mistake was cleared up by Varvaro, 17-18.

  20. Lapesa, p. 16, n. 40.

  21. Pérez Priego, p. 12.

  22. Pérez Priego, p. 14, as well as the notes on pp. 188-190 for the concordances with Petrarch.

  23. Cesare Segre, Semiotica filologica: testo e modelli culturali (Torino: Einaudi, 1979), p. 56.

  24. Pérez Priego, p. 13.

  25. Pérez Priego, p. 14.

  26. Pérez Priego, p. 184, n. in v. 7.

Dorothy Clotelle Clarke (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Clarke, Dorothy Clotelle. “The Decir de Micer Francisco Imperial a las siete virtudes: Authorship, Meaning, Date.” In Hispanic Medieval Studies in Honor of Samuel G. Armistead, edited by E. Michael Gerli and Harvey L. Sharrer, pp. 77-83. Madison Wis.: The Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, Ltd., 1992.

[In the following essay, Clarke explicates the poem Decir a las siete virtudes from the fifteenth-century collection Cancionero de Baena.]

The longest (465 verses), undoubtedly the best known, the most scribe-garbled, and the least understood and variously interpreted poem contained in the fifteenth-century Cancionero de Baena is the “Dezir a las siete virtudes,” attributed in the rubric to Micer Francisco.1 Modern critics have added the surname Imperial to Francisco, thus identifying the poem's author with another poet, the well-known Micer Francisco Imperial (d.1409 according to Gaibrois de Ballesteros), one of the principal poets at the royal court of Castile during the early childhood of Juan II, who was born March 5, 1405.

Most of Imperial's poems appear in Baena's Cancionero immediately preceding our decir, a circumstance that may have prompted the copyist to conclude that the latter was composed by Imperial—and so have misled us into accepting Francisco, also, as part of the poet's name. Since certain thinly-veiled references in the poem are to important historical events occurring at least a decade subsequent to the death of Imperial, the identity of the author of the Decir a las siete virtudes is yet to be determined. Indeed, we cannot be at all sure that the author's name involved either Micer (simply a courtesy title, Mister) or Francisco. It must be remembered also that the copy in Baena's Cancionero is not the author's original and that we do not know the degree of its relationship to the original.

Although the fact that the poet encloses his work between a quotation from Dante's Divine Comedy (Purg. III, 78) and a direct reference to a specific capítulo in it (Par. XXIII, 1-39), and frequently quotes his work and makes allusions to it in the text, and the fact that our poet's guide carried a gold-embossed book beginning En medio del camino (opening words of the Divine Comedy, l. 103), might lead us to conclude that our Micer was Italian, the poet's deep concern for the plight of Castile2 in the late teens and early twenties of the fifteenth century would seem to indicate that he was from Spain, perhaps at or near the royal court of Castile. All we know concerning the author, then, is what we find in the Decir a las siete virtudes.

The intended message of the poem has received various interpretations,3 such as a moral one, applicable to the individual, or a religious one, such as a warning against heresies or non-Christian peoples or actions, and so forth, whereas the poet quite surely was concerned not only with the seriously deteriorated political and moral situation of Castile in or near the very early twenties of the fifteenth century, but with what he considered a principal cause, the disintegration of the Roman Catholic Church subsequent to the Great Schism, in which one of Spain's outstanding religious leaders, the Aragonese Pedro de Luna, Benedict XIII, had played a major role.

