Baroque Horrors: Roots of the Fantastic in the Age of Curiosities


"David Castillo takes us on a tour of some horrific materials that have rarely been considered together. He sheds a fantastical new light on the baroque."
---Anthony J. Cascardi, University of California Berkeley

"Baroque Horrors is a textual archeologist's dream, scavenged from obscure chronicles, manuals, minor histories, and lesser-known works of major artists. Castillo finds tales of mutilation, mutation, monstrosity, murder, and mayhem, and delivers them to us with an inimitable flair for the sensational ...

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"David Castillo takes us on a tour of some horrific materials that have rarely been considered together. He sheds a fantastical new light on the baroque."
---Anthony J. Cascardi, University of California Berkeley

"Baroque Horrors is a textual archeologist's dream, scavenged from obscure chronicles, manuals, minor histories, and lesser-known works of major artists. Castillo finds tales of mutilation, mutation, monstrosity, murder, and mayhem, and delivers them to us with an inimitable flair for the sensational that nonetheless rejects sensationalism because it remains so grounded in historical fact."
---William Egginton, Johns Hopkins University

"Baroque Horrors is a major contribution to baroque ideology, as well as an exploration of the grotesque, the horrible, the fantastic. Castillo organizes his monograph around the motif of curiosity, refuting the belief that Spain is a country incapable of organized scientific inquiry."
---David Foster, Arizona State University

Baroque Horrors turns the current cultural and political conversation from the familiar narrative patterns and self-justifying allegories of abjection to a dialogue on the history of our modern fears and their monstrous offspring. When life and death are severed from nature and history, "reality" and "authenticity" may be experienced as spectator sports and staged attractions, as in the "real lives" captured by reality TV and the "authentic cadavers" displayed around the world in the Body Worlds exhibitions. Rather than thinking of virtual reality and staged authenticity as recent developments of the postmodern age, Castillo looks back to the Spanish baroque period in search for the roots of the commodification of nature and the horror vacui that accompanies it. Aimed at specialists, students, and readers of early modern literature and culture in the Spanish and Anglophone traditions as well as anyone interested in horror fantasy, Baroque Horrors offers new ways to rethink broad questions of intellectual and political history and relate them to the modern age.

David Castillo is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.

Jacket art: Frederick Ruysch's anatomical diorama. Engraving reproduction "drawn from life" by Cornelius Huyberts. Image from the Zymoglyphic Museum.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472034918
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 12/27/2011
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David Castillo is in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. 

Visit David Castillo's website

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Read an Excerpt

Baroque Horrors

Roots of the Fantastic in the Age of Curiosities
By David R. Castillo

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11721-5

Chapter One

Miscellanea: The Garden of Curiosities and Macabre Theater

From the Bibliotheca to the Garden and the Graveyard

The Renaissance hunger for novel objects of knowledge and varied topics of conversation is no doubt responsible for the extraordinary success of miscellanea in the 1500s. As Marcel Bataillon says, "[e]ra el tipo mismo de la olla podrida que deleitaba a los robustos apetitos de la época" (Erasmo y España 637) (it is precisely the type of hodgepodge that satisfied the robust appetites of the period). In Spain, the second half of the sixteenth century is especially rich in works devoted to the compilation of all manner of curiosities. Much of this writing is explicitly pitched as entertainment for a mixed audience with a taste for the odd, the shocking, and the rare. In their pairing of knowledge and pleasure, these works would seem to continue on the path of medieval exemplarity. However, the explicit emphasis on entertainment produces an interesting inversion of the terms, as the advancement of knowledge in the traditional sense takes a backseat to the stated goal of providing pleasure to the reader. Thus, pleasure (delectare) is no longer viewed merely as a pedagogical tool, which is supposed to make moral teachings palatable (enseñar deleitanto), but rather as an end in itself. As the narrator puts it in La silva curiosa, "assí como la diversidad de colores conforta y delecta la vista, assí la variedad de discursos y materias curiosas recrea maravillosamente el espíritu" (155) (just as the diversity of colors gives comfort and pleasure to the eyes, the variety of discourses and curious matters wonderfully delights the spirit). More than a simple declaration of intentions, this observation amounts to a programmatic manifesto for the entire corpus of the miscellanea.

