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What Don Quixote Reveals About an Empire At Its Peak

Giles Tremlett on the Baroque Decadence of Spain’s Golden Age

Sometime in the first years of the seventeenth century, a wiry and eccentric knight errant set out from a town in La Mancha. His name was Don Quixote and he was, of course, a fictional character and protagonist of what is hailed as the first modern novel in the western tradition. Quixote was not a real knight. He was a dreamer who belonged to that impoverished class of lesser gentry, the hidalgos.

Miguel de Cervantes, the author of this tale, informs us that Quixote has been driven mad by books. More exactly, he has read too many tales of knightly derring-do in so-called chivalric romances—the pulp fiction of the time—and feels a need to model his behavior on the heroes of those stories. Unfortunately, Quixote does not live in the Middle Ages, and his mindset is badly out of tune with the times. That makes him a figure of mirth, as he tilts at windmills, imagines flocks of sheep are hostile armies and convinces himself that his flea-ridden old nag Rocinante is really a sturdy charger.

Don Quixote is funny and tragic. His nostalgia for the simple rules of chivalry reflects a slow decline of Spanish glory that set in as it moved into the seventeenth century. If we were to date the first timid sign that decline might set in after more than a century and a half of expansion, we might choose 1574, when Spain lost the North African city of Tunis to the Ottomans. Cervantes himself had helped occupy Tunis the previous year. He had fled Madrid and joined the army in 1569 after wounding a man in a duel and then lost the use of his left hand at the famous Lepanto sea battle against the Ottomans in 1571.

This was the largest sea battle ever fought, with 400 ships involved, almost all powered by oarsmen and not much different to the old Roman triremes. Just as the stand-off at Vienna marked the limits of the Ottomans’ overland progress, so Lepanto showed that they could be stopped at sea. In retrospect, however, it was also a high point of Spanish glory in the Mediterranean.

His nostalgia for the simple rules of chivalry reflects a slow decline of Spanish glory that set in as it moved into the seventeenth century.

If the loss of Tunis was a blow for Spain, worse soon came for Cervantes. In 1575, his boat was captured by Berber corsairs off Barcelona. He spent five years in captivity in Algiers before his ransom was paid (after four failed escapes), and he returned to Madrid, eventually working as a tax inspector. For any contemporary, the nobility of the cause Cervantes had fought for as a soldier was obvious, since to fight Ottomans was to partake in holy war. The same could not be said of scrapping with the French in Italy, when the pope might back the other side, or even to battle recalcitrant Dutch Protestants. That, however, is what Spanish soldiers spent much of their time doing from now onwards.

With so much tax money and bullion going through the royal coffers—most of it destined to be spent on wars or loans—even a meagre percentage spent on cultural patronage would have helped fuel a moment of splendor. As cities like Madrid grew in importance, so did the demand for entertainment, culture, intellectual spirituality and the self-glorification of portrait painting. While seventeenth-century Spain battled to maintain its political power in Europe, artistic life flourished. “It is the century of splendor and decadence, of both a new dawn and decline,” the historian Antonio Domínguez Ortiz says.

The so-called Spanish Golden Age has no well-defined temporal frontiers. Some trace it as far back as that extraordinary year of 1492, when the humanist scholar Antonio de Nebrija produced Gramática castellana, the first book of Spanish grammar and the first for a modern European language. He published three decades before a first Italian grammar was produced, while English had to wait a century. Nebrija’s grammar, soon followed by a dictionary, was also part of an attempt to establish the predominance of Castilian Spanish over the Peninsula’s other languages.

In his dedication to Queen Isabella he explained, presciently, that language was “the instrument of empire” and a tool for assimilating conquered peoples. Just as importantly, however, his extensive and wide-ranging works reflected an increasingly self-confident, stable and wealthy society where culture could be cultivated without fear of massive societal disruption from war, rebellion or the breakdown of law and order.

By the early seventeenth century, the need for entertainment was fulfilled by the commercial plays, or comedies, churned out by the likes of Lope de Vega (with 500 plays, 3,000 sonnets and a smattering of epic poems, novels and novellas) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (who wrote 120 comedies, plus 100 other works, often on religious themes). Their “cloak-and-sword” intrigues often took a poke at the same old-fashioned, stiff morality of the aristocracy and the dreams of chivalry that Cervantes lampooned in El Quijote. At their best, these playwrights rivaled their English contemporary, William Shakespeare, who died within two weeks of Cervantes in the spring of 1616.

