Monday, March 20, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.     


Once upon a time, kings and emperors could command architects to design great buildings to their specifications, in a way that only dictators can do now. Of course what the resulting buildings looked like would depend as much on the architects and builders as on the king’s or emperor’s wishes. Even so, there are many great palaces and castles across Europe that give some indication of the mind of a ruler with near absolute power.

We visited three of them during a recent trip to Europe.

Taking a daytrip out from Paris, we visited Versailles, which I last saw as an eleven-year-old in Europe with my parents and some of my siblings. Versailles is so clearly and so unambiguously a hymn to the worldly magnificence, wealth and power of King Louis XIV, designed to overwhelm visitors by its scale, by the extent of its grounds, by its statuary, design and decorations.

Walking down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, we visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse, still occasionally the residence of the present queen. It was rebuilt to its present state in the 17th century after the union of England and Scotland. It is like a pocket edition of Versailles – much smaller and more modest in scale, reminding Scots that they are subordinate to the country down south, and with the smashed ruins of Holyrood Abbey on its grounds further reminding Scots that their religion would now be dictated by the monarch.

But more than any other, the palace that incarnated the idea of a monarch was the monastery and royal palace of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, built for Philip II of Spain between the 1560s and 1580s. It’s about 28 miles north-west of Madrid – so about an hour’s train journey across the Castilian Plain from Madrid. Frankly tourists, and not claiming to be experts on Spain, we visited it as a daytrip when we were spending six nights in Madrid. Apparently the great majority of its visitors are day-trippers – about half a million of them each year.

It was one thing to bustle across the plain in mid-January, which should be the depths of winter, and to have a blue sky above us, and the great plain looking parched and yellow as if in mid-summer heat.  It was quite another to arrive at the small town of Escorial and find a bitterly cold wind blowing, despite the sunshine. It was mid-winter after all.

After a short taxi hop from the railway station, we were at the palace and monastery.

And here is the first thing that advises you of the mind of the king.

The outer walls of both palace and monastery are plain, bare, uniform and largely unadorned. They speak of a sort of magisterial austerity, even if they took the equivalent of millions of dollars to raise. You are not being told here of magnificence and worldly wealth, as at Versailles. You are being told of a formidable and fixed purpose.

Going through the main gate to the palace, you pass under a lintel with huge statues of the Old Testament Kings of Israel – David, Solomon and others. The religious purpose of the king is declared.

The Escorial is one of those places that does not allow tourists to take photos, though you may ache to do so. For some, the centrepiece would be the huge basilica within the palace, with its towering, elaborate and colourful altarpiece, incorporating at least seventeen paintings; and with huge canvases by El Greco and others around the walls, special chapels to saints abounding, and the general over-elaboration of late Renaissance art on the way to becoming baroque. In a way it is magnificent, at least declaring the centrality of religion to the king. In other ways, it is daunting and forbidding. This is the heart of Spain declaring it is ultra-Catholic in the face of the Protestant Reformation.

Royalty lies below religion in this schema – at any rate, all but two of Spain’s monarchs since the sixteenth century are buried in the vaults below the basilica. And down in this crypt, too, I delighted to discover the tomb of Philip II’s bastard half-brother Don John of Austria, which set me off remembering, from school, parts of G. K. Chesterton’s poem Lepanto, about Don John’s great sea victory.

But more than anything, what impressed me about the Escorial was Philip II’s great library. It contains thousands of folios and quartos from all quarters of the literate world – volumes in Spanish, Latin, Greek, Arabic and other languages. Many of them might have been banned by the Inquisition, but the king had special dispensation to possess them – and apparently he was an eager reader. The vaulted ceiling of the library contains Biblical scenes to rival the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Lined up along the floor of the library are the best astronomical and geographical aids that the sixteenth century possessed – great terrestrial and stellar globes; compasses; telescopes; what were then the wonders of modern science.

There are map rooms, which boast of Spain’s huge American empire, the largest empire the world had yet seen. But as for the king’s private apartments – they are modest and small.

Now how do I put all this together to read the mind of the king? He was a humanist scholar and a man schooled by the Renaissance. His library tells me that. He was firmly Catholic. He knew that there was a power set over his kingly authority. The great basilica tells me that.  He ruled a huge empire. The map rooms tell me that. Yet he was not personally vain. Indeed, he was something of an ascetic. His modest personal apartments tell me that. And those daunting external walls tell me that he knew much depended on sheer power.

English historical mythology casts Philip II as a villain and tyrant whose great Armada of 1588 was duly defeated. (Of course the Escorial has a triumphant painting of Spaniards defeating the English Counter-Armada of 1589.) But this really is a caricature. The king was a cultured and capable ruler in an age when all monarchs (including English ones) tyrannised subject peoples and asserted royal power.

What I do get from the Escorial, however, is something infinitely sad. The king’s great residence is a considerable distance from his capital city Madrid. When he is here, he is cut off from his people. Standing in the shadow of mountains, the palace is isolated. The wind whips across the plain. But, behind solid walls, the king finds absolute certainty. An ascetic, subjecting himself to the church’s authority, he knows he is not master of the universe. He has read enough to understand better than most people of his time the laws of nature and how the universe works. But he also knows that in Spain and in his empire, his word is law.

This is his burden and his curse. To be ascetic, well-educated, determined and the possessor of absolute kingly power.

How much could go wrong.

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