- The Epic of Juan Latino: Dilemmas of Race and Religion in Renaissance Spain by Elizabeth R. Wright
This riveting account of the first black writer from slavery's diaspora whose name we can identify is not merely the equivalent for early modern studies of what might fairly be called a biopic; instead, its scope is more ambitious and wide-ranging, as its subtitle indicates. The genius of this book lies in its author's ability to tie an admittedly ephemeral exercise in Neo-Latin epic (what an ungenerous observer might dismiss as little more than a pedagogical exercise written by a Renaissance schoolmaster) to the more pressing, indeed timeless, issues of race and religion. The two-pronged approach Wright takes to do this includes a panoramic lens through which to view not only the epic material treated—i.e. the Battle of Lepanto (1571)—but also Juan Latino's background, growing up as a former slave in the city of Granada during a period of racial and religious tension prior to the Second Alpujarras Revolt (1568-70). The urgent concerns of the poem only make sense within this broader historical context.
This volume is the monographic study designed to accompany a translation and edition of the epic poem in question, Austrias Carmen (The Song of John of Austria), which Wright published along with Sarah Spence and Andrew Lemons in the I Tatti Renaissance Library in 2014 as part of a larger volume titled The Battle of Lepanto. It is refreshing to see a scholar who can "do both" in the sense of executing the painstaking labor of classical philology (no one ever accused Neo-Latin of being easy!) but then stepping back to ask the big questions about why it all matters. Given the paucity of evidence—many relevant documents might remain buried in Granada's archives, and the author expresses no small frustration at their relative inaccessibility to a North American researcher—a few pieces of this puzzle might seem like a stretch; for example, she is forced to use an unrelated sketch of a black man by Albrecht Dürer as the book's cover image because a portrait of the slave-turned-epic-poet Juan Latino purportedly owned by King Philip IV, which appears in a 1636 inventory of the Alcázar Palace, has been lost. But such lacunae seem to reflect the haphazard nature of this fledgling field. I applaud her ambition and gutsiness in deciding not to stay with "safe" research, even if not all the details cohere completely. [End Page 285]
The book is divided logically into two parts, one devoted to Juan Latino and the other to his creation. Part One, "From Slave to Freedman in Granada," includes the two poignant chapters "Latin Lessons amid the Remnants of Al-Andalus" and "Civil War, Shattered Convivencia" (as Professor Wright explains at the outset in a note on terminology, she considers the Alpujarras Revolt to qualify as an allout civil war; this may not be an exaggeration, given that the Kingdom of Granada was at one time its own emirate). Part Two, "The Epic of Lepanto," contains three chapters ("A Black Poet and a Habsburg Phoenix," "Christians and Muslims on the Battle Lines," and "The Costs of Modern Warfare") followed by a conclusion titled "Song of the Black Swan." This last epithet is one the poet employs to describe himself in what would have been recognized as a nod to the Roman satirist Juvenal. Finally, an epilogue anchors the study firmly within the framework of the present day with the title "Juan Latino in the Harlem Renaissance." This last gesture is a reference to Puerto Rican book collector Arturo Schomburg (1874-1938), who journeyed to Spain in search of information about Juan Latino after hearing about him in a burlesque prefatory poem, which Miguel de Cervantes appended to the world's first modern novel, Don Quijote (1605, 1615). With this project, in a sense, Elizabeth Wright has finally been able to finish what Schomburg started.