de la Vega was born in the city of Toledo
to an aristocratic family. His long and illustrious pedigree included the 15th-century
poet-soldier, the Marqués de Santillana, and the poet-historian Fernán Pérez de
Guzmán. From an
early age, Garcilaso received a humanistic education in court circles, learning
Latin, Greek, French and Italian, and mastering several musical instruments.
As a second son, Garcilaso was ineligible to inherit his
father’s estate and so took up the expected course for young men in his
situation: a military career. In 1520 he was named “Contino” (“Imperial Guard”). The following year he fought for the
king, Carlos I (Charles I, later V of the Holy Roman Empire) against the
rebellious “comuneros” (“commoners”) of
1523, he was named a Knight of the prestigious Order of Santiago.
soldier, Garcilaso travelled extensively fighting in the king’s service in Germany, Italy,
North Africa, and France.
He also suffered the king’s displeasure in 1531 when he witnessed the clandestine
betrothal of his nephew to the wealthy heiress to the powerful Alburquerque
family. He was punished by being sent into exile first to an island in the
river Danube and later to Naples.
He served the Spanish viceroy to Naples,
don Pedro de Toledo, for a period before returning to the king’s good graces.
The kingdom of Naples fell to the crown of Aragon in 1442
and remained in Spanish hands until the 18th century.
fighting for Carlos in Nice (France)
on October 14, 1536, twenty-five days after sustaining serious injuries in a
skirmish near the town of Frejus.
He was buried in Nice, but two years later his widow had his remains moved to Toledo and interred in the Church of San Pedro Mártir.
Garcilaso was married in 1525 to Elena de Zuñiga –a
lady-in-waiting at the court-- but he also had other romantic attachments.His first love was Guiomar Carrillo, from a
noble family in Toledo,
by whom he had an illegitimate son, Lorenzo, in 1520-21.His marriage to doña Elena was likely one of
convenience rather than love. It produced 5 children.In 1526, during the wedding of Carlos V to
the Portuguese princess, Isabel, Garcilaso met Isabel Freire, one of the
princess’s ladies-in-waiting. For a long time Isabel Freire was believed to be
the inspiration for many of Garcilaso’s love poems, but that view is now
largely discarded. It seems likely, too, that between 1527 and 1529 Garcilaso
had an affair with a lady named Elvira from Extremadura. This can be deduced
from a will made by Garcilaso in 1529 which, besides recognising his
illegitimate son, Lorenzo, also alludes to the possibility that Elvira may have
had a child by him.
Poet, musician, linguist and soldier, Garcilaso was the
epitome of the Renaissance man as described by his Italian contemporary,
Baldassare Castiglione, in his famous manual for courtiers, Il
Cortegiano, (“The Courtier”) published in1528.
Coincidentally, Castiglione died in Toledo
in 1529. He was
papal nuncio in Spain from
1524 to 1529, principally in Toledo, Seville and Granada.
Garcilaso was widely admired in
literary circles in Naples,
and corresponded with Pietro Bembo the Venetian scholar, literary theorist and
the arbiter of literary taste at the time.He counted as intimate friend another
soldier-poet, the Catalan Joan Boschà (in most manuals called by his Castilian
equivalent, Juan Boscán).
The Arrival of
Italianate Poetry in Spain and Garcilaso's Early Fame
Venetian ambassador, poet and classical scholar, Andrea Navagero. It took place in the GeneralifeGardens in the Alhambra Palace of
Granada, in June of 1526 following the celebrations of the marriage of Carlos I
with Isabella of Portugal (in Seville).
We know from Boscán himself that Navagero encouraged him to write sonnets and
other Italian stanza forms, the composition of which he admits was
difficult at first. Still, he defends his decision, arguing that the new verse was more serious, more artistic, much better, and sufficiently flexible to adapt itself to any style approved by the ancients. Boscán acknowledges, too, that he was encouraged by Garcilaso,
who also decided to try his hand at the new style. Of the two, Garcilaso was the superior poet,
and it is he who normally (and perhaps a little unfairly) receives the
accolades for being the first Spaniard to write in the “Italian style.”
Garcilaso’s fame rests on a relatively small poetic output,
the major theme of which is love: 40 sonnets, 3 eclogues, 5 “canciones,” 2 elegies (one to Boscán),
an epistle in blank verse to Boscán, all using Italian verse forms and metres,
and 8 short “coplas” in traditional
Garcilaso’s poetry was published in 1543, seven years after
his death. It was Boscán –Garcilaso’s literary executor — who prepared Garcilaso’s poems for publication, together with his own,
but he died suddenly in 1542.Fortunately Boscán’s widow took over the task, bringing out in a single
volume in 1543 the works of both men. Their success was immediate and far
reaching, although there were some detractors who opposed their Italianate
The poetry of Boscán and Garcilaso continued to be printed
together until 1569, when Garcilaso’s verse first appeared by itself. By now
Garcilaso was held in such high esteem that two annotated editions of his
poetry appeared within a few years of each other.The first was in 1574 by Francisco Sánchez, a
professor of Rhetoric at the University
of Salamanca; the second was in 1580
by Fernando de Herrera, a major poet and leading cultural figure from Seville. Like the great
classical and Italian writers –e.g. Virgil, Horace, Petrarch—Garcilaso had become
a model to be imitated and emulated.
Dent-Young, John transl. Selected Poems of Garcilaso de la Vega Chicago 2009
Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance. W.W. Norton Bilingual edition
Spinnenweber, Kathleen eds. Anthology of Spanish Golden Age Poetry European
Rivers, Elias edRenaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain Prospect Heights Illinois
Waveland Press 1988 (With English prose translations of the poems.)
Walters, Gareth The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry: Spain and Spanish America,
Wardropper, BruceSpanish Poetry of the Golden AgeNew York, Meredith Corporation, 1971