A Converso Iberian Agent in Rome and the Political Uses of Literary Texts: Baltasar del Río (1480-1541)
In 1504, two Spaniards discussed whether it was worth moving to Rome in the hopes for a better life. One of them, Cristino, had lived there for some time. Embittered and skeptical, he described how difficult it was to prosper in the city, how hard it was to find a cardinal’s household in which to serve, and how tough it had become to obtain a good canonry back at home. To obtain a benefice, Cristino highlighted, it was essential to maintain constant communication with one’s homeland and to get insider knowledge about new vacancies. After having sold all his possessions and closed down his own business, the newcomer Silvano soon learned that any aim at climbing the social ladder to become a well-positioned clergyman would be almost hopeless. Arriving in Rome with a bill of exchange from a bank that had just gone bankrupt, he carefully listened to the advice of his fellow compatriot. This conversation marks the beginning of Baltasar del Rio ’s Tratado de la corte romana (Treatise on the Roman Court), a short humanist dialogue published in Rome in the Castilian vernacular. It deals with a frequent situation at the time, that of the newcomer or “bisogno” who has just arrived in Rome, only to find all his illusions dispelled by a “plático”, in our case an experienced compatriot who, by tending him a hand, also warns him of the unexpected hardship a newcomer would have to face in an unfamiliar city. Such a common scenario between two Spaniards situates the text and its readership in the context of the important community of Iberians who had come to Rome mainly in search of curial benefits, but also fleeing persecution or to find new opportunities.
Self-gain through political or ecclesiastical benefits attracted clergy and laymen to a city that allowed them to promote divergent ideas in a period marked by Spanish political hegemony, often labeled as Spanish Rome. Some of these newcomers soon engaged in producing literary pieces that contributed to the political, humanistic, and cultural revival of Rome. Others engaged in their consumption and reading (silently or aloud to others), creating a market for literary works in the Castilian vernacular.
Grounded in the intersection of literary studies, book history, intellectual history, and new diplomatic history, this article analyzes how Iberian agents made use of fictional literary texts as well as non-fictional literature (letters, news pieces, sermons, etc.) to advance religious, political, and aesthetic ideas. It explores how authors saw learned interventions as a way to position themselves in current literary, political, social and spiritual matters.
The microhistory of Baltasar del Río (1480-1541), a bishop of converso lineage, illustrates the different strategies that a prelate who often took on diplomatic tasks would deploy to promote a literary scene both in Rome and Seville. In Rome, Del Río engaged in the production of Latin and vernacular works, both Castilian and Italian. In Seville, he founded a confraternity and established a biannual literary competition that fostered Seville’s cultural life. He promoted the production of Latin epigrams, a genre that had been in vogue among Roman sodalities for almost a century, but also vernacular Castilian poetry and the delivery of Latin sermons. Del Río used his privileged position as a prelate in his successive roles as secretary, notary, envoy, governor, and patron of the arts, to inform about the expansion of Lutheranism, the Spanish-North African War, and the arrival of silver and gold from Peru. Traveling from Seville to Rome and from Rome to Seville, he helped conversos advance their careers in Rome and back in Seville. There, he was praised by poets as a patron and cultural ambassador, while in Rome he used his rhetorical and literary skills to negotiate papal privileges that secured his position back at home.