Calderón, Opera and Baroque AestheticsCalderón, Opera and Baroque Aesthetics

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  • Caldern, Opera and Baroque AestheticsCaldern y el Barroco: Exaltacin y engao de los sentidos by Mara Alicia Amadei-Pulice; ThePlay of Power: Mythological Court Dramas of Caldern de la Barca by Margaret Rich GreerReview by: Peter N. MillerCambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Jul., 1994), pp. 175-179Published by: Cambridge University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 13/06/2014 00:49

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  • Cambridge Opera Journal 6, 2, 175-179


    Calderon, opera and Baroque aesthetics

    Maria Alicia Amadei-Pulice, Calderony el Barroco: Exaltaciony engano de los sentidos. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1990.

    Margaret Rich Greer, The Play of Power: Mythological Court Dramas of Calderon de la Barca. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    These books about Pedro Calderon de la Barca engage with two significant themes: the

    specific character of Spanish culture during the seventeenth century, and its relationship to

    European (especially Italian) culture in general. What is more, both books make an

    important contribution towards understanding this cultural moment by exploring the nature of dramaturgy. Maria Alicia Amadei-Pulice aims to put Calder6n in the theoretical context from which opera emerged in Italy, and so fill the lacuna in our knowledge of the period between the arrival of 'the Italian representative art' and the development of tarZuela fifty years later. Margaret Rich Greer seeks to show how understanding a portion of Calder6n's ceuvre, the 'spectacle plays', depends on an awareness of this broader European dimension. She suggests that the lack of appreciation for these plays' dramatic qualities lies in a failure to understand the complex form in which they were cast. The significance of opera as a

    seventeenth-century cultural form can only be enhanced by books such as these, which focus attention on just how much of this aesthetic development reflected a broader grasping for the principles of effective art. The nature of perception, a fundamentally epistemological problem, was linked to an analysis that itself descended from rhetorical premises and which was itself framed in terms of the recovery of ancient Greek drama. These books show that this was not wholly a Franco-Italian story.

    Both books argue that the non-Iberian dimension is essential for appreciating Calderon and evaluating his success. Calderonian drama here takes its place as a product of the cultural revolution that began in Italy in the mid-sixteenth century. Robortello's translation of Aristotle's Poetics (1550) is a convenient landmark, though one that ought to be supplemented by Ramus's Institutiones dialecticae (1543) and Lipsius's Epistolicae Quaestiones (1577), among others. Moreover, it is precisely because music, painting and poetry were shaped by the rhetorical imperative to delight, teach and move that attention to imitation and representation could produce such a far-reaching change. Even if Aristotle himself had not linked rhetoric and poetics, his sixteenth-century readers, whose education was grounded on and structured by a thorough knowledge of ancient Latin rhetorical texts, would have found it difficult not to notice that both were shaped by the necessity of engaging an audience. That the orator required such intensive training only emphasised how difficult and yet how valued was this task. Poetry, including tragedy, also succeeded only insofar as its evocation of human experience touched the audience. Calderon's description of his approach, in the preface to the first edition of the Autos sacramentales (allegorical religious plays staged for the Corpus Christi feast), was of a 'composition by places' (lugares). This reference to the loci of rhetorical education was itself incorporated into Jesuit educational practice.

    Even as writers and theorists paid increasing attention to the affetti (the emotional charge packed by a work of art), technological advances made possible concrete representation of

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  • scenes that hitherto could only be painted in words: naval battles in the courtyards ofpalazji, miraculous interventions, devilish apparitions and upheavals of nature. What is more, in the purpose-built theatres that began appearing at this time, technological innovations that re-created laws of nature were harnessed to theories of perspective that re-created space. The construction of the place in which drama was staged was inspired by the same principles that contemporaries imputed to the dramatic texts. The effort to analyse time in order to elucidate its connection to the emotions led the Florentine Camerata (among others) to dramma per musica, an emotionally charged narrative enhanced by music and re-enacted on a naturalistic stage: in other words, a genre with an unprecedented capacity to imitate the visible world.

    Heightened vividness, both naturalistic and emotional (the former was believed the best means of reaching the latter), was a goal reflected in the styles hypostatised as Caravaggism, Marinism and secondaprattica. Images, words and music were used to conjure up each other, all to the effect of moving the emotions of the audience. Even didactic literature reflected this impetus. For example, the writing of history became increasingly modelled on the style of Tacitus, which, read in a late sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century light, was both more theatrical and more naturalistic. Objections to this historiographical form reflected distress not only with its perceived political implications but also with its novel appearance and 'feel'. An orthodox, Catholic humanist named Edward Weston attacked the new stylists who, often following Lipsius, affected the clipped, martial style of Tacitus. These men

    entirely despise the graces of Cicero: like heavily-armoured soldiers (as they themselves say), they set no store by the fragrant scents or sweetly flowing smoothness of cultivated language. They would rather march forward with mail and shield, covered from head to foot with steel, and shattering men's ears with their terrifying expressions: in fact they glory in what they acknowledged is an armoured style.1

    But Monteverdi, writing some three decades later, proclaimed his 'recovery' of the warlike musical genus, relying on the authority of Plato, who had referred to the harmony that would 'imitate' the words and sounds of a man at war. His setting of Tasso's Combattimento of Tancredi and Clorinda was an experiment in evoking the contrary passions of warfare, and the 'rediscovered' genre was celebrated in the title of his eighth book of madrigals: guemeri et amorosi.

