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  • Celestina and the Human Condition in Early Modern Spain and Italy by Rachel Scott
  • Joseph T. Snow
Rachel Scott. Celestina and the Human Condition in Early Modern Spain and Italy. 215 pp. tamesis, 2017,

this volume, in its focus on literary manifestations dealing with the misery and dignity of man, examines the peripheries of society as seen in Celestina and four works printed in Italy in the sixteenth century: Fernán Pérez de Oliva's Diálogo de la dignidad del hombre (1546, printed twice in Italy); Il cortegiano (1528) by Baldassare Castiglione; and two of the six parts of Pietro Aretino's Ragionamento (1534–36), La vita delle puttane and Coloquio de las damas, translated into Spanish by Fernán Xuárez. The extremes of society discussed in these works invited contemporary readers to participate in the renegotiation of the significance of what it meant to be a courtly person or a prostitute. As Scott states, "The literary horizon is reconfigured by new interlocutors, and as alternative perspectives on human misery and dignity merge, different nuances come to light" (15). These words succinctly summarize the author's approach and methodology.

These works were part of an ongoing dialogue about what it means to be human, especially in the light of one's relationships with other individuals and with the community. In Pérez de Oliva's Diálogo, the theme stressed is self-knowledge as key to coping with earthly and spiritual anxieties. One of its players, Antonio, contends that self-knowledge is edifying and permits man to approach the divine. The second player, Aurelio, opposes that view by claiming that self-knowledge leads to solitude and a loss of self-respect. God is always present for Antonio, but never for Aurelio.

A reading of Celestina through these different assessments of selfknowledge leans toward the negative lens of Aurelio, where sexual misconduct is a byproduct of disbelief. Its characters seek independence and some means of control, but not through friendships. Melibea's repressed sexuality invites interpretation by readers; her fantasies revolve around books she has read. Pleberio, in the final auto of the work, blames Love, Fortune, and the World for his failings, confirming Aurelio's view that vile things in the world will indeed lead to isolation. In essence, Celestina transcends the earlier notions that the misery and dignity of man sought to increase faith in [End Page 185] the benevolence of God and his power. Rather than salvation and consolation, Celestina frames doubt and disbelief and challenges a belief in God, thus creating a gulf between the human and the divine.

In both Italy and Spain, the arts of good conversation and skilled use of rhetoric were intellectually valued. In Castiglione's Il cortegiano, readers are made aware of an esteemed social use of language defined as courtly. Latin and the vernacular were both part of this ideal, and elegant speech was also considered a performance. Words thus become the elements of a kind of self-fashioning, and the successful courtesan is one who is capable of constructing an identity with words. In the case of Celestina, the identity of its characters—in terms of language—is fashioned on literary models and not on the courtiers around them. For example, conversations between Melibea and Calisto are frequently shown as being at cross-purposes. The rejected Calisto needs a new voice to reach Melibea, and that voice is provided by Celestina. And if the living Calisto is not an ideal courtly lover, Melibea's words after his death make him seem like one. Because language in Celestina cultivates ends that are monetary and sexual—whereas in Il cortegiano language seeks political influence or the attainment of abstract social virtues—Celestina can be seen as a test of whether language could be a civilizing force (98).

But dignity is not only associated with the upper courtly class of society. Between different social classes, there was much interplay. In Aretino's La vita delle puttane, human agency is not only determined by morals, but by the kind of free will that struggling to define one's self can achieve. The theme of human agency is of utmost...


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