What a thoughtful and beautifully written post, LD!
Like you, I really enjoyed these two books. But I only want to write about I, Juan de Pareja because it’s my favorite of all the books we’ve read so far. For me, I, Juan de Pareja really illustrated the day-to-day realities of parts of history with which we are all familiar, but perhaps never understood or envisioned so vividly. For instance, Treviño describes Juan’s encounter with the plague quite graphically: “When she was taken away, to the tolling of sad bells, I could not follow, for I had fallen sick most suddenly and was past all thinking. I lay on my cot dreaming of water and burning with fever, suffering dreadful hallucinations and terrors, drenching sweats, horrible retchings and vomiting. I have no idea how many days and nights I lay thus at the point of death” (14). We also catch glimpses of aspects of Spanish culture, such as flamenco dancing and the class system that existed in Spain during the early seventeenth century. First, we follow Juan as he observes the hierarchical order of the Catholic Church (19). Later, after meeting Carmelo, we become aware of the ethnic makeup of Spain during this time, and we are witness to violent forms of racism. There are so many moving descriptions of Juan’s historico-cultural context, but the Renaissance (as the greater historico-cultural context) is probably the most inextricably bound to the progress we observe throughout the course of the novel.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, as LD and OM have already pointed out, would not betray reality in his painting. This fact is significant as related to the Renaissance and the cultural “re-birth” it represents. Though literally meaning “re-birth,” the word “Renaissance” also connotes critical thinking and innovation. Velázquez epitomizes ingenuity through two actions: first, by rejecting the practice of portraiture aimed to please and second, by freeing Juan in order to prevent his persecution. However, as Treviño writes in her afterword, Velázquez painted truths because he did not “flatter himself” into thinking he could improve reality (178). Although Velázquez was powerless when it came to changing the fate of the Spanish people, he was able to change Juan’s fate, and he did. And even if unintentionally, I would argue that Velázquez changed the art world rather profoundly, especially through his innovation in paintings like Las Meninas. This story causes us to genuinely admire Velázquez and so he becomes its secondary hero.
The primary hero, of course, is Juan. His unfailing loyalty and self-sacrifice are remarkable. Plus, Juan is an artist in his own right. For me, the most memorable scene of the novel is the scene in which Juan organically and sort of unconsciously paints “a Negro madonna” (123). Juan’s Christianity and submissiveness run so deep that he thinks: “At first I was satisfied, even happy with my painting. Then I felt sorrow, for it seemed as if some devil had guided my hand and that I had painted Our Lady as a Negro maid in order to exalt myself and to protest that my race was the chosen one” (124). Later, Bartolomé helps Juan understand that this painting was no mistake, and Lolis helps point out their natural right to pride and in some cases, resentment. These ultimate realizations, viewed together with his bravery, faithfulness, and creativity, make Juan a complete Renaissance hero.
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