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  • Writer's pictureCláudio Giordano

Moral Theater of Human Life in one hundred Emblems.

Theatro Moral de la Vida Humana en cien Emblemas; con el Enchiridion de Epicteto y la Tabla de Ceres, Philosopho Platonico. Amberes (Antuérpia), Bélgica, 1701.

This work reproduces one hundred engravings (emblems) designed by Otto Venio (1556-1629 - also known as Otto van Veen, Otto Venius), the Dutch artist. Inspired by verses of Horace, he tried to portray aspects of human life. (They were first published in 1607). Each emblem is followed by inspiring Latin verses, their translations into Spanish and a short explanatory text of the engravings.

Antoní Palau y Dulcet in his indispensable and vast bibliographic work, the Hispanic-American Librarian Handbook, announced that the Preamble is one of the best written pages in Castilian language, an anonymous autobiography. What is the name of the author? – he asks. Is he a great literate? And says: “We have asked researchers and scholars to tell us about this pilgrim character. ”

We do not know if Palau's request, made during the first half of the last century, had any repercussion. What we did was read with joy the praised Preamble and, although not speaking Cervantes’ language, taste the virtue of the impeccable writing of the anonymous writer. We enjoyed the reading so much, that we did not resist the desire to share it, at least in part, with the readers. We extracted passages from the mentioned Preamble, translated below, also transcribed in the original Castilian language, preserving the original spelling.


The publisher of this book purchased (not at a low price) the original engravings that Otto Venio (the famous Dutch painter) designed and created in previous times [...], and having heard of my permanent inclination to study Moral Doctrine and having read some of my writings, kindly asked me to include in this edition a few explanatory texts of the emblems. I could not refuse such fair request. [...]

Sophisticated people (who pay more attention to the flowers than to the depth of content) will certainly not appreciate the simplicity of this style. The wise, however, will pay attention to the material hidden under the rough shell. To all, I advise that I wrote not to teach, but to learn, by practicing; I am less concerned with everybody else’s appraisal than with my own gain, and I do not give as much importance to applauses, as I do to its utility. [...]

Those who come to know themselves will sense, within, all created things, for human beings are small worlds; however, those who don’t know themselves, everything about them is frivolous, as those who ignore their own selves are incapable of knowing anything else. [...]

Of all animals, only human beings are rational; but sin and disordered appetite mask the use of reason; and those who were to live as angels (of which their upper body does not differ), by subjecting to their lower body, they live worse than beasts, since these (who act by instinct) strictly follow and observe the law of nature; human beings, however (bragging and boasting to act according to reason), not only violate all divine and human laws, but also take the risk, by sinning, of losing the respect and the obedience owed to their own Creator. [...]

However, to better understand what I’ve said, and not continue my writing pointing out other people's faults, I will naively confess my own faults, by writing a brief summary of my life. [...]

I spent my childhood at my parents' house in Madrid (which was then the Court of the Catholic King, Philip III) until I was eleven years old. My natural innocence, along with the careful education and good example that I received from my parents, made them expect more from me than, over the time, experience revealed. So (after learning how to read, write, count and play a few instruments and sing to them) they decided to make me study grammar. To escape from the company of very nasty and spoiled kids, present in public schools of such Court, they sent me ,with a tutor, to Ocaña Internship, a very famous internship in Spain, run by the Fathers of the Society of Jesus, and famous for the great and prominent people of all nationalities, qualities, and professions, who were educated there. During the time I spent there, besides learning the subjects, I also learned to how to run, jump, fight, besides other things that greatly help develop agility and body strength, very convenient to men and health, as well as prevent violence. I had an angry and aggressive temper, also a little melancholic, but that did not prevent me from being cheerful, playful and sociable. I was an outstanding thinker, and I welcomed more gentleness than imposition, compliment than punishment. My memory was sharper than of all my fellow students, and within three years I exceeded them all: in 1617 I went to Oropesa College where I repeated and practiced what I had already studied. That's when I started to notice the time lost in studying Rhetoric and Poetry by those who were not born orators or poets.

The following year (when I was 14 years old), they sent me to the University of Alcalá de Henares to study philosophy. Then the damage caused by my good memory would be noticed, something that I would only realize afterwards. It was useful to me to learn formulas and logic, something that none of my colleagues managed to compete with me, and which used to rack the brain of the most well-educated; I always had material to defend and prove any sort of challenge; if anybody presented me an argument (as well founded as it may had been) my sharpness to summarize and quickness to respond, either to consider or to deny the arguments, confused them or blinded them with rage, giving me the feeling of having won.

