Early Modern Spain for Travelers on a Budget, part 1

For those who’ve never been, or who need a refresher, or for those who want to check up on Spanish history before 1808, I offer you a pictorial tour of the early modern highlights of Spain, May 2018. Two weeks of art, churches, and war – can it get any better than that? There will be nothing surprising to seasoned travelers or experts on Spain, but I haven’t posted in a while. So read on for lots of big photos and historical allusions aplenty. Maybe you’ll even learn something.

We’ll start in the (relatively new) capital city of Madrid. No surprise that it has lots of cultural stopping points, since conquerors tended to accumulate wealth (and ‘culture’ comes from wealth) where they could use it.

Some War in your Art

If you do early modern European history, you’ve probably already seen half of the paintings in the Prado in history texts. We paid to have a Ph.D. student (Art/Music history) take us on a personal tour. The historical highlights:

  • More Velázquez equestrian portraits than you can shake a stick at, including another example of kids playing soldier, this tyke showing off the marshal’s baton his daddy bought for him:
  • A darker, Titian, portrait of Charles V at Mühlburg, lance (a big stick) in hand
  • One or two or twelve Spanish Habsburg portraits (Charles V, Philip II, III and IV, Olivares…)
  • Goya’s famous Dos y Tres de Mayo – The “Hands up, don’t shoot” of the early 19th century.
  • Goya’s creepy ‘Saturn Devouring his Son.’
  • That Colossus in the mist often attributed to Goya, but apparently not anymore.
  • El Greco (just ’cause).
  • And who can forget Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights‘? Here’s a detail of the final piece of the triptych, with a knight having a very bad day. My guess would be Rodents Of Unusual Size.
  • And then we find two French monarchs, the well-known Louis XIV before Namur in 1692 (with that stick of authority):
    Rigaud Louis XIV before Namur 1692.png
  • And an equally well-known portrait of Louis XVI in his coronation robes.

So definitely worth a day’s visit.

Some Art in Your War

Next, the Palacio Real, or royal (Bourbon) palace. I’m not much of a roccoco guy, so Carlos (Charles to the parochial) III’s chinoiserie and pastel cherubs didn’t do much for me. But the EMEMHian can’t miss the Royal Armory (a bit tucked away) in the west wing of the palace. Plenty of armor and more barding than a horse deserves. Though dimly lit, the two floors of the museum had the expected arquebuses, muskets, locked pistols both wheel and flint, and, of course, the whole pole arm family (glaive, halberd, pike, partisan…) – those long pointed sticks always seem to be ready for a family photo.

A special treat was not one, not two, not three, but four different rampart muskets, on mini-carriages, each one about 10 feet long (that’s 3 meters to the rest of the world). Hadn’t seen those before. And did I mention half-a-dozen suits of armor for little kids? The bookstore was also decent, allowing me to pick up a few items that were “new to me.” Now I just need to learn to read Spanish. Or maybe Google Translate (the historian’s dirty little secret, I’m starting to think).

Some War Art for Your Contemplation

Recover from your evening tapas tour, and then, if you can figure out where to pick up the bus (hint: not at the holiday and weekends-only bus stop), you can spend an hour watching the Castilian scrubby countryside go by, until you arrive at San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Philip II’s monastic home-away-from-home.


In this more pensive atmosphere (note the pensive monk in the foreground), you’ll find a chapel or two. Very modestly decorated, I assure you.


Certainly nothing to take your attention away from the ceremony and contemplation of the Mysteries.

The good stuff, though, is both upstairs and down. Descend down into the depths, and you’ll discover the final resting place of most of the Habsburg and Borbón royalty from Spain’s past. 20180523_133625.jpg

Here you’ll see the caskets of people you’ve read about in dusty old history books: Charles V (known to his friends as Carlos I/Karl V), Felipes one, two, three and four, Carlos II and Carlos III, seemingly the most popular of the Borbóns – he did decorate up the Palacio Real, after all. But no Philippe Felipe V, first of the Borbón line – he’s off in Segovia somewhere. Unfortunately, it was too dark to take photos (sensing a pattern here?), so you’ll just have to trust me. Or you can just borrow somebody who used a flash:


If you’re not necrophilic (or even just necro-curious), you could instead travel up a few flights of steps and end up in the big rooms full of war. And that, as we know, is why you come here. First up, there’s a long room full of 16th and 17th century war paintings. Wikipedia says the Spanish fought a few wars back then, and I tend to believe what I read on Wikipedia. Many of the pieces of art are by this ‘anon flamenco’ guy, who was apparently quite prolific, because there are more paintings of early modern sieges and battles than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, the lighting isn’t great, and that stick you’re shaking would have to be a 10′ pole, since the paintings are all 10′ or so off the ground, so it’s hard to get a good look at their details. (Damn, I just realized that that’s what selfie sticks are really for…)  And did I mention the lighting not being conducive to good photos? Did I also mention that you should *not* assume that there will be a book with reproductions of the paintings in the bookshop? .

