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The Spanish Golden Age

The Spanish Golden Age (1492-1659) saw the rise of famed figures such as Columbus, Velázquez, and Cervantes.
The Spanish Golden Age lasted from 1492 to around 1659. It began with the end of the Reconquista, Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas, and the publication of Gramática de la lengua castellana (Grammar of the Castilian Language) by Antonio de Nebrija, the first person to study Spanish and set the grammar rules — in fact, Nebrija’s work was the first grammar study of any Romance language. 1659 marked the end of the Golden Age in terms of politics, although in terms of art it continued until 1681, ending with the death of the author and playwright Calderón de Barca.

During this period, Spain took the world by storm, both as a political superpower — especially in the 16th century under Charles I of Spain (also known as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) and Phillip II — and as a great contributor to the humanities. Household names like Cervantes and Velázquez are just two of the many cultural giants who raised Spain’s international status. The discovery of the New World and the colonization of huge parts of Latin America, along with masterful works of Spanish art, music, and literature, left long-lasting marks on history that continue to influence our world today.

In terms of painting, the Spanish Golden Age is divided into two phases, the late Renaissance and the Baroque. One of the most important painters from the former was the Greek artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco (The Greek) in his adopted country of Spain. Trained in Byzantium, Venice, and Rome, he was well versed in the works of Titian and Tintoretto and especially influenced by Michelangelo. El Greco’s style evolved toward a very particular interpretation of Mannerism during his Toledo period. He lived in the Spanish city from 1577 to his death in 1614, and today it still preserves a large part of his revolutionary work, with representative paintings including El expolio (The Disrobing of Christ) and El Entierro del Conde Orgaz (The Burial of the Count of Orgaz). El Greco’s painting style is characterized by elongated figures, unnatural lighting, and saturated colors.

Without a doubt, the most famous painter from the Golden Age is Diego Velázquez. Born on June 6, 1599 in Seville, he is one of Spain’s most important and influential painters. Velazquez gained the attention of monarchs and statesmen across Europe for painting portraits with a realist approach and an added element of emotion. He is best known for Las Meninas, a painting in which Velázquez himself appears. Today it is one of the most admired pieces at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

During the 16th century, most (if not all) music was written for the church in the form of hymns, gospels, and other secular pieces. The works of Tomas Luis de VictoriaFrancisco Guerrero, and Alonso Lobo broke the traditional mold of music composition in Spain. Their work captured emotions like ecstasy, longing, joy, and despair. By breaking free of the traditional pieces written for the Catholic Church, these men contributed a great deal to the transition into the Spanish Baroque.

Of all the artistic disciplines of Spain’s Golden Age, literature was likely the star that shined the brightest in terms of the number of luminaries. Garcilaso de la Vega and San Juan de la Cruz (also known as St. John of the Cross), two of the most influential figures in Spanish poetry, left a deep mark on 16th-century literature. The former spread the usage of Italian stanzas and 11-syllable verses in Spanish with some of the most celebrated sonnets in the history of Spanish literature. The latter embodies the peak of mystic poetry in Spanish, and his influence has flowed far beyond the country’s borders.

The 16th century also saw the publication of two works of prose that would help shape the literature that followed: Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea (The Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea), published around 1499 and better known today as La Celestina, and La vida del Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades (The Life of Lazarillo of Tormes: His Fortunes and Misfortunes), published in 1554. Fernando de Rojas is believed to have written La Celestina, although there are some competing theories. The novel is structured as a series of dialogues with a strong streak of social criticism. The work marks the end of a medieval society (and its literature), giving way to the Renaissance. It was a great success throughout the 16th century despite moralizing critiques and censorship by the Inquisition. Lazarillo de Tormes was a realistic work written anonymously (today it’s attributed to the diplomat and scholar Diego Hurtado de Mendoza) that launched the picaresque genre, characterized by fierce criticism of morals and customs.

The 17th century rang in two opposing poetic movements: Luis de Góngora’s culteranismo and Francisco de Quevedo’s conceptismo. Both poets penned incredibly complex verses while cultivating an extreme mutual dislike that was often expressed within the poems themselves. Lope de Vega, Quevedo’s close friend, recovered popular meters and mixed them with educated meters in his plays. This author, immensely popular with the public and nicknamed Monstruo de la naturaleza (Monster of Nature) by Cervantes for his prolificacy — he may have written as many as 1,800 comedies, according to some studies — introduced a series of innovations in playwriting summed up in his 1609 treatise Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (The New Art of Writing Plays in this Age).

The most important figure to emerge from the 17th century was, without a doubt, Miguel de Cervantes. Widely hailed as the author of the first modern novel, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha), published in 1605, Cervantes always longed to excel as a poet and playwright. Instead, he gained immortal fame for his prose. In his most famous work, Cervantes embarks on a social critique and exploration of human nature in his satire of books on chivalry, where he demonstrates his mastery of dialogue in the conversations between don Quixote and Sancho Panza.