Enrique de Villena
Enrique de Aragón (1384–1434), Marquess of Villena, was a medieval Spanish writer, theologian and poet. He was also the last legitimate descendant of the royal house of Aragón and the counts of Barcelona. When political power was denied to him, he turned to writing and was reputed to be a great necromancer.
He was born in Torralba de Cuenca, in Castile. After the death of his father, Pedro de Aragón y Villena, Enrique went to the Aragonese court, where he was raised by his aristocratic grandfather, Alfonso de Aragón, first marquess of Villena. There he met the leading literary and intellectual minds of his era and became skilled in mathematics, chemistry and philosophy. The Aragonese Queen Violant of Bar, aware of Villena’s academic gifts, invited him to study at the royal court of Barcelona – where Villena met the leading authors of Catalan literature. This experience further solidified Villena’s already promising future.
However, Villena encountered difficulty towards the end of the fourteenth century when his grandfather began losing power in the Castilian court. By 1398, Alfonso had lost his position as marquess of Villena. This loss did not rest well with either Alfonso or Villena. Alfonso spent the next many years attempting to re-instate his grandson as marquess of Villena. Meanwhile, Villena straightforwardly declared himself Marquess of Villena – signing all official documents in this name, though not legally correct.
Historians believe Villena traveled to Castile during the first years of the fifteenth century, took residence there, and married María de Albornoz – a wealthy heiress from Cuenca, Spain. Continuing this rise towards aristocratic prominence, Villena soon received titles as count of Cangas and Tineo – offered to him by his cousin, King Henry III of Castile. However, in 1404, Villena resigned from the court to pursue world travel. Ironically, that same year, Villena tried to become master of the Order of Calatrava – a prestigious religious and military order. Pursuing this position, Enrique divorced his wife, claiming impotence, and renounced his position as count so he could officially become a friar of Calatrava. The King of Castile mandated that the comendadores (commanders) of Calatrava promote Enrique as master of the Order. This position, however, did not suit Villena well for, although intelligent, he was not politically competent. Authorities soon stripped him of his leadership position.
Fortunately for Villena, he received a token of good fortune when his cousin, Infante Ferdinand of Castile became King of Aragon in 1412. Villena enjoyed several years of tranquil peace as Fernando’s personal assistant. However, upon Ferdinand I's death in 1416, Villena returned to Castile and spent the next several years at his wife’s estates in Cuenca taking care of family affairs. But he also had affairs with other aristocratic ladies. Therefore he had two daughters born out of wedlock. One of them lived from 1430 to 1490, was baptized as Elionor Manuel, and entered under the name of Isabel de Villena a convent in Valencia. There she became abbess in 1463 and wrote a Vita Christi that was published posthumously by the new abbess in 1497.
During the years 1420 – 1425 not much is known about Villena other than that he wrote Arte cisoria and various treatises during this time.
From 1426 to 1429, Alfonso V of Aragon, the Magnánimo of Aragón, stripped Villena of his promised inheritance as Duke of Gandía, giving the position instead to his own brother. Thus, facing financial straits, Villena depended on his nephew for economic support until his death in 1434.
Don Enrique de Villena’s literary achievements are quite diverse. Perhaps Villena’s most successful work among Spanish readers was his interpretation of Los doce Trabajos de Hércules (The Twelve Works of Hercules). Twelve Works draws on Greek mythology for its subject matter and Christian literary traditions for its allegorical significance, a synthesis that Villena makes throughout the work. First translated into Catalan and then Castilian, the work contains obvious and didactic moral messages which Villena found applicable and important within the framework of contemporary Spain. Twelve Works is divided into twelve chapters, and each of those into four parts. Villena justifies his adaptation of foreign myth through the common idea that good fiction is able to both delight the reader and, through that delight, lead the reader to virtuous action. Written in 1417, Twelve Works of Hercules made Villena’s literary reputation, perhaps because it lacks the erudition and theoretical complexity of the later treatises.
Villena’s Arte de Trovar is ironically valued least for its literary merit. Described as “frustrating and sterile” (85), Arte de Trovar is a treatise on the rules and proper prosody of troubadour poetry. The work, like Villena’s other treatises, is erudite and difficult, concerning itself with complex laws of meter and versification, which were laid down as a result of lesser poets violating the structures of the “gay science” of Troubadour poetry. These poetic structures were viewed by Villena as a “true and immutable order of things,” and the genius of the poet was to make his words or stories conform to the laws of this order. As expected, the treatise does not hold the attention of many modern readers. Arte de Trovar does attest, however, to the important cultural exchange between Catalonia and the Provençal region of southern France (the home of troubadour lyric poetry), and conveys a sense of nostalgia on Villena’s part for the chivalric and highly decorous world of troubadour subject matter. Arte de Trovar was completed between 1417 and 1428.