Cervantes remade the novel when he published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605 (though some see the twelfth-century Andalusian writer Abubakr ibn Tufayl as Spain’s first great novelist, with his Robinson Crusoe-like tale of a feral desert island boy, The History of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan). The second part of Don Quixote came ten years later, shortly before he died, and the two parts are still being read and retranslated today. A genre known as picaresque, meanwhile, introduced a series of lovable rogues, cheats and liars—the Buscón of Francisco de Quevedo or the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes—to the admittedly small reading public. Successful frauds have intrigued Spaniards ever since.

Don Quixote has been borrowed to support many theories about the human condition, and to Spaniards themselves he also came to mean many things over time. The nineteenth-century philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, for example, saw him as representing the wilder, creative side of Spanishness and called for the country to renovate itself by taking back “the tomb of the Knight of Madness from the hands of the hidalgos of Reason.”

Although Quixote is fantasy, there is social realism and biting critique in its portrayals of Spanish society, as there also are in the picaresque genre. In fact, it is this realism (along with its irony and the deliberate, witty “intertextual” play with other books) that marked it as new and different. It also, however, reflected a sad truth about the “golden age” and the “glorious empire:” that its people were getting poorer, as benefits flowed abroad or were pocketed by a few, while inflation made the poor even poorer.

In that sense, Latin American gold and silver did little to prevent growing misery amongst the peasants and city poor who made up most of Spain’s population. The city of Cáceres, in Extremadura, registered 26 per cent of its population as “poor” in 1557. Four decades, and many bullion fleets, later, that had risen to 45 per cent. “The picaresque world of petty thieves, vagabonds, prostitutes and tricksters was something more than just a product of the literary imagination: it was a faithful reflection of the real problems that Spain was facing in that era of crisis,” explains historian Henry Kamen.

Among the new poor were often members of a newly arrived group, the gypsies. Cervantes’s novella La Gitanilla, The Little Gypsy Girl, which is included in his Exemplary Novels collection, gives us an early glimpse of a people who would later fascinate romantic travelers to Spain. Cervantes is sometimes sympathetic, but mostly reflects early prejudices against gypsies and establishes outrageous tropes that survive today. They worked as entertainers, he tells us, but were “born as thieves” and liked kidnapping Christian children (a trope shared with Jews). The first of these is demonstrably true, as Cervantes knew, while the prejudices probably reflect the bitterness generated in his own family as it became embroiled in a dispute over money and its own gypsy blood.

Don Quixote has been borrowed to support many theories about the human condition, and to Spaniards themselves he also came to mean many things over time.

Although their name reflects a popular belief that they were “Egyptians,” Europe’s gypsies were originally a nomadic people of Indian stock. They had reached Spain by 1425, when the first of a series of self-styled nobles (in this case, Counts Juan and Thomas of “Lower Egypt”) began asking permission to enter the country with groups of around 100 followers in order to visit holy sites. Just five decades later, at the Corpus Christi celebrations in 1479, an acrobat, dancer and horse-rider called María Cabrera arrived with a gypsy troupe to entertain guests at the palace of Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, Duke of Infantado, in Guadalajara.

If her dancing entranced the duke, her horse-riding abilities apparently left him speechless after she asked to join the very masculine game of cañas, in which two sides played at war on swift Spanish ponies and armed with bamboo canes. Their romance produced an illegitimate priest son called Manuel who, in turn, had an illicit relationship with Cervantes’s aunt and was the father of her quarter-gypsy daughter Martina. As a result, the Cervantes and Mendoza families became engaged in legal warfare over money for the child’s upkeep (which was mostly used to maintain the lifestyle of various members of the writer’s family). The heroine of La Gitanilla—La Preciosa—is really a snatched baby called Constanza Meneces, but she still proudly declares: “There is no such thing as a stupid gypsy man or a foolish gypsy woman. Since it is only by being sharp and ready that they can earn a livelihood, they polish their wits at every step.”

Juan Valdés Leal’s paintings in the Baroque chapel of the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville are a reminder that wealth and prestige are no use in the afterlife.

By Cervantes’s time Spanish authorities had passed numerous laws to either expel gypsies or force them to settle and conform, with Isabella and Ferdinand starting the process by ordering them to find “proper” jobs in 1499. Discrimination persisted across the centuries. In the worst anti-gypsy measure of all, the so-called Gran Redada, or Great Round-up, Spain’s entire gypsy population of up to 12,000 people were arrested overnight on 30 July 1749, after the pope had first passed a law preventing them seeking refuge in churches. They remained locked up or were used as forced labor for up to sixteen years.

