The Conception

Tatiana Blass (Journal of Reviews)


Commentary on the posthumous book by Tomás Antônio Gonzaga

Since Tomás Antônio Gonzaga (1744-1810?) was deported to Mozambique, in 1792, much has been speculated about his African life: he married a rich heiress, joined a slave-exporting house, romantically went mad, etc. . Surely, however, not much. even the poem The Conception, whose autograph manuscript was purchased by the National Library in 1910, remained there obscurely until Rodrigues Lapa found it, in 1957.

Furthermore, the poem as a whole was unpublished until 1995, when it came to light in a critical edition and with a valuable introduction by Ronald Polito. It is a maritime epic, which refers, according to period notes, to the sinking of the ship Marialva, which occurred in 1802, near Mozambique, which killed more than one hundred people and which Gonzaga learned about through survivors. However, the 22 sheets purchased by the National Library are just a fragment of the poem, the length of which is unknown: two sheets are from Canto 1, the rest from the 3rd and 4th.

Written in heroic decasyllables, rare sapphics, in blank verse, with an irregular number per stanza, the plot of the poem, as it came to us, is centered on the dispute between Pallas and Vênus over the conduct of the Portuguese nautas: the first, seeking to show them the need to resume their high destiny in navigation, which would bring them honors and sublime goods, and the second, committed to employing them in sensual delights.

The four pages that remain from Canto 1º are an evocative speech by the poet himself, without explicit reference to the later action of the poem. In one fragment, the dangers of navigation appear associated with the tempestuousness of fortune in the face of divine security; in another, with a parallel structure, the praise of fortune takes the form of amorous disappointment, when after excessive torments, which did not seem to admit of salvation, the dying person is finally reinvigorated.

We unfortunately jump from the 1st corner to the 3rd, where we see Palas indignant with the corruption of the Portuguese, who do not leave the land, already forgotten about the heroic actions at sea and concerned only with a new meeting, already scheduled, with the nymphs of Venus. The goddess then addresses them with a speech of exhortation to pride, applying the Stoic topic of the superiority of the difficult conquests of sublime goods over the vulgar surrender to pleasures, which only generate weakness.

In the Seneca version, it deals with the topic of “life as a militia”, that is, that “living is a matter for soldiers”. The education of the spirit of the best demands constancy, firmness created in overcoming trials, contrary to the life of worldly affectations that addict and banish the soul. Amplified in a comic register, the weakness derived from facilities is mocked by Palas as effeminacy. By adorning chests that should have been wounded by battles, the Portuguese betrayed the righteous destiny of their people. Perhaps not confident only in the wisdom of his arguments, Palas makes use of an extra-technical test, that is, external to the speech: in a brief gesture, he passes the shield over the heads of the Portuguese and makes them recover their old spirit, preparing to leave the port of pleasures, in this case, Rio de Janeiro, and head for the arduous African coast.

The second step of the chant structure brings the rival goddess into the picture. Venus, angered by the departure of the Portuguese, summons the god who presides over the port and presents her complaints, similar to that of the Portuguese Bacchus, in which the Portuguese action is accused of subverting the natural hierarchy and pretending that humans are greater than men. gods. Admitting the bad example of a crime without penalty, the god agrees to punish them.

If Pallas's speech gives us the thesis, and Venus's dialogue the antithesis, it is not immediately followed by a synthesis, but by violent action. The river god attacks the ship with the turbulence of its waters, which is meanwhile protected by Pallas, in an almost anticlimactic way, without much effort: with his eyes, he simply stems the current and orders the name who submits to a goddess who is superior to him. Navigators, as in The Lusiads, have little to do in the midst of that divine dispute. However, contrary to what happens in the Camões epic, here the dispute is poorly supported, due to the superiority of Pallas' power.

The synthesis of this third song comes in the form of a peroration by the poet, which provides a moral and anecdotal interpretation of the combat: the fights could well be explained as a war between women who never suffer the loss of their beauty. The Homeric model is closest here, when he made the bloody Trojan war follow from the frivolous dispute of three goddesses. Finally, the poet returns to the topic of life as a militia, associated with the providentialist key that the senequist matrix itself did not ignore: misfortunes are not chance, but a decree that aims to reveal the value of excellent men.

Canto 4º already positions the ship close to the African coast, after only 6 days of travel, which, as Polito notes, seems unlikely. Regarding the structure of the previous song, this one starts with the second part, the antithesis of Venus, who dialogues with Aeolus, god of the winds, to convince him to attack Marialva. Polito draws attention to the interest of the passage, which I believe to be the best part of the poem left to us.

