Book Review: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

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I, Juan de Pareja is a historical novel a friend read some time ago and raved about for a while afterward. Recently, I saw the book on the library shelves and thought, I will read this. So I did.

Many people these days like to pick on the United States for a great many things. One of their prime delights is to attack the U.S. on account of slavery, which became illegal after the American Civil War. American slavery, just like most other forms of slavery, was certainly an abomination. This is a fact.

However, what people tend to forget – either through lack of knowledge or by willfully ignoring the facts – is that the U.S. did not start slavery. Slavery existed from the year dot. The Ancient Greeks owned slaves, who had no rights whatsoever under the law. The Ancient Romans had slaves, as did the Ancient Irish and Scandinavians. There is no country on Earth where slavery did not exist at one time or another in some (more or less severe) form.

America inherited the idea of slavery from Europe. By the era of the American Revolution, slavery was dying out in the Old World. Indenturing people as servants – as we saw in the post on Carry On, Mr. Bowditch – died out after slavery. And the fact is slavery still exists today. Asia has a vibrant slave trade, and while slavery is not sanctioned in first world countries, this does not mean there are not people who are held as slaves within these nations.

In the 1600s – when I, Juan de Pareja takes place – slavery was not yet obsolete in Europe. Juan de Pareja was a black slave, the son of a black woman and a white Spaniard who could not afford to buy her. Orphaned at five when his mother died, Juan remained in the house of his mother’s owners, Don Basilio and Doña Emilia Rodríguez.

After Don Basilio’s death, Juan lived with Doña Emilia in Seville until she died some years later. Long before these events, Doña Emilia taught him to read and write. Juan suffered no great torments in the Rodríguez household. According to all reports, he was relatively well-loved by the couple. But on his journey to Doña Emilia’s nephew Don Diego Velázquez, who had inherited him after her death, he was abused by a gypsy hired to take him to Velázquez’s home in Madrid.

Eventually, Juan de Pareja came to Velázquez’s house. Don Velázquez never mistreated Juan. He made the young slave his personal assistant. Juan’s duty was to grind the colors for Velázquez’s paint, to clean the used paint brushes, and to help in the alignment of the objects of the master’s paintings.   For years Juan stood behind Velázquez, watching him paint his masterpieces….

It was not long before the young black boy declared that he would like to paint. “Alas, I cannot teach you,” Don Velázquez replied. A law in Spain had declared that it was illegal for slaves to learn and practice the arts. If Don Velázquez had taken Juan as an apprentice, he would have broken the law and been subject to punishment.

So the years rolled by, and as time went on, the two men became close friends. Wherever Don Velázquez went, Juan followed. This was because of his slave status but, after their years of friendship, it is quite possible that Juan would have stayed with him anyway. On their first trip to Italy, while Velázquez was studying the art of the great painters there and making copies for the Spanish court, Juan started to practice painting covertly.

He carried on practicing secretly in Spain after their return, watching and learning as Don Velázquez continued his work. Eventually, he could bear the secrecy no longer. On an occasion when the King of Spain entered Velázquez’s studio, he found a painting that Juan had made and set out specifically for him to see. Once he had found it, Juan fell on his knees before the king and confessed what he had done, begging no retribution for his master (who had no idea that Juan had been painting behind his back), and saying that he was willing to endure whatever punishment may come from his disobedience to the law.

Was Juan de Pareja punished? You must read the book to learn his fate! Those of you well-versed in the lore of great art probably already know what became of him. But I will spoil no more of the novel for anyone else. Elizabeth Borton de Treviño writes exquisitely, and she describes seventeenth century Spain with great care. Her historical novel is enlightening as she weaves a warm, heartfelt story out of the snippets of recorded fact. A book for all ages, I, Juan de Pareja is certain to touch the heart of any reader out there.

Until next time!

The Mithril Guardian

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