Inca Garcilaso de la Vega

Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616) was a Peruvian chronicler whose Spanish prose won him the designation as the first classic writer of America.

Inca Garcilaso de la Vega was born in Cuzco on April 12, 1539, the son of Capt. Sebastian Garcilaso de la Vega, a scion of a proud Spanish family distinguished in war and literature, and Chimpu Ocllo, niece of the last Inca emperor, Huayna Cápac. Named Gómez Suárez de Figueroa, he later changed his name to El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Reared by his mother, he learned the language, customs, myths, and legends of her people, while his father had him educated as a nobleman in the classical traditions of Spain. Thus the mind of the bilingual child soon confused facts and fancies concerning the glories of the Incas, the triumphs of the Spaniards, and the splendors of classical Rome.

On his father's death the 21-year-old Garcilaso departed for Spain, where he vainly sought the aristocratic perquisites that he felt the public services of his sire deserved. Although he was disappointed in this pretension, a small legacy permitted him to settle down in 1571 near Cordova for the remainder of his life.

In 1572 the news of his mother's death and the stern measures of Spanish authorities in Peru to suppress her people apparently inspired in Garcilaso a resolve to prepare a defense of the Inca civilization and a record of its vanished grandeur. With tireless diligence he assembled information on all aspects of Inca history and culture and trained himself in the art of Castilian prose. The latter process began with 14 years spent on an arduous translation exercise which resulted in the best Spanish version of the Neoplatonist Dialogues on Love, a philosophical treatise written in Italian by the 15th-century Jewish humanist Leon Hebreo. To acquire narrative skill, Garcilaso wrote a novelesque account of Hernando de Soto's wanderings in the lower Mississippi Valley, called The Florida of the Inca (1605), which was based on information supplied by a veteran of that expedition.

Meanwhile, Garcilaso's masterwork, The Royal Commentaries of the Incas (1609), was taking shape. It was a systematic recital of the personalities, events, customs, rites, and the native dynasty of Peru from its beginnings to the arrival of the Spaniards. The lyric descriptions of this work, written in poetic style, conjure up a vision of a utopian civilization. A literary achievement of genuine distinction, it is also a valuable historical record. A second part, The General History of Peru (1617), recounting events of the Spanish Conquest and published posthumously, is less impressive. Garcilaso died in April 1616.

Further Reading on Inca Garcilaso de la Vega

Among the works on Garcilaso are Donald G. Castanien, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1969), and John Grier Varner, El Inca: The Life and Times of Garcilaso de la Vega (1969).

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