Beyond Oneself: Escaping Vice in Goya’s Los Caprichos

Nineteenth-century commentary on Los Caprichos

When the Colby Museum of Art contacted me several months ago with the project of translating a nineteenth-century commentary on Goya’s Los Caprichos from Spanish to English, I recalled my first experience of Goya’s works at the Prado Museum in Madrid years before. Nightmarish visions of grotesque wretches cloaked in solemn darkness stirred in my mind. Saturn gazed into the distance, his cannibalized, bloodied child lying limply in his hands as I looked on, mesmerized, before him. All the while, the impending horror of his Colossus loomed over me as I crept reverently through a gallery of his artwork. This first encounter with but a small portion of Goya’s work had left a lasting impression in my mind, and I jumped at the opportunity to study his unsettlingly beautiful creations once more.

Goya created Los Caprichos, a collection of 80 small prints, from 1797–98 to satirize the immorality and hypocrisy prevalent in the society around him. Gloom and agony permeate every line in the Caprichos. Even seemingly convivial portraits served only to emphasize the lurid louts within. But what lay behind this conduct so insidious that Goya felt the need to combat it in his virulent satire? After my first read-through of the commentary, one particular word stuck in my mind more than any other: vicio, or vice. The word vicio only appears a handful of times in the source text, yet the concept of el vicio is deeply implicated in almost every plate as the root of this rampant early modern Spanish depravity.

While I could translate vicio simply as “vice,” a word I have known in Spanish and English for as long as I can remember, I dug deeper to ensure the translation remained as faithful as possible to the author’s original intent. Before choosing how to translate a pivotal word in a sentence, I consulted multiple dictionaries to more fully understand all the definitions and connotations associated with each word or phrase. While “vice” can describe criminal behavior, sexual promiscuity, addiction, and many other forms of immorality, its definitions generalize into two distinct concepts: destruction of oneself and malice towards others. At least one of these two concepts manifests itself in nearly every plate.

Francisco de Goya, Plate 18 from ‘Los Caprichos’: Ysele quema la Casa (And his house is on fire), 1799. Intaglio on cream laid paper, 12 1/4 in. x 8 1/8 in. (31.12 cm. x 20.64 cm.). The Lunder Collection, 010.2014.018

Representations of the first type of vicio show subjects causing themselves harm. They demonstrate a lack of self-control and become victims of habitual weaknesses that they are unwilling or unable to abandon, leaving themselves helplessly devoured by their own lasciviousness or by the corruption of the world. This type of vice is perhaps best represented by plate 18. A man disrobes by candlelight as the flame ignites the chair it is precariously balanced upon. Though he sees the flame he carries on, seemingly oblivious to the impending destruction it will bring upon him.

Francisco de Goya, Plate 30 from ‘Los Caprichos’: Porque esconderlos? (Why hide them?), 1799. Intaglio on cream laid paper, 12 1/4 in. x 8 1/8 in. (31.12 cm. x 20.64 cm.). The Lunder Collection, 010.2014.030

The second type of vicio is more malicious in nature. It appears as wicked, immoral, or illicit behavior actively pursued by the offender. In the Caprichos, the innocent, or those whose folly is the first type of vice, often find themselves exploited at the hands of those purveyors of the more malicious breed of vicio. One of the many examples comes from print 30 in which greedy-eyed charlatans swindle money from their uncle.

Francisco de Goya, Plate 59 from ‘Los Caprichos’: Y aun no se van! (And still they don’t go!), 1799. Intaglio on cream laid paper, 12 1/4 in. x 8 1/8 in. (31.12 cm. x 20.64 cm.). The Lunder Collection, 010.2014.059

While most plates tend to critique only one of these two categories of vice, several depict both. Capricho 59 ceases to discriminate between malignance injurious to others or to oneself and equates both as similarly damning. The associated commentary reads: “Death approaches. The weighty tombstone falls upon us as a reminder of our mortality, yet still we do not amend our ways.” In the image, we see a weight threatening to crush a crowd of decrepit beings while only a few endeavor to resist. Though throughout the series we have seen the elucidation of two distinct categories of vice, no visual signs give clues as to the individual follies of members of the group. Furthermore, the commentary is also vague, condensing all possible follies into a generalized “ways.” Beyond communicating the equality of all in the eyes of death, the manuscript reminds viewers how deeply ingrained we are in our paths. Goya portrays how even when confronted by the impermanence of life, we continue foolishly refusing to address what plagues our souls.

Francisco de Goya, Plate 75 from ‘Los Caprichos’: ¿No hay quien nos desate? (Can’t anyone unleash us?), 1799. Intaglio on cream laid paper, 12 1/4 in. x 8 1/8 in. (31.12 cm. x 20.64 cm.). The Lunder Collection, 010.2014.075

The fluidity of language to adopt various meanings at once, in our case as it relates to the word vicio, reveals itself once more in the commentary for plate 75: “Those who are completely surrendered to their vices cannot see the bonds they themselves have created. Only someone else can free them from their shackles of depravity.” In this plate, a bound woman swoons in surrender to the large winged creature—likely an allegory for vice—above her, while it is unclear if the man bent beneath her is attempting to untie her ropes or is entrapped by them as well. Here, again, readers and viewers may easily interpret “vices” to represent both types of vice. When malevolence becomes habitual, we are just as in need of correction as the addict. Interestingly, despite the two types of vice influencing the immorality in Los Caprichos, only the one solution appears. The only apparent guidance as to how to escape these innumerable consequences of the human condition is through help exterior to oneself. Ultimately, the unfolding drama of the Caprichos displays that, among such depravity, the only possibility for liberation comes from faith in the benevolent hand of one greater than oneself.