Did Jerónimo de Contreras write his own Commedia?

José Ignacio Barrio Olano

James Madison University


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Jerónimo de Contreras’s Selva de aventuras is considered a Byzantine novel from the Spanish 16th Century. It was first published in Barcelona in 1565 and a second version with a different ending was published in Alcalá de Henares in 1583. The main character, Luzmán, a gentleman from Seville, sails from Spain to Italy after his childhood sweetheart refuses to marry him because she has decided to devote her life to God. Frustrated, Luzmán becomes a pellegrino d’amore and travels through Venice, Ferrara, Milan, Pisa, Mantua, Siena, Rome and Naples. On his journey, Luzmán collects a series of tales of lovers disgraced and ruined. The initial contrast between human love and divine love already suggested by Arbolea becomes an increasingly persistent leitmotif and reaches its peak in an allegorical representation at the palace of Cardinal Juliano in Rome. By then Luzmán has assimilated that precariousness and fallacy of human love is a universal condition. When he sails back to Spain, his boat is attacked by Moors, who hold him in captivity for five years in Algiers. When he finally is set free, he returns to Spain and finds that Arbolea has embraced a religious life, which makes him decide to become a hermit. The second version of the novel adds two books to the original seven, and presents a different outcome to the story: Arbolea becomes a pilgrim herself and leaves in search of Luzmán, who is already back on the peninsula. They meet in Portugal and are able to finally get married and live happily ever after.

The purpose of this article is to point out the possible parallelisms between Contreras’s Selva de aventuras and Dante’s Divina Commedia. In the first place, the title itself -Selva de aventuras- seems related to Dante’s selva oscura. Selva has been interpreted as “unformed matter”, with the same meaning as the lat. silva and its Greek equivalent hyle, which were used in patristic literature and the exegesis. Selva as “matter lacking form” or “chaotic matter” and also as “lacking light” modified by oscura would signify the spiritual death and deformation of the pilgrim at the time he initiates his journey of salvation (1). Dante loses his way and finds himself in a perilous forest. Curiously, Luzmán, early in his Italian journey, also looses his way “en un espeso monte […] y llegó a un lugar el más fragoso que jamás pensó ver” ‘a well-wooded mountain… and arrived at the roughest place he had ever seen’ (2). “Perdí el camino” ‘I lost my way’ says Luzmán to the beautiful Porcia, one of his first interlocutors (3). Selva de aventuras, thus, seems to echo Dante’s selva oscura, and also reformulates Saint Augustine’s words in The Confessions: “in hac tam immensa silva plena insidiarum et periculorum” ‘In this so vast a wilderness, full of snares and dangers’ (4).

The contrast between human love and divine love in the novel is a leitmotif that first starts with Arbolea’s rebuke of Luzmán, whose love has changed from chaste love to carnal. This scene certainly evokes the dialogue between Beatrice and Dante when they meet again in Canto 31 of Purgatorio, and the angelical lady reprimands Dante for having erred and embraced vain pleasures. Luzmán’s subsequent illness and the voyage that he starts soon afterwards, have been interpreted within the normative trajectories of courtly love and peregrinatio amoris (5). The pilgrim of love as a literary figure goes back to Boccaccio’s Il Filocolo and the dolcistilnovisti poets and we find him in Spanish literature in Gongora’s Las soledades, in the pastoral novel and in Cervantes’ Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. In Dante’s Divina Commedia as well as in Selva de aventuras, the pilgrimage of love becomes a religious pilgrimage to Paradise. “Qui sarai tu poco tempo silvano; e sarai meco senza fine cive di quella Roma onde Cristo č romano” ‘Here you shall be a short time a forester, and you shall be forever a citizen of that Rome whereof Christ is Roman’ Beatrice says to Dante when they are about to leave Purgatory (6). Here Dante’s Commedia and Contreras’ Selva de aventuras coincide again in the concepts of the world as selva and the pilgrimage as a transit from human to divine love.

It seems meaningful that Luzmán’s journey takes place in Italy. Although at first it seems that his travel has no specific destination, Rome will be the point at which the progressive confrontation of human love and divine love reaches its climax with an allegorical representation that Luzmán attends at the palace of Cardinal Juliano. In Cervantes’s Persiles, Rome is also the destination of the peregrinatio amoris and appears as the terrestrial point closest to Paradise. In Dante’s Commedia, the Trojan Aeneas, founder of the Roman race and the Roman Empire, mirrors Christ and the Christian Church. As Margherita Frankel puts it, “just as the Old Testament was adopted by the Christian theologians and re-interpreted to make it conform to Christian revelation, so does Dante retrieve and re-interpret the pagan poem to disclose a Christian subtext.” (7) Virgil guides Dante on his supernatural journey in the same way that the Cumaean sibyl leads Aeneas through the underworld in Book VI of the Aeneid. Here Contreras’s Selva de aventuras also presents some curious parallelisms with Dante’s Commedia.

