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All that glitters…

In 1494, the then pope, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia, brokered the treaty of Tordesillas. As per this treaty, Portugal and the joined kingdoms of Castilla and Aragón divided up the world outside of Europe between them. Hmm. I wonder what the divided world had to say about that? Anyway, due to this treaty, a line was drawn through South America, with the easternmost future Brazil ending up Portuguese, while the rest of the continent suddenly became Spanish.

Landing_of_Columbus_(2)At the time of the treaty, most of the newly divvied up lands were utterly unknown to their new masters. Christopher Columbus had done a good job of spreading the propaganda that he’d made it to lands of endless riches (he finally got it that he hadn’t made it to India – actually, most mathematicians and astronomers of the age were quite convinced he would never make it to India, but Columbus was the stubborn type) and adventurous types from all over the Iberian peninsula – plus some – descended on the new lands. They weren’t there for an All-inclusive on Hispaniola, nor were they particularly interested in the native people. No, these driven adventurers came with one thing and one thing only in mind: gold.

santo-domingo-pirate-map-drakes-voyageSpain’s first hub in the New World was Santo Domingo on Hispaniola.  The Spanish were not particularly gentle when it came to conquests, and when there was no gold forthcoming it made them a tad irritated. These were men who had gambled everything on the hope of finding heaps of gold lying about, and when the indigenous Taino shrugged, trying to explain there was no gold – at least not in significant quantities, the conquistadores vented their rage on them. A couple of decades later, the Taino people were no more – unless they served as slaves on one or other of the huge encomiendas that dominated their previous island home.

Once they’d gotten over their disappointment regarding the meagre pickings on Hispaniola, the Spanish set their sights to the West. Rumours of immense riches came drifting across the Caribbean, and as we all know, Spanish adventurers came to conquer not only the Aztec Empire in Mexico, but also the huge Inca Empire in Peru, this through a combination of disdain for the “heathens” and nerves of steel.

A century or so after Columbus’ arrival on the shores of America, Spain was by far the richest country in the world. Galleons loaded with gold and silver creaked their way regularly over the Atlantic, fat rich prices for drooling privateers. Upon arrival in Spain, these riches were generally transferred to the skilled goldsmiths in the Flemish provinces of the Spanish Empire, where the metal was worked into exquisite pieces of jewellery or tableware – precious items that were then sold back to Spain, at prices far exceeding their metal value, and so the Flemish merchants got even more gold to work into even more masterpieces, to sell for even more gold and… Well, you get the picture, right? Spain was reduced to being a raw material supplier, buying back the produced goods at prices that resulted in a constant negative cashflow (Not into Finance? Trust me; negative cashflow is very, very bad).


Now, as long as Spain was in control of an endless supply of gold and silver, the cashflow wasn’t a problem. It was a bit like controlling the mint; “Ooops, I’m out of money. What do I do? Oh yes, I print some MORE money!” (Now isn’t that a delicious fantasy?) However, easy come, easy go, and where once gold had been plentiful, the greed of the Spanish very quickly depleted the South American continent of anything that glittered. Come the late 17th century, and Spain was beginning to feel the bite of that negative cashflow. Come the 18th century, and Spain began to sink into poverty – sort of ironic, given the sheer amounts of precious metals extracted from the American continent. But there you are; if you don’t employ good accountants, that’s what happens…

It wasn’t as if the Spanish gave much in return to their new dominions; yes, yes, we have all that beautiful colonial architecture that graces the older cities in Spanish America, all those churches with twin towers, signalling yet another congregation to sing the praises of the Christian god. But at what price? I somehow suspect those long-gone Incas would have preferred continuing to worship the sun without the presence of any nasty, hairy Conquistadores (and if you want to read more about this, click here).

Anyway; for a couple of centuries, the Spanish kings wallowed in gold. And before the country began to feel the pinch of poverty brought on by excessive greed and a hungering for pretty things, Spain experienced a cultural explosion which in Spanish goes by the name El Siglo de Oro (The Golden Century – most apt, if, with time, rather ironic)


I don’t know how many of you are into religious painting. No? Well, if you are, Seville of the 17th century would have been your own personal Mecca. Now, I am no major fan of painting after painting depicting the blushing young face of the Virgin, but when standing before the sheer brilliance of Zurbarán or Murillo, I can but gape. Both these gentlemen made a mint out of their religious paintings, depicting numerous Virgins and as many saints. Zurbarán was a master of contrasts between light and dark, while Murillo had a more realistic bend, now and then lowering himself to depicting normal people. Whatever the case, had it not been for all that gold flowing into Spanish church coffers, there would have been no commissions to paint, and the world would not have been left with masterpieces such as Zurbaráns Immaculate Conception or Murillo’s The Beggar boy.

