Saturday, November 14, 2020

Don Juan(s)

When you refer to someone as a Don Juan, you are entering a contested minefield of allusions. Which Don Juan was the famous seducer of women? 

There is, first of all, a famous historical character known as Don Juan of Austria. I love  this portrait, done by Alonso Sánchez Coello in 1559-1560. Don Juan was born in 1547, so he would have been about 12. 

Don Juan was the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V and an Austrian barmaid/singer named Barbara Blomberg. The child was called Jeromin. The emperor took an interest in his son from afar and arranged from him to be brought to Spain and raised in a noble household. He even met the child a couple of times. 

In his will of 1558 the emperor recognized Jeromin as his son, but the old man died before he could convey his recognition. It was left to Charles' son Philip II of Spain to tell Jeromin that they were half brothers. So far as we can tell, the secret of his father's true identity had been concealed from the boy until then. Jeromin, now His Excellency Don Juan of Austria, was provided with a noble income and set up in a palace near the king's. He also attended university for a while. His father intended for Don Juan to enter the church but the son was far more interested in war.

(Imagine being 11 and learning that your father was the emperor. This story really makes me wish that there were nosy talk-show hosts in the 16th century to whom celebrities could have emoted about their feelings.)

In 1565 the on-again, off-again naval war with the Ottoman Turks heated up when the Turks attacked Malta. Don Juan asked for royal permission to join the Spanish fleet, was denied, tried to sneak off and join anyway but was too late. It took him until 1568 to get into a warship, fighting against Barbary corsairs. He then commanded troops on land, helping to put down a revolt among the Moors of Granada in a brutally effective fashion.

Don Juan's great meeting with history came in 1571, when he commanded the Spanish fleet at the naval battle of Lepanto, which often shows up in lists of history's most important battles.

Don Juan died in 1578, at the age of 31. But was he a famous seducer? He was certainly handsome and dashing, something often commented on by contemporaries:
a person of a most beautiful presence and of wonderful grace; with but little beard and large mustachios. His complexion is fair, and he weareth his hair long and turned back over his shoulders, the which is a great ornament unto him. He dresses sumptuously, and with such care and neatness, that it is as sight to see. Moreover, he is active and well-made, and succeedeth beyond measure in all manly exercises. No one rode, no one wielded the sword better than the young hero, who, moreover, had all the popular qualities fitted to ingratiate him with women and soldiers---he was gracious, affable, and open-handed. . . 
Another wrote:
He is agile, incomparable in riding, jousting and tourneys. . . He is learned, judicious, eloquent, gifted . . . splendid.
Most of the historical sites I have checked are completely unhelpful on the subject of Don Juan's lovers. However, several repeat the story that when Philip ordered him to the Netherlands to fight the rebels there, he is supposed to have refused unless he were allowed to invade Britain, rescue Mary Queen of Scots and wed her. Ah, chivalry.

Wikipedia does provide a list of four "woman who are confirmed to have had a relationship with John of Austria" and says he had children with three of them. A site called The Secret Lives of Royals does better, coming up with six, all with citations to various books. However, the matter seems to be very murky, since half of the citations say things like "the name of only one of his lovers is known." For such a famous and well-documented person this seems to have been hard to work out. An English biography of 1883 says,
Of the lady of ladies who enjoyed his affections and influenced his movements little is known. His amours were conducted with discretion and decorum, and do not appear to have provoked the jealousy or the enmity of fathers and husbands amongst the Neapolitan nobility, although one of the reasons assigned for the coolness between him and the Viceroy Granvelle was that the Cardinal was envious of the successes of the young soldier 'the fields of Venus and Mars.'

But now we come to the real question: was Don Juan of history the Don Juan who gave his name to seduction? If you look up the origin of Don Juan as a great lover, you are directed, not to Don Juan of Austria, but to a "Spanish legend" concerning a certain Don Juan of Seville. Although set in the 14th century, this "legend" was never written down until 1630, when it appeared in a play by Tirso de Molina. This version indeed supplies the plot used by Mozart and many others, which can be summarized like this:
Don Juan is a member of a distinguished family of Seville, who seduces the daughter of a noble, and when confronted by her father stabs him to death in a duel; he afterwards prepares a feast and invites the stone statue of his victim to partake of it; the stone statue turns up at the least, compels Don Juan to follow him, and delivers him over to the abyss of hell, the depths of which he had qualified himself for by his utter and absolute depravity.
I think is it far too simple to ascribe the currency of Don Juan the seducer in English, Spanish, and Italian (at least) to this story and Mozart's opera. I mean, there must have been lots of Don Juans, since Juan is such a common Spanish name, but in 1630 by far the most famous would have been Don Juan of Austria, hero of Lepanto, famously dashing and said to have been a great lover. Are we to think that nobody made the connection? Lord Byron certainly did, since his Don Juan of 1819-1824 merges the two figures together. The two people I have recently asked (neither one an opera lover) both said that of course Don Juan the seducer and Don Juan the hero of Lepanto were the same person. Plus, Mozart's Don Giovanni is just a straight out rapist and murderer, not at all how I imagine a Don Juan. 

So I think that the notion of a Don Juan owes something to both stories, but that without the fame of Don Juan of Austria it would not be nearly as common.