In Torquemada's Jardín de flores curiosas, the pleasure that the interlocutors receive from the novelty and diversity of the curious topics selected for discussion is metonymically linked to the delightful variety of the flowers growing in the pastoral landscape that serves as the backdrop for the dialogue. As Luis says, "es tanta la variedad de las flores y rosas que están en este pequeño prado, que, mirando cada una por sí, me parece nunca antes haberla visto" (103) (the variety of flowers and roses is such in this little prairie that as I contemplate each one individually, it feels as though I have never seen it before). The topical invitation to pick our favorite flowers from these textual gardens, prairies, or forests (jardines, florestas, silvas) is indicative of the specific form of cultural consumption that is at work in the miscellanea, as well as the type of reader to whom these works are directed: "Curiosas invenciones desseando, / Entrad en esta Silva, y descansando / En ella gustaréis dos mil primores. / En ella cogeréis diversas flores, / Si andar queréis en ella paseando (La silva curiosa 84) (Wishing for curious inventions, enter into this Forest and rest. In it you shall find two thousand beauties. In it, you shall pick distinct flowers as you walk). Each and every "thing" that can be found inside these essentially heterogeneous texts, regardless of its original source or cultural function, is now offered to the reader as a "curious invention," that is, a novel object of amusement and delight.

A few years ago, Lina Rodríguez Cacho (1993) drew a suggestive picture of the trajectory of sixteenth-century miscellanea, from the early Silva de varia lección by Pedro Mexía, first published in 1540, to Antonio de Torquemada's Jardín de flores curiosas (1570), Julián de Medrano's La silva curiosa (1583), and Varia historia, written by Luis Zapata around 1590. She noted that within the pages of Mexía's Silva, we never really get the impression of having left amedieval bibliotheca; yet when it comes to Torquemada's Jardín, we may feel more like guests in a private backyard gathering than readers at the library. In the case of La silva curiosa and Varia historia, Rodríguez Cacho imagines herself standing before a group of casual conversationalists at a café. For her part, Asunción Rallo Gruss (1984) looks at the development of the genre from the perspective of its evolution from the encyclopedic display of ancient erudition in the tradition of classical compilations to the more personal or personalized miscellanea that will proliferate in the last three decades of the sixteenth century. Beginning with Torquemada's Jardín, miscellany literature will open the door to contemporary sources and folkloric material, as well as personal experience, in an effort to engage new groups of readers who had emerged with the printing press. While most critics, including Rallo Gruss, focus on the works of Mexía, Torquemada, and Zapata, it is perhaps the protonovelistic second part of Medrano's La silva curiosa that best exemplifies the subjective impulse of late sixteenth-century miscellanies.

Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo mentioned the miscellanea in discussing the genesis of the modern novel in his classic Orígenes de la novela (1905). But only recently do we find critics who examine miscellany literature in relation to the origins of the fantastic. Giovanni Allegra is among the first scholars to grasp the cultural significance of these texts, which are both old (antiguos) and new (modernos). Sixteenth-century miscellanies stand at the crossroads between the ordered, meaningful cosmos of antiquity and the chaotic and infinite universe announced by Giordano Bruno. As Allegra remarks, these works served as warehouses or textual galleries in which the myths and symbols that once anchored the old world would be compiled and inventoried to satisfy the curiosity of new cultural consumers.

One can sense the end of the old world as the mythical topoi of antiquity are converted into "curious inventions" to be exhibited in these eclectic literary cabinets, alongside the sensational products of folkloric hearsay and pseudo-autobiographical anecdotes. The transformation of the sense-making myths and symbols of the ancient world into literary curiosities may very well be a first step in the direction of the modern fantastic, as Allegra suggests, but the miscellanies often come closest to the unsettling quality of modern fantasy when they incorporate contemporary folkloric material. Some notable examples can be found in the third treatise of Torquemada's Jardín, which includes dozens of anecdotes dealing with monstrous and macabre events belonging to the realm of the preternatural. These popular stories of fantastic occurrences ("cuentos acaecidos," Jardín 243) must have inspired Torquemada's contemporary Julián de Medrano, whose own acute sense of the macabre would engender some of the most self-consciously sensationalist passages of the period. The often flippant autobiographical narrative persona that presides over the second part of La silva curiosa guides readers into the depths of one of the first genuinely dark landscapes of the modern fantastic.