Interpretation of the first part of the poem (through l. 312), in which the poet, after explaining the circumstances and introducing Dante, his dream-guide, describes the ideal state, reigned by the seven Virtues (i.e., Christianity), offers no difficulty. Thereafter confusion prevails in our modern-day attempt to explain the meaning of the seven serpientes (ll. 313-352), perhaps so-called after the serpent (i.e., Satan in disguise) that persuaded Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:4). Moral qualities of the individual person—specifically, the seven deadly sins, to match the seven virtues just presented, naturally come to mind, especially since Dante is our guide and has just enumerated the Virtues and described each one individually. We have been so hypnotized by the presence of Dante in the unfolding of the beautiful scene of the Virtudes that, with notable exception, we have been too often determined to force our interpretation of the serpientes section, for example, into the Inferno mold, and to make each of the repulsive reptiles represent a specific deadly sin from Dante's list, though without his gradation. Uncritically we have aligned these seven, according to number, with the seven Virtues, attempting to match Christian virtues with opposite mortal sins, or with heresies, or other unchristian behavior—often blaming the scribe(s) for our difficulty—without realizing that the lovely maidens and their surroundings are components of a vanishing state—Castile in “the good old days.” We have failed to recognize them as something more than artistic background contrast. These loathsome snakes-in-the-grass, it now seems are human individuals who have attempted in the early a.d. centuries to destroy Christianity, and in the days of our poet, not only to destroy the Roman Catholic church, and thereby to jeopardize the human soul, but to bring about the political ruination of a once well-ordered Castile.

Stanza 38 tells us directly why these seven Virtues are not visible in Castile: the view of these Christian virtues has been obstructed by the seven serpents that unnoticed had come along with the poet to the arroyo surrounding the garden. It should be noted here that the poet's concern is the plight of Castile, as he had already mentioned in Stanza 5: “Quiça segundará d'este sueño estrella / que luzerá en Castilla con mi ruego” (ll. 35-36). Note Castilla.

In lines 313-352 the poet identifies each of the seven serpents, which he calls serpientes, sierpes, or bestias. Despite the obvious influence of Dante on our poet, these are not the seven deadly sins designated by the Church and affecting the individual soul. They are attempts, (the first and the third) to stamp out Christianity by ridding the surroundings of Christians, and (the second) via heresy to pervert it; and (the second three) attempts to splinter or destroy the Roman Catholic Church. Critics have too often been tricked by the presence of Dante into assuming that these seven are the mortal sins, designated as such by the Church. The first three, as it now appears, are historical personages inimical to Christianity and/or the Church in early times. The first (ll. 316-317), though the scribal garbling states that “la una llaman la sierpe menor,” whereas the rime-scheme calls for an ending in -ona, as previously suggested (see Lapesa), surely is Nerona. This reference is doubtless to Nerón, the first Roman emperor (a.d. 54-68) accused of setting fire to Rome, blaming the Christians for it, and ordering the first persecution of the Christians, including Saints Peter and Paul—fire and blood. His very breathing inflames the air (l. 317). The second serpent, Aryona, “muy enemiga de la fe cristiana / enpoçoñada e falsa, erronea” (ll. 318-20), shares the strophe with Nero. The reference is clearly, I believe, to another early enemy of Christianity: Arius (256?-336 a.d.) and his followers (i.e., the first Christian heresy), who denied equality of Jesus Christ with God the Father. “La tercia llaman la bestia Juderra, / de ssy enemiga, e desesperada, / e aborrecida del cielo e tierra, / e de sus braços anda enforcada” (ll. 321-26) is an exact portrait of Judas Escariot, who betrayed Jesus and then, horrified at the thought of his act, “cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matthew XXVII: 5). Our poet's scene was probably intended to suggest Judaism itself, which had persisted through the centuries, denying its adherents salvation through Christ.

These first three serpents form a group apart. They keep their sight fixed on the ground (headed for Hell, may we assume?), and their tails raised skyward (scorning Heaven and its occupants?). The group formed by the remaining four, stands at some distance from the first three, but not too far away (ll. 329-32). The distance is probably the interval in historic time separating the two groups.

