Frederick A. De Armas. Quixotic Frescoes: Cervantes and Italian Renaissance Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. 285 pp. ISBN: 0-8020-9074-5.
At a time when Cervantes criticism has been increasingly "trans-Atlantic," concerned with issues of Colonialism and the Americas, Frederick A. De Armas calls our attention back to the Mediterranean. Quixotic Frescoes focuses primarily on Part I of Don Quijote, discussing a number of key scenes and episodes as products of Cervantes' engagement with the painting, sculpture, and architecture of Renaissance Italy. This is appealing subject matter, and De Armas proposes his numerous connections as an alternative manner of discussing the rich generic and cultural content of the novel: epic and pastoral, pagan and Christian, ancient and early modern. Marcela, for example (I, 12-14), takes on new dimensions as De Armas relates her character to visual representations of Diana (chastity), Venus (eros), and the Virgin Mary (160-65). Due to his undoubtedly enthusiastic immersion in Italian art, De Armas himself becomes a sort of Quixote, interpreting every conceivable similarity--of mythological and geographic reference, of theme and form, of attribute and color--as proof of a particular painting's presence within the landscape of Don Quijote (his brush strokes are brisk, and his imaginative connections accumulate, "thus" piling upon "thus," at a dizzying pace). But the fruits of his inquiry, consisting of varied observations regarding "Empire," the "Other," "mercantile capitalism," "desire," "transgendering," "gendered style," "homoerotics," "politics of imitation," "sites of culpability," the "monstrous," etc., assure us that he is firmly grounded in the present concerns of academic discourse.
De Armas builds upon the following premises: 1) Since Cervantes spent time in many Italian cities that housed the famous artworks, and since he occasionally expressed his admiration for these cities, one can assume he saw and appreciated many of the works in question; 2) Since the Arabic manuscript containing the continuation of Don Quijote's adventures includes an illustration of the knight fighting the Basque (I, 9), and since numerous descriptive passages and interpolations occur in Don Quijote, Cervantes had an active interest in ekphrasis; 3) Since many of the references in Don Quijote (mythological, hagiographic, Homeric, and Virgilian) may also be found in visual arts of the Italian Renaissance, much of the novel constitutes ekphrasis: that is, verbal transposition of pictorial images. (De Armas also discusses how the term may apply to narrative digression and interpolation.) A peril of De Armas' approach is that a good deal of the subject matter in question--references to Helen and Lucretia, to saints and giants, gods and emperors--is so prevalent in the print, oral, and visual culture of the period that the specific attributions sometimes seem quite speculative. For instance, in his argument regarding Cervantes' adherence to the Pythagorean tetrad, in which he points out groupings of four throughout Don Quijote I (e.g., four parts, four heroes serving as models to Don Quijote, references to the four humors, the tetrad of "Day and night, wakefulness and sleep" that the knight fails to heed, 59), De Armas makes the following connection between Cervantes and Raphael:
Indeed, Hermann Iventosch tells us that the first chapter of the
novel is onomastic in nature, dealing with the Platonic vision of
the creation of a new world through naming (1963-4, 60). This
Platonic vision proposed by Iventosch is represented by Raphael in
his depiction of Plato holding the Timaeus in in The School of
Athens. Let us recall that this dialogue has a strong Pythagorean
flavour. Thus, in the first chapter of Don Quixote, the Platonic
vision is conflated with the Pythagorean notion of cosmos so as to
establish this initial sequence as the foundation of creation, be
it the creation of a poetic world or the bidalgo's re-creation of
himself as a knight. …