Spain: The Centre of the World

Spain: The Centre of the World, 1519-1682
Robert Goodwin
Bloomsbury Press  608pp  £30

Written in swashbuckling style by honorary Sevillian Robert Goodwin, Spain: the Centre of the World 1519-1682 is the story of the rise and fall of Spain’s Habsburg rulers from the early glories of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to its agonising decline under Philips III and IV. 

Part I, Gold, marches us assuredly through historical events, lingering only for those telling anecdotes which give a sense of the very real human beings who led the Old World and the New at this crucial juncture in history. All the hubris, heroism, self-sacrifice and venality we perceive in our modern politicians and royals are to be found in abundance here, as Goodwin combs the archives for the gossip and glamour which inevitably attached to those monstres sacrés, Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V and Philip II, or their rivals, Henry VIII and Francis I. We get to know their obsessions and foibles through spouses, attendants, artists, poets, commanders, and a legion of hangers-on. 

The author’s engaging, opinionated approach, combined with his passion for the rambunctious exploits of the poet Garcilaso and that supreme chronicler of the Indies, Fernández de Oviedo, manages to embrace discussion of the labyrinthine Castilian legal system, or the niceties of European banking – topics not normally guaranteed to enthrall, but thoroughly absorbing here - thanks to his brisk incorporation of punchy quotations into the text, unobtrusively relegating the apparatus of academic reference to extensive, specialist endnotes.

In similar style, Part II, Glitter, charts the 17th-century desengaño (disillusionment) of the Baroque via the endemic favouritism and corruption of the courts of Philips III and IV (madness, profligacy, homosexual intrigue, murder!) and the outpourings of that dazzling array of writers, poets, artists and sculptors (Cervantes, Calderón, Lope de Vega, Velázquez, Zurbarán, et al) who constitute Spain’s miraculous Golden Age of arts and letters, giving us a host of treasures: Las Meninas, or that great European archetype, Don Juan and the incomparable Don Quixote, whom Goodwin tackles head on.

‘All human life is there’, as the saying goes: surely no reader can remain indifferent to the folly of the Prince of Wales (later Charles I) and his reckless pursuit of the Spanish Infanta as he arrives unannounced at the Court of Philip IV, or to the pain of Charles V, bitten on his arthritic knuckle by a mosquito so that ‘unable to endure it, he gently scratched himself until both his hand and forearm became inflamed’, or fail to be intrigued by comments that his mother, Juana the Mad, ‘urinates more often than ever seen in any other person’ and ‘eats on the floor’. Indeed, the corporeal nature of much of what Goodwin has to say takes the book into the realm of the medieval Carnival: the two facing pages, where he describes the eucharistic mystique surrounding a monarch’s consumption of bread and wine, followed by an analysis of the transcendent nature of the role of the Camarero Mayor (Groom of the Stool), is brilliant and hilarious.

In this impassioned, ribald and thrilling book, Goodwin’s ambition is not merely to document the decline of the largest empire the world had ever seen, but to peer into its soul as its glory slides from underneath it, its rulers clinging somehow to their illusions as its artists and commentators lambast this folly. 

David McGrath is Visiting Scholar at King’s College London, specialising in Golden Age Spanish Literature.

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