One big serpent of the second group snatches and appropriates others' nourishment. His name is Alenxada, i.e., Lejada (ll. 333-36). Obviously the reference is to Pedro de Luna, a.k.a. Benedict XIII, antipope during the latter part of the Great Schism. He was a major threat to the very structure of the Church. He had been elected pope (1394) in Avignon while Boniface IX was serving as pope in Rome, and, angry at having been deposed by the Council of Constance (1414), he refused to abdicate, left Avignon, and went to sulk in Peñíscola, where he died in 1423 (?). Serpent number five (ll. 337-340), pusilánima y menguada, is named Sierpe Calestina—Calixtine, that is—another name for Hussite, designating the followers of the Czech social (antifeudalism) religious reformer John Huss (1369?-1415), an ordained priest and a contemporary of Benedict XIII. For his religious ideas (notably that the communion calix containing the wine should be offered to laymen as well as to priests) Huss was condemned by the Council of Constance in 1414, and soon thereafter was burned at the stake. The sixth serpent (ll. 341-44) is aptly described Asyssyna, a reference to the Islamic secret sect Assassins, begun in 1090 and continued over the centuries, its members being given to drug addiction and murder. For his seventh and last serpent (ll. 345-48), why does our poet go back some two millennia to choose a character who could not possibly have had knowledge of Christianity? The answer is clear: Sardanapalas, supposed king of Assyria in the early eighth century b.c., is virtually a synonym for complete moral and spiritual dissolution. He epitomizes the moral and spiritual decay leading to self-inflicted destruction of self and consequently his court—the imminent condition of Castile, as the poet sees it.

The explanation of the serpientes probably is that the accumulation of attacks on Christianity, and especially the contemporary attempts to splinter the Roman Catholic Church, bringing or having brought about a (presumed) reversion to debauchery and heathenism via contempt for all morality, is ending (or will soon end) in complete destruction of Christianity and all its beauties. Notable is the fact that in two of the three of the first group, and the third in the second group, the attempt at destruction is by physical means—burning, slaughter, hanging—and in two of the second three, plus Arius of the first group, by psychological means, in this case a sower of discord within the Church and the two heresies. Lines 313-52, then, give an overview of the religious and moral condition of Castile around the beginning of the third decade of the fifteenth century.

As important as the historical references themselves are, the order in which they are placed, and the artistic handling of such material, subtle use of time, color, light, geometric design, and framing help convey the message. The poet, aiming for a learned audience, provides bare character identification, leaving the reader to supply the significant background details.

Noteworthy is the poet's technique in his presentation of the two realms, that of the Christian virtues and that of the enemies of the Church. A leisurely introduction and the approach to the entrance to the realm of the virtues occupy eleven octaves, three more (12-14) to catch our first glimpse of Dante, one to hear his voice (15), one for transition (16), still another to catch the sound of beautiful singing (17), one to introduce Lía (18), one to point out the seven stars (19), and eighteen to describe the Virtues and their setting (20-37). Here light is plentiful and space is unlimited. Pleasure pervades. The view and the atmosphere appeal to all five senses. Light is abundant, and voices are sweet. Music, perfume, all the rainbow colors, the feel and taste of fresh water from the spring—all are plentiful. Harmony permeates all. Time is non-existent. In short, the appeal to the senses is direct. The poet enumerates and describes the beauties. On the other hand, the mere six-stanza (ll. 305-352, following a fourteen-line introduction) tightly compacted sense-repellant serpent realm, in which we are left to conjure up most of the scenes and sensations, is devoid of light and color except that provided by destructive fire—that used for killing—Nero, Huss (burned at the stake), and especially Sardanapalas, who set fire to his own palace and, along with its occupants, burned himself to death in it. Color is provided only by destructive fire and by crudely drawn blood (Nero, Judas Escariot, Assassins). For the mention of cielo, see below. For the tactile sense, pain alone is provided, via suicide by hanging (Judas Escariot), slaughter of innocents (Nero), burning at the stake (Huss), arson (Nero, Sardanapalas), and murder (Assassins). The olfactory sense is represented by the stench issuing from the seven reptiles and disturbing the air so violently that—nota bene—people en nuestro rregno (i.e., Castile) cannot discern the Virtues (ll. 349-52). Except for Dante's unmentioned quiet voice in the background, sound is absent, unless it is true that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Although the cielo is mentioned four times (ll. 331, 334, 338, 347), and normally would offer a pleasant sensation of color and well-being, it is scorned here or closed to the serpents, all of whom wear a many-serpent-faced crown—a repulsive sight! With the Virtues, we move (make progress). With the serpientes we stand still in the slaughter-and-bloodshed nightmare. If we consider the meaning of each of the serpents, we may note that the poet encloses the action of their realm in suggested flames—Nero's burning of Rome, and Sardanapalas' incendiary destruction of his palace and of himself. Fire is also involved in the Calestina reference (Huss burned at the stake). Not a pretty picture of Castile!

