African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Arthur Schomburg (Arturo Schomburg), "Juan Latino, Magister Latinus" (1927)


(From the Journal of the search in Spain for fragments of Negro Life.) 

FOR several hours the snow capped mountain top of the Sierra Nevada was plainly visible as we journeyed onward and upward on the Rosinante express toward the city of Granada. The  train came to a full stop. We landed, passed  through a veritable bedlam and picked on the  hotel agents a resting place more for the name than  for its known comforts. After resting we walked  to the University grounds, saw the closed gates and walls kalsomined so often that the layers in sections  were peeling off. It was dusk and there was a pastoral quiet. We retraced our steps through narrow highways and alleys to the Cathedral. Some form  of religious ceremony was on. The voices and the  silvery tones from the organ filled the vaulted edifice with a vast religious fervor. People here and there prayed to their favorite saints; others like myself curiously contemplated the solemnity and grandeur of the place. Through the warm colors of the  stained and figured glasses light poured in like a flood. We walked up the threadbare steps to the great organ, passing a small urchin pumping air into the bellows as many others have done year on year. 

Here in a grilled enclosure were the sarcophagi of Ferdinand and Isabella, who aided Columbus’ discovery of America. There they were, amid their pomp and circumstance, seemingly enjoying the perfect even if endless night. And finally, again to the University. I was seeking facts and information on the life of Juan Latino, the Negro who held a professorship at the University as early as 1550. The secretary informed me that Professor Ocete had written a thesis on his life as partial fulfilment for his doctorate degree in philosophy and that he would be glad to introduce me to this man, the holder of the chair of paleontology. Meantime the secretary introduced me to the librarian and I had the great joy of seeing a copy of Juan  Latino’s own book on the library shelf of his alma mater. 

An attendant brought me before Catedratico Ocete and I was invited into his study, where I explained my mission to Granada. I recited the hearsay of my school days when persons remarked that so and so wasn’t as Lati—taken from the verse that alludes to Latino in Cervantes’ “Don Quijote de la Mancha.” I had crossed the Atlantic because I was personally satisfied that there was no better place to uncover this information than in Latino’s own home and under his own vine and figtree. After my recital, the learned Professor pulled open the drawer of his desk and brought forth a small quarto volume which on inspection was the brochure already alluded to by the secretary of the University. It was an exhaustive research, gathered from fragmentary facts, and buttressed with trustworthy references. 

Later he produced an early copy of Latino’s work from the Granada University Library, a copy similar to the one in the series which the Ticknor collection of Spanish Literature possessed, but vastly more beautiful in comparison. 

What a wonderful city, the Moors called it Paradise Valley, rich with a mellow history and hidden far away up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

Here in Granada during those stormy days when the Abderraman kings were lords of all they surveyed, there were among the people many undiluted black men. It was my pleasure to walk leisurely  through and admire the spacious avenue named  after the Gran Capitan and recall that he was the father of the master of Juan Latino, to pass by  the street where his slave lived, the school house  and Royal College where he was a tutor, the  church where he knelt in humility to his real Master, where he was married to Dona Ana de Carlobar, where his children were baptized, and where eventually after life’s task, he was buried in St. Ann’s Church. 

It is a pleasure to refer to Professor Ocete’s monograph “El Negro Juan Latino Biographical and Critical Essay” (Granada 1925, 4 to 94 pp.). I view it with a keen desire to see the booklet translated into the English language to help stimulate our own men by the life and services this eminent man has left to posterity. 