Many more “anti-gypsy” pieces of legislation were passed (upwards of 230, according to one count), seeking to eradicate the community entirely or force them to become settled town-dwellers, as most eventually did. As the gypsy writers Silvia Agüero and Nicolás Jiménez point out, expulsion or extermination would have robbed Spain of everything from the themes of work by playwright Federico García Lorca, painter Salvador Dalí or composer Manuel de Falla, to the infinitely rich world of flamenco music and dance, its many great artists and the wonderful, Oscar-nominated 1963 flamenco film Los Tarantos. Around one in seventy Spaniards are now thought to be gypsies, or of gypsy origin, though this is never officially measured—making them an often invisible, ignored or looked-down-upon minority.

It was in visual art, however, that Spain shone brightest, with El Greco producing his bizarrely elongated portraits in Toledo (almost certainly by choice, rather than due to a supposed astigmatism), while the likes of Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán and Bartolomé Murillo painted kings, aristocrats and the new class of merchants made wealthy by American trade. Churches throughout Spain were adorned with saints, biblical scenes and expressions of religious mysticism.

It also, however, reflected a sad truth about the “golden age” and the “glorious empire:” that its people were getting poorer, as benefits flowed abroad or were pocketed by a few, while inflation made the poor even poorer.

Given the wealth that flowed through its port, it is not surprising that Seville became the center of much of this. The city’s embrace of Baroque, and the works of Murillo, are best viewed in the chapel at the Hospital de La Caridad, tucked behind the dazzling white Maestranza bullring. The hospital’s great patron, and prior, was a wealthy merchant called Miguel de Mañara—who went down in history as the model for that infamous Spanish philanderer and trickster Don Juan. Mañara’s tomb certainly suggests that this son of a flashy, nouveau riche merchant from Corsica who had made his fortune in Peru felt a need to repent for his early life: “Here lie the bones and ashes of the worst man the world has ever known,” the inscription reads.

In fact, the libertine Don Juan Tenorio was the invention of playwright Tirso de Molina, who had written his El Burlador de Sevilla (translated as either the Trickster, Playboy or Seducer of Seville) earlier in the century. That “compound of cruelty and lust,” as Jane Austen called him, espoused the common belief that you could behave as badly as you wanted during your life without ending up in Hell, as long as you squeezed in a formal act of contrition before death.

Mañara’s worst vice, in reality, was an addiction to that American import known as chocolate, but he seems to have suffered from a sort of colonial guilt. Inherited wealth and the showiness of his family sat uncomfortably on him, especially after Seville was overrun mid-century by the plague and rioting. Personal tragedy also struck with the early death of his adored wife Jerónima. Mañara turned to his sevillano friend Murillo for a dozen of the biblical scenes of mercy and charity crammed onto the chapel’s walls which provide a narrative of goodness to contrast with his family’s less reputable past.

The dark, cruel paintings here by another Seville artist, Juan Valdés Leal, with their putrefying corpses of finely dressed bishops, also accuse a city drowning in wealth from the Indies of being obsessed with transient mundane brilliance and forgetting the inevitability of death or judgement. The busy paintings and elaborate, golden altarpieces of saints, virgins and tubby, winged cherubs in the chapel are a reminder that Baroque art sought to overpower the senses and provoke awe at the divinity of God. “One pants for breath,” wrote W. Somerset Maughan after a visit to the “hothouse” chapel.

The Spain of this period, indeed, became quintessentially and exaggeratedly Baroque as the Jesuits pushed church-builders to embrace the style in, for example, the cathedral at Granada or the cathedral towers in Santiago de Compostela. Several generations of the “ultra-Baroque” Churriguera family, meanwhile, filled Madrid and Salamanca with wedding cake altars and elaborately carved church façades. Once more, however, Spain did not provide the impulse, but brilliantly synthesized the Baroque forms that were blown in from both southern and northern Europe.

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Excerpted from España: A Brief History of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Copyright © 2022. Available from Bloomsbury Publishing. 

Giles Tremlett
Giles Tremlett
Giles Tremlett is the Guardian's Madrid correspondent. He has lived in, and written about, Spain for the past twenty years.





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