“O cibdat noble, pues te esmeraste / en todo el rregno por más escogida, / que d'estas sierpes una non dexaste / que todas siete en ti an guarida!” (ll. 353-56) explains the poet's motive in composing the Decir. Ciudad has nothing to do with any geographical location—i.e., city in the modern sense—but has the medieval and the Latin meaning of citizenry, citizens collectively,4 and noble refers to the social nobility, aristocratic (titled) section of the population. The poet is upbraiding the nobles of the realm for allowing the Roman Catholic Church, and consequently, the political situation of Castile, to become seriously eroded. The tirade on the deplorable condition of the kingdom continues through four strophes (ll. 353-84). However, the poet turns to begging the nobility: “Miénbrate, triste, que eres grant braço / de todo el regno: siquiere ave duelo / de la adolecencia del niño moçuelo!”5 The niño moçuelo surely can be none other than Juan II, who in early March of 1419, attained the age of adolescence (fourteen), and with it, automatically acquired full responsibility for a now sorely troubled Castile, and had to contend especially with the greedy power-and-land-hungry next-door neighbor cousins, the four infantes de Aragón. Victim of one of the latter (don Enrique), Juan was kidnapped (July 14, 1420) and held a virtual prisoner (Suárez Fernández, pp. 503-506). Enrique de Aragón proceeded to marry Catalina, one of Juan's sisters. While the wedding festivities were under way, Juan's clever protector, Alvaro de Luna, pretending to take Juan hunting, took him instead to the castle of Montalbán, where the two were subsequently besieged for some time by Enrique.

Other troubles were rife,6 but the above amply exemplifies the poet's concerns, and also helps us set the approximate date of the poem's composition—i.e., after early March of 1419, and at latest, before the end of 1423, the approximate date of the death of Benedict XIII, fourth of the serpientes discussed above. Given his near-devotion to Dante, dare we say that our poet wrote—or at least finished—his work on or by May of 1421, in commemoration of both the date of his birth (May, 1365) and the centenary of the death (1321) of his mentor?

Another question may be raised: Why did our poet have Dante, except for introductory and concluding remarks, do all the speaking, often even quoting himself from the Divine Comedy? Was his motive two-fold? While honoring his guide, would allowing him to do the speaking lend special authority to what was said?

The final stanzas, which contain the poet's last queries, close the poem with an octave that reflects—and perhaps is intended to remind us of—the beauties of nature typical of the realm of the Virtudes:

E commo en mayo, en prado de flores,(7)
se mueue el ayre en quebrando el alua,
suauemente buelto con olores [Lang = colores],
tal se mouió, acabada la salua:
feríame en la faz e en la calua,
e acordé, commo a fuerça despierto,
e fallé en mis manos a Dante abierto
en el capítulo que la Virgen salua.

The statement of the final two lines, referring to Paradise XXXIII, 1-39, informs us simply that the poet has just finished reading Dante's greatest work, but the message implied by our poet is one of hope and inspiration: he is showing the way to serenity for the nation that is willing to undertake the task of working its way out of the infernal state in which it finds itself at the moment.

What can we surmise regarding the author? Did he deliberately remain anonymous in order to avoid retribution from the powerful nobility? Given the poor transcription of the only known copy of his work, did he (or someone who heartily agreed with him), under the shield of anonymity, have multiple copies made for distribution to nobles and others in high position? That the poet was well-educated and that he had access to works of history and literature is obvious. Was he then, a clergyman, as his thesis, his vehemence concerning Church matters, and his sensitivity to Church music would seem to indicate? These are questions which remain to be answered.


