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Portuguese Language and Literature

Portuguese Language and Literature

During the Renaissance, Portuguese scholars stressed the ties between the Portuguese language and classical* Latin. For example, author João de Barros (ca. 1496–1570) composed poetry that could be read as either language. The appearance of dictionaries and grammar books in the mid-1500s shows that the Portuguese language was fully developed by this time. It was also spreading to Portugal's colonies in Asia and Africa. The nation's efforts to explore and colonize unfamiliar lands had a strong effect on its literature. Exposure to foreign cultures helped give rise to new, humanist* viewpoints that clashed with the country's church-centered traditional values.

Writings Related to Exploration. One of the most important writers inspired by the subjects of exploration and conquest was Barros. He produced a range of prose writings that include a flattering history of Portuguese royalty, a Portuguese grammar book, and writings on morality. Barros is most famous for his four-part Decades of Asia. In it, he compared the history of Portuguese expansion in Asia to the tales of classical heroes.

Descriptions of the lands, peoples, and cultures that the Portuguese encountered in India, China, and Japan were popular topics for prose writers. The major work of this kind is Fernão Mendes Pinto's account of his adventures in Asia, Travels (1614), which became one of the most widely read books of the 1600s. In it, Pinto's narrator learns to see himself and his fellow Portuguese through the eyes of the Asians. Although Travels includes details that seem incredible, recent investigations have shown that much of Pinto's work is accurate.

Portuguese exploration also fueled a variety of other writings, including letters, travel diaries, and reports of shipwrecks. Some texts, such as the ship's log from the voyage of explorer Vasco da Gama, dealt with the subject of navigation. Others, like Garcia da Orta's Colloquies* on the Simples [plants] and Drugs of India (1563), focused on the natural sciences.

Other Writings. Although exploration had a great impact on Portuguese prose, it was far from the only topic writers addressed. Essayists of the mid-1500s discussed religion and art. Fiction writers from the same period, such as Jorge de Montemayor and Francisco de Morais, produced comedies and novels. Religious letters and biographies also made up a great deal of Renaissance Portuguese prose.

Portuguese drama took various forms during the Renaissance. Court theater featured popular characters and moral messages. Portugal's major Renaissance playwright, Gil Vicente, wrote and produced 45 plays of various types for the court between 1502 and 1536. Many of his plays are satiric*, and they target people from all levels of society. Playwright António Ferreira produced dramas in a classical style, such as his tragedy Castro (1587). Another form of theater was the religious dramas staged on ships at sea.

In the field of poetry, elements of Portuguese oral traditions blended with the new forms of the European Renaissance. Poet Garcia de Resende used a variety of local forms in his collection General Songbook (1516). Luíz Vaz de CamÕes, by contrast, perfected Italian forms of poetry in Portugal. Camões's epic* The Lusiads (1572) is one of the classic works of Western literature, full of rich imagery and musical rhythm. Its hero is Vasco da Gama, who recites the history of Portugal as he makes his voyage to India. On the way, he encounters magic, the gods of classical mythology, and a variety of natural oddities. Camões used his epic to blend the diverse elements of his country into a vision of a united Portugal.

(See alsoArt in Spain and Portugal; Inquisition; Spanish Language and Literature. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* colloquy


* satiric

involving the use of satire, the ridicule of human wickedness and foolishness in a literary or artistic work

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

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