Repeatedly the main speakers in Il Cortegiano reject attempts to pressure them into pronouncing a set of rules for speaking, writing, dressing, joking, and so on. Nebrija employs these cycles from the past to establish a structure that he can apply to the situation of Spain. Reversing Petrarch's description of strolling through Rome and imagining what lay beneath the ruins, Bembo presents a city in the course of recovering its ancient cultural artifacts in such a way that modernity begins to merge with the predecessor that formerly lay underneath.
There is relatively little of Petrarch's moral questioning in this poetry, which depends on the fantasy that the impossible should be possible, without asking whether it is deserved. But they are permitted and confirmed by their use, with no other justification than that they give pleasure, sound good to the ear, and bring gravity and sweetness.
Italy was the source of Spanish poetry, but by fertilizing Spain, Italy lost potency. The transparent defenses against Dante reveal the identity of his true poetic father and force Petrarch to employ every sort of reproach in his rhetorical warehouse. Cicero and Virgil themselves attained this majesty by imitating their Creek predecessors, and they thus showed the way for Bembo and his contemporaries who, if they are diligent in their imitations, may someday hope to surpass their classical models.
Implicit in their expressions of national inferiority is a sense of belatedness, of the need to measure up to the great achievements of the past; and they offer advice for improving Spanish letters. But the arguments are presented indirectly, for the preface is written in a courtly discursive mode that identifies the new.
In the preface dedicated to de Silva, written shortly before the book's publication inthe author rejects the use of a Tuscan norm:. And who can discuss things with people who don't know what a verse is, save that which shod and dressed in rhyme enters.
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Slavish imitation is likened to mimesis, but while the possibility of deviating from the prototype offers some comfort, the analogy between model and father, and imitation and son, suggests that the model poet engenders the imitator, and this relationship of direct dependency is closer to medieval notions of midgets on the shoulders of giants than to the humanist hermeneutic.
The old poetry, which could be judged good or bad on the basis of established rules, would no longer do, for a poetic meritocracy could exclude aristocrats from the tenuous world of acceptable courtiership, or even admit educated commoners like Encina; as Whigham has argued, it is important to Castiglione that he replace a meritocracy of achievement with an aristocracy based on manner.
Castiglione's hostility to established and objective rules pervades Spanish poetic theory for the next century. Federico becomes the chief speaker in book 2, much of which is also important for a theory of lyric.