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.