Before we turn our attention to the macabre content in these fantasies, however, I would like to go over some considerations apropos of an important discussion that takes place at the beginning of the third treatise of Torquemada's Jardín. As the interlocutors gather at the customary spot for their third conversation, Luis decides to share his apprehension concerning a widespread rumor that tells of ghostly sightings at the garden (246). This intervention and the resulting exchange with Antonio and Bernardo effect a notable atmospheric change. The tranquil and cheery prairie of previous treatises is now transformed into an uncanny landscape seemingly filled with shadowy presences. This eerily suggestive atmosphere is meant to reset or adjust the mood of readers in anticipation of the topics selected for this third colloquy, which include spectral and demonic encounters, sorcery, witchcraft, and devil worship. Initially, the conversation focuses on the nature of human fear, which is linked to melancholic dispositions naturally impressionable and given to fantasy. We are told that while irrational apprehensions may be treated and ultimately corrected by means of reason and discretion, there are also cases in which our fears are triggered by extraordinary occurrences that fall outside of the common order of nature. As Antonio explains, established authorities draw a distinction between actual spectral apparitions (visiones) and false representations fabricated by the imagination, which are called phantoms (fantasmas). The trouble is that when it comes to evaluating specific cases, it is often impossible to separate fantasy from reality, as he says in prefacing the first of many recorded accounts of extraordinary occurrences: "Y no sé yo de cual manera de éstas haya sido un caso muy notable que habrá poco más de treinta años acaeció dos leguas de donde estamos" (And I do not know which of these types may have been a notable case that occurred thirty years ago two leagues from where we are).

The difficulty of distinguishing between real events and deceitful appearances will come up again apropos of the contested issue of the witches' flight and their ritualistic encounter with the devil in the infamous witches' Sabbath. We are presented with conflictive evidence, some of which suggests that the witches' ritualistic encounters with the beast are indeed real. In other cases, it appears that the abhorrent flight is nothing but a chimerical fantasy triggered by hallucinogenic substances. Significantly, the power of the illusion may affect not only the witch experiencing the trance but the spectator watching it, "los ojos de los que las miran" (316) (the eyes of those who observe them). Luis attributes this alleged fact to the devil's power to plant false representations in our imagination: "[R]epresenta el diablo en la imaginación y fantasía todas aquellas cosas que quiere" (316) (The devil represents in our imagination and fantasy whatever things he wants).

The terms of the discussion in these passages of the Jardín will be echoed almost verbatim in Cervantes' well-known exemplary novel El coloquio de los perros, albeit with distinctively ironic overtones. More than a literary or fictional motif, however, the witches' flight is a key issue in contemporary debates and inquisitorial trials and interrogations. The belief in the real nature of the witches' preternatural encounters is widespread in the 1500s and early 1600s and finds its roots in classical and scholastic sources from Pliny and Apuleius to Saint Augustine. Torquemada reproduces both sides of the debate, allowing for the possibility that either version might be true, depending on the case. While the Jardín does not go as far as El coloquio in linking the potentially deceitful quality of our representations of the physical world in these borderline experiences to broader issues of epistemological uncertainty, the practical result of allowing these manifestly opposite views to stand on equal footing is a blurring of the distinction between fantasy and reality. Thus, it would seem that questions about the true nature of extraordinary experiences cannot be completely separated, at least in some cases, from issues of interpretation. This would be true when we talk about the controversial subject of the witches' flight and also when we attempt to distinguish actual spectral events (visiones) from the phantasms (fantasmas) engendered by our own irrational fears.

The oscillation between the acceptance of the marvelous and the drive to explain seemingly extraordinary events by means of reason is a common (some would say defining) trait of the modern fantastic. While many theorists of modern fantasy and horror-including Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, Eric Rabkin, and H. P. Lovecraft-focus on antirationalist sentiments in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in their drive to substantiate what they see as the countercultural quality of the fantastic, conflictive encounters between reason and its others are germane to the epistemological crisis of the early modern period, a situation brought about by the emergence of a secular and increasingly objectified worldview that stands side by side with different versions of the old finite and ordered cosmos. This is not a linear process by any means, and, of course, the "men of reason" of the Renaissance and baroque periods are not the rationalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet they share in the deep sense of vertigo that results from seeing the world radically change, right in front of their eyes. It would be difficult to exaggerate the potentially seismic effects of the geographical and cosmological discoveries of the age of exploration, especially the appearance of an impossible new continent to the west of Europe and the piling up of evidence that negates the centrality of the earth in an increasingly vast and chaotic universe, from the investigations of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) to Galileo's careful and detailed recording of his lunar explorations in the Sidereus Nuncius (Sidereal Messenger [1610]).

