Professor Honored for His Work in Unearthing Treasures From Spain’s Golden Age

Dr. Ralph DiFranco is sort of an archaeologist. He excavates libraries and literary collections in the U.S. and abroad, digging for forgotten poetry and ballads from Spain’s Golden Age.

For the University of Denver professor of Spanish—the recent recipient of the José Vasconcelos International Award, given to such notables as Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges—there is deep satisfaction in seeing these works properly identified, edited and maybe even appreciated.

Spain enjoyed a robust artistic period in the 16th and 17th centuries that yielded not only classic works by Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote the satirical novel Don Quixote, but also sonnets, poems and plays by playwright Lope de Vega.

The Golden Age also produced tens of thousands of poems and ballads by lesser-known individuals.

“I had thought that this is one area that needs work,” says DiFranco, 59, who received the 2011 José Vasconcelos award on Oct. 8 from Frente de Afirmación Hispanista. Frente, a Mexican organization that promotes Hispanic culture and literature, has issued the award to literary figures from around the world annually since 1968.

“The big names in literature—there are [already] people trying to do gymnastics to find something new about these people,” he says.

DiFranco’s quest for the lesser known has led him to aging manuscripts eroded by hungry bugs and bookworms. He’s squinted at wrinkled, soiled filing cards and been asked to don white gloves to touch pages. He’s seen poems run together or with lines missing, thanks to distracted scribes.

Some of the poetry is “just bad,” says DiFranco. But “there are lots of hidden treasures, where the aesthetic value is rare. Some of it is very well put together and expressive.”

With the help of grants, DiFranco and Dr. José Labrador Herraiz—his former professor at Cleveland State University and a longtime collaborator—were able to spend much of their time from 1997 to 2004 building a digital database of poems and ballads. They have kept at it ever since, despite Labrador Herraiz’s retirement to Spain six years ago and DiFranco’s teaching duties.

At this point, their database, called “Bibliografía de la Poesía Aurea,” contains 93,000 poems with cross references culled from 1,270 sources from 78 libraries in 14 countries.

Love is the dominant theme, DiFranco says. “They go from one extreme to another, from sentimental love to platonic, abstract love, to erotic love or sex,” he said. Compilers would sometimes put a religious poem right next to an erotic one.

“It was a case of, ‘Better put it in there before we lose it,’” he says.

Professional writers didn’t really exist during the Golden Age, DiFranco says. Many of those who wrote were soldiers, sailors or university students who formed poetry societies.

Apart from the database, DiFranco and Labrador Herraiz have collaborated on 25 publications, including four volumes of works written or translated by a very prolific writer-turned-monk named Pedro de Padilla.

There’s still plenty of work left to do, according to Labrador Herraiz, who won the José Vasconcelos award in 2008. The award is named after the Mexican writer-philosopher. The Golden Age “is so large and unknown that we will need hundreds of researchers for many, many years to make it known,” he says.