My professor (who knew very well my ability to learn by heart) used it to gain applauses at the expense of my destruction. He offered me to defend the end of the course thesis, so he gave me more than twenty pages that comprised his viewpoints, his opponents’ and all the solutions and answers. In less than six days I knew them all by heart so I went to the Theater and I played my role almost without the help of my Professor. With that, he earned all the reputation and I slowly faded away, totally disabling me for the other disciplines, as those who think they know too much, will not learn anything. [...]

After I finished my courses, I went back home euphoric. I stayed a few months revising what I had studied with my tutor (a well-educated man). He, however (knowing that my confidence in the art of argumentation prevented me from learning what he was teaching me, and that my big memory prevented me from understanding what was still immature), advised my father to send me to the Escurial College to learn again philosophy. So he did. Such advise would had been very useful (when I was beginning to reflect and learn about things), if they had sent me back to study. But the concern with my previous mistakes slowed down the progress; however, during the two years that I spent there, I improved my studies in physics and metaphysics, learned some geometry, geography and more mathematics. I used to go frequently to the outstanding library of that Royal Convent. [...]

I went back home and travelled with my father to many Kingdoms throughout Spain and, at the beginning of 1625, when I was twenty two years of age, I was sent off to Salamanca to study Canons and Law. My servant did not want to come with me, so they offered me an older and well-mannered servant; time and bad company, however, corrupted everything.

The first course was very promising and teachers had good hope for me, since those who memorize easily are better suited for this kind of study. Given the long trips to go and return from home each summer, my parents authorized me to stay and enjoy there. That was my downfall, because during my first holidays I learned to use all sorts of weapons and also learned a few concepts of astronomy and medicine. But (as inconstant people often do), with new things I worked hard and with joy, but I was dispersed and talked about everything, but I really didn’t know anything well. [...]. Anyway, I passed, disappointed, to the third course, from which I made very little use of, because at the very beginning I was banished from the paradise of innocence, as I liked the fruit of the forbidden tree. Due to it and to my belligerent temperament, I was asked to leave University and had to leave my parents and my homeland. I wandered around for a while, and in 1629, at the age of 26, I moved to Milan where I served for the famous Cassal de Monferrato Ranch. I had a free and military way of life and although I changed my habits when I changed country, it was never for the better. [...]

At that time (1633) my father passed away, so I was left without support. As one can imagine I was upset but I had to accept the inevitable fate and encourage myself to pursuit my own income [...]

During all that time and travelling I learned several languages ​​(easy when one is young), a few other disciplines that were more curious than useful, as well as many secrets of nature and medicine. [...]

Many times I saw my life in real danger, but then God decided to help me out, out of His divine and secret Providence. I will not describe here my successes, as this is not about my story, but about my confession. [...]

My main and capital sins (from which derived a bunch of vices) were: insolent presumption of knowing more than others; insatiable inclination to gamble, as well as a vile and dreadful subjection to lascivious love. I continued on the military activity and on this infamous and free way of life until the end of April 1637, my 34th. year of age, when I got married.

When I changed my marital state, I also changed my profession, and changed from war to sorrow. I tried to establish a new and more decent way of life, in accordance to my new marital state. I soon started to dedicate myself to study books of moral and devotion, whereabout I found, over the time, my comfort. I enjoyed reading books of history and politics. I held different positions serving my King and participated of several peace and war treaties. My life was filled with continuous contrasts of jobs, dangers and persecutions, and during its course I learned to suffer and to have no ambitions; thus (and by the grace of God) I attained an inexplicable tranquility of spirit, which is the greatest happiness of this perishable life. After 32 years of marriage and 38 years of constant service, I have just enough to humbly provide for

my family, and I am happier than so many people who own a large amount of assets and are never happy because they always crave for more.

I had ten children but only two boys and three girls are still alive today. The girls‘ upbringing was due to their mother, who educated them with her good example, rather than with words. As for the boys, I tried to make sure that they had the best possible education; parents strive in vain, however, if God does not concur with His divine grace. At the age of 65, I sufficiently saw and experienced the mistakes, faults and inaccuracies of the world, so I wouldn’t have any disappointments. Those who do not correct themselves with the examples of others, are very foolish.

When I started to surrender myself to moral studies, I felt a supernatural light enlighten me (to my confusion) self-discovery. I became astonished by suddenly unveiling my deep ignorance and my vain and mad arrogance. I soon recognized within me so many weaknesses and mistakes, that I became ashamed to have lived so many years looking at others’ little faults rather than focusing on my own faults and sins. Open hearted, I ask the Divine Majesty to be forgiven.

This is my life, my public confession and my natural and true portrait.

*Translated by Mônica H. Reppucci.

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