BMCR 2011.02.15

Ovid in the Age of Cervantes

, Ovid in the Age of Cervantes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. xxii, 291. ISBN 9781442641174. $65.00.

Ovid in the Age of Cervantes consists of 15 essays distributed in four parts. Essentially, they aim to assess the influence of Ovid on Spanish authors of the Renaissance, paying special attention to the work of Cervantes. Part One deals with some of the ways Ovid was interpreted and transformed in medieval and Renaissance Spain. Part Two is about how Cervantes borrowed from works of Ovid. Next, in Part Three, we learn about poets being inspired by specific Ovidian tales and, lastly, the contributors of Part IV explain how self-fashioning strategies, such as declaring oneself an heir of Ovid, were crucial to achieve poetical fame. Authors and titles of the essays are listed at the end of the review.

The editor of this collection, Frederick A. de Armas, states that not since Rudolph Schevill’s Ovid and the Renascence in Spain (1913) has there been another comprehensive study of Ovid’s influence on Spanish literature (x). That might be true. Whereas there are numerous wide-range studies on the role of classical literature in Spanish poetry, the impact of Ovid has been traditionally assessed when examining individual writers. Nevertheless, it is odd that the contributors seem not to be aware of some seminal works.1 Curiously, the most conspicuous omissions are works of Spanish scholarship, some of them unavoidable landmarks.2 More alarmingly, Martínez Rodríguez’s El Mito de Filomela en la Literatura Española (2008), a four-hundred page monograph examining the influence of the Ovidian tale of Philomela in Spanish literature from the Middle Ages onwards, is not to be found anywhere in the bibliographies that accompany each essay. Therefore, unless the reader of this collection is a consummate hispanista, it will be easy to accept claims of originality at face value.

The preface does not really outline an adequate and consistent methodological tone for the subsequent essays. De Armas unnecessarily proposes the use of the term the ‘Age of Cervantes’ as an alternative to the ‘Golden Age’, which has traditionally defined the extraordinary flowering of literature and arts in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I say ‘unnecessarily’ for two reasons. First, all the other contributors consistently use the conventional ‘Golden Age’ in their essays. Second, the editor’s arguments reveal a key methodological flaw that is pervasive in many of the essays in this collection. If the main aim of the book is to evaluate the impact of Ovid on Cervantes and his contemporaries, it is essential that we approach this topic through the way contemporaries saw their own times and their peers. Otherwise, serious anachronisms arise by applying twenty-first century ideological paradigms to the Early Modern view of the world. Admittedly, it might sound politically incorrect to describe a period of territorial expansion and exploitation of indigenous people as Golden Age, a term actually derived from the Augustan Golden Age in Rome. Conversely, authors such as Quevedo, Góngora, or Cervantes himself would have probably interpreted the phrase ‘Siglo de Oro’ in a way that resembles our current use and historical connotations, such as implying a fascinating tension between aesthetic brilliance and political decadence. Furthermore, whereas we may now seem to be enlightened enough to judge Cervantes as a symbol of change and experimentation, as an inventor of a new genre, the novel, Cervantes’ contemporaries did not share these views. In fact, although Don Quixote was widely read throughout the seventeenth century, the canonization of this work only took place in the following century.3 Thus, the comparison of Cervantes with Ovid, who had been enthusiastically accepted by the literary elite before his forced exile, is misleading.

In general, the essays of Part One are informative, offering new angles to appreciate the extraordinary presence of the works of Ovid in Spanish literature. In essay 1 we are told that in the thirteenth century some commentaries relied on Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris when dealing with the topic of lovesickness as described in medical treatises. Indeed, the interrelation of the literary and the scientific poses the question of whether these hybrid studies had an impact on authors like Juan Ruiz, Fernando de Rojas, and Cervantes himself. Conversely, there is little new in essay 2. For instance, we already knew that sixteenth-century Spanish versions of the Metamorphoses did not attempt to Christianize Ovid, as their medieval predecessors did. However, essay 3 is both original and absorbing. In his Jardín de flores curiosas (1568) Torquemada uses Ovidian tales to find rational explanations for some pressing debates of the time, like the misconceived preeminence of lineage over deeds and the relationship of demons to the Christian faith. In essay 4 we are introduced to different interpretations of particular verses from the Fasti, ranging from the traditional allegorical reading to the exclusively stylistic interpretation displayed in Baltasar Gracián’s Agudeza y arte de ingenio (1642).

