Image via Wikipedia
Dr. José Rizal’s and Correggio’s NOLI me TANGERE
Penélope V. Flores
Exactly 112 years ago, on June 12th 1898, the Philippine revolutionary establishment raised the Philippine flag and declared the government of the Philippines a democratically formed constitutional republic independent from Spanish domination with Emilio Aguinaldo as the elected president. What is noteworthy is that a hundred and twelve years ago, there was no other South East Asian country that was democratically formed with a nationally elected representative body and a ratified written constitution like that proclaimed in Malolos, Bulacan on January 23, 1899. That it was a short-lived republic is immaterial. The Philippines (and Cuba) would be “up for sale” for $20,000,000 by Spain to a new master—the United States of America at the Treaty of Paris before the end of the century.
Much of that nationalistic fervor came from the responsible and intellectual activity of José Rizal through his novel Noli me tángere.
The purpose of this article is to examine the source of the novel’s title. It is not my objective to make rhetorical statements about the meaning of Noli me tángere. There are countless historians, scholars and researchers who have dissected the meaning of the title, and why this novel was written. Additionally, there is a rich body of illuminative literary criticism and historical commentary in the literature pondering the Noli me tángere. Neither will I go into the story pilot and the literary characterization of the protagonists and antagonists in the novel. What I’m looking for is the “how” and “where” the idea for the book title came about.
Applying the concept in today’s modern marketing and advertising parlance, any title of a book spells its success or dooms its failure in terms of product outcomes. Publishing houses and their agents scour their collective brains looking for a particular book title that would click with the reader and the public.
How did Rizal find that title for his novel that clicked with the public?
Rizal in 1886
It was 1886 in Europe. Rizal at that time was writing a novel that would open the eyes of readers about the plight of the Filipino people by the hand of the Spanish colonizers. This historical novel had characters that seemed autobiographical. Every episode in the novel came from actual experiences by people Rizal knew. Rizal began writing in Madrid where he finished half of the manuscript. He continued writing about a fourth of the material in Paris, France, and the last portion in Leipzig, Germany. The fimal chapters were ready for publication on February of 1887.
Rizal was determined to make the novel accessible to Philippine and Spanish readers. It was important to have it published. But there were logistical and structural problems. First, in order for the novel to be read by the progressive elements of the Spanish Cortes, the text had to be written in the Castilian language. Second, this window of opportunity for his reformist message to reach a sympathetic audience is extremely short. When the opportunity presents itself it must be grasped immediately. At that particular time, there were more moderate members of the Spanish parliament than the previous years. Third, the novel, which was critical of the friars, could not be printed in Madrid, since the contents would immediately be censored. No Spanish printer would take the risk of publishing it. Therefore, it had to be printed outside Spain. Not any country could be selected. It had to be a nearby accessible country. Fourth, printing a book in a foreign language outside Spain was very expensive. Rizal lacked the necessary funds to finance the project. Paciano, Rizal’s brother was then having economic difficulties at that particular time (the world price of sugar went down) and Rizal had not received his allowance.
Enter Maximo Viola, a wealthy Filipino compatriot, a close friend, and a student at the Universidad de Barcelona. He would help publish Rizal’s novel. Both were completing their medical degrees at that time (Rizal at the Universidad Central de Madrid). That May 1887, with their courses completed and the novel deposited at the printers, they traveled together (see Viola’s My Travels with Dr. José Rizal, 1913) to Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Konstanz, Basel and Geneva. At Leitmeritz, Austria (now Litomérice, Czech Republic) José Rizal finally met face-to-face with Ferdinand Blumentritt, the Filipinologist with whom he had a long and lasting correspondence.
A Personal Connection with José Rizal
Maximo had several sisters, Juliana being one of them. She is my connection to Rizal. Juliana is my father’s mother (my grandmother, Viola side). Maximo offered José Rizal the money to publish the Noli me tángere. Rizal resisted, but upon Viola’s insistence Rizal recapitulated, accepting three hundred pesetas to cover the printing cost, with the understanding that the amount would be repaid when Rizal’s money arrived from Calamba. The book project had begun.
Viola searched for the most affordable printer to publish two thousand copies of the book. He scouted the printing presses and finally was able to persuade a trade school in Berlin, the Setzerinnungsschule des Letter-Vereins, Berliner Buchdruckkerei Actien-Gesellschaft (Guild school of typesetters, Berlin Book Printing Press Co.) to undertake the project. It was Viola who carried Rizal’s original handwritten manuscript to the printers. Señor Vicente Blasco Ibañez, a Spanish writer of note volunteered his services as proofreader and consultant. In March 1887, the first copies rolled hot off the press. In Madrid, the copies sold for five pesetas.
At the end of the book project, in recognition for Viola’s work, Rizal gave the galley proofs, not to his own family, but to Viola with a personal dedication. It is a Viola family joke that this original galley proof, hidden in their Kamalig (granary) at San Miguel de Mayumo, Bulacan looked like “pinag-balutan ng pan de sal,” because it was not a bound book. In the consequential disarray during the Spanish revolution it was lost.
The Title’s Plausible Explanation
Since my interest is in the probable sources of Rizal’s choice of a book title, I had to come up with some plausible conjectures. I present three perspectives: 1) the Bible perspective, 2) the Medical (Social Cancer) perspective, and 3) the El Prado perspective.
Of the three above, items 1 and 2 had been examined studiously and prodigiously. Number 3 is an idea that came to me as I traced Rizal’s personal individuality and his humanity (in the manner of Ambeth Ocampo's approach), as opposed to studying him as a national hero). It had never been studied nor published before.