And had there not been money, well then Philip IV would not have been able to afford Diego Velazquez, and seriously, a world without Las Meninas? (But dear old Diego is much, much more than this iconic painting. The man must have chewed some sort of potent energizing drug what with how much he painted) Interestingly enough, Velazquez also hailed from Seville. Maybe it was the buzz of this cosmopolitan city, gateway to so much of Spain’s trade with its dominions that created an atmosphere conductive to cultural pursuits. Or maybe it was as simple as the people in Seville becoming filthy rich due to said trade with said dominions, and therefore able to buy talent to come and live in their city.

RokebyVenusWhatever the case, Diego Velazquez made good in Seville – painting a lot of religious motifs, of course – so good that he was called to the royal court, where he became the resident court painter (and head of the household). Philip IV was very proud of his painter, and Velazquez combined royal portraits with other work, now and then daring the displeasure of the Inquisition by painting a nude. Major no-no in 17th century Spain. The Inquisition frowned on such lewd depictions, and the Inquisition was a force unto its own, so people did best to toe the line when it came to this dour and scary institution.  Not that this prohibition against depicting nude female flesh seems to have had the desired deterring effect as we know for a fact that nudes painted outside of Spain were avidly collected by the Spanish nobility (They probably kept these little masterpieces hidden, a bit like those French cards of future generations).

Prince Felipe Prospero
Prince Felipe Prospero

To us, Velazquez is mostly known for his beautiful portraits of royal children – which includes Las Meninas as this painting showcases Princess Margarita Teresa. I personally find his later portraits more striking, but what I absolutely love about Las Meninas is Velazquez’s use of the mirror – and the fact that he has included himself in the painting.

Velazquez himself
Velazquez himself

If one peers closely at the difuse image of the painter at work, one notices that on his coat he wears a red cross, the insignia of the Order of Santiago. That is rather curious, as Las Meninas was painted three years before Velazquez made it through the proverbial needle’s eye to become a member of this illustrous company. To become a member of the Order of Santiago, one had to be many things, but first and foremost one had to be of impeccable Spanish lineage with not as much as a drop of Jewish or Moorish blood. Apparently Velazquez passed the test – despite being nothing more than a “craftsman”, painters were not held in high regard – and it has been suggested that it wasn’t the artist but rather his royal patron who had the temerity to add the cross to the painting. We will never know.

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaNot only was the Spanish Golden Age an explosion in art, it also produced some of the finest writers of the Spanish language. Cervantes, of course, who gifted the world with his somewhat sad and confused Don Quijote. (I never got him as a child, more irritated than intrigued by this stupid man who charged windmills on an underfed nag. As an adult, however…) The period also saw a new genre invented, moving the novel away from the romances starring high-born women and courtly knights to the picaresque novel, where the protagonist was generally of low birth and even lower means, who survived due to his wits, not due to his bloodline (in Spanish, such an intrepid go-getter is called a pícaro). I can imagine these novels found a warm reception in an age were the myth of the self-made man, as exemplified by the dirt-poor emigrant who went to the colonies and returned loaded with gold, flourished. Interestingly enough, at one end of the spectrum we have these novels starring smart-arse urchins, while at the  same time  San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Ávila produced some of the more beautiful religious writing ever seen – intimate and yet trandenscending, somehow. (And OK: St Teresa and San Juan died late in the 16th century, but the Golden Century is a relatively flexible time period)


prado 3 Murillo El buen pastorAnd then we have the playwrights – many, many playwrights such as Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina. Hands up those that have heard of these giants among Spanish playwrights. No? Tsk, tsk! Lope de Vega wrote like 1 800 plays (go figure, Shakespeare) of which close to 100 are considered masterpieces (who decides these things?). I’m not entirely sure Lope de Vega’s plays have fully survived the sharp teeth of time (but I do like a man who bases his plays on historical events) but there is one playwright – and especially one work by this playwright – that most definitely has. I am talking about my personal favourite, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and his play La Vida es Sueño –  Life is a dream.  From this play come the lines below, some of the most famous in Spanish Literature. They can also be seen as somewhat prophetic; after all, as the Golden Age of Spain drew to a close, the country was to wake up from its dream of everlasting riches to find itself degraded to a poor outpost on the European continent. And all because some people just couldn’t get enough of stuff that glittered…

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño.
¡Que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son!

What is life? It is a frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
It is a shadow and a fiction,
And the greatest good is small;
For life is nothing but a dream,
And dreams, are only dreams.

Imagine: all this because of a treaty back in 1494. No Treaty of Tordesillas, no gold. No gold, no wealth to fuel all this cultural endeavour. Spain may have ended up dirt poor once the gold and silver reserves were depleted, but spiritually and culturally the Golden Age forged the future Spain, bequeathing to the future generations a veritable treasure trove of art and literature. Not gold, not even silver, but something that sparkles and shines much, much more!

1 thought on “All that glitters…”

  1. Pingback: History A'la Carte 5-29-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

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