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Cervantes in Italy: Christian Humanism and the Visual Impact of Renaissance Rome
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Cervantes in Italy:
Christian Humanism and the Visual Impact of Renaissance Rome

Toward the end of 1569, shortly after his twenty-second birthday, Miguel de Cervantes arrived in Rome to serve as chamberlain to the young monsignor Giulio de Acquaviva, soon to be made a cardinal by Pope Pius V.1 The event marked the beginning of a six-year sojourn about which surprisingly little is known with certainty. From scattered semiautobiographical references we can infer that Cervantes traveled widely and that he developed a particular fondness for Italy. We know for sure that he fought bravely against the Turks at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, where he received wounds that rendered his left arm useless for the rest of his life, and that he remained in service as a soldier, based in Italy, until his ill-fated attempt to return to Spain in 1575. Ten years later, in the dedication of his pastoral romance La Galatea to Ascanio Colonna, he reminded his dedicatee that the reverence he had for him did not only stem from having served under his illustrious father, the famous general Marco Antonio Colonna, but also from the many things that he had heard Cardinal Acquaviva say, "like prophesies," about him in Rome. There follows a brief encomium about the "noble virtues," "magnificence," "goodness," and "Christianity" that sustain the "clear and generous line" of the Colonnas, known to all for the "virtuous and heroic deeds" that have been their mark since time immemorial.2 Some of Cervantes's best lyric poetry dates from these years. In it, as in the rest of his work, the unmistakable mark of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Sannazaro, Ariosto, and Bembo, to name but the most explicit ones, leaves us in little doubt about his genuine love of Italian literature.

For good reasons, modern biographers have been loath to take these scattered [End Page 325] references too candidly. Can we, for example, assume that Cervantes had more than a very superficial acquaintance with the Colonnas and the Acquavivas? Could a writer still widely regarded as a self-taught, untutored mind realistically have attracted the favors of some of the most illustrious Roman and Neapolitan noble families? More pointedly, is it safe to take the varied and abundant observations about Italy scattered throughout his works as reliable reflections of his own personal experiences? After all, between the latter and the written page there is a time lag often approaching forty years. Add to this the weight of subsequent intellectual influences and of literary conventions, of novelistic invention and of the viewpoints of the characters themselves, and we are left on rather shaky ground. As Jean Canavaggio has remarked, it is not Cervantes the keen visual observer, but rather Cervantes the devoted reader of Boccaccio and the novellieri who brings Italy and Italian themes into his fiction. Even the memorable descriptions of Italian cities to be found in some of his novelas are rather formulaic passages, perfectly in tune with the rhetorical canons of the time.3

Our topic, however, is not biography but intellectual history; and here we can afford to be more candid. There can be no doubt that many of Cervantes's descriptions have the unmistakable ring of genuine experience. Take Tomás Rodaja's arrival, "soaked, sleep-deprived and with bags under the eyes," in Genoa's "sheltered Mandraccio,"4 where he becomes acquainted with

the smoothness of the Trebbiano, the fullness of the Montefiascone, the strength of the Asperino, the generosity of the Greeks Candia and Soma, the grandeur of the one from the Five Vineyards, the sweetness and mellowness of the lady Vernaccia, the rustic touch of the Centola, while the lowly one from Rome dared not appear in the presence of such illustrious gentlemen.5

Charmed by the gallantry of the Genoese, Rodaja leaves by land for Rome, "the queen of cities and mistress of the world." "Just as the size and ferocity of a lion can be gauged by its claws," Cervantes observed,

so Rome's greatness became manifest by its broken marbles, its statues . . ., its fallen arches and ruined baths, its magnificent porticoes and large amphitheatres, its famous and sacred river whose waters...