Gabrielle Piedad Ponce Explores the Inspiration and Imagination of Cervantes

May 14, 2014
Astrology was central to this cultural milieu. The pastoral character, Grisostimo, whose unrequited love for Marcela inspires several lyric verses as well as the character’s suicide in an early episode of Don Quijote.
Discretion, a virtue of the courtly pastoral life, is a key concept in Cervantes’ ouvre. This nod to secrecy in the Farnesina gardens, contemporary to the period.
A sixteenth-century lyric lexicon reconstructed by Francesco Alunno from the tre coroni, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. He fleshes out this vocabulary with words taken from Sannazaro, Ariosto and himself.
This ink blot, of all Rorschach tests, is the one most often identified as human.
Pastoral landscapes continue to be fostered by erudite ladies throughout the course of modernity and into the twentieth-century. This image offers a view of the gardens at Ninfa.
This original sonnet by Luis Gálvez de Montalvo which inspired much of this research.
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Gabrielle Piedad Ponce is the winner of the Millicent Mercer Johnsen Pre-Doctoral Rome Prize and is a doctoral candidate at The Johns Hopkins University.

Where in the United States are you from?

I grew up in the southern tip of Illinois, about forty minutes north from the nexus of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  I suppose you could call it the coccyx of the Midwest or the crown of the South.   I’ve lived in Baltimore for nearly seven years, and before that Lima, Peru.  I’ll return to Baltimore in the fall.

Why did you apply for the Rome Prize?

I’ve likened Don Quijote to a Rorschach test.  Material research was my way of trying to arrive at a new view of the author of the first modern novel.  I wanted to get to know the literary world which fostered the imagination of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616).  There was a very special archive, just outside of Rome, in Subiaco, Italy cared for at the Biblioteca Santa Scolastica at the Benedictine Monastery to which I felt I had to return.  In the summer of 2010 I had been fortunate to receive a travel stipend from the Singleton Center at Johns Hopkins.  This afforded me a preliminary research trip in order to investigate the Italian patron of arts and letters, Cardinal Ascanio Colonna (1560-1608), to whom Cervantes dedicated his first published novel, La Galatea, in 1585.  It was on this trip that I discovered an unknown and unpublished sonnet by the pastoral novelist, lyric poet and friend of Cervantes, Luis Gálvez de Montalvo (1549-1591), which the Guadalajaran had composed at the close of a letter to Ascanio.  This sonnet, as well as other letters which I read that summer, became the omphalos of a project which sought to recover the dynamic multilingual lyric world as it pertained to Miguel de Cervantes during the formative decades of his life and literary career.  Concretely, this means that I read love letters, sonnets and pre-Cartesian conceptions of the human soul in relation to the material world and the lyric poet.  It’s an exciting moment where I’ve had the opportunity to observe a special form of Renaissance pantheism inherited from the erotic topoi of classical literature.  But what is most thrilling is to discover a certain earnestness in the authors and patrons I read.  There is a seriousness to their engagement with the classical world and the philosophical, erotic and imaginative possibilities therein.

Describe a particularly inspiring moment or location you've experienced in Rome thus far.

By far the most exciting moment was on a day trip to the Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo where I saw the literary topoi of late sixteenth-century pastoral literature artfully designed and sculpted within a natural landscape by Vicino Orsini (1523-1585).  I had already observed the creation of and interaction with tableau drawn from the pages of classical and imaginative literature in the court of Queen Isabel de Valois during the decade preceding Cervantes’ departure for Italy in 1569.  It was thrilling to observe and interact with  Vicino Orsini’s reconstruction of a literarily pastoral within a pastoral landscape in the natural world.  Sixteenth-century pastoral literature reflects a courtly milieu in which real personages masqueraded and reenacted pastoral motifs amongst one another.  The archival letters with which I work demonstrate that this was not simply a performative act of role-playing but rather that these erudite games constituted the actual erotic lives of their participants.  Serious play.  The Sacro  Bosco di Bomarzo is an exemplary specimen of this lost culture.

To what extent, if any, has your proposed project changed since your arrival?

