Robert Goodwin has written a history of imperial Spain that has an almost novelistic quality in its presentation. The book is divided into two parts. Part one, titled simply Gold, covers the era of expansion when Spaniards built one of the world’s largest overseas empires. Part two, titled Glitter, covers the era of decline when the Spanish empire, overstretched and bureaucratically encumbered, had to contend with a series of costly wars and an extraordinary currency inflation. It was in this glitter age, however, that the greatest of Spain’s artistic achievements were accomplishment.
I am noticing a trend with many of the historical non-fiction books that I read these days. They all begin with a prologue or introductory chapter that details a particularly dramatic scene from history. In Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682 the prologue describes the first treasure ships arriving at Seville from the new world. The ships carry large golden disks once the property of the Aztec emperor but now held in the hands of sweat and grime covered conquistadors whose heads are filled with dreams of land and titles, normally the preserve of nobility but up for grabs at the right price. These harquebus carrying warriors wait anxiously to present their emperor Charles V with this incredible gift. It is one of those moments in history when it seems the universe holds its breath. Charles V, whose eyes must have matched the circumference of those disks once he saw them, would have understood immediately the significance of this prize. The disks meant empire. The colonies could now be properly settled and managed, the wars abroad were now winnable, the issues domestically could now be resolved and all of it paid for by American gold and silver.
The rise of Spain was rapid. It began with the joining in marriage of the crowns of Castile and Aragon. This union was consolidated by the very capable Charles V who did much to expand and consolidate the early empire. His son Philip II brought the empire to its height before witnessing the beginnings of its slow but inevitable decline. Spain had produced some fantastic art during its rise but in its decline art reached a level of beauty and influence that has remained an impressive legacy. Names such as Cervantes, Velazquez and El Greco belong among the most illustrious in human artistic endeavour.
What I like about the book is that the author takes imaginative liberties with his historical materials. He provides the reader with a possible (all be it hypothetical) dialogue between notable historical figures. For example, there is a brief discussion about art between the Emperor Charles V and the painter Titian (who though born in Italy spent much of his productive life as Spanish royal court painter), and a spiritual tete-a-tete between St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. There is also an extended discussion of Cervantes’ famous work, Don Quixote. History with some literary criticism thrown in—wonderful.
Goodwin has done justice to the dramatic story of the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. If you like reading about the histories of countries and/or kingdoms, and if you like your history to be entertaining, then this book will satisfy.