Catedratico Antonio Marin Ocete of the faculty of the University of Granada is a very charming young man, whose indefatigable knowledge is highly reflected by this work. If we accept, as we cannot otherwise do, the full explanation of our author, it is not illogical to suppose that the docks of Sevilla one day received Catino with his mother, and surely when he was of tender age. To affirm this Ocete begins by denying as notoriously false the affirmation of Salazar that he came to Spain when in his twelfth year. When we study him at close range, what is strange to his personality is the complete adaptation to so distinctly different an environment, the perfect formation of his character and intelligence in plain civilization to reach the height not only of a cultured man but a sage, having a perfect knowledge of languages and classical literature. An eminent master and above all a Latin poet extraordinarily fruitful. Only by his living there from birth under most promising circumstances can we explain it and yet admire such surprising results. Thus it must have been when mother and son were bought by a trafficker who sold them at Baena at the castle owned by the Count de Cabra, Don Luis Fernando de Cordoba and his wife Dona Elvira, only daughter of the Grand Capitan where he played during his infancy with the son of the Duke Don Gonzalo. He was known when a boy by the name of Juan de Sesa, a musician of ability, singer, organist, a player of the lute and the harp. As he grew to manhood his silence and strict application to details were noted; he helped his master’s son both with his personal duties and in his studies. “The son found in his black companion an apt and intelligent fellow. In time the master rewarded his charge and sent him to the same University where his son won his academic degree. Juan Sesa was afterwards known as Latino who has written his thanks “cum ipso a rudibus omnibus liberaribus artibus institutos et doctus.” 

Charles V, the instigator and founder of the University of Granada afterward opened by the  Archbishop Hernando de Talavera by Bull and Pastoral Letter from Pope Clement VII was received on July 14th, 1531, conferring the same rights and privileges granted previously to the universities of Bologna, Paris and Salamanoa. In the  MSS book of sermons of Rector Nicholas de la  Rosa, it is stated Juan Latino received his B. A. during the year 1546, before the Archbishop, the Chancillor, the Count of ‘Tendilla and many other gentlemen. His age was about twenty-eight. It is grateful to commend Ocete for having successfully located the minutes having the entry of the thirty-nine candidates who received their degree in "artium et philosphie facultate sub disciplina Rudi. Dmi magistri Benedicte peco” it was duly signed by the learned dignitaries who were empowered by Royal Decree to examine candidates, and attested by the notary Johan de Frias and entered in Book No. 1 de Claustros folio 110. 

The year Latino graduated (1546) from the University Archbishop Pedro Guerrero had taken possession of the See, and gave him decided protection, influenced his page, Carlobal, to desist from opposing the Negro for having married his sister, and contrived through his friend the Duke of Sesa that the servitude of the Negro should terminate. - 

When the chair of Latin of the Sacred Cathedral Church School was vacant due to the death of the master Mota, he decided to place his candidate in the person of Juan Latino. As soon as the vacancy became known there was no end of learned men who were aspirants for the honor. On the 8th of August, 1556, while the Cathedral canons were in session licentiate Villanueva entered and said he knew there was a vacancy in the Royal College and it was not proper to let Juan Latino have it when there were so many priests who could fill the position. The Archbishop was inflexible to the undercurrents of opposition and at the beginning  of the year the very reverend Pedro de Vivero, Dean of the Sacred Church and Rector of the University named Juan Latino for the chair of Latin Grammar. Professor Ocete states that notwithstanding the fact noted in the printed work of Latino where he is put down as holding a chair in the University, the item is wrong because no such office existed. An exhaustive examination of the documents available only shows him to have filled the office noted in the Royal College. Opposition continued because Latino was only an ordinary bachelor of arts, but when on November 3lst, 1556 he was granted his Master of Arts, all seemed to be smooth sailing. The Royal College was a building erected beside the University and next to the Archepiscopal palace. Here was to be seen in those days familiar faces of well known students, ecclesiastical dignitaries, acolytes, Moorish persons, grave and lettered young men, attracted by the fame of a foreign master--a Negro who graced his chair--the equal of the best of his epoch. 

The celebration of the feast of St. Lucar was one of the three principal events of Granada—the Rector, the Chancillor,doctors, licentiates of the University and the students from all the colleges were present on this occasion to hear the address “quam principium appellare solent” from the lips of Juan Latino, Magister Latinus.’ “It is to be regretted, says Ocete, “that this Latin oration delivered this day, unforgetable, when all Granada turned out spontaneously to hear him and tender a charming demonstration of respect and admiration, has not reached us, for I believe this example of his prose promised a free style more elegant than his verses.” 

