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MLN 122.2 (2007) 217-232

History as an Ekphrastic Genre in Early Modern Spain
John Slater
University of Colorado at Boulder

As a rhetorical figure, ekphrasis creates both aesthetic immediacy—by appealing explicitly to our sense of sight—and remove, by suggesting a description not of life but of art. It is at the same time vivid and a copy of a copy. In practice, ekphrasis tends to play games with temporal distance, too; Aeneas' shield is itself ancient, but the scenes Virgil describes, worked on the shield's surface, are contemporary for its Roman audience. It was in part the ability to modulate distance that made ekphrasis a favored rhetorical device for early modern Spanish historians; the pomp of courtly life could be made suitably impressive yet decorously far off through the description of works of art that, under the Hapsburgs, increasingly became the preferred means to express regal power.

In his biography of Philip II, Luis Cabrera de Córdoba suggests a further reason for describing works of art in historical accounts. After mentioning the sculptures of Pompeo Leoni and Juan Bautista Monegro at the Escorial—works that "enviaban al que las miraba muda voz, ciega vista, sangre fría"—Cabrera explains that royal patronage of the arts is worthwhile because it teaches the powerful to rule and subjects to obey (792).1 Art seems to be, as Cabrera describes it, the perfection of Quintilian's idea of history; it delights, it teaches, and [End Page 217] it moves. Its lessons are those of power; the work of art exercises over the viewer the same power that monarchs wield over their vassals.

It was precisely this relationship between art and authority that Cabrera and other historians attempted to exploit through ekphrasis. Cabrera, in his historiographic manual De historia, para entenderla y escribirla (1611) provides a model for the appropriation of the authority of art by appropriating—in other words, copying—passages from Cesare Ripa's widely known iconographic manual, the Iconologia, first published in 1593. Lorenzo van der Hamen y León demonstrates how this theory works in practice, by inserting long sections of Juan de Mal Lara's Descripcion de la Galera Real (c. 1570) into his Don Juan de Austria (1627). The borrowings or "hurtados" are, in both cases, descriptions of art, ekphrases.2 Cabrera and Van der Hamen are notably silent on the sources of their "hurtados." This reticence points toward the fact that the question of the reliability or authenticity of source materials is not really at stake. Instead, authority is constructed through ekphrasis itself, that is, through the borrowed power of art.

Cabrera and Van der Hamen both wrote biographies of Philip II. A more important parallel, however, is embodied in the ways their texts attempt to reconstitute visual media by deliberately confusing iconography and historiography. An examination of historiographic theory—in Cabrera's De historia—and practice—in Van der Hamen's Don Juan de Austria—demonstrates that both authors conceive of historical authority in terms of visual effect. Although Cabrera and Van der Hamen draw on iconography in an exceptionally clear way, their works are suggestive of broader trends in early modern Spanish historiography. Uncovering their "hurtados" not only helps explain one of the most pervasive historiographic conceits of the period—comparisons between the writing of history and the creation of works of art—but reveals the closing distance between artistic and historiographic discourses. Although the notion of distance itself has proven a powerful tool for understanding the construction of historical genres, the way in which early modern Spanish historians constructed the authority of history as proximate to that of art has gone largely unexplored.3 By [End Page 218] demonstrating how ekphrasis was used to exploit the power of visual media, in addition to modulating temporal and aesthetic distance, it becomes clear that for Cabrera and Van der Hamen, history functioned as an ekphrastic genre.

The influence of Cabrera (1559–1623) as a historiographer may have outstripped his success as a historian. His manual for...


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