As our view of the cosmos changes, so does our nature. Pascal says it best in his remarkable statement that "our nature is in movement" (quoted by Battistini 24). While the impact of this movement of nature is most often evaluated from the perspective of its advancement of scientific reason, it is also important to point out that the shattering of the familiar and meaningful world of the ancients unleashes genuine forms of epochal melancholia and a profound anxiety about the openness and chaotic structure of the universe. The suggestions that there is nothing motionless in nature and that the universe itself may be ruled by chaos must have intensified the baroque obsession with the fragility of the human condition and the general perception of social disarray. These epochal anxieties crystallize in the literature of the period in the recurrent images of the "world upside down" and the fixation with allegories of death and decay. Fernando R. de la Flor examines emblems of melancholy and "funerary theaters" in the Hispanic baroque. He notes that the baroque fixation with death and nothingness (nihil), which he traces back to the early 1580s, amounts to a negative ontology. The cult of nothingness would be essentially tied to the discovery of infinity and the idea of the vacuum suggested by Giordano Bruno. The notion of the vacuum and the anxiety that springs from it feed seemingly contradictory views of the human condition, from officially sanctioned spiritualism, to mystical experiences and ascetic movements, to cynical attitudes and expressions of intellectual skepticism.

Galileo's contemporaries coined the expression nocturnal horror to describe the ominous feeling that engulfs the soul confronted with the mystery of the starry night described in the Sidereus (Battistini 22). The anxious pathos revealed in Galileo's reporting and the astonished terror with which it was received in some quarters are strongly reminiscent of the language with which such philosophers as Burke, Kant, and Schiller would come to describe the experience of the sublime. Hence, Anthony Cascardi has recently suggested that theNorthern European sublime of the eighteenth century finds its roots in the aesthetics of the Southern European or Mediterranean baroque. Battistini also points in this direction when he asserts, "From the same perspective, man's soul, in perceiving the infinite, discovered itself boundless, and with the revival of Pythagorean motives, there developed an aesthetic of limitless space that assumed the configuration of the sublime. It is precisely this that Edmund Burke realized when theorizing (in the modern sense) this category of aesthetics, which was launched in the seventeenth century and codified in the following century" (24).

In this precise sense, the "nocturnal horror" that is captured in the literature of the baroque period could also be posited as the archaic root of the postenlightened "cosmic terror" evoked in Lovecraft's conceptualization of the classic horror story or "weird tale" (his terminology). Note the distinctive echoes of the shock of infinity and the fear of open spaces in Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926): "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein that we shall go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age" (346). As Battistini has suggested, the modern fear of open spaces is a by-product of the discovery of infinity and cosmic chaos in the age of exploration (22). This epochal anxiety was to release an equally strong desire to find refuge from the threats of disorder and meaninglessness (the "black seas of infinity") in a secure citadel or "placid island."

Manuel Aguirre thinks of this compulsion to seal ourselves inside a citadel of reason as the defining trait of modernity. In his view, the idea of the perfectly "closed space" is the most dangerous dream ever conceived by reason. 15 Yet the cosmic (dis)order announced by Giordano Bruno and recorded by Galileo brought with it not just new walls of reason but also new windows of imagination and, with them, brand new vistas of nightmarish landscapes as well as utopian dreams.


Excerpted from Baroque Horrors by David R. Castillo Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: A Taste for the Macabre in the Age of Curiosities....................1
ONE Miscellanea: The Garden of Curiosities and Macabre Theater....................37
TWO Sins of Our Fathers (and Spouses): The Preternatural in Baroque Exemplary Tales....................77
THREE Zayas' Bodyworks: Protogothic Moral Pornography or a Baroque Trap for the Gaze....................111
FOUR Monsters from the Deep: Lozano's La cueva de Hércules and the Politics of Horror....................137
Works Cited....................165
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