El Siglo de Oro – the Spanish Golden Age

Sánchez Coello: King Philip II of Spain, half-length portrait in Spanish court dress with the Order of the Golden Fleece

King Philip II was the embodiment of Spanish dominance in the late sixteenth century: Felipe segundo sin segundo (there is no second to Philip the Second) was a familiar dictum in Spain’s Golden Age.

Sánchez Coello: King Philip II of Spain, half-length portrait in Spanish court dress with the Order of the Golden Fleece

The Spanish line of the Habsburgs – or ‘Casa de Austria’, as the dynasty was known to contemporaries – was by far the most important power on the Continent. Spanish lifestyle was the obligatory model for courtly culture in Early Modern Europe of the late sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century, even for political opponents. The Spanish style stood for formal severity, an icy reserve and control of the emotions.

This manifested itself above all in Spanish dress, which for men consisted of a ruff, a short cloak and baggy breeches, and for women of stiff, high-necked dresses. The severe Spanish costume did not follow the shape of the human body but enclosed it like armour.

The age of Spanish dominance left enduring cultural values on the Iberian peninsula itself. In painting artists such as Velázquez, Murillo and El Greco created masterpieces that are among the highlights of European culture. Castilian was now the dominant language of administration and communication in Spain and the territories ruled over by Philip. It also became the language of courtly literature, established by the dramas and poetry of Lope de Vega and Calderón as well as the popular chivalric romances. Today it is in particular Cervantes’s satire on aristocratic Spanish pride as embodied by the figure of Don Quixote that belongs to the ranks of world literature.

The background to Spain’s enormous influence in the second half of the sixteenth century was its exploitation of the colonies. The constant stream of gold and silver from South America became the source of seemingly inexhaustible wealth, but was to prove a two-edged sword, in that it had an ultimately negative effect of the Spanish economy in the form of galloping inflation.

Despite the beginnings of internal collapse the façade of power was maintained for a considerable period of time. It was not until the second half of the seventeenth century that French courtly culture was to take over the leading role.

Martin Mutschlechner