A Harsh Beauty

Revising the Escorial, plus the wonders of Wonder Bread
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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.

But Kamen is completely right to approvingly quote—twice!—Miguel de Unamuno’s observation:

Nearly all who visit the Escorial go with blinkers, and political and religious prejudices, in one sense or another; they go less as pilgrims of art, than as progressives or traditionalists, Catholics or Freethinkers. They go in search of the shadow of Philip II, a man little known and even less understood, and if they do not find it they invent it.

By enlisting the Escorial in his longstanding project to rehabilitate Philip, and by simplistically focusing on “the role of its creator,” Kamen continues the long tradition of reducing the Escorial to a means of special pleading, and so does it a disservice. Surely this immense, wondrous, reactionary building, almost modernist in its severity—and in that respect oddly similar to the aesthetic of the late creations of the great, archtraditionalist, monastic Spanish couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga—is a product of its historical circumstance. But like all great works of art, it ultimately transcends the conditions of its creation. Kamen rightly excoriates those whose speculations on the Escorial’s context are untethered to historical knowledge. But ultimately, artistic wonders of the world are too important to be left to the historians.

In this fascinating history of perhaps the most maligned and emblematic American food—industrially made white bread—Bobrow-Strain subtly upends common prejudices while illuminating fundamental shifts in the nation’s economy, gender relations, aesthetic preferences, diet, and cultural politics. In the early 20th century, Americans got more of their calories from bread than from any other single food. This meant that they had to depend either on keeping women close to home—where wives and mothers were “tethered by the slow schedule of rising dough” and enervated by the tedious and exhausting work required to produce the daily staple—or on buying bread from the thousands of unregulated “cellar bakeries” that typically produced adulterated loaves in filthy conditions. The solution, developed early in the century (a period “when food-borne illnesses were the leading causes of death”), was inexpensive bread mass-produced in sanitary, factory-like conditions, wrapped in packaging to prevent exposure to germs. Consumers preferred the very whitest bread—achieved by chemically bleaching the flour—because they could see that no dirt, sawdust, or any of the other usual impurities had been added. And they now wanted their loaves to be extremely soft—not because they liked the taste of the gummy bread (they didn’t) but because they considered squeezing to be the best way to determine if store-bought, factory-made loaves were fresh. This squishy bread proved all but impossible to cut into sandwich- and toaster-ready slices—a problem that led, in 1928, to maybe the greatest revolution in American food processing: presliced loaves. Owing to the then-popular streamlined aesthetic, these were elongated and made flat on top (better for stacking).

The result was a product that, although called bread, looked, felt, and tasted like nothing from a home oven or traditional bakery. To an underfed population, however, it was a cheap and safe source of calories and—thanks to vitamin enrichment, a radical innovation of the war years—essential nutrients. Health advocates decried the stuff until scientific studies convinced the Consumers Union and similar groups that loaves like Wonder Bread and its ilk were in fact extremely nutritious (albeit high in sodium). Industrial bread was still vilified, but as Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a politics professor at Whitman College, perceptively contends, the arguments against it were now exclusively “aesthetic and epicurean”—and hence grounded largely in cultural politics and class-based scorn. Urban sophisticates use white bread as a disdainful term connoting bland, conformist, suburban Middle America; the stuff itself has become “an icon of poor choices and narrow lives.” As the swanky, ever with-it Diana Vreeland pronounced, “People who eat white bread have no dreams.” Bobrow-Strain, a progressive foodie, is astute enough to note that they did have dreams—but modest, democratic dreams of safe, reliable, nourishing, if hardly delicious, food made universally available—dreams whose very modesty has made them an object of derision among the “individual-centered, consumer-driven” hipster types who now largely define the nation’s cultural values.

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic's national and literary editor.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. 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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