Cervantes explicitly refers to Ovid several times in Don Quixote. The prologue of part 1 mentions the Tristia and Ovid’s tale of the cruel Medea. In one of the comic sonnets preceding the novel, Cervantes describes himself as ‘our Spanish Ovid’. The student whom Don Quixote meets in chapter 22 of part 2 claims that he is writing a burlesque version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In chapter 18 of part 2, Don Lorenzo recites a sonnet that is a clever version of the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe from Book 4 of the Metamorphoses. And finally, in chapters 19-21 of part 2, the story of Quiteria, Camacho, and Basilio is again a version of Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. Thus one would reasonably expect that the essays of Part Two would explore new evidence of traces of Ovid in the work of Cervantes. In essay 5 Timothy Ambrose strangely establishes a parallel between Book 3 of the Metamorphoses and “The Curious Impertinent”, a novella inserted in chapters 33-5 of Don Quixote, part 1. In brief, it is the tragic tale of Anselmo who, in order to test the virtue of his wife Camila, requests that his best friend Lotario attempt to seduce her. Upon discovering that they have actually become lovers, Anselmo dies of grief. The thesis that Anselmo reminds us of Pentheus, who was torn into a thousand pieces for witnessing the secret rites of Bacchus, is not convincing. Unfortunately, Ambrose does not mention more credible models for this story, such as the motive of the true friend vs. the half friend as it appears in medieval Spanish works like El libro del caballero Zifar and El conde Lucanor. An even more likely model is the story of Bernabo, Ambrogiuolo, and Ginevra in the ninth tale of the second day in Boccaccio’s Decameron. But Keith Budner’s interpretation in essay 6 of the episode of the fulling hammers in chapter 20 of part 2 is both original and persuasive. The frightening noise of these machines inspires Don Quixote to recreate in his mind the Ovidian Age of Iron, which sadly resembles the industry of the god Vulcan rather than the heroism of Mars. What are the sources? According to Budner, the fact that the net of Vulcan is described as made of iron, whereas Ovid talks of a bronze net, graciles ex aere catenas (4. 176), suggests that Cervantes might have picked up this mistranslation from Jorge Bustamante’s version of the Metamorphoses (1577). Furthermore, the spiritual ugliness of Cervantes’ Vulcan is compatible with the way that this god was described by other sixteenth-century Spanish authors. The last essay of this section, however, is far from convincing. The argument of essay 7 is as follows: if we accept that Cervantes was heavily influenced by Ovid, it is then reasonable to talk of metamorphoses in the novel. In fact, common sense would suggest that we merely have a case of a madman pretending to be someone else.

In Part Three we deal with poets imitating, and shamelessly transforming, particular Ovidian myths. However, the authors of these essays are sometimes carried away by theoretical questions that would have been alien to the writers under study. Essay 8 misrepresents the original meaning of the tale of Narcissus by inserting a complex philosophical digression on the role of the mirror as a depiction of the self in Garcilaso’s second eclogue. To make things more complicated, Lacan and Freud unexpectedly pop in, and one must strongly react by arguing that in Garcilaso’s poem the image reflected in the water is just a metaphor to signify a tale of loss and unrequited desire. Incredibly, Kerry Wilks in essay 9 wants to persuade us that Lope de Vega’s poem La Circe was not meant to praise the powerful Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares and favorite of Philip IV. Instead, Wilks claims that there is a hidden attack against the favorite. Using a possible connotation of the noun celo as ‘sexual desire’, Wilks argues that the poem would have cleverly echoed a letter of the archbishop of Granada warning Olivares about the consequences of the king’s infamous sexual adventures. Then, in essay 10 Steven Wagschal surprisingly interprets the poet Cristóbal de Castillejo, an obstinate traditionalist who resisted the renovating impulse of Italian poetry, as a cosmopolitan individual. In fact, argues Wagschal, Castillejo’s rewriting of Ovid, especially his burlesque adaptations, “demonstrates true hybridization of Spanish and classical Roman culture” (187). Consequently, we should be entitled to apply the term “cosmopolitanism”, as defined by K. A. Appiah (175), to any author who imitates the classics! But Pablo Restrepo-Gautier’s essay 11 is a fascinating piece strictly based on a close reading of the relevant texts. In brief, Restrepo-Gautier explains how certain authors of Early Modern Spain read Ovid’s tale of Hermaphoditus (4. 274-316) to provide scientific and moral interpretations of intersexuality. While some accepted the birth of an intersexed individual as natural, they all felt anxious about a subversive third sex.