The learned Ocete in a comparative illustration on letters and philosophy of Europe through the humanists F. A. Wolf of Cottigen and C. O. Muller of Berlin says “After three centuries the minds of these men reached the same conclusion of the Spanish grammarians, with which in some way or other Juan Latino was much concerned.” 

Latino was a most remarkable individual. Through his own efforts against all prejudice—-during his period of servitude in the ducal home of his master until his marriage with a lady of quality—he became a distinguished person in Granada. When he finished his studies he climbed to the first and highest professorship in the Royal College. His further studies brought him to higher esteem since he was, in his day, the best versed in the knowledge of classical antiquity and ancient languages, which he knew perfectly well. During his famous lifetime he published three tomes of Latin verses. Through his influence a generation of original authors and translators were developed that gave birth to the Poetical School of Granada. 

Don Juan de Austria the natural son of Philip II upon his triumphal entry into the city of Granada was carried away with the epigrammatic inscriptions that adorned the arches erected to commemorate the defeat of the Turks at the battle of Lepanto. The poems were the work of Juan Latino the Magister Latinus. It is noted that frequently at the table of the Prince were seated two Negroes, Juan Latino was one and priest Christopher de Meneses of the Order of Santo Domingo stationed at Granada, was the other. It is said Don Juan de Austria found great pleasure in the company of these two men whose witticism and_ literature made them welcome guests at his festive board. 

I had the pleasure of examining Latino’s other two books of Latin verses at the National Library at Madrid through the courtesy of the Director. The poetical works of this writer and scholar are represented by three tomes. ‘The first was printed by Hugo de Mena in Granada during the year 1573, is eulogistic and deals with the birth of the Prince, with the marriage of Philip II to Mary of Portugal, and with their son who was born in the year 1571, the presumptive heir to the throne named Fernando, whose birth Granada celebrated with joy. Juan Latino who was the local poet, wrote epigrammatic verses for the occasion. ‘The poems on the Pope and the city during his times are also included in this tome. 

His poem on the “Austradis libri duo” is an epic poem on the battle of Lepanto and it is the first printed work of the kind to commemorate the naval victory. It is pleasing to read the critical judgment of Ocete on the poetical merit of this obscure writer. “The arduous task has given ample proof of the author’s facility to express himself, not a defective verse nor an incorrect description, when the inspiration does not shine the interest lags, yet the form is impeccable. Without doubt, from among his works this is worthy of modern re-print- ing. Perhaps this may be premature but when our humane culture is more elevated, a discreet selection from among his poems, if not all, will be read with pleasure and delight. Not a word more nor an idea less, the verses are exact and precise, like fine steel with all the strength yet with all ductibility and often with inspiration without artifices to give exact tone, measure and softness, but awfully real, the idea of death. The whole book can be summed up as the work of a historian who was also a poet.” 

His second volume of Latin verses was written to lament in panegyrics the re-burial services on the occasion of the transmittal of the royal bodies to the Pantheon erected by Philip II and known as the Monastery of the Escorial. In this work our author included the epitaphs composed for the tablets and other objects used to convey the remains in pomp from Granada. This work was printed during the year 1576. 

In his third and last volume, he devoted his pen exclusively to sing the praises of the ducal house of Sesa Don Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba. It was his personal tribute to the house that gave him all he received. He wished to let the world know his benefactors. The imprint bears the year 1585 and the only known copy is at Madrid. 

There is pleasant satisfaction to know that in the pages of Spanish literature the name of Juan Latino will be further enhanced and remembered through the excellent work of Antonio Marin Ocete, quite unlike Sir William Maxwell-Stirling who in his life of Don Juan de Austria and George Ticknor, who in his “History of Spanish Literature” (Vol. III, p. 492, N. Y. 1869) have delegated the volumes of the Latin scholar to a foot-note in their respective monumental works. 

Published in Ebony and Topaz1927

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