David said...

I'm actually pretty amazed that anyone would link Tirso's Don Juan and Don Juan of Austria. The idea of Tirso's Don Juan is that he is a gambler, drunk, and libertine who is either quasi-demonic himself or wasting his life on sins that will drag him to hell. Don Juan of Austria, meanwhile, was a beloved and admired hero of the royal family who spent his life in el servicio del rey y de la fe. Nor do the praise of either his looks or his success on "the fields of Venus and Mars" set him apart from dozens of other young nobles of the era. I also wouldn't sex up too much his desire to invade Scotland and wed Mary, which sounds like fairly typical dynastic entrepreneurship to me.

I haven't read Tirso's play, but I would imagine its moralizing is pretty straightforward and unironic. Tirso is a long way from either Byronism or the 18th-century Spanish fad of populist hotness referred to under the term majismo (note: NOT machismo).

So count me as someone who would say, "Of *course* there's no connection between Don Juan of Austria and Don Juan el burlador de Sevilla."

G. Verloren said...

We can probably safely assume that the greater popularization of the term comes from Mozart - it is perhaps difficult to overstate the profound reach and influence his works had, particularly in Italy, Spain, and England.

Mozart of course based his Don Giovanni on Tirso's Don Juan, but whether - or to what effect - that earlier character was based on the actual Don Juan of Austria seems less clear. It's entirely possible that the historical Don Juan was a sort of conceptual foundation upon which the later character was built.

David notes the distinct differences between the character and the historical figure, which are fairly drastic, but I see no reason the latter couldn't have directly inspired the former.

As famous and perhaps even beloved as Don Juan of Austria may have been, arguably he becomes a more dramatic and interesting character if you rework him to be a womanizer and a scoundrel. You retain the underlying association of a "great lover" named Don Juan, but you strip away the admirable qualities somewhat and replace them with exaggeratedly provocative and salacious flaws, and you get something much more suited to the drama of opera and theater of that era.

Pop culture frequently starts with a foundation in reality, then makes drastic changes for the sake of entertainment. Shakespeare took historical figures and twisted them to suit his own ends - exaggerating or wholly inventing negative qualities, both for purposes of humor / drama and for the sake of political favor and pleasing patrons by making their predecessors / historical rivals look bad.

Perhaps Tirso did something similar with Don Juan - perhaps he had reason to discredit the historical figure, downplaying the aspects that made him beloved with some, and transforming his reputation as a great lover into something more sinister.

I'm not at all familiar with Tirso's works, but some rather quick research tells me a few interesting facts - 1) he was a Roman Catholic monk, which gives a pretty good motivation for depicting Don Juan's sexual escapades in a negative way; and 2) he was noted for writing empowered female characters, and seems to have had leanings toward what we might today consider a sort of feminist view - which also is fertile ground for transforming a positive public perception of Don Juan into a much more negative and critical one. Someone more familiar with his works should be consulted.

David said...

On sexual escapades, my point was that Don Juan having a reputation as a chivalric ladies' man wouldn't in principle have distinguished him from dozens of other young aristos in that age. It was a standard element of praise.

I have trouble imagining any patron figures in Felipe III's time being pleased with a negative portrait of Don Juan of Austria. And surely if that *were* the intent, the link would be more obvious. The character in the play seduces peasant girls as well as middle class types, he slays a fine old gentleman trying to protect his daughter, and, perhaps most important, he's entirely localized to Seville and environs. He doesn't seem to have anything in common with the international court politician and military leader but his first name.

If there's any connection at all, it seems to me possible Tirso is reminding viewers that they have nothing in common with Don Juan of Austria. "You want to see who you are? Here's a different Don Juan. That's you. Repent!"

John said...

My interest is in how someone like me understands the term 'Don Juan'. To me it does not mean an evil rapist, but a seducer or lover. I think that is because at least since Byron the figure of Don Juan we get from Tirso has been softened and glamorized by confusion with Don Juan of Austria.

David said...


The phrase "in 1630 by far the most famous would have been Don Juan of Austria, hero of Lepanto, famously dashing and said to have been a great lover. Are we to think that nobody made the connection" seems to be saying that Tirso was making a connection between his Don Juan and Don Juan of Austria. How else should one read it? And again, there was nothing exceptional about Don Juan of Austria's fame as a lover. Successful on the fields of Venus and Mars is a pure cliche of the period. The same was said about Felipe II, believe it or not, in his youth.

The real question is, where does the idea of a Don Juan as a gentle, rather unmenacing ladies' man, the man the ladies all happily love who leaves them smiling (think Don Juan de Marco), come from? Wherever it comes from, it isn't present in Tirso's Don Juan, and Don Juan of Austria was simply not exceptional enough in this regard to be the model. I think we're looking more for a figure like Casanova, or Byron himself.

David said...

In this regard, I think 18th-century Castilian majismo must be a crucial transitional element. Also Beaumarchais, where the ever-successful seducers Figaro and Count Almaviva become lovable scamps. They have some earlier roots, in figures like the picaro, but the world the picaro inhabits is usually a lot crueler than the one Beaumarchais depicts.

Anonymous said...

Don Juan = Don Juan de Austria!?!?