  1. All references to the Cancionero de Baena are to the Azáceta edition. Quotations are my interpretation of the Lang facsimile edition.

  2. “Ca assy commo de poca çentella / algunas vezes segunda grant fuego, / quiça segundará d'este sueño estrella / que luzerá en Castilla con mi rruego” (ll. 33-36)

  3. Gimeno Casalduero offers an overview of studies published in the years 1946-1977, and adds his own interpretation.

  4. See Corominas, s.v. ciudad; Lewis and Short, s.v. civitas.

  5. adolecencia = juventud—see Corominas s.v. adolescente. See also niño and mozo (par. 3).

  6. “… su largo reinado constituye para Castilla una etapa importante. En tres aspectos puede ser considerado: primero, como una tremenda batalla de desgaste contra la nobleza, batalla en la que don Alvaro de Luna ocupa el lugar más importante,” Diccionario de Historia, II, 564.

  7. May was the month of Dante's birth.


Asensio, Eugenio. Review of La poésie lyrique espagnole et portugaise á la fin du Moyen-âge de Pierre Le Gentil, RFE, 34 (1950), 286-304.

Baena, Juan Alfonso de. Cancionero, ed. facsimile, foreword by Henry R. Lang, New York: The Hispanic Society of America, New York, 1926. Idem, ed. José María Azáceta, 3 vols. Madrid: CSIC, 1966.

Gimeno Casalduero, Joaquín. “El Dezir a las siete virtudes de Francisco Imperial y sus sierpes: la bestia Asyssyna,” Hispania, 70 (1987), 206-13.

Clarke, Dorothy Clotelle. “A Comparision of Francisco Imperial's “Decir al nacimiento del rey Don Juan and the Decir a las siete virtudes,Symposium, 17 (1963), 17-29.

———, “Church Music and Ritual in the Decir a las siete virtudes,HR, 29 (1961), 179-199.

Corominas, Joan and José Pascual, Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, 5 vols. Madrid: Gredos, 1980-83.

Diccionario de Historia de España, 3 vols. Dirigido por Germán Bleiberg. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 2nd ed. 1968-69.

Gaibrois de Ballesteros, Mercedes. “Micer Francisco Imperial murió antes de abril de 1409,” Correo Erudito, 5 (1945), 179-80.

Lapesa, Rafael. “Notas sobre Micer Francisco Imperial,” NRFH, 7 (1953), 337-51.

Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966.

Masson de Gómez, Valerie. “A New Interpretation of the Final Lines of the Desir a las siete virtudes,HR, 40 (1972), 412-27.

Morreale, Margherita. “El Dezir a las siete virtudes de Francisco Imperial. Lectura e imitación prerrenacentista de la Divina Comedia.” In Lengua, Literatura, Folklore. Estudios dedicados a Rodolfo Oroz, ed. Gastón Carrillo Herrera, Facultad de Folosofía y Educación, Universidad de Chile, 1967. pp. 307-77.

Nepaulsingh, Colbert I. Micer Francisco Imperial: “El dezir a las siete virtudes” y otros poemas, Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, S.A., 1977.

The New Columbia Encyclopedia, ed. William H. Harris and Judith S. Levey, New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Suárez Fernández, Luis. Historia de España. Edad Media, Madrid: Gredos, 1970.

Woodford, Archer, “Edición critica del Dezir a las syete virtudes de Francisco Imperial,” NRFH, 8 (1954), 268-94.

———, “Francisco Imperial's Dantesque Dezir a las Syete Virtudes: a Study of Certain Aspects of the Poem.” Itálica, 27 (1950), 88-100.

———, “More about the Identity of Miçer Francisco Imperial,” MLN, 67 (1953), 386-88.


Criticism: The Cancioneros


Further Reading