A Harsh Beauty

Revising the Escorial, plus the wonders of Wonder Bread
Ruggero Vanni/Corbis

El Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, known simply as the Escorial—royal palace, monastery, basilica, seminary, library, art gallery, tomb—stands north of Madrid on a bleak plain of boulder and pine, 3,000 feet up, at the base of the icy Sierra Guadarrama. David Watkin, in his authoritative A History of Western Architecture, declares this colossal, severe, rectilinear edifice “surely one of the wonders of the modern world.” Built for Philip II between 1563 and 1582 of blue-gray granite quarried from the surrounding mountains, it measures 675 feet (nearly two football fields) by 530 feet (one and a half football fields), and contains 100 miles of corridors, 4,000 rooms, 16 courtyards. Its 2,673 windows pierce the cold grandeur of its unadorned walls. It holds 45,000 books, 5,000 manuscripts (many in Arabic), 1,600 paintings (Philip was among Titian’s most avid patrons), and 540 frescoes.

But even as the Escorial was a storehouse of learning and art, it was also a house of the dead—Philip established it as the mausoleum for Spanish royalty, and the remains of most of Spain’s kings and queens are interred in its walls. It was also a repository for what many today would regard as superstitious and bizarre—even lurid—objects: more than 7,000 relics, including at least 10 whole bodies, 144 heads, 306 arms and legs, thousands of bones and other body parts, and what have been said to be the hairs of Christ and the Virgin and fragments of the True Cross and the crown of thorns.

The Escorial’s unforgiving, otherworldly austerity has led countless writers (largely Protestants) to assert that it embodies the morbid Catholicism that was said to define the supposedly ascetic, coldly fanatical Philip, who boasted that he ruled a globe-girdling empire “from the foot of a mountain, with two inches of paper”—that is, from the writing table in his cell-like room in the Escorial. The forbiddingly beautiful palace-monastery of Philip—pillar of the Counter-Reformation, implacable enemy of Good Queen Bess and of doughty England, husband of Bloody Mary, villain of Verdi’s Don Carlo—has thus been described by the great English critic and Hispanophile V. S. Pritchett as an Iberian Lubyanka, “the oppressive monument to the first totalitarian state of Europe.” That 68 Augustinian monks from the Escorial were murdered by Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War—a fact that for Franco, the defender of Catholicism, conferred enormous symbolic value on the palace—at once confirms and undermines this caricature.

Henry Kamen will have none of it. One of the most important living historians of Spain, Kamen has devoted his career, most famously in his revisionist books on Philip II and on the Spanish Inquisition, to taking on the so-called Black Legend, promoted by Spain’s Protestant opponents, which held that Spain’s Catholicism, polity, and society were peculiarly cruel, illiberal, intolerant, and fanatical (think of those menacing Spaniards in The Sea Hawk and Fire Over England, and the ruthless Conquistadors). Given the Black Legend’s persistence—and the fact that, especially in the modern academy, it’s difficult to gain much of a hearing for what you could call a nuanced view of, say, the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews—Kamen has had his work cut out for him. That he has in many ways succeeded, thanks to decades of engaged scholarship, in fundamentally altering historians’ understanding of 15th- and 16th-century Spain is testimony to the force of his arguments and the depth and quality of his rigorous, archive-based research.

Still, here and elsewhere, he has extended a contrarian approach further than can be sustained. Kamen examines the Escorial for what it reveals about the role and motivations of the monarch who commissioned it; as such, this book is, as he acknowledges, “in some sense a continuation” of his groundbreaking 1997 biography, Philip of Spain.

To be sure, much of what he brilliantly elucidates here does humanize Philip. Kamen demonstrates, for instance, that Philip’s youthful eight-year sojourn in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy molded his intense interest in art, architecture, and garden design—a history that belies the stereotype of the king as a provincial, inward-looking, monkish figure. But, of course, the extent to which an early exposure to culture bestows a genuinely cosmopolitan viewpoint is debatable—and more so is the proposition that an appreciation and knowledge of the arts is incompatible with, say, a pitiless and retrograde religious or ideological zealotry (one hesitates to drag in the profound devotion to music that many leading Nazis shared, or Lenin’s love of Turgenev, but there you have it). Generally, Kamen overstates and under-argues his case. Moreover, he fails to illuminate with precision—or even to probe—the degree to which the man who commissioned the building determined its form and strange beauty, rather than the architects, Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, who actually designed and built it. In this way, Kamen’s characterization throughout the book of Philip as the Escorial’s “creator” is wrongheaded, or at the very least unearned.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic's national and literary editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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