Dante’s Christian ascent actually begins with a descent. He has to descend to the bottom of the Inferno to be able to ascend to Paradise. Luzmán’s journey in Italy also follows a descent. Although he first arrives in Toscana, he goes immediately to Venice and from there to Ferrara and Milan, but from that point he descends from North to South the Italian territory to Genoa, Pisa, Siena, then on to Rome and Naples. By checking a map of Italy, it is really curious to see that such a geographic descent, which follows a graded trajectory downwards, is similar to Dante’s descent to the bottom of Hell in the Commedia. Throughout this descendent voyage, Luzmán engages in conversations with a series of figures damned by human love, which certainly evokes Dante’s talks with the damnati. On his way to Ferrara, Luzmán encounters Porcia in the middle of a forest. A niece of the Duke of Ferrara, she had refused her noble Italian suitors and left her family to marry a Spanish gentleman. They hid in the mountain for fear of retaliation. Her beloved soon died and since then she has lived in isolation crying every day over her lover’s tomb. Luzmán advises her to abandon such a life, but she laments, invokes death and finally dies over her husband’s tomb. In another encounter, Luzmán meets Salucio near Genoa. He was a servant of Duke Galeazo of Milan, but fell in love with the Duke’s fiancée, Beliana. He reveals his love to her, but she reprimands him. Frustrated, he leaves for the mountains. Luzmán convinces him to go back to his parents in Milan, and so he does, but he dies of suffering soon afterwards. After comparing his own case to the cases of these and other interlocutors, Luzmán concludes that human love can only lead to ruin and disgrace.

Soon after the allegorical representation in Rome in Book V, there is a striking element that connects Selva de aventuras with the Commedia and with Book VI of the Aeneid. Near Naples, Luzmán enters the cave of the sibyl Cuma, clearly an imitation of the Cumaean sibyl in the Aeneid. It does not seem fortuitous that this episode is in Book VI of Selva de aventuras and Aeneas encounters the Cumaean sibyl in Book VI of the Aeneid, the Aeneid being indeed the most renowned precedent of the Commedia. The prophetess Cuma has been spellbound in her cave for 200 years and shows to Luzmán her museum of paintings that represent the time to come for Spain and the House of Austria. In Book VI of the Aeneid the Cumaean sibyl predicts the future of the Trojans in Italy in terms of what already has happened in Troy: the Trojans will be besieged in Italy as they were in Troy, a woman again will be the cause of misfortune and a new Achilles will lead the Trojans. It is curious that in Book VI of Selva de aventuras, the prophetess Cuma also predicts the future in terms of what, in great part, has already happened by the time Luzmán enters her cave: She predicts the completion of the Spanish Reconquest by the Catholic Kings and the importance of Charles V and his son Philip II as defenders of the Catholic faith. In Contreras the providential mission of the Spanish House of Austria mirrors Dante’s perception of the Roman Empire as willed and authorized by God.

Luzmán’s visit to the cave of the prophetess Cuma reinforces the simile of a descent to the underworld, not only because it clearly evokes Virgil and Dante, but also because Naples and the Cuma’s cave are the lowest point in his geographic descent through Italy. Luzmán falls asleep and he awakes out of the cave. This is another connection of Selva de aventuras with the Aeneid and the Commedia, as well as with the abundant literature of dreams and caves: Cervantes’ cave of Montesinos and The Cave of Salamanca, Góngora’s Poliphemo and Galatea, Feliciano de Silva´s Amadís of Greece are just some examples, not to mention Calderón’s Life is a dream and Semíramis or Quevedo’s Dreams.

When Luzmán leaves the cave of the sibyl Cuma, he already has found revelation throughout his descent into the Inferno (8). However, in order to reach Paradise he still has to go through Purgatory. He interprets as such the time he spends in captivity in Algiers as a prisoner of the Moors. When that happens, Luzmán gives thanks to God for such an opportunity for redemption through suffering. Even though he could contact his rich parents to be ransomed, he rejects the idea and prefers to endure his experience of captivity as a penance and expiation for his errors. One day in captivity he has another dream: Arbolea appears to him accompanied by her husband. She is all dressed in white and holds hands with the most beautiful man, who tells Luzmán to forget once and for all his intent of marrying Arbolea. Arbolea also talks to Luzmán and confirms that she loves her husband with a pure and chaste love. It is obvious that the dream means that she has married Christ, and that Arbolea mirrors Dante’s Beatrice. After five years of captivity, Luzmán finally is set free and is able to return to Seville and confirm that Arbolea has become a nun and lives in a convent. Then, he becomes a hermit and lives near Seville for the rest of his life.

