Manuel José de Lavardén

in the literary scene of Río de la Plata





The name of my country, Argentina, has a literary origin, much anterior to the existence of the nation. It already came to appear a poem called “La Argentina”, written by Martín del Barco Centenera (1544-1605), on year 1602. Strictly speaking, is the first work written by a son of the land. The title of this poem graved with fire the famous Latinism equivalent to Río de la Plata (River Plate). Río de la Plata signifies not less than to invoke the Southerner Indies.


In a simple modest manner, the Renaissance as well as the Baroque and the Neoclassicism were present in the colonial literature of South America – from the XVI century until the beginning of the XIX century -. The Spaniard Culture scattered these seeds in America; nevertheless, the Baroque from the River Plate is poor, compared with others from the continent. But, mysteriously, the colonization of River Plate coincides with the first rays of light that was emerging from the Spanish Gold Century.


Echoes from Spanish classics and French encyclopaedists were circulating inside the cloisters of the University, in Chuquisaca, now in the Bolivian Republic, where the Jesuit print press forged amalgams with indigene languages. The Baroque emerged there, under an imitative form, among the cultured verses of the followers of Góngora.


But the stream of thought that interest us now, is the neoclassicism. It arrived in River Plate at the latest colonial epoch of our literature – between 1700 and 1830 -. As we well know, this current surged in Europe as a reaction against the Baroque excesses.


From the eleven viceroys that had River Plate in the city called now Buenos Aires, Don Juan José de Vértiz y Salcedo, Viceroy of Lights, the unique from American origin born in Mexico, was the one who lighted with major emphasis the cultural flame of the colony. In this environment is where our poet, José Manuel de Labardén,  was studying laws like many others famous personalities from River Plate, but with a particular patina.


The legends presaged that following the River Plate we would arrive to the regions of gold and argent.  Travellers of that epoch reflected in their works some ambient and geographic aspects. It was there, between the testimony of the forest, of the water plants carried by the current of the river, of so many colours conjuring flowers and birds, where emerged the glimpse of our poet, in his poem Oda al Paraná:


“…august Paraná, sacred river,

 illustrious firstborn of the ocean,

 in the gleaming nacre char

pulled by embroidered green and gold caimans,

 you are going from climate to climate,

from region to region, pouring frank

smooth green and prodigal abundance,

highly loved by Portuguese and Spaniard people.”


(See the original of this poem in the Spanish version)


In those moments of the going down of the waters, Juan Manuel de Labardén sings the beauty and fecundity of the River, the overflowing of the riches leaved for us on its banks.


In another moment of the “Ode to the Paraná”, he tells us:


“…if the simple Argentine nymphs

with you, fearfully fled

and hide there their carey* comb

to pluck and get mellow sounds

on crystal lyres, with gold cords

envied by the Goddesses of Parnassus.


*carey = kind of see turtle


(see original in the Spanish version)


Here his telling expresses, with a proverbial delicacy, the contemplation of certain gifts, certain grace, of the American woman.


And more ahead, we perceive a meditation of gratitude towards River Pananá, together with a clamour to the Spanish land, when he says:


“… you will not remain without prize, holy prize!

You shall wear adorned with diamonds

and red rubies, two portraits,

two divine moving faces,

one is Luisa’s, other is Carlos’ “.


(see original in the Spanish version)



This poem appeared in the first issue of the journal: El Telégrafo Mercantíl, Rural, Político, Económico e Historiográfico del Río de la Plata  (The Commercial Telegraph, Rural, Politic, Economic and Historiographe of River Plate - on first April, 1801 -. In the Press, Lavardén manifests his preoccupation for the estates, for the free commerce, for the care to ports and, as he used to say, to “… poetry that animates all things and makes wearable the labours the more sterile.


In the literary aspect, preferences were given to the antiques Latin poets Virgil and Horace. As we know, the last one had a great admirer: Fray Luis de León.


In our land, the Neoclassicism began to have some influence after the expulsion of the Jesuits (1767) and under the Bourbon liberalism. It coincided with the apparition of the new encyclopaedic French ideas and its stream of popular arrogance and republican ideals.


What is true is that without knowing, Labardén anticipated the condition of the Rio Plate versifiers; who, in the middle of political patriotic affiliation controversies, had to fight at the same time with spade and pen, as they were as much soldiers than writers. With his delicacy and contagious erudition, he had a dream: to stack the artistic culture of the colony with a pair of wings; and raise the gleam of the letters in an opener social environment. This desire, special for that time, brought him to be the first Argentine dramatic writer. He was born in 1754, which means that his fifty five years of life went by at the end of the colonial epoch. He  collaborated in the creation of the first theatre,  called De la ranchería, during the reign of the viceroy Vértiz. A fire put end to the life of this theatre and other compositions belonging to Labardén: between them, a poem on The defence of Buenos Aires during English invasions, some satyrs and two sonnets.


It is not strange that the fragility of the very humble wood hut, whose thatched roof raised in the big park of the “Ranchería”, succumbed to the voracity of the flames, in the night of August, 16th, 1792, during the festivity of Saint Juan.


In the oldest of the papers published in Buenos Aires, in the issue corresponding to November, 19th, 1801, Lavardén is insisting on the necessity to have a theatre and deploring the fact that “the precious capital of Argentina had to be slighted without the unique solace of the civil man”. Three years later, the cements of the Coliseum were raised, under the auspice of the town council, in the same place where the principal of our theatres, the Teatro Colón de Buenos Aires, stands today.