    Amadei-Pulice terms this highly theatrical approach 'representational' - though without reference to Monteverdi - and argues in the context of Spanish drama that the distance between Lope de Vega and Calderon marks a gulf between the verbal and the visual that itself constitutes a shift from Renaissance to Baroque. Two points arise from this. First, it is in this period, after the conventional 'end' of the Renaissance, that the impact of Italy on European culture is greatest. Both Amadei-Pulice and Greer stress the movement of ideas about imitation 'out of Italy' and into Iberia and France. Second, far too little emphasis has been given to the epistemology of the arts. Like the thinking at the heart of the early modern revolution in natural philosophy, 'imitation' and 'representation' also implied a notion of reality. Circa 1600, those who thought about art and those who thought about nature (often one and the same) believed that the senses offered the most direct access to truths of the world. In both arts and sciences, the tension that this created between reality and

    Edward Weston, De triplici hominis offio (Antwerp, 1602), quoted in Richard Tuck, 'Humanism and Political Thought', The Impact of Humanism on Western Europe, ed. A. Goodman and A. MacKay (London, 1990), 64.

    176 Review

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  • appearances structured the form and content of debate for a century now called Baroque.

    The arguments of Amadei-Pulice and Greer show how Calderon could be put squarely into this broad account, which grounds the theoretical discussions of drama, opera, historiography and natural philosophy. But, precisely because people living in a specific place at a specific time will have unique experiences, even the most cosmopolitan individuals and societies will differ, if only locally, in their adaptation of others' ideas. Because these variations distinguish cultures, the scholar must constantly move back and forth between, in this case, European and regional contexts. The impact of 'Italy' on Spain differs from that on France and England in more ways than is captured in the difference between auto sacramentale, ballet du caur and masque. For example, when viewing Calderon against these different contexts one becomes aware of the insignificance of scepticism in shaping Spanish cultural thought and production in the seventeenth century. In France and England in particular, but also in Italy, debates about the relative effectiveness of tears or singing in capturing the affections, or of the eyes and ears as avenues into the soul, reflected real doubt about whether the senses could ever get beyond appearances. Opera, drama and masques might exploit the Baroque epistemology of the arts in terms of plot and structure, but the inherent instability of judgements based on sensation could not be avoided. In Calderon there is the same strong emphasis on the senses and sensory expressions of thought and feeling, but without the fundamental reality of uncertainty. That human beings could be deceived is reflected in the centrality of engago (deception); but that this experience was neither regular nor devastating reflects the power of faith. The allegorised figures of the autos sacramentales manifest a theological certainty much less potent, if not absent, elsewhere in Europe. The masques of Stuart England, with their assertion of order and their identification of celestial with civil harmony nevertheless lack the explicitly theological overtones of the autos.

    For Spanish and Italian Baroque writers, ingenio was that facility which enabled people to navigate the obscurities of the sublunary realm and discern between appearance and reality. At a time when the common epistemological basis of the arts underpinned the creation of complex, mixed artistic genres, theoretical analyses also sought to merge theories of perception and persuasion. Emmanuele Tesauro's II cannochiale aristotelico (1670?) and Baltasar Gracian's Agudegay Arte de Ingenio (1642, 1648) are the most famous expositions of what constitutes the continuation of Tesauro's title, the idea dellarguta et ingeniosa elocutione che serve a tutta l'arte oratoria, lapidaria; et simbolica esaminata co' principii del divino Aristotele (Idea of acute and ingenious elocution that serves the art of oratory, symbolically examined with the principles of Aristotle). They lay down guidelines and rules for both verbal and visual persuasion, stressing a conciseness that borders on obscurity. Amadei-Pulice cites Tesauro's comment that 'seeing with eyes and contemplating with the intellect are analogous species of understanding'. The contention that a system of persuasion had to rest upon a theory of perception was not new; much of the correspondence between Descartes and Mersenne in the 1620s and 1630s turns on the attempt to ground a musical aesthetic on the perception of sound. Their mathematicisation of the rhetorical aesthetic marks, of course, a radically different approach. An analysis of the intellectual relationship between Mersenne and the antiquarian Giovanni Battista Doni, themselves correspondents in these two decades, would make an exceedingly valuable contribution to our understanding not only of the relationship between the new science and Renaissance aesthetics, but between the antiquarian and natural philosophical responses to scepticism.

    Review 177

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  • The art of ingenio was expressed in agude!Ze and these complicated and abstruse formulations made possible the expression of difficult conceptos (conceits). Gracian defined the conceit as 'an act of the understanding which expresses the correspondence that exists between objects': the greater the skill and knowledge of the creative person, the greater the possibility of capturing aspects of the manifold complexity and wonder of God's creation. Gracian describes ingenio and judgement as peers because of the constitutive role played by discernment. Hence Amadei-Pulice's comment that 'the ingenious man, capable of penetrating the appearances of things with the "versatility" that was his, can also create new relations' (p. 126).

    A century earlier, the human attribute that enabled the manifestly great man to envision new relations between things and so reshape reality was called virtu. The shift from Renaissance to Baroque can, then, also be measured in terms of the gulf between Machiavelli and Gracian. What emerged inAgudeZayArte de Ingenio as an aesthetic theory had been earlier formulated in terms of El Heroe (1637) and El Politico (1638), and later, mid-way between the first and expanded second editions of Agude.a, as El Discreto (1646). In these, Gracian formulated an ethic of rule and self-rule that preserved the almost divine status of the man of virtu but in which this attainment was now thought to be demonstrated by the skilful management of courts by t...


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