In Focus: From Slave to Poet: The Schoolmaster Juan Latino in Sixteenth-Century Granada

The blog series ‘In Focus‘ is conceived as a way to show the scope and diversity of the RELICS research group. Each month one of us will reflect on a current or recently finished project, and how it connects to the aims and vision of RELICS. Through this, by drawing from our own personal experience, we want to show in which ways Latin cosmopolitanism came to the fore from antiquity until modern times.

by Maxim Rigaux (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

In my search for a subject for my master’s thesis, now almost eight years ago, I stumbled upon the Latin epic Austrias Carmen by a certain Juan Latino. A former black slave who had become a professor of grammar and rhetoric at the University of Granada, Latino was a figure that spoke to my imagination. How was it possible that a former black slave became a celebrated poet in a society which generally despised black people and looked down on them as hardly human? And, in what way did his position as a schoolmaster of Granada’s youth affect his writings and ambition to become a court poet?

Latino’s The Song of John of Austria is the celebration of the Christian victory against the Ottoman Empire in the battle of Lepanto. On 7 October 1571, a Catholic alliance of Spain, Venice and the Papacy defeated the fleet of Ali Pasha, the commander-in-chief of the fleet of the Ottoman sultan Selim II. Less than two years after the victory, Latino’s epic was printed in a larger volume of poetry which commemorated the festivities that took place in Granada on the occasion of the birth of Don Fernando, Spanish King Philip II’s first-born son, on December 4. It was this local context of his city Granada, where he not only taught grammar and rhetoric but also composed Latin poetry that was displayed in the city on arches and other ephemeral decorations built for urban festivities, which gave his epic its innovative character.

Unfortunately, we know nothing with certainty about Latino’s place and date of birth. In a literary self-portrait which he added at the beginning of his second extant book, a 1576 collection of poetry in commemoration of the transfer of dynastic bodies from Granada’s Royal Chapel to Philip’s newly built palace El Escorial, which took place in January 1574, Latino stated that he was born a free man in Ethiopia, then taken into captivity (together with his mother) and transferred to Spain where he would become a slave of the Duke of Sessa. However, later testimonies argue that he was born either on a slave market in, for example, Baena, or as the illegitimate son of one of the Fernández de Córdoba family members.

Manuscript by Juan Latino
Latino, Ad catholicum et invictissimvm Philippvm Dei gratia Hispaniarvm Regem De Augusta, memorabili, simul et catholica regalium corporum ex variis tumulis in vnum regale templum translatione … : epigrammatum siue epitaphiorum libri duo. National Library of Spain, Madrid. Ms. 19310. Source: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica.

Latino’s emphasis on his Ethiopian background serves as one of the many literary masks the poet puts on in his oeuvre. His literary self-fashioning as a gifted black writer, whose ingenuity in Latin is a miracle sent by God to Philip II, is his most conspicuous strategy in his quest for a position at the king’s court. In order to gain authority as an epic poet of a military battle, of which he was not an eyewitness, he creates this highly unique position for himself as the single poet for a single event and a single hero. In an elegy to Philip II, which precedes the epic, he invigorates this image by a clever use of the biblical story of the apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Their encounter, in which Philip the apostle explains the eunuch the text of Isaiah, leads to the baptism of Queen Candace’s Ethiopian servant. Latino rewrites the narrative from Acts 8:26-40 through a subtle subversion of the roles of who enlightens whom: the poet Latino will become the instructor of Philip II (with his epic), whereas in Acts, it was the apostle Philip who instructed the Ethiopian eunuch (with his explanation of the Book of Isaiah).

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

He consolidates his literary authority by presenting the epic as a literary representation of a staged spectacle that took place during the festivities in Granada. As a city poet, who was commissioned to write Latin poetry for the urban festivities, he was of course well placed to write a poem about the staged spectacle he witnessed as a citizen of Granada. He creates the illusion of the original setting by repeatedly addressing Pedro de Deza, who was the president of both the royal court of first instance (Audiencia Real) and the royal chancery (Chancillería Real) in Andalusia. While repeatedly addressing Deza in the middle of the narrative seems to break the dramatic illusion of the story of Lepanto, in which neither the poet Latino nor his patron Deza were physically present, the use of apostrophe actually enhances this illusion by recreating the situation in which the poet Latino informs the narratee Deza about what he sees before his eyes on a stage during the festivities in Granada.

Latino’s role as a city poet is clear from the many spatial references to the position of his poems on ephemeral decorations once erected in Granada. For example, one epigram, in which he stages the imaginary dialogue between a Traveller (Viator) and the personified Granada, could be spotted on the triumphal arch of the Bib-Rambla plaza (in arcu regali ad forum Bibalramla). In his 1576 volume of poetry, we can read the epitaphs that would be placed on the coffins for the transfer of the dynastic bodies from Granada to Philip II’s El Escorial. It is precisely the technique of enargeia (or the creation of vividness), typical of epigraphic poetry, which is Latino’s trademark as a poet. In both works, Latino’s local viewpoint is what eventually paves the way for a poetic production that is cosmopolitan. Like his self-fashioning as a gifted black poet from Ethiopia, Latino also fashions Granada as a unique viewpoint from which to understand the complex issues concerning race and religion that the Spanish Empire faces in its aspirations to become a universal empire.

