the Marqués de Santillana Íñigo López de Mendoza Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Íñigo López de Mendoza, the Marqués de Santillana 1398-1458

Spanish poet and literary patron.

The following entry provides criticism on Santillana's works from 1967 through 1996.

The Marqués de Santillana is an important literary figure of fifteenth-century Spanish poetry and is credited with composing the first Petrarchan style sonnets in Spanish, referred to as the Sonetos fechos al modo (circa 1438-circa 1455), and the first to write formal literary criticism in Castile. In addition to these accomplished firsts, Santillana's allegorical poem, Comedieta de Ponça (1436) marks the first Spanish ars poetica. Although much of Santillana's work enjoyed significant prestige during his lifetime, Santillana is best known today for the composition of his serranillas, many of which can be found in anthologies and histories dealing with Spanish literature. Santillana's work, which is extensive and varied, was significantly influenced by the works of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, making his body of poetry representative of the transition between medieval and Renaissance Spanish literature. While Santillana's poetry mainly deals with the topics of love, politics, morals, and religion, many critics point out that evidence of Santillana's artistic merit lies in the formality, thematic variety, and extensiveness of his work, all of which demonstrate that he was a dedicated poet. Not only is Santillana considered one of the most enthusiastic and talented Spanish poets of his time, he is also considered a great literary patron. At a time when his country was experiencing political and social unrest, Santillana supported the translations of many Greek and Latin classics into Castilian and used his poetry as a voice of counsel and consolation in an effort to encourage intellectual and cultural progress in his country.

Biographical Information

Santillana was born Íñigo López de Mendoza on August 19, 1398, at Carrion de Los Condes in Old Castile. He was born into a talented family of writers that introduced him to writing early in his life. His father, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, was a grand admiral of Castile but enjoyed writing poetry occasionally, and his uncles, Pérez de Guzmán and López de Ayala, were also talented writers. Santillana's father died when he was five years old, but his mother, Leonor de la Vega, made sure Santillana received the best education she could provide, along with tutors who would influence him well, among them Chancellor Pedro López de Ayala, a prominent writer and man in Castile at the time. From his eighteenth year on, Santillana became a well-known figure in the court of King Juan II of Castile. His involvement in the court and his country's politics allowed him to establish relationships with other writers and intellectuals of his time, and provided him with an opportunity to write his own poetry. In 1412 he married Catalina de Figuera, and the couple had ten children. Throughout his lifetime Santillana distinguished himself as a skillful politician and a courageous member of the military. For his role in the battle of Olmedo on May 19, 1445, he was granted the titles of Marqués de Santillana and Conde del Real de Manzanares, the former for which he is best known. After King Juan II died in 1454, Santillana left public affairs for the most part, and devoted himself to the pursuits of literature and religious meditation until he died on March 25, 1458 at Guadalajara.

Major Works

Today, the most popular and widely studied of Santillana's works are his serranillas (circa 1423-circa 1440). Eight of the serranillas were written to stand alone, and two represent stanzas from larger collective poems where various authors contributed. These ten poems have distinctive courtly and pastoral elements. Structurally the poems are not difficult, but they do contain innovative features and have a certain musical quality, elements on which many critics have focused studies. Three additional poems that receive great critical attention are El triunfete de amor (circa 1437), El sueño (circa 1437), and Infierno de los enamorados (circa 1437). Each of these poems is an allegorical work about love, and they are the most famous of Santillana's decires, which are defined as love or praise poems. At one time, these three poems were referred to as Santillana's erotic trilogy, but much controversy exists over the order in which the poems should be read, and many current critics disagree that the poems actually represent a true trilogy. These poems and the serranillas demonstrate several innovative writing techniques in Spanish literature of the time. Where some of Santillana's works tend to have a more lighthearted tone, others, typically his later works, demonstrate larger structural complexities and contain more social, political, and religious commentary. For example, the Comedieta de Ponça is one of Santillana's longer poems and is considered a historical or political poem describing the defeat of the Aragonese fleet by Genoese in August of 1435 near the island of Ponça. This poem is one of Santillana's more complex works and is the first documented use of narrative fiction in Spanish literature. Another unique contribution to Spanish literature is seen in the poem Proverbios o Centiloquio (1437). It is considered a moral poem and is unique in the fact that it is the only poem where Santillana provides notes that explain his use of biblical and mythological references. Bías contra Fortuna (1448) is another of Santillana's moral poems, is written in dialogue form, and seems to argue for strengthening royal power. On a different note, Pregunta de nobles (1436) was commissioned to instruct the crown prince of the time on moral lessons aimed at controlling oneself. Although these three poems are connected as part of Santillana's moral poems, each uses a distinctive approach to illustrating the overall themes to the audience. While Santillana has offered a vast contribution to Spanish literature through the previously mentioned poems, he is most widely known for his contribution through the Sonetos fechos al ytalico modo (circa 1438-circa 1455). These poems characterize the first Petrarchan sonnets written in Spanish and represent the bridging between the medieval and Renaissance periods in Spanish literature. Many critics have pointed out that the elements of the Petrarchan style in Santillana's sonnets provide a sort of connective thread to this part of Santillana's work, while incorporating a wide range of topics and themes, adding to their complexity and intrigue for critical study. Above all, the literary work of Santillana is both extensive and diverse and has contributed greatly to the development of Spanish literature.

Critical Reception

Many critics agree that Santillana is one of the most important poets of Spanish literature. Because of the diversity, complexity, and extensiveness of his work, critics have produced a varied body of work involving the poet's oeuvre. For instance, one recent critic, Laura R. Bass (1996) takes a different critical approach to interpreting the pastoral elements of Santillana's serranillas. She states in her essay, “Crossing Borders: Gender, Geography, and Class Relations in Three Serranillas” that Santillana was a true innovator in his poetry through the use of specific geographic descriptions to evoke the mood presented by pastoral elements; something his predecessors had not done. Furthermore, Bass argues that these specific details allow Santillana to place symbolic significance on the geography, endowing the landscape with a male persona. This persona, in turn, comments on the boundaries of aristocratic masculine authority. Other critics have not taken such an analytical and fine-tuned approach to this aspect of the serranillas and instead believe that the geographical specificity lends more to providing local color and a sense of realism than any real symbolic significance. Other critics, such as A. J. Foreman (1974), view Santillana's work from a historical perspective and offer the literary student an informative comparison of the historical content of Santillana's work. In his essay, “The Structure and Content of Santillana's Comedieta de Ponça,” Foreman discusses the historical content, as well as the structural elements, of Comedieta de Ponça. He suggests that this poem is the most ambitious of Santillana's pieces and provides the reader with evidence of societal preoccupations of the time. Foreman also discusses the innovations of organization found in the poem, and how these new elements of unity allow Santillana to comment on the historical and moral role of poetry. Like Foreman, David William Foster (1971, 1967) also believes that a historical approach offers an effective method of study for Santillana's work. For instance, Foster considers the possibility that the religious imagery found in Santillana's secular poems reflects fifteenth-century Spain's historical movement to secularization. While many critics, like Bass, Foreman, and Foster, offer favorable analyses of Santillana's work, other critics explore the possibility that some of the poet's contributions to Spanish literature were not as significant. For example, Derek C. Carr (1978), in his essay “Another Look at the Metrics of Santillana's Sonnets,” contends that Santillana's effort to introduce the Petrarchan style sonnet into Spain was unsuccessful. Carr suggests that the elements of the sonnets intended to mirror the Italian models do not succeed in either form or content. Despite any disagreement over literary interpretation or historical contribution, the work of Santillana remains an intriguing subject for a broad group of literary critics.