But if you need another illustration of art from the period, you can go up another flight of stairs to El Escorial’s more famous “Hall of Battles.” This one is a cozier, yet still long, room, but this time you can get up close and personal with the art. And boy is there art. Walls full of it, to be exact. So if you wanted to see c. 1600 illustrations of Spain’s 15C-16C wars, this is a good stop. The murals cover almost the entirety of both walls all along the room’s run, windows excepted. On the left wall they have some scenes from the 15th century, as is suggested by the units of crossbowmen. On the right are some from the 16th century. Here’s just a flavor, a bloody detail of one of Spain’s 16th century battles (let’s see if the real nerds can identify the tercios by their standards):

Escorial Hall of Battles detail.jpg

But don’t take my word for it. Go check it out for yourself, courtesy of a virtual panorama. I’ll wait till you get back.

War in Your Churches

Back yet? Good.

After you’ve digested your jamón ibérico and your crushed tomatoes on bread, you can take a day trip to Tolédo, the old Visigothic capital of Iberia. Its strategic location, commanding the top of a steep hill overlooking the Tagus (Tajo) river, made it the center of attention throughout the medieval period, whether Christian or Muslim. Thanks to its access to a rather special metal alloy, the city was a center for sword and blade manufacturing for a few thousand years – apparently Hannibal and the Romans approved of their quality. Which might be why practically every street had a shop selling knives and blades of all kinds. And why there was a Renaissance Faire vibe throughout. This newfound knowledge also provides a more gentlemanly explanation for a quote from an c1700 English newspaper which I just came across, which mentioned that his debating opponent would be unable to “parry my Toledo.”

But if you visit Tolédo for the steel blades, you should stay for the culture. The train station is a good jaunt from the town, and we used the excuse of the rain to take one of those gaudy tour buses up. Which turned out to be a good idea, because the route followed along the perimeter of the town, allowing us a nice view of the town. And it also included tickets to see the city’s cathedral.

Tolédo’s cathedral (Saint Mary) was, this jaded veteran traveler must admit, pretty impressive. You could walk on the graves of various cardinals, indicated not only by the markers on the floor, but by the red cardinals’ hats hanging from the ceiling above. There were more side chapels than I’ve seen in quite some time. We could hardly look through all of them, mostly because most of them are gated closed. But one of the larger open ones was dedicated to El Greco, or at least it had El Greco portraits of all the apostles. Overall, the architecture was a conglomeration of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, so it had something for everyone. You can find some crazy photos on its Wikipedia page – I particularly enjoyed the retable and the skylight.

It had an altar or two, the kinds of things you expect in any local church. Less expected were the reliefs celebrating the Spanish conquest of the kingdom of Granada at the end of the 15th century, mounted into some pews. Once again, the lighting was subpar, but here’s a sample:


And, because Jesus was known to love expensive shiny trinkets, the cathedral also has a ten-foot tall jewel-encrusted-gold-and-silver monstrance to hold his body and blood – 18 kg of gold and 183 kg of silver, they say. It supposedly includes some of the first gold Columbus liberated (to use a euphemism) from the New World. If it helps your bruised conscience, you can consider it war booty. And there’s even an epilogue. As fate would have it, while waiting to catch the train from Sigüenza back to Madrid, I happened to catch the Corpus Christi ceremony broadcast live from, wait for it, the Tolédo cathedral! So I can now brag that I saw Tolédo’s monstrance taken out for a spin. I’m sure it was all worth it.

Art in Your War Museum


And if you look to your left, you’ll see a square building with four towers, which is the (largely-reconstructed) Alcázar, originally a Roman palace. Now it’s a library and, for our purposes, it also holds the Museo del Ejército, Spain’s Museum of the Army. The museum had the standard displays: lots of armor, cannon, swords, and firearms.

suits armor.jpg

Armor – note the distinctive, illuminated display case. Let there be light!



Early Cannon


With a program, so you can tell the bombards apart


And why not give the armorers the opportunity to exercise their artistic whimsy?


The rest of the museum, I’ll be honest, didn’t do much for me. They had a whole exhibit of little painted tin men, which I know float a few people’s boats. Other than the military parade case, which I think has the Palacio Real in the background,


I was most interested in the small display of Cortés meeting Montezuma:


I didn’t find the historical section particularly interesting, though admittedly we had to stop before Napoleon, because we’d spent so much time at the cathedral. But the French and Spanish stayed friends, right?

I can say that the two small rooms on the War of the Spanish Succession were actually rather disappointing. Other than a small video and a room with a light show (displaying the battle of Almansa on a blank table), there was very little about “my” war, even though it was “their” war too. They named it after themselves, so you’d think they’d give it a little more love. But as it was, the coverage briefly mentioned the big battles like Almansa and Almenar/Zaragoza/Brihuega, but they hardly included any sieges! And, if you’ve read my blog for a few years, you know there were a few Iberian sieges during the Spanish Succession.


Even the maps were a bit disappointing, though this was a useful map of the centers of munition production:20180524_162535.jpg

Which prompted me to check out a few Spanish historical atlases of Spain.

And thus ended our first week of early modern Castile. War, art, and religion – the holy trinity.

Next up: part 2 – From Conquerors to Conquered.




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One response to “Early Modern Spain for Travelers on a Budget, part 1”

  1. Jamel Ostwald says :

    I just saw that one of those El Escorial paintings in the first Hall of Battles, of the siege of Paris in 1590, has a two-page spread in Tom Arnold’s Renaissance at War, pp. 20-21.

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