Garcilaso de la Vega 1501?-1536. Life and Fame.

Garcilaso 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, Charles I (Carlos I, later V of the Holy Roman Empire) against the rebellious comuneros (“commoners”) of Toledo. In 1523, he was named a Knight of the prestigious Order of Santiago.

As a 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 of 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
Aragón in 1442 and remained in Spanish
hands until the 18th century.

Garcilaso died fighting for Charles 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 Zúñiga –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 five children.  In 1526, during the wedding of Charles 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 in 1528.

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 Boscà (in most manuals called by his Castilian equivalent, Juan Boscán).

The Arrival of Italianate Poetry in Spain and Garcilaso’s Early Fame.
The birth of Italianate poetry in Spain can be traced to a fortunate meeting of Boscán with the Venetian ambassador, poet and classical scholar, Andrea Navagero. It took place in the Generalife Gardens in the Alhambra Palace of Granada, in June of 1526 following the celebrations of the marriage of Charles V with Isabel 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. He acknowledges that he was encouraged, too, 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 the traditional Castilian metre.

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 innovations.

The poetry of Boscán and Garcilaso continued to be printed together until 1569, when Garcilaso’s verse first appeared by itself.

Cover of the first edition of Boscán’s and Garcilaso’s poems, 1543

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
Grossman, Edith   The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance. W.W. Norton Bilingual edition 2006
McCaw, John  and Spinnenweber, Kathleen eds. Anthology of Spanish Golden Age Poetry European Masterpieces 2007
Rivers, Elias ed.  Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain Prospect Heights Illinois 1988 (With English prose translations of the poems.)
Walters, Gareth  The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry: Spain and Spanish America, Cambridge 2002
Wardropper, Bruce   Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age  New York 1971 Useful web site in Spanish.
Image of cover of first edition of Boscán’s and Garcilaso’s poetry from See under Imágenes: Portada de ediciones.