When I began working in Rome I was attempting to reconstruct the literary milieu into which Miguel de Cervantes had arrived in 1569.  I knew that Cervantes had written Petrarchan verse for the pastoral court of Queen Isabel de Valois of Spain in the 1560’s and that he would return to Madrid in the 1580’s to publish a pastoral novel, La Galatea, in a similar court sphere.  I also knew that he had served the Cardinal Giulio Acquaviva while in Rome prior to joining the Holy Leauge in order to fight in the Battle of Lepanto and other sites in the Mediterranean.  But, outside of Cervantes’ two early Italian patrons, Acquaviva and Colonna, I was still in the process of developing a methodology for reconstructing a literary milieu and cultural lexicon which would contextualize Cervantes amongst his peers, regardless of nationality. The import of lyric and pastoral verse was central to literary pursuits at the time, and I had some sense of the importance of these activities in quotidian life, but most studies of patronage which I had seen still focused on those patrons of political significance in Mediterranean history.  I was both surprised and delighted to observe the shared presence of feminine patrons within the lyric and pastoral world of the literary academies.  Now this discovery seems inevitable; sixteenth-century pastoral fiction is relatively unique in its portrayal of male and female characters at ease in ontological, amorous, lyric, and erotic discourse with one another.  But when I began I never expected to see this peaceful and enlightened community of men and women reflected in the multi-gendered patrons, poets and philosophers of the period.  There just wasn’t a precedent for this sort of harmony.

Have you had any "eureka!" moments or unanticipated breakthroughs in the course of your work here?

Yes, Ascanio Colonna’s mother, Felice Orisini, whose correspondence is also held in the same archive, turned out to be a patron not just of pastoral poets but also of musicians.  Of course, the link between verse and musical composition often rendered the two synonymous in literature and practice in this period.

More broadly the extant research on Cervantes, Don Quijote and the idea of the first modern novel has rendered the entirety of my dissertation project a bit of a beautiful surprise.  I’m looking at an entirely different world, both unexpected and welcome.    

What aspect of your project are you most looking forward to?

Later in the summer I hope to spend some time in Palermo learning about  the foremost Sicilian poet, composer of pastoral lyrics and master of the ottava rima, Antonio Veneziano.  He befriend Cervantes while the two were held together as captives in Algiers.  One of the only known compositions to have survived from this period of Cervantes life was written to Veneziano in support of Veneziano’s own collection of pastoral verse, the Celia in 1579. The verses of ottava rima with which Cervantes opens his pastoral novel, La Galatea are very close to these early Italianate lines.  Veneziano was Palermo’s favorite son and was responsible for designing several festive arches, emblems and composing literary works for municipal activities.  I’m hoping to gather a better sense of the literary perspective which Cervantes would have encountered in his friendship with Veneziano.

What part of your project has been or do you anticipate will be the most challenging?

Hmmmm.  Well, Veneziano wrote in a period before Tuscan became Italian.  I’m a bit intimidated by the prospect of working through sixteenth-century Sicilian as I encounter it.  But also thrilled at the prospect.  Verse, no matter the shared topoi, sounds distinct in each language.  Perhaps I should say that my ears are excited.

What's surprised you most about living in Rome?

The winter is so mild!  I’m certain the leaves didn’t begin to fall until December.

How have you managed the balance between your work (time in the studio/study) and engagement with Rome and Italy (travel, sightseeing, interactions with locals)?

Work in progress.  It’s actually a tripartite division.  Time at work, time in Rome, time at the Academy.  Each is rich and calls in its own way and constantly.  It’s good practice for finding concordance among various passions.  I also write lyric poetry and make visual art so the practice is more than welcome.

How do you anticipate your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

Every nation has its major authors.  Few authors are considered as quintessentially Spanish as Cervantes.  The fact that this author spent the formative decade of his twenties in Italy and North Africa as a lyric and pastoral soldier-poet isn’t always a popular point to raise.  I am deeply indebted to the Academy for recognizing the import of this research and making it possible for me to pursue it.  Scholars have increasingly worked to go beyond nationalism, particularly in early modern historical studies where such borders are often anachronistic.  This year has forever opened my research to these multilingual and multicultural perspectives.  The only true way to study poets!

Perhaps more broadly and more profoundly, the time and space to conduct well-considered research among intelligent and passionate human beings has been the most valuable and rarest aspect of my experience.

What is your favorite spot at the Academy? or in Rome?

Produce stands and flower vendors.  The Villa Doria Pamphilij around the corner and across town the Villa Borghese.  Rome is an extraordinarily green city.  Nothing better for thinking through ideas, except perhaps for practicing yoga on the terrace at sunrise with other fellows.

Shoptalk by Gabrielle Ponce: Cervantes, Poet.