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Correspondencias: Los origenes del arte epistolar en Espana.

Gonzalo Ponton. Correspondencias: Los origenes del arte epistolar en Espana.

Estudios criticos de literature 1. Madrid: Editorial Biblioteca Nueva, 2002. 254 pp. index. bibl. [euro] 12. ISBN: 84-9742-079-9.

Correspondencias: Los origenes del arte epistolar en Espana by Gonzalo Ponton offers the reader an overview of the development of the epistolary genre in Castile during the fifteenth century. Through a rhetorical approach, Ponton tries to unify the different realities of the letter. One of his aims, stated early in the first chapter, is to specify and clarify the letter's nature from the theoretical codification of the time. The protean nature of the letter, as pointed out by Erasmus in De conscribendis epistolis, is the result of its essential function. Fifteenth-century treatises understood that letter writing was an act undertaken because of distance, that is to say as a conversation between friends "in absentia." This conversational character captures, according to Ponton, the emotive nuances of the epistle, but does not "stress

its fundamental quality as a written document" (19).

The second chapter deals with the transformations of the epistolary art in Castile. Epistolary practices within the pattern established in the artes dictaminis, explains Ponton, sought to make use of some classical rhetorical notions in order to provide a major expressive freedom for the letter. But it was with the new humanist handbooks that the restrictive conventions of the genre were rejected (stiffness at the salutatio, the cursus, or the use of vos) and new, important innovations were introduced. Ponton illustrates these transformations with texts of Enrique de Villena, Diego de Valera, Fernan Perez de Guzman, and Sancho de Torres. In keeping with a Ciceronian assumption, brevitas and concision are the core of the ideal letter. The perfect epistle is not the shortest one but rather the most precise.

The third chapter examines epistolary genres through the theoretical assumptions of the time. Rather than in the artes dictaminis, it is in the humanist handbooks where one finds an understanding of epistolary practices perceived from the framework of the genres together with an exhaustive typology of the different types of letters. The consolatory epistle is the most frequent. Its practice spans from a treatise by Villena to the consolatory epistles by Fray Inigo de Mendoza. The exhortatory epistle, mostly written for encouraging the reader to pursue the study of letters, and the gratulatory epistle were by far the other two most favorite genres of fifteenth-century Castile.

The last two chapters, dedicated to the analysis of epistolary topics and styles, focus on a number of letters from collections that have survived. The selection of topics covers a wide range of possibilities, going from general to personal matters. Among the former, political issues stand out, such as the letter by Diego de Valera to Enrique IV, in which Valera urges the king to meet his governmental responsibilities. Spiritual topics also have a remarkable importance as Gonzalo Ponton brings out in letters by Fernando de la Torre and Fernando de Pulgar. In other instances, the subject of the letters deals with particular circumstances, such as marriage or old age, two clearly Ciceronian reminiscences. The main idea of the chapter devoted to epistolary style is the importance of humor, which is capable of releasing the genre from its own constrictions. Petrarch, in the Rerum familiari libri, had already noticed that the epistolary genre did not go well with the high style. As Perotti and Manzanares's handbooks did point out, the three styles do appear in the epistolary genre, but each one at a lesser extent than what would be proper according to rhetorical laws.

Ponton's book on the epistolary art as it relates to Castile is a detailed, careful, and informative book which fills a vacuum in the field of fifteenth-century Castilian epistolography. Without detracting from the merits of the book as a valuable source of information on the epistle and its codification, I would like to comment on two aspects of this study. I find that at times Ponton overextends his exhaustive exemplification. For example, in the first chapter he cites the letter's four levels to illustrate the theoretical postulates by Claudio Guillen. My second remark is of a more theoretical nature. Ponton's study does not address nor does it solve one of the crucial problems of the epistolary genre. The reader is left without ever knowing the difference between literary and non-literary epistles. And it is here where Ponton's rhetorical approach to the epistolary genres reveals its limitations. Perhaps it would have been profitable to heed Cicero's quotation that Ponton has rightly chosen at the beginning of the last chapter reminding us to discriminate between letters that are an expression of literary genres and those that are not.


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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Lozano-Renieblas, Isabel
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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