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  • Baroque Optics and Luis de Góngora's Polifemo
  • Robert Hudson Vincent

"goza, goza el color, la luz, el oro"

—Luis de Góngora, Soneto CLXV


The revolution of baroque optics is coming under increasing inspection by historians of science.1 Numerous studies have revealed how optical discoveries during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries created a radical turn in perspective.2 But their focus on optics has risked reducing the causes of the Baroque to science alone. In a parallel development, literary critics are making connections between baroque visual culture and contemporary Spanish poetry.3 Mercedes Blanco, [End Page 224] Fernando de la Flor, Enrica Cancelliere, Luis Martín-Estudillo, and (most recently in MLN) Natalia Fernández have demonstrated how baroque poetry expressed a new visual perspective in early modern Europe. But this work has often overlooked recent studies in the history of science and has yet to explore the relations between the optical innovations of baroque science and the new poetic techniques of baroque authors. To the extent that literary critics have connected baroque poetry to science, they have offered broad claims: Fernández writes that "the prince of light and darkness [Luis de Góngora] was influenced by his epoch's way of looking…" (Fernández 334), which is generally described in terms of a "pictorial turn" (Fernández 322), "el deseo inexhausto del 'ver'" (Cancelliere 109), "una mirada elíptica" (Martín-Estudillo 17), or "la folie du voir" (Buci-Glucksmann)—all of which combine to create "la cultura visual barroco y un singular 'régimen escópico'" (De la Flor 40).4 But can more specific connections be made between baroque optics and baroque poetry? Is there a parallelism between baroque optical concepts and baroque poetic techniques? This essay brings new studies of baroque optics to bear on our understanding of Spanish baroque poetry to reveal intimate connections between the two fields. In a re-reading of Luis de Góngora's Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (1612), I demonstrate how Góngora constructed poetic parallels to contemporary optical innovations in refraction, color theory, and cosmology.

The Polifemo proves an ideal expression of this parallelism, not least because its protagonist immediately raises questions of vision. After all, what does it mean for a cyclops to see? Or for a one-eyed monster to fall in love at first sight? Why is his eye compared to the sun in one moment and a watchtower in another? Does Polyphemus want to be the center of attention? The ego and eye around which the galaxy revolves? While exploring these questions, I claim that the celestial orbe of Polyphemus and the two estrellas of Galatea bear witness to countless references to baroque optics. I argue that reading the verses of the Polifemo in relation to these scientific developments reveals how baroque poets like Góngora invented literary techniques that directly correspond to baroque scientific concepts. In the end, I suggest that Góngora's poem offers a lens through which to see not only the baroque image of thought but also the baroque image of God. [End Page 225]

Baroque Refraction: Metaphor and Vision

Around 1601, Thomas Harriot became the first European to discover the sine law of refraction.5 A central problem in the history of optical theory, the precise way light changes as it passes through media of varying density like water or glass had confounded philosophers and astronomers since Ptolemy. With independent discoveries of the law by Harriot, Willebrord Snellius, and René Descartes, refraction became foundational to the development of baroque optics during the seventeenth century. While refraction had been a known phenomenon for well-over a century, Paolo Mancosu and other historians of science have demonstrated how it was vital for the development of new optical instruments, including the telescope in 1608 and microscopes in the 1620s (Mancosu 611–631). Refraction became a way for baroque scientists to see parts of the world that had previously been hidden from the eye, and it allowed them to see these new images up close and sometimes all at once. This desire to see and map as much of the universe as possible is a hallmark...


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