- The Bible scenario concerns Chapter 20, verse 17 of the Gospel according to John in the New Testament. Rizal picks up the title from the words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. There are many titles where one can get a book title. Why was this chapter singled out? And why this particular quote? Did he look at a bible index and look for possible biblical expressions that describe the theme of his novel? (I'll address this again in my next blog).
- The medical scenario promised to reveal the social ills of the Philippine society. Rizal had a strong inclination to use this title to serve as a clinical excision to cure the malignant cancer infecting the society. Could this title describe the whole point of his novel? Could this be the title he needed? Was it an appealing title for a book dealing with several sensitive issues? Guerrero’s Rizal biography quotes him saying:
“I shall endeavor to show your condition, faithfully and ruthlessly. I shall lift a corner of the veil, which shrouds the disease, sacrificing to the right everything even self-love -- for as your son, your defects and weaknesses are also mine.”
Filipinas’ Cancerous Society would have made an accurate title and Rizal would have found it very appropriate. But he must have been convinced it sounds too archaic and academic. Lacking punch it would read like a sociological treatise, not a novel characterized by sarcasm, irony, and symbolism. If his purpose was to piqué his readers’ interest, Rizal knew for sure that such a dry and trite title would shy away readers rather than attract them.
In Guerrero’s introduction to the English translation of Noli me Tángere, he suggested that Untouchable was contemplated as a title. However, although appropriate for the novel and theme, that title was thought to be misleading. It was surmised that the Hindu scheduled caste of the Untouchables might cloud the issue of Rizal’s social reform platform.
- The El Prado Perspective.
In this scenario, Rizal frequents the national museum of El Prado. In 1872, many religious works of the Madrid and Toledo schools were added to the Prado Museum. Thanks to Carlos V and his son Felipe II, the Prado has the world’s top collection of the Italian paintings of the 15th century romantic mannerists and baroque periods.
In Rizal’s time, many art lovers visited the Prado. It is hard to believe that Rizal, the consummate lover of art, the student who enrolled at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid (he studied landscape) would not have been enamored of the Prado’s collection.
Let’s follow Rizal one fateful day in 1886. He had very little cash and for weeks now had been subsisting on bread and water. Studying hard, he is also writing the novel in between his studies and submitting articles for La Solidaridad, a fortnightly anti-friar propagandist newsletter edited by Marcelo H. del Pilar.
Rizal had been wracking his brains for an appropriate title for his novel. The manuscript is nearly finished. He is tired and decides to relax his mind and stop thinking about it. He goes to the Prado (a walking distance from his apartment). Absent mindedly, he paces the ground floor and in one place he glances up. In front of him, in a panel 130 by 104 centimeters, is a most dazzling portrait of infinitesimal expression. Correggio’s exquisite rendition is as fine a work as any of the late Renaissance Italian school ever produced.
“Stunning!” Rizal, exclaims. “ It is intensely physical and yet steadily aware of light and its spiritual significance. There is an inner solidity in the Christ figure. Correggio keeps the Mary Magdalene figure reasonably human, thus making the picture still more lovable. There is this wonderful dream-like dawn, leaving an overwhelming impression of actuality. Really this canvas has the best technical mannerist wizardry of all.”
Jesus is pictured with outstretched arms, a swath of bold blue shroud draped around his torso. Rizal’s eye follows a pyramid from the top of the hill to the foreground outlined with a gardener’s hoe in the right corner. (According to the scriptures, Mary Magdalene first mistakenly thought the figure of Jesus before him was a gardener.)
Rizal's vision traces a diagonal line beginning down at the arms of the Magdalene up to the powerful open arms of the risen Christ. “A most powerful and striking composition,” he observed. He admires the canvas from a distance, and then he moves slowly toward the picture to read the title. It was: Noli me tángere.
Rizal must have come to this realization: “The symbolism of this expression is rich with nuances and vigorously stated, very much like the expression in my novel.”
Knowing how methodical Rizal was in his systematic research, he must have consulted the Prado’s library. He would have found that Titian influenced Correggio. And amazingly, Titian also painted a Noli me Tángere. In addition, Titian explained that his painting’s biblical passage title came from John.
The possible triangulation of Noli me Tángere as a book title is complete. Titian influenced Correggio. Correggio stimulated Rizal.
Antonio Allegri called Correggio, Noli me Tángere, 1534
El Prado Museum, Madrid, Catalogue No.111
Entered the Prado 1839
Only in John’s Gospel
Then to Rizal’s complete amazement, he discovers something extraordinarily cunning and importantly ominous about this particular text. The phrase “touch me not” is found nowhere else except in the Gospel according to John. Matthew, Luke and Mark do not carry this specific phraseology. Now, Rizal understood perfectly well why Titian, (followed by Correggio) looking for a Renaissance subject chose this particular passage to portray. It was a unique theme to show off an artist’s power of imagery and interpretation.
With this discovery and imbued by the hidden message, Rizal must have reread the biblical passage within that honest purposeful context and with a fresh meaning. He has the conceptual map of his almost finished manuscript dancing before his eyes. He must have internalized the cognitive meaning of the gospel according to John and became fully convinced this was the message he wanted to convey for the title of the novel.
Rizal could visualize the Correggio canvas expressing the undercurrent violence and pain. He could relate to the same emotion and expression emanating from his novel. He was writing about a sensitive topic which no one dared touch. The subject is a taboo topic. Yet there it was –Touch me not—full of hidden yet transparent symbolism.
Finally, his search was over. He had found a title: Noli me tángere.
Finally, his search was over. He had found a title: Noli me tángere.
Read part 2 on my bext blog on Noli me Tángere: Looking for a Book Title