Also of importance are Villena’s translations of Virgil’s The Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy into both Catalan and Castilian. Villena was the first translator of Virgil into a Romance language, and Villena was faced with the difficulty of maintaining the subtlety and depth of The Aeneid while appealing to a largely unlearned audience that was used to easily decipherable allegorical stories. Along with an initial section of “advice for the beginning reader,” the text comments as to how the examples of the ancient text may still be practically applied to contemporary Castilian society. Along with his interest in Virgil, Villena’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy reflects, perhaps, a shifting interest from the courtly poets discussed in Arte de Trovar to a divinely inspired Christian poet based on Roman models. Villena also translated Petrarch’s sonnets. These translations of classical literature were widely read by a growing community of literary nobility, a social circle in which Villena was among the most important members.
Enrique de Villena had various talents and interests, many of which are exemplified in his writing. In Arte de Cisoria (The Art of Carving), we discover Villena’s expertise as he meticulously describes the tools used, the steps taken, and the rules of etiquette while table carving. His knowledge comes from personal observation and experience working at the court of Castile for his cousin and nephew, Henry III and John II of Castile, respectively. Villena’s comprehension of 15th century medicine is seen in his work Tratado de la fascinación o de aojamiento (Treatise on the Evil Eye). In addition to describing the origin of the evil eye, he offers traditional and “present” methods for the prevention, diagnosis and cure of the illness. Further medical knowledge and research is seen in his work Tratado de la lepra (Treatise on Leprosy). In Villena’s Tratado de la consolación (Treatise on Consolation), we see his understanding of psychology. Although a Treatise on Astrology is wrongly attributed to Villena, it is said that he devoted much of his time to the studies of alchemy, astrology, philosophy and mathematics. This led to his widespread reputation as a necromancer. Upon Villena’s death in 1434, the king ordered Bishop Lope de Barrientos to investigate his library. Barrientos had many of Villena’s books burned, strengthening the public’s assumption that he was involved in witchcraft. A few of the remaining books went to the poet Santillana, while the rest of them went to the king.
Influence and legacy
Enrique de Villena’s deep interest in science and his great knowledge of astrology and other religious mystical systems gave him the reputation of a necromancer during his lifetime. This brought some of his works into question. Despite this, modern critics now see Villena as one of the most important Castilian intellectual leaders of the 15th century.
Villena exemplified characteristics of vernacular humanism in his translations and adaptations of the classical works. He encouraged Italian humanist thought and took some of the first steps to incorporate Latin culture and intellect into the culture of Castile. This started a movement to convert classical works into modern vernacular languages so that they could be read and enjoyed by more than just Latin scholars.
Villena was a strong believer in poetry’s necessary role in creating the intellectual elite. This is shown in the way he seeks to instruct his readers on various aspects of morality in his texts. He tries to influence the Castilian court and aristocracy on virtue and etiquette.
His most significant classical translation, Virgil’s Aeneid, was the first complete translation of this work into a romance language. He translates the work and provides commentary that enables readers to grasp the obscurity of the text and gives literal interpretations of specific information in order to teach the Castilian society the proper behaviors of courtiers. Typical of vernacular humanism, Villena’s commentary and translation of Virgil’s Aeneid exhibits Villena’s feeling that reading and intellectual curiosity is an important element in the education of the elite.
The accusations of necromancy and the heavy influence Italian Humanism had on his writing made him a bit controversial. The controversy surrounding Villena’s personal character spread his popularity by the interest it sparked in authors who followed. Villena often appears as a character in literature. In El doncel de don Enrique el Doliente, Mariano José de Larra portrays Villena as an evil figure. Lope de Vega’s Porfiar hasta morir illustrates Villena as more of a hero figure who works for justice. There is not one portrayal of Villena’s personal character accurate enough to give us a complete understanding of what he was really like. His literary accomplishments have survived time, but the uncertainty surrounding his life still remains today a mystery. However, he is viewed as an intellectual pioneer who exhibited civic virtue and wrote with poetic eloquence.
Gonzalo Núñez de Guzmán
Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava
Luis González de Guzmán
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- Torres-Alcalá, Antonio. Don Enrique de Villena: un mago al dintel del Renacimiento. Madrid: Porrúa, 1983.
- Doce trabajos de Hércules Documento Digital