Spain’s golden age: global power

HABSBURG Spain in the 16th century was the world’s first global superpower, with an empire stretching east across most of Europe to the Philippines and India and west across the Atlantic to the Americas. It was an age of expansion and cultural efflorescence and ended with Spain’s steep decline from which it never fully recovered.

Robert Goodwin’s new book begins with the arrival in Seville in 1519 of the Santa María, the first ship to reach Europe from the newly conquered coast of Mexico, laden with such riches that “there was no other ballast than gold”, and ends in 1682 with Juan Valdés Leal’s gruesome painting “In Ictu Oculi” (“In the Twinkling of an Eye”), an allegory of death—and for the author a perfect symbol for the “end times” of Spanish imperialism.

Mr Goodwin, a research fellow at University College London, has mined deep in the archives and produced a wealth of wonderfully evocative and offbeat detail that is both scholarly and accessible to the general reader. The most coveted office in the monarchy’s Privy Chamber was Groom of the Stool, who attended on the king’s defecation and looked after the royal chamber pot. The physical closeness naturally led this most intimate of courtiers to become someone in whom much confidence was placed and with whom many royal secrets were shared.

The author’s cast of protagonists during this Counter-Reformation period when costly wars were waged against Protestant heretic enemies, most notably the Dutch, includes the chronically ill mystic St Teresa of Avila, who believed that every time she heard a thunderclap God was communicating with her soul, and Sister María de Ágreda, the closest confidante of Felipe IV, who claimed to be in two places at the same time (evangelising Indians while she was asleep). The Inquisition’s torturers forced a strip of linen down a suspected heretic’s throat, held the victim’s mouth open by an iron plug and poured water slowly, causing a sensation of suffocation. The method was later abandoned in favour of more “merciful” treatment. Waterboarding was a scandal long before it came to the fore in the administration of George W. Bush.

In the most fascinating section, Mr Goodwin explores the paradox of a possible correlation between the artistic and literary splendours of the Golden Age and political decadence. As well as the imperial victories recorded in magnificent paintings, including Diego Velázquez’s “The Surrender of Breda” and Titian’s “Equestrian Portrait of Charles V” (pictured), there were the dark monk paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán, the plays of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina and Calderón de la Barca, the poetry of Góngora and the sacred made real in the lifelike images of Christ, carved in wood, for Holy Week processions in Seville, which today are a tourist attraction.

Mr Goodwin cleverly weaves into his own narrative the social observations in “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, widely regarded as the father of the modern novel. Don Quixote’s enthusiasm for the heroics of the romances of chivalry mirrors the great exploits of the Spanish in Europe and the New World, whereas his gradual disillusionment in the second part of the book could reflect a sense of decline.

Like Cervantes’s hero, Spain’s elite had become deluded and had lost touch with reality. By the end of the 17th century the empire had become overstretched on almost every front, while the vast quantities of precious metals pouring into Spain caused massive inflation. The fall in the value of these riches led to unpopular increases in taxation and massive borrowing to sustain the empire. The English and the Dutch were taking over; the new spur to globalisation was inter-imperial rivalry.