However, the most consistent image by which he promotes himself is that of a magister, or schoolteacher of Granada’s youth (Garnatae studiosae adolescentiae moderator). Time and again he signs his epigrams and elegies with a reference to his educational vocation. Latino’s repeated emphasis on his role as a schoolmaster is quintessential to understand how ‘schooling’ shaped his poetics. There is little doubt about the use of his epic as a school text for two reasons. First, the volume opens with four distichs by four of Latino’s students that praise the epic (discipuli in laudem magistri sui disticha). Second, in a letter from the Licenciado Alfonso Pérez to Juan Latino, we read how the former wishes that the epic will be analysed, memorised, reread and loved by youngsters: “in Gymnasiis iuvenibus enarretur, ediscatur, relegatur, ametur.”

Titian, Philip II offering Don Fernando to Heaven, 1572-75, Prado Museum, Madrid.
Titian, Philip II offering Don Fernando to Heaven, 1572-75, Prado Museum, Madrid. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

I will give three examples to show how Latino’s epic could have served as a school text. Many hints for this are given in the marginal notes, even though they are not exclusive of the epic. Throughout his two volumes, we can read various learned commentaries in the margins, which form an interesting read in their own right. However, in the specific case of the epic, it is not inadequate to refer to these marginal notes as the teacher’s voice in the classroom.

First of all, the epic offers many opportunities to teach grammar and rhetoric through a contemporary topic. When referring to the geographical location of the naval battle, the marginal note explains that the Latin word ‘Naupactus’ means Lepanto in the vernacular (vulgo Lepanto). Or, the first description of the Turkish commander Ali Pasha leads to a ‘descriptio personae‘ that is completely in line with the rhetorical rules: the portrait is a visualization from head to toe that stirs the reader’s emotions.

Second, there are many occasions in which the reader is confronted with intertextuality, either explicitly (through a reference in the margin) or implicitly. The allusions are most often to Virgil and other epic poets, but there are also references to Martial, Horace and even to the historians Livy and Suetonius. In addition to the biblical echoes, Latino’s epic thus offers a broad panorama of how imitatio and aemulatio could be elaborated in a new and modern context. One particular echo stands out, in my opinion, because of the somewhat surprising context in which it appears. Toward the end of the epic, in a vivid description of the violence of the fighting, Latino proceeds to a not so favourable image of the greedy soldier showing off his wounds to ensure he would get his share of the captured loot. He refers in the margin to the ‘miles gloriosus‘ of the Roman comedian Plautus, a school text that became hugely popular in the early modern times because of its moral lessons. See, for example, our previous blog post by Chrysanthi Demetriou, “Cosmopolitanism on stage: how classical Latin literature formed our comic identity.”

Finally, the third example is a combination of the two above, to which the schoolmaster Latino adds a playful wink by which he shows his audience what a skilful author he is. In verse 417 of book I, Latino echoes a line of Virgil’s Aeneid, but he changes two letters of a word to adjust it to the new subject of his poem. In his description of the oarsmen of the Christian fleet, he singles out a Morisco rower – a Morisco was the name given to former Muslims and their descendants in the Iberian world – who is remembering the fields of his sweet fatherland: ‘impellens dulcis patriae reminiscitur agros‘. This line is the utmost example of the rhetorical figure enargeia, which Quintilian explains in his manual via the almost identical line in Virgil’s Aeneid, when Antores, a minor character of the poem, is shown remembering his sweet fatherland Argos (X.782: ‘dulcis moriens reminiscitur Argos’). Thus, in changing ‘Argos‘ into ‘agros‘, he adapts a classical example of rhetorical style and literature and creates a new meaning for it in the context of Granada and Spain’s ambiguous relationship with its Muslim past.

In conclusion, Latino was very proud of his position as schoolmaster of Granada’s youth, but his ambitions reached way higher. From his local context of the classroom and urban festivities in Granada, he succeeded to draw the attention of a wider public and write an epic that, while firmly rooted in its local context, achieved a cosmopolitan character.

Further reading

  • Martín Casares, A. 2016. Juan Latino: talento y destino. Granada: Universidad de Granada.
  • Rigaux, M. 2016. “Casting the Reader as Eyewitness: Apostrophe and Visualization in Juan Latino’s Austrias Carmen (1573).” Hispanic Review 84 (4): 405-425.
  • Wright, E. R. 2016. The Epic of Juan Latino. Dilemmas of Race and Religion in Renaissance Spain. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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