In the final part of the book, we learn about how some writers echoed Ovid’s poetry to present themselves as his followers. Benjamin J. Nelson in essay 12 deals with the role of the myth of Orpheus in providing a poetical voice to Garcilaso in E/gloga III as well as to Jorge de Montemayor in La Diana. Indeed, transmitted through Virgil and Ovid, the tragic story of Orpheus would become popular among sixteenth-century commentators, who mistakenly inserted Virgilian features of the tale into the Ovidian version. But this well-known literary phenomenon is not called contamino, a non-existent noun used by Nelson and consistently repeated by the editor in the preface (xvii), but contaminatio. Jason V. McCloskey’s essay 13 is about the tale of Phoebus and Daphne in the Metamorphoses inspiring Lope’s El amor enamorado and Calderón’s El laurel de Apolo, two plays designed as panegyrics to celebrate the ‘Sun King,’ Phillip IV. Within the tension between the three main gifts of the god ( imperium, poetical inspiration, and erotic love), McCloskey argues that Lope departs from the original source to underscore the role of the god as arbiter of poetic excellence. Coincidentally, Lope then aspired to the position of royal chronicler (236). Then, essay 14 is an excellent piece on how Tirso de Molina’s play Deleitar aprovechando, intelligently based on the tale of the Daughters of Minyas in Book 4 of the Metamorphoses, is an attempt to replace Ovidian poetics with Christian piety. And finally, the collection ends with essay 15 describing Armas antárticas ’ re-writing of Ovid in order to Europeanize the origins of the maroons, inhabitants of Mozambique. According to the former African slave Jalonga, the maroons are descendants of Apollo, who, after Daphne turned into a tree, encountered Andromeda, daughter of the Ethiopian king Cepheus.

To conclude: these essays have been grouped under a mistaken methodological frame. However, individually, some of them are extremely valuable, particularly when they closely follow the sources rather than deal with questions of intertextuality and literary theory.

Preface ix


1 A Galen for Lovers: Medical Readings of Ovid in Medieval and Early Renaissance Spain 3


2 Mythography and the Artifice of Annotation: Sánchez de Viana’s Metamorphoses (and Ovid) 20


3 Torquemada’s Ovidian Alternatives 37


4 Ovid’s Mysterious Months: The Fasti from Pedro Mexía to Baltasar Gracián 56



5 Ovid, Cervantes, and the Mirror: Narcissus and the Gods Transformed 77


6 Forging Modernity: Vulcan and the Iron Age in Cervantes, Ovid, and Vico 97


7 Cervantes Transforms Ovid: The Dubious Metamorphoses in Don Quixote 116



8 The Mirror of Narcissus: Imaging the Self in Garcilaso de la Vega’s Second Eclogue 137


9 Circe’s Swan: The Poet, the Patron, and the Power of Bewitchment 158


10 Ovid Transformed: Cristóbal de Castillejo as Conflicted Cosmopolitan 175


11 Ovid’s ‘Hermaphroditus’ and Intersexuality in Early Modern Spain 191



12 Ovidian Fame: Garcilaso de la Vega and Jorge de Montemayor as Orphic Voices in Early Modern Spain and the Contamino of the Orpheus and Eurydice Myth 203


13 Eros, Vates, Imperium : Metamorphosing the Metamorphoses in Mythological Court Theatre (Lope de Vega’s El Amor enamorado and Calderón’s Laurel de Apolo) 228


14 Tirso’s Counter-Ovidian Self-Fashioning: Deleitar aprovechando and the Daughters of Minyas 244


15 Noble Heirs to Apollo: Tracing African Genealogy through Ovidian Myth in Juan de Miramontes’s Armas antárticas 262



1. A long series of her articles culminated in María Rosa Lida de Malkiel’s La tradición clásica en España (1975).

2.Dámaso Alonso. Poesía española: Ensayo de métodos y límites estilísticos (1950); Estudios y ensayos gongorinos (1955).

3.Rachel Lynn Schmidt. Critical Images: the Canonization of Don Quixote through Illustrated Editions of the Eighteenth Century (1999).