The seduction of the god by Venus takes place through the offer of 9 of his nymphs, to choose from, in exchange for the destruction of the Portuguese ship. Aeolus shows the goddess that such an excessive offer makes the service the simple effect of a payment, and this does not deserve it. Everything was about finding an adequate accommodation between the premium and the quality of the service, so that the payment did not unilaterally determine the action, characterizing it as venal. He then proposes that they celebrate not a “vile contract”, but a favor that would allow their houses to be reunited; and, to seal the favor, only one nymph sufficed. The agreement between excellence and business is made, with honor, and not in the image of banal mercantile vileness, through the union of divine houses and never through the discharge of a localized debt. The aristocratic model, therefore, reaffirms itself here, although more bureaucratized and formal, against business arrivism and bourgeois lack of ceremony.

But this is not the only arrangement proposed by Aeolus so that the destructive action does not result dishonorable for him. The restriction on the number of nymphs and the alliance of the houses equally accommodates the "ardent desires" to a sensible position that does not betray incontinence. It is noted, therefore, that, also on the side of Venus, in the clippings made by his interlocutors about untimely violence, something from Pallas' own discourse is replaced.

Only that what is directly condemned in the latter as a vice, in the Venus dialogues is condemned as an impropriety to be overcome by negotiation. What, in Pallas, is an ethical-aristocratic imperative (the value of combat against the weakening of character), in the dialogues of Venus is a possible accommodation of pleasure to the same imperatives. The curious thing is that, in these, such imperatives seem to be better resolved, as Pallas' speech barely meets the required gravity, and easily gives in to the comic.

The key to Venus' remarkable dialogue, however, lies in the praise she makes of Aeolus' "urbanity", when he refuses to know what the affront suffered by her was, so as not to make his service the effect of a judgment, and his a judge, claiming that such a hierarchical position should be reserved exclusively for her, with her only responsibility for executing the sentence. It is this urbanity of Law that precisely softens or adjusts the conflicts between the fairness of the prize, the value of the payment and the merit of the action, avoiding venality, as well as accommodating appetites and honest loving practice, avoiding incontinence.

And this very same Venus, moved by the civility of Aeolus, seductively asks him to annihilate the Portuguese slowly, so that they suffer more. The poet, however, does not suppose any contradiction there, since, on the one hand, it is part of the conformity with the crude character of the goddesses that revenge prevails in him; on the other hand, civility between allies is also appropriate, as it indicates the courteous gallantry between couples of different sex, the hierarchical respect between the gods and the bureaucratic-legal structure itself of the adjustments considered essential to the social body, even if that formed by the gods.

The sequence of the song is identical to the previous one: from the dialogue of Venus, the action of revenge follows. Aeolus frees Noto, who viciously attacks the ship. For Polito, this is the best moment of the fragments. It emphasizes the mastery of terms of seamanship, visible in other poems by Gonzaga, and the succession of paintings where he paints the agitation of the sailors under the impetus of the storm. It's a beautiful moment indeed, too bad it ends too soon. As in the other attack, the action is frustrated by Pallas' type of omnipotent intervention, which renders all movement impractical, be it the ally, absolutely unnecessary, or the enemy, fulminating with his simple look.

The moment of synthesis, which in the other corner was given by the poet's speech, this time is postponed, and, at the same time, Camonianly figured in the walk of Anfitrite and her entourage of nymphs that seem to cross the path of the Portuguese squadron. The step is delicious like maritime erotic poetry. It even seems to confirm the hypothesis of Jorge Ruedas (cf. Arcadia: tradition and change) that brings Gonzaga closer to the Portuguese group “Ribeira das Naus” – Camonians, archaic and willing to extend pastoral fiction to marine landscapes. Furthermore, the treatment of the scene impresses by its visualization: the climax of the episode reveals the “tinted carpet” that alternates the whiteness of the naked bodies of the nymphs with the green of the waters. The scene completely belies, as Polito already warns, the growing moralism attributed to Gonzaga by Rodrigues Lapa. The scene is very sensual and the changes made to the manuscript in no way negate it.

What is confirmed here is what Venus' dialogue with Aeolus made clear: pleasure is not irreconcilable with value, but it must be its prize, not the means of its realization. What Venus doesn't seem to adjust correctly is the pleasantness of her attachments to the decorum of bravery, intending it as a vicious excess. And, as I believe, it is not Pallas who synthesizes the most essential position of the poem, but the interlocutors of Venus: the primitive inclination towards pleasure is submitted to the analysis of its legitimacy and the adjustment of the necessary conditions to reconcile them. In terms of the ancient matrix, as the poem progresses, the poet curiously seems to go back from Seneca the son to Seneca the rector.

*Alcir Pécora is a professor at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Máquina de Genres (Edusp).


A Conceição the Sinking of the Marialva – January 1996 – Tomás Antonio Gonzaga (

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