It was under the thatched roof of the “Ranchería”, that the dramatic muse inspired our compatriot Lavardén for the creation of the famous tragedy Siripo, applauded successively by two generations, before and after the Revolution of May, 1810.


But, let us have a look on the environment in which Lavardén is improving as a dramaturge:


We may say that the neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, because  of  having  a  predominant  Spanish  origin,  has always been a theatre lover; and already in that time, citizen were attending with pleasure the plays offered by actors amateur, in occasion of some official public entertainments,. Functions would take place on Sundays, between four and seven p.m. And once upon November 1747, to celebrate the accessing to the throne of King Fernando VI, it was the officials of the garrison troupe that improvised, converted in actors and machinists, a theatre saloon, to play not less than the dramas: Las armas de la hermosura (Beauty arms) and Efectos de odio y amor (Beauty and love effects), by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, with their respective prologues about the situation.


Viceroy Vértiz made what he could to favour honest entertainment, especially dramatic ones, using sometimes the energy of his soldier; and others, his ability as a man of the world; to get over the obstacles raised against his ideas by the word of the pulpit. In order that, when he believed the moment was opportune to establish a public theatre, he put this profane idea under the protection of charity sentiments, offering the product of the comedy house for the maintenance of orphan children; and to vanquish  completely the resistance of spineless spirits, he surrounded himself by a sort of council integrated by solvent and illustrated persons that would purge the works to be played, from all what could provoke scandal in the public, and bad behaviour in young people. The sage viceroy, like he, himself, told in his Govern Memories, took the narrowest diligences to be sure disorder would not be committed by spectators in the theatre; and, as he, himself, was an assiduous one, he used  to dissimulate his devotion  by telling that he felt as if he was obliged to guaranty the public behaviour by the respect the presence of his person would impose.


What would have been the inspiration of our poet to create his tragedy: Siripo? Among the magic of the legends and chronicles, our first history writer, Ruy Blas de Guzmán, had retaken the word Argentina.


The work in prose of this American journalist of Indian and white parentage is called: Historia Argentina del Descubrimiento, Población y Conquista (History of Argentina from the Discovery, Population and Conquest).

It influenced Manuel José de Labardén in the production of his works, based on Lucía Miranda legend. A delicious story in which this Andalusian woman arrived to River Plate with the expedition of Sebastián Gaboto, citizen from Genoa, together with her husband: Sebastián Hurtado. They would loge in the fort Espiritú Santo, situated in the right margin of River Panamá.


We shall remember that, in their desire of adventures to obtain renown, the major part of these first inhabitants, sons of important families, knights and commanders, was not afraid to affront the biggest dangers. Lucía leaves her pure and serene sky, the devotion of her mother, only to follow her loved husband. She would contact Indian Timbúes, give friendship to their chef bringing him to the Christian religion. Lucía would be kidnapped by Siripo. And then a spiritual exchange is occurring between the two worlds.


The manuscripts of the legends and chronicles,   written by  Ruy  Díaz  de  Guzmán,    were  circulating  among European writers. In the essays of Montaigne, in De los Canibales (From the Cannibals), we observe the mooring of the opposition between civilization and nature, but from a utopian perspective and with concrete information about the living of the indigenes from America. We also find the characters of Lucía Miranda legend, which represents what is marvellous in America, in one of the last work of Shakespeare: The Tempest, in a surprising design.


The relation between the intent of violation and the rapt of Miranda by Calibán may be explained – and this is only an hypothesis – as a sort of duplication, or reflect, of  the kidnapping made by Mangoré and Siripo.  And the triad Prosper, Miranda, Caliban, in The Tempest, has the same character as shown in the relation between the two Spanish captains, Lucía Miranda and the indigene chefs, described by Luis Astrana Marín in his Estudio Preliminar a William Shakespeare (Preliminary study to William Shakespeare). It is about a possible lecture,  proposed from a frame of significations that surges by itself and from his critical interpretations.


Siripo is first played in a night of carnival of 1789 and represented successfully until 1816, when the national  independence is declared. Here you have a passage of the XIII scene of Miranda-Lucía:


“…And where shall I go alone, feeble woman?

Which grot shall be funeral repair

to my sad orphan state? Fierce tigers

shall give me help? Yes, they shall be meek

when a lover, a father and a spouse

without pity their fierceness robbed.

But why am I complaining? His vengeance

did I not provoke? Is this not justice

for my crime? Was I not the one

who glimpsed unfair laughing eyes

 to a new lover, weaving

with malicious and bloody hands

the nuptial crown that would crown

my crime and my wedding?

Love must wash it. I have to die.

I, of myself judge, pronounce the sentence.

Honour calls for it. Love commands it.”…


The play has three parts - some say five - and was preceded by a short dramatic panegyric entitled: La inconclusa (The unfinished), which text has been lost. The tragedy, written by tiring hendecasyllabic romance verses, had not yet reached us. It is evident that the historic value of the work is superior to its literary merits. But it took its space nearly without willing; because Lavardén, in spite of being ignored the last years of his life, is giving to us the re-encounter of the most refined poetry with the people; and, in another hand, there are  his literary poems; they are there, in the luminous place of the scene where the heartbeats have a meeting… And another epopee was born, the history of the Argentine theatre.


                          Mirta Cevasco

                                                             Argentine poet and writer

                                                             Buenos Aires: Mars 2005

                                                                                                                 Translated into English by

                                                    Mariette Cirerol

Bibliography: see Spanish version