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The Escorial

The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Escorial
    Book Description:

    Few buildings have played so central a role in Spain's history as the monastery-palace of San Lorenzo del Escorial. Colossal in size and imposing-even forbidding-in appearance, the Escorial has invited and defied description for four centuries. Part palace, part monastery, part mausoleum, it has also served as a shrine, a school, a repository for thousands of relics, and one of the greatest libraries of its time. Constructed over the course of more than twenty years, the Escorial challenged and provoked, becoming for some a symbol of superstition and oppression, for others a "wonder of the world." Now a World Heritage Site, it is visited by thousands of travelers every year.

    In this intriguing study, Henry Kamen looks at the circumstances that brought the young Philip II to commission construction of the Escorial in 1563. He explores Philip's motivation, the influence of his travels, the meaning of the design, and its place in Spanish culture. It represents a highly engaging narrative of the high point of Spanish imperial dominance, in which contemporary preoccupations with art, religion, and power are analyzed in the context of this remarkable building.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16825-9
    Subjects: History, Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-ix)
    (pp. x-xi)
    (pp. xii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-28)

    In the entire history of Spain, nothing like it had ever before been attempted.¹ The great and magnificent cathedrals that towered over the cities had been raised up slowly, generation after generation and with stubborn fortitude, by clergy and believers who had the patience to wait and hope. Clergy likewise had helped painstakingly to construct the ambitious religious houses secluded in the countryside, as at Guadalupe in Extremadura, or seated defiantly on peaks as at Montserrat in Catalonia. These edifices were the fulfilment of the dreams of medieval religious orders, the militant arm of the Catholic Church in western Europe....

    (pp. 29-45)

    In his Letter of Foundation for the Escorial, issued by Philip II on 22 April 1567, four years after work on it had commenced, the king stated that the building would be dedicated to St Lawrence (in Spanish, San Lorenzo), on whose feast day, 10 August 1557, his forces had won a famous victory.¹ The church of the Escorial was accordingly dedicated to San Lorenzo, and the first important relic deposited inside the altar was a limb of the saint. The military event in question seserves attention for at least three compelling reasons. First, it took place far from Spain,...

    (pp. 46-85)

    The king’s intention to build the Escorial may have taken shape at any time after the mid-sixteenth century, when he completed his travels through the continent. He would later attach specific importance to the circumstances of the victory at St Quentin, as we shall see below, but the battle was not necessarily a reason for his decision to build, merely a trigger. There were many other events and inspirations (the fruits of his stay in the Netherlands and northern Europe) that also shaped the way in which his idea of the foundation developed. Every influence drawn from Europe was closely...

    (pp. 86-116)

    From the moment of its construction, the wholly unexpected vision of a massive and isolated monastery cradled in the hills of northern Castile never ceased to generate wonder on the part of beholders. Since visitors had seldom seen similar edifices – the monastery of Guadalupe in Extremadura was probably the only comparable one in the peninsula – they were liable to conclude that the building was unique, if not a product of fantasy. Commentators were unconvinced by the humdrum idea that it could be related to its immediate environment in Spain, or born out of a normal process of decision-making,...

    (pp. 117-141)

    From the exterior the gigantic granite mass, its three storeys of seemingly endless windows stretching almost to the horizon, may convey to some visitors the grim aura of a prison into which entry seems prohibited and from which escape is surely impossible. The guides habitually recite the sum total of what the building possesses. The walls stretch 675 feet by 530 feet: they contain 4,000 rooms, 2,673 windows, 1,250 doors, 16 courtyards, 88 fountains, 45,000 printed books, 5,000 manuscripts, 1,600 paintings, 540 frescos. They might be talking of Alcatraz (as it used to be) in San Francisco, or the Lubyanka...

  11. CHAPTER 6 A BRACE OF EAGLES Images of Power and Monarchy
    (pp. 142-175)

    Confronted by the enormous granite structure of the monastery and its unquestioned dominance of the visible landscape, observers had little problem identifying it with the absolute power of the monarch. ‘Nothing can give you any idea of the Escorial,’ Alexandre Dumaspèrewrote in 1846, ‘not Windsor in England, nor Peterhof in Russia, nor Versailles in France. It is like nothing but itself, created by a man who bent his epoch to his will, a reverie fashioned in stone, conceived during the sleepless hours of a king on whose realms the sun never set.’¹ It is easy to understand why...

    (pp. 176-199)

    Early descriptions of the palace-monastery refer to it as San Lorenzo de la Victoria,¹ but the friars persuaded the king that the title ‘Royal’ would be more appropriate than the warlike ‘Victory’. The name therefore became San Lorenzo el Real. The entire concept of the Escorial – the monastery, the secluded environment, the concern for prayer and commemoration of the royal dead, the tranquillity of the gardens – betokened peace. For the king too it became a haven of retirement, where he could work unmolested as well as devote himself to his family. Unlike some later royal palaces in Europe,...

    (pp. 200-225)

    The overwhelming, gaunt lines of the monastery leave the viewer in no doubt of the building’s immense spiritual power. An unbeliever has the option of pushing the idea away, but the feeling remains hauntingly present. The problem has always been how to identify that power. Does it represent the traditional spirit of Catholicism? Is it a reflection of the obsessions of the king? One of the most widely prevalent ideas about the structure is that it epitomises the religion of Spain. Its solid, challenging profile is seen as a mirror of Spain’s religious orthodoxy, its firm confidence in God, the...

    (pp. 226-246)

    Foreigners who visited Spain in the century after Philip II were invariably full of praise for the extraordinary structure that the king had built in the hills of the Guadarrama. One of the earliest reports came from the Englishman John Eliot, who stated in 1593 that the ‘Esquireal’ was

    the most magnificent palace of all Europe, . . . and ’tis the fairest building that I ever saw in my life . . . the most goodly, stateliest and sumptuous building that a man can imagine, a place enriched with great gardens, closes and orchards, and with the rarest fruits...

    (pp. 247-247)
  16. NOTES
    (pp. 248-281)
    (pp. 282-285)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 286-292)