It is apparent that by following Dante’s model, Contreras has written his own peculiar Commedia. He converts the Italian sceneries into a descent to the underworld and his captivity and return to Spain into a Purgatory. For the Commedia to be complete, all that is needed is a Paradise. Precisely Contreras only conceivable utopia is the New Jerusalem in the afterlife and the noblest human exercise would be to defend this belief as the Spanish Habsburgs did. His novel aims, on other hand, to expose the fallibility of human utopias: The fallibility of human love is exposed with the story of his love for Arbolea and his interlocutors’ tales. The utopia of mundane wealth is unmasked with the story in Book IV of Oristes and Basurto, two wealthy gentlemen who choose to live in poverty. Also the utopia of perfect and durable political states is pointed out in Book I during the festivities of Venice, when the republic is warned of the fate of previous glorious cities, such as Troy, Rome and Carthage. Moreover, Luzmán’s dispute with the three philosophers in the beginning of Book III shows us an anti scholastic spirit and the preponderance of the sapientia or knowledge of the divine over the scientia or knowledge of the sciences in general (9). This is the typical Baroque concept of disillusion, although perhaps Contreras precedes the timing of the Baroque. For him human life is like a dystopia with a religious meaning presented within a Dantesque frame.

The second version of the novel presents two additional books and a more Byzantine ending of the story. There are additional tales of disgraced lovers and the cycle of separation/reunion of the main couple is extended before reaching a happy ending. Arbolea has not become a nun and feels guilty about the absence of Luzmán. After several years of desperate waiting, the moment comes when she decides to leave Seville disguised as a pilgrim in search of Luzmán. Luzmán is back in Spain after his captivity and he is also looking for her beloved after learning about her pilgrimage. Finally divine Providence allows the reunion of the couple and they are able to canalize their love in holy matrimony. Was this an attempt by Contreras to add the Paradise missing in the first version?



(1). Vid. Ann H. Hallock, “Dante’s ‘Selva Oscura’ and Other Obscure ‘Selvas’.” Forum Italicum 6 (1972): 63-64 and Barbara Zandrino, “La divina foresta spessa e viva.” Letture classensi 8 (1979): 59.

(2). Jerónimo de Contreras, Selva de aventuras, 1565-1583, ed. Miguel A. Teijeiro Fuentes (Cáceres: Universidad de Extremadura, 1991) 30-31.

(3). Contreras 32

(4). Saint Augustine, St. Augustine's Confessions; with an English translation by William Watts, 1631, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1961) 178-179.

(5). See Barbara N. Davis, "Love and/or Marriage: The Surprising Revision of Jerónimo de Contreras' Selva de aventuras." Hispanic Review 50:2 (1982 Spring) :176 and Javier González Rovira, La novela bizantina en la Edad de Oro (Madrid: Gredos, 1996) 188.

(6). Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy. Purgatorio, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1973) 356-357.

(7). Margharita Frankel, "Dante's Conception of the Ideology of the Aeneid," Anna Balakian et al., eds. Proceedings of the 10th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association II (New York: Garland, 1985) 406.

(8). Another Byzantine novel, Los amores de Clareo y Florisea, by Alonso Núńez de Reinoso, includes a descensus ad inferos in chapter 31, with an explicit reference to Book VI of the Aeneid. For a review of the katabasis topic in literature, vid. Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (1893; Stuttgart: A. Druckenmüller, 1958) s.v. katabasis.

(9). For a definition of the terms sapientia and scientia, vid. Eugene F. Rice, The Renaissance idea of wisdom (1958; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.



Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. 3 vols. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1970-1975.

Augustine, Saint. St. Augustine's Confessions; with an English translation by William Watts, 1631, 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1961.

Contreras, Jerónimo de. Selva de aventuras, 1565-1583. Ed. Miguel A. Teijeiro Fuentes. Cáceres: Universidad de Extremadura, 1991.

Davis, Barbara N. "Love and/or Marriage: The Surprising Revision of Jerónimo de Contreras' Selva de aventuras." Hispanic Review 50:2 (1982 Spring):173-199.

Davis, Charles T. "Dante's Vision of History." Dante Studies 118 (2000): 243-59.

Frankel, Margharita. "Dante's Conception of the Ideology of the Aeneid," Anna Balakian et al., eds. Proceedings of the 10th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association II. New York: Garland (1985): 406-413.

González Rovira, Javier. La novela bizantina en la Edad de Oro. Madrid: Gredos, 1996.

Hallock, Ann H. “Dante’s ‘Selva Oscura’ and Other Obscure ‘Selvas’.” Forum Italicum 6 (1972): 57-78.

Scott, John A. Understanding Dante. Notre Dame, Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 2004.

Zandrino, Barbara. “La divina foresta spessa e viva.” Letture classensi 8 (1979): 45-62.


© José Ignacio Barrio Olano 2007

Espéculo. Revista de estudios literarios. Universidad Complutense de Madrid

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