Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Biographical Emulation of Dante in Mena's Laberinto De Fortuna and Coplas De Los Siete Pecados Mortales

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Biographical Emulation of Dante in Mena's Laberinto De Fortuna and Coplas De Los Siete Pecados Mortales

Article excerpt

Juan de Mena's relation to Dante is somewhat harder to discuss than that of his predecessors. On the one hand, he stands as one of the predominant figures of the literary movement pioneered by Miçer Francisco Imperial and dominated by the Marqués de Santillana. Some of his works clearly answer those of his predecessors and contemporaries to unite him fully with the poet-politician community that first adopted Dante in Iberia, and he employs Dantean poetic techniques and strategies to great effect in order to facilitate his own advancement at the court of Juan II of Castile. On the other hand, he does not appear to participate in the same zealous inclusion of Dante as a primary source as the others. Parts of his literary production bear a striking general resemblance to Dante's Commedia, but contain very little specific material traceable to this work.1 Mena managed to find a way to command a great deal of respect from individuals familiar with Dante by consistently portraying himself through his literary production and biography as someone fundamentally similar to his Florentine biographical model: an Iberian Dante.2 By composing an allegorical dream vision and discussing sin and salvation, Mena harnessed Dante's persuasive power over the powerful community smitten with Dante. Mena sought advancement by accumulating prestige through his resemblance to Dante and turning that prestige into influence. Dante and Mena were inextricably linked (perhaps especially so) when the Castilian did not make overt reference to his model. Even though Mena's works conceal their Dantean lineage, his life and works would have been radically different if Iberia had not known Dante's works at the time.3

One of the reasons it remains difficult to assess Dante's role in Mena's career is the latter's reliance on his skills and knowledge as the basis of his prestige. Where Santillana and others enjoyed a reputation afforded them in part through their cultural possessions (such as a library), Mena seemed to acquire a reputation built almost exclusively on the knowledge and skills that his community valued. Santillana's library was responsible for at least part of his reputation, and his statements in the Prohemio e Carta confirm the value that he thought should be placed on library holdings as a culturally valuable attribute (ed. Langbehn 11-29). It is not clear that Mena owned a great library himself, as his knowledge of classical or medieval texts does not imply his ownership of the source texts.4 Rather than silently accept the valid forms of cultural prestige laid out in Santillana's Prohemio - forms that excluded him from membership in the community in one way or another - Mena populated his own works with a redefinition of valuable conduct and practices, skills and knowledge (what Bourdieu would call embodied cultural capital ["Forms of Capital" 244-45]), effectively vying with Santillana for the dominant position in the community. Since Santillana situated Dante in such a prominent place within the Prohemio and his system of cultural valuation, it is only fitting that any rebuttal on Mena's part address Dante's role in prestige-bearing cultural objects and practices.

Santillana and Mena both benefit from a cultural valuation of classical texts and their translation to the vernacular; the ability to flaunt their contacts with the Italian undertaking of excavating, studying, and refurbishing works of classical antiquity offered them access to a pronounced reputation of worldliness. Also, both employed their cultural distinction for political and social gain, in spite of their different stations. Despite these points of agreement, there is an obvious exclusion when Santillana describes those using poetry as "los onbres bien nasçidos e doctos, a quien estas sçiençias . . . son infusas" (14). Since Mena was born to a father of "mediano estado," as Hernán Núñez relates in the introduction to his commentary of Mena's Laberinto de Fortuna, he was certainly not one of the "onbres bien nasçidos" that Santillana described as the group suited for poetry's use (Kerkhof 7). …

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