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Reviewed by:
  • Refracted Images: The Canary Islands through a New World Lens: Transatlantic Readings
  • Mary Malcolm Gaylord
Eyda M. Merediz . Refracted Images: The Canary Islands through a New World Lens: Transatlantic Readings. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 276. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2004. x + 182 pp. index. illus. bibl. $30. ISBN: 0-86698-319-8.

This book proposes that early modern imaginings of the Canary Islands are filtered not only through the prism of ancient models, but through the more immediate lens of New World experience. In an intelligently structured and well-argued study, the author focuses on three late Renaissance representations that present a variety of ideological and generic approaches to Spain's conquest of the islands. [End Page 1293]

In four chapters, copious notes and bibliographies, Refracted Images reviews the substantial body of previous scholarship, three texts published around the turn of the seventeenth century, and their authors. Chapter 1 presents an overview of European interaction with the "Fortunate Islands" during four periods of medieval history: Clement VI's creation of the Principate of Fortunia (1344), French incursions around 1400, Portuguese-Castilian rivalry in the 1430s, and ultimate conquest by the Catholic Kings (1497). This historical review and summary of ethnographic information found in Latin, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish chronicles establish the Canaries as locus of competing national and ideological projects, which tailored images of the islanders (either brutes or noble savages) to fit expansionist agendas.

The study's transatlantic readings tease out the ethnographic and ideological content of its chosen texts' formal arrangements. In Alonso de Espinosa's Del origen y milagros de la Santa Imagen de Nuestra Señora de Candelaria, que apareció en la Isla de Tenerife, con la descripción de esta isla (Seville, 1594) Merediz finds a Lascasian indictment (by a Dominican of long Guatemalan experience) of the Canaries' conquest masquerading as religious history, intended to refute José de Acosta's portrait of the half-savages and instead offering Canarian civility as object lesson in Christian virtues. In Antigüedades de las Islas Afortunadas de la Gran Canaria, conquista de Tenerife y aparecimiento de la Santa Imagen de Candelaria (Seville, 1604), she shows epic poet Antonio de Viana embracing the cause of historical truth in order to redress Espinosa's and Alonso de Ercilla's perceived affronts to natives and conquerors alike, only to turn to romance plotting as vehicle for his utopian vision of the common origins, culture, and destiny of the islands and Spain. In recycling Antigüedades for the stage, the author maintains, Lope de Vega dresses its marriage-bound itinerary in Neoplatonic garb; yet he works to undo Viana's fanciful merger of identities, freighting Los Guanches de Tenerife y conquista de Canaria (1618) with insinuations about invaders who require help from the Virgin to effect peaceful conversions, and with overt criticism of greedy gold-worshiping conquistadors, who emerge as the play's "true idolaters" (155).

Merediz does early modernists a great service by presenting these works as an interconnected corpus. Measuring the texts against earlier historical accounts and sixteenth-century debates, she shows them fully engaged in contemporary cultural conversations about conquest, evangelization, and colonization on both sides of the Atlantic. One largely unexamined proposal of the book is its emphasis on textual chronology. That case calls for more historical evidence from the period and other textual voices (like Bernardo Vargas Machuca) in turn-of-the-century polemics about Spanish expansion. The study's examples suggest that representations of Canary history also need to be juxtaposed with textual traces of those decades' urgent homeland challenge, the "Moorish question." Viana's reflecting pool, where bodies of Spaniard and Other merge, and Lope's bathing scene, where conquistador courts Guanche princess, suggest direct links with the novela morisca and Reconquest lore, whose paradigms Merediz dismisses prematurely in pressing transatlantic resonances. The claim to consider "all the plays that Lope and other [End Page 1294] dramatists wrote on the topic of imperial expansion" (128) grossly overstates the scope of chapter 3, but its examples hint at links with other history plays and even with urban comedies.

By raising more questions than can be addressed in...


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Archived 2009
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