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Golden Age: when the artistic genius of Spain dominates Europe
By Sandrine Bavard

Cervantes' Don Quixote, Las Meninas by Velasquez, Granada Cathedral. So many treasures that come from the Spanish Golden Age, a period of political domination and cultural influence under Habsburg rule, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It is hard to define very precisely the century of Spain’s Golden age, but we usually referred to it as starting after 1492. A date that changed forever the maps of the world with the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, paving the gold routes for conquistadors. That year was also when Antonio de Nebrija publishes the Castilian grammar, the first grammar of a written vernacular language in Europe. Finally, this date also marks the unification of Spain with the capture of Granada, the last bastion of Islam, by the Catholic Monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon.

Their grand-son, Charles V, is elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1519, becoming head of a political, economic, and cultural power: the most powerful Christian monarch of the first half of the sixteenth century. Its colonial empire is immense: extending from the kingdom of Naples to provinces in the Netherlands to new lands of America. The cultural influence of Spain is at the time very important in all areas: architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music ... His successors, from Philip II to Philip IV, will intensively continue the work of the Habsburg.

Expansion of architecture in Andalusia

The first of the arts to enjoy this blessed era is architecture; marked by Italian humanist ideas and Renaissance style which spreads throughout Europe, and which will then be exported to the New World. It develops during the reign of Charles V, who particularly wishes to mark Andalusia which he regained. He builds a palace on the hill of the Alhambra in Granada by architect Pedro Machuca: a Italianate touch in this Moorish world!

It was also at that time that were built the magnificent cathedrals of Andalusia: Granada, Málaga and Jaén. The small towns of Ubeda and Baeza are literally two open-air museums, which were renovated in the sixteenth century, also in the Renaissance style, now listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Seville, described by Cervantes as the new Babylon, Port of the Americas, became the fourth city in Europe: the famous promenade of the Alameda de Hercules is built, together with remarkable buildings, like the Audiencia or the Consulate of Mercaderes, which became the Archives of the Indies.

Architects and sculptors shape cities and churches: those include Siloam Diego in Burgos and Granada, Andrés de Vandelvira in Úbeda and Jaen, Gregorio Fernández in Valladolid, Martinez Montañes in Seville.

Madrid became the center of the peninsula

Philip II, son of Charles V and a great patron, then takes a decision that will change Spain’s picture: in 1561 he transferred the royal court from Toledo to Madrid. The city is caught in a constructive fever: churches, convents and numerous other buildings are built.

It was at that time that the Plaza Mayor was built, the capital's iconic square, where pyres of the Inquisition, bullfights and performances were held. Juan Gómez de Mora is the author of the work, master of royal works, who also carried out a monumental facade for the Royal Alcázar and the Cárcel de Corte, the current Palace of Santa Cruz.

Philip II also orders a monastery-palace, El Escorial, 45 km from Madrid, made in a severe style, which today houses many masterpieces.

Painting, baroque mannerism

From Philip II to Philip IV, the royal court attracted many artists, both foreign visitors such as Flemish Rubens, or Spanish masters enjoying the royal favor, under the condition to share the king's views on religion and against-reformation...

El Greco, master of Mannerism, arrived in Toledo after a stay in Italy, where he meets the royal and religious orders, including the famous Burial of the Count of Orgaz for the Santo Tomé church. The views of Toledo, where landscapes become the subject and not simply a decoration, had a great influence on other painters in Europe.

Diego Velázquez, court painter, with a striking realism, mainly produced portraits of the king, his family and grandees of Spain, including the famous painting of Las Meninas. The "painter of painters" according to Manet, contributed to the growth of the Spanish Baroque painting in Europe.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Velazquez’s friend, develops a dark and severe art; a religious work full of mysticism, emblematic of the Counter-Reformation. We could mention many others: Alonso Cano, Francisco Pacheco, Luis de Morales, Juan Fernández Navarrete, José de Ribera...

Literature and geniuses: Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderon...

Whether Seville or Madrid, the booming cities attracted merchants, bankers and adventurers just as those in the books of Cervantes, Quevedo, Lope de Vega, Calderón, Tirso Molina...

A new literary genre is born: the picaresque novel, popularized in Europe by Guzman Alfarache Mateo Alemán, or El Buscón Francisco de Quevedo. The most famous novel is Cervantes' Don Quixote, simply considered the greatest work written in Spanish.

The Spanish theater also gives birth to great geniuses as Lope de Vega, founder of the Spanish comedy-tragedy and a popular theater. He will have a great influence on Calderon, also author of many cloak and dagger comedies and the masterpiece Life Is a Dream.

Another major theater author, Tirso de Molina, was the first to have narrated the adventures of Don Juan, before ... Molière. As for Guillén de Castro, he narrates The childhoods of the Cid, mercenary knight and legendary figure of the Reconquista, before ... Corneille.

The list of writers, poets and essayists of great renown is long: Hernando de Acuña, Baltasar Gracian, Luis de Góngora, Luis de Leon...

Music: the stranglehold of religion

Music, like painting, draws inspiration from religion, and composers thrive in the area of religious polyphony, like Cristóbal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero, Juan Vázquez, Alonso Lobo. The best known is probably Tomas Luis de Victoria, composer who became a priest, who composed long mystical melodies.

Spaniards are also the first to develop instrumental music. Antonio de Cabezon gives new life to the organ or other keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, and is renowned for its "tientos". Luis de Milán published in 1536 the first collection of pieces of music for the "vihuela" and produces scores for other fretted instruments like classical guitar.

The decline of Spain

The decline of Spain starts during the reign of Philip III (1598-1623), marked by wars and bankruptcies. In 1659, Spain suffered a major setback with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, which ended Spanish domination in Europe taken over by France under Louis XIV.

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