Home > Art, History, Travel > A Sojourn in Spain: Thoughts on Madrid and Toledo

A Sojourn in Spain: Thoughts on Madrid and Toledo

A mere two weeks in a country with such regional diversity and historical richness as Spain is hardly enough to get a full measure of one of Europe’s most fascinating nations. But the character, history, and artistic heritage of certain of its regions can emerge in even so short a time spent exploring them.

For many, the entry point into Spain is Madrid, the national capital, largest metropolis, and transportation, institutional, cultural, and geographical centre of the country. A bustling modern city, Madrid cannot boast the deep, fascinating history of many of the older Spanish cities (especially those in the South). Though the city site has been continually habitated since pre-Roman times, Madrid has only been a significant centre since the mid-16th Century, when Hapsburg King Philip II relocated his court there from older, less growth-friendly Toledo. Consequently, very few of the city’s landmarks pre-date that time, with the majority of its institutional and royal edifices built in the century or two after this shift. In contrast to the tight-packed, labyrinthine medieval streets of older cities like Toledo, Seville, or Granada, Madrid is laid out in the wide boulevards and plazas of the era of its Bourbon monarchs.

Madrid does aggregate cultural attractions from across Spain’s historic realms, however. Its golden triangle of major national art museums – the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemisza, and Reina Sofia – bring together an embarrassment of artistic riches (many of them derived from the Habsburg royal collection) from Bosch to Velazquez to Goya to Picasso in a concentrated area. More treasures can be seen in the Palacio Real across the city centre and El Escorial, the devout Philip II’s massive palace-monastery-basilica complex outside the city limits. But Madrid, lovely and easily-navigated and livable as it is, carries the feeling of a relatively recent and governmentally-forced national capital for a nation defined by its resolute regional identities.

El Greco’s View of Toledo

Its obvious counterpoint is Toledo. Formerly the nominal capital and base for the royal court, Toledo’s growth was stunted by its unique and picturesque location along the slopes of a commanding hillside, its iconic Alcazar and Gothic cathedral crowning the rise with the aforementioned medieval streets spidering paths to and fro below and around them. A civic construction that makes much more sense as a defensible Middle Ages stronghold than as a sprawling modern Western democratic capitalist economic unit like Madrid has become, Toledo’s skyline is nonetheless lodged in the popular consciousness thanks to its legendary native artist, El Greco, who famously painted the cityscape of his time with swirling, foreboding clouds above it.

And yet Toledo, with its historic sites and strong claim to the title of Spain’s religious capital, is also redolent of the complex web of diverse influences that makes up Spanish history. Philip II put the city’s golden years as Spain’s active heart behind it in 1561, and his father Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and Spain-unifying great-grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella spread their historical legacies and major monuments across the great former Moorish cities of Andalucia (which I will discuss more in a subsequent post). A city now best known for its surviving Catholic landmarks and now purely-touristic swordmaking industry, Toledo’s deeper connection to what can be tentatively but perhaps anachronistically called “Spanishness” can be most resonantly traced through its two most celebrated creative figures: El Greco and Miguel de Cervantes.

In addition to defining the city of his time on canvas, El Greco spread many of his finest works throughout Toledo, where he lived and worked for the better part of his life. His spectacular masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz remains one of the city’s top attractions, and the 400-year anniversary of his death has seen the entire Castile-La Mancha region launch a commemorative cultural celebration of this most famous and iconic “native” son.

But those quotation marks are key to understanding what El Greco means to Spanish cultural nationalism: El Greco, as his frequently-employed moniker indicates, was born in Greece (Domenikos Theokotopoulos is his real name) and resided and trained in Italy before finally relocating to Spain. Operating outside of the royal patronage that most significant artists of his period relied upon (he contributed only a single commission to Philip’s enormous El Escorial project, and that was purportedly a disappointment to his patron) and also failing to secure multiple commissions for the Toledo Catherdral (following a contentious negotiation with the cathedral’s committee over his fee for The Disrobing of Christ), El Greco’s singular and avant-garde artistic vision and thematic daring put him outside the artistic mainstream of his period, though his abilities were recognized by his peers and he had an active workshop nonetheless.

El Greco did very well as a portraitist, but it is his religious paintings, with their elongated, otherworldly figures and almost Expressionistic flourishes of haunting, spectral paint strokes, that define him in the collective consciousness. Commonly identified with a strongly mystical strain of Catholicism (he was an icon painter in his formative years on Crete), El Greco is the master artist of the Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain of the Black Legend, that vaunted, lamented Northern European conception of Spain as a land of grim castles overlooking parched plains, dim stone cathedrals, black-clad priests and inquisitors, and deep-seated populist superstitions and mystical beliefs and practices.

First circulated by English and Dutch Protestant propaganda during those countries’ Late 16th-Century conflicts with the Spanish, this pernicious but false idea of Spain finds some support in the fervent Catholicism of its defender-of-the-faith monarchs, from Ferdinand and Isabella’s completion of the Reconquista and expulsion of the peninsula’s Jewish population in 1492 to Charles V’s opposition to Martin Luther and Henry VIII’s potential divorce to the continuing sinister activities of the Inquisition. In fact, El Greco’s very presence in Spain, like that of many of the Italian artists hired as court painters and to work on El Escorial at about the same time, stands as compelling evidence for the international scope and cosmopolitanism of Habsburg Spain rather than to its religiously-stunted insularity.

Additionally, El Greco’s contemporary Cervantes and his literary masterpiece Don Quixote exerts a strong presence in Toledo and further undermines the Black Legend framing of the culture and society of Golden Age Spain. Located in picturesque La Mancha, the home seat of the wandering, delusional, self-styled knight-errant of Spain’s virtual national novel, Toledo is awash with Quixote memorabilia, and the traveller half-expects a tall, thin old man in armour on a skinny horse to be glimpsed on the sun-cracked roads cutting through the plains outside of the city at any moment, a plump sidekick on a burro riding at his side. Although frequently identified as a highly religious text supportive of national church doctrine, Quixote includes in its sprawling narrative plentiful critiques of the society and culture of Cervantes’ Spain as well as the unswerving authority of the Church. Its colourful and deeply humanist pastoral view of Golden Age Spain challenges the discursive prerogatives of the Black Legend.

It is also a text deeply troubled by Spain’s struggles with the non-ethnic Spanish internal minorities that it had spent the past century marginalizing and eventually expelling: not only the Jews in the late 1400s but also the conversos (Jews or Muslims who accepted conversion to Christinanity in order to remain in the country) and Moriscos (specifically Muslims who took the same deal, or their descendants) affected by later decrees. The cultural and artistic legacy of these departed peoples, of the ghosts of Spain’s unmatched social diversity in Medieval Europe, is much more apparent in the former Muslim realm of al-Andalus, now known as the semi-autonomous region of Andalusia. A second set of traveller’s thoughts will consider these ghosts along their historical pathways in the south of Spain.

Categories: Art, History, Travel
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