Porque somos viejos y petridos, ( Because we are old and moldy), dinner was rather early 9pm at a cafe in Lavapies, along the busy Calle Argumosa, and then to bed, (at least for us, what young Nicky did after he disappeared on foot into the night is known only to him), with plans to meet the next day at Moncloa Station to catch the bus 28 miles northwest of Madrid, to one of the greatest monuments to the Spanish Crown and Catholic Church, El Escorial.
We managed to find our way to the station via metro with minimum fuss, and onto the bus. We were starving by the time the bus disgorged us at a small station about a 5 minute walk away from our final destination, so delayed the final leg to consume some more delicious ham and cheese sandwiches. Newly fortified, we were ready.
After the frivolity of Madrid’s Royal Palace, El Escorial can only be described as austere. Every detail of the complex as we approached screamed solemnity. El Escorial is huge, a palace, monastery and college all in one. The main complex stands across a wide parade ground from another row of 4 story buildings in the same style. From the windows of these long stone buildings we could hear laughing children and the musical stylings of a rather young and enthusiastic orchestra.
We found the side door that served as the tourist entrance, paid for our tickets, stored our bags, and we were ready to explore. This left us a little discombobulated, as we had grown used to crowds and standing in line. There wasn’t a single sign anywhere in English that stated “Tour Starts Here.” Unlike the Royal Palace, tourists are free to roam through much of the complex. With the basilica of San Lorenzo el Real placed center stage, the palaces of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons flank either side, connected to the school and monastery with passageways run in a gridiron pattern.
The popular theory is that the the gridiron pattern was inspired by the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, who was roasted to death on a grill in the third century. His feast day, August 10th, was the same date as Phillip II’s victory at the Battle of St. Quentin against Henry II of France. El Escorial was built by Phillip’s order to commemorate the event. However, there is evidence that in fact the general floor plan was actually based on descriptions of the Temple of Solomon by Jedeo-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, who upon further investigation is a rather fascinating fellow who is worth reading up on.
We wandered a bit randomly around the galleries of the main cloister until we found a wide stone stairwell leading upward to the second level. As we ascended the rather dour and plain stairs, above us in the vault loomed an elaborate and gorgeous mural by Luca Giordano, The Glorification of the Spanish Monarchy. These stairs led to the chapter houses of the monastery. The first, the vicarial, where all the monks came to meetings, and the prioral, which was reserved for those of higher priestly ranks, were both long rooms lined with hard wooden benches that didn’t look particularly comfortable. During those meetings the monks could alleviate the tedium by studying the world class paintings that hung above them. Works of Titan, El Greco, El Bosco, among others, depicted various biblical scenes, as well as trials of the early saints. I suppose when one closely studies the emaciated form of the penitent Saint Jerome, or Saint Francis receiving his stigmatas, a boring meeting and a sore bum doesn’t seem so bad a deal in comparison.
Exiting through the Prior’s Chapel at the back of the chapter houses, onwards & downwards we went, to the Pantheon of the Infantes. One of the main purposes of El Escorial was to serve as the burial place for Phillip II’s parents, and subsequently other kings and members of the royal family. The vaulted rooms we found ourselves in now were lined with the marble sarcophagi of the lesser members of the clan. A royal crest and label above each tomb named the inhabitants. Philipvs, Philipi V Filivs, kept company with his brothers Francicvs and Gabriel. Other labels told of daughters, queens who did not produce kings, and the wives and children of morganic marriages. The children who did not reach adolescence were laid to rest together in a communal 3 tiered wedding cake-esque tomb in the 6th of the 9 rooms.
In a small alcove is the curious tomb topped with a recumbent statue of a handsome bearded man holding a sword in his bejeweled hands, labelled Ioannes Avstrlacvs, Carloi V Fil Natvralis. Here lay, dead at the age of 31, the illegitimate but acknowledged half brother of Phillip II, son of Charles V, John of Austria. He had served Phillip faithfully, and upon his untimely death joined his father’s family for eternity. It was John who was in charge of putting down the revolt of the Moriscos of Granada, and he did so ruthlessly. With him at the head of the army, they destroyed Moorish villages who hadn’t complied with orders to forget their customs, religion and language, and deported or killed thousands of Muslim citizens who had made Spain their home for centuries. John’s letters described the forced exile of entire families, women and children, as the greatest “human misery” that can be portrayed.
Leaving behind the tombs of the semi important, our path now lead down a narrow staircase of dark green and red marble, lined with gold. It emptied out into a room unlike any I had ever seen before. Arranged in a circle, with a Catholic alter across from the door, the walls were lined with shelves, each one holding a green marble and gold casket. Here rest the emperors, kings and queens of Spain, going as far back as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The set is not quite complete, with a few having chosen to be buried elsewhere, and the last 2 kings being still very much alive, but the effect was still quite something.
Nicky, by this time, was sick of the endless maze of stairs, but could do nothing but sigh and follow us as we climbed back up to another level and entered the Hapsburg palace. Simple but cozy, these rooms were rather hard to reach, as they had been designed for function rather than impression. The inner sanctum was built more as a pious retreat than for royal fanfare, and had an almost monastic quality. In fact, both the king’s and queen’s apartments connected directly to the basilica through private chapels, and there was grill in each of their bedrooms overlooking the high alter. Phillip suffered gout toward the end of his life, which would often prevent him from going to the church. This way he could be present at the services, but still be comfortable.
Phillip II died in his bed at El Escorial, at the grand age of 71, having ushered in the Spanish Golden Age, married 4 times (twice to cousins, once to a niece), and been for a short time the King of England and Ireland. I still find it rather odd that he was married to Bloody Mary. After she died, according to the marriage contract, he lost control of those realms and went back to persecuting Protestants and Muslims in continental Europe. Still hoping to turn England Catholic again, he did send his Armada in 1588, but we all know how that ended. Further attempts to invade England (there were 3) were all cancelled due to bad weather.
I was intrigued to learn that Phillip II is the big baddie in one of my father’s favorite operas, Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi. In the opera Don Carlos, Phillip II’s son and heir falls in love with Elisabeth of Valois, who is doomed to have to marry his father. All sorts of tragic shenanigans ensue and in the end the young couple is separated forever, him to the cloister, she to remain the wife of King Phillip. The reality was quite different.
Elisabeth of Valois was 14 (Carlos also would have been about 14) when she married the 32 year old, already twice married Phillip II. She was quite happy about it according to her letters, as she found her husband rather cute and fun. He seemed pretty happy about her too, having just been widowed from his union with Bloody Mary, 10 years his senior, and about whom he wrote: “I felt a reasonable regret for her death.” Elizabeth unfortunately died in childbirth at the age of 23, producing only 2 girls who survived til adulthood. If judging by the letters exchanged between Phillip and his daughters after they married and became Queen of France and Duchess of Savoy respectively, they had a surprisingly loving relationship. This might be due to the fact that Don Carlos, a product of Phillip’s first marriage to his first cousin, was a little inbred git who liked to roast animals alive, chase after servant girls and set houses on fire. After having a son like that that, when you have 2 normal kids of any gender, wouldn’t you be thrilled too?
Carlos apparently got so bad that he openly threatened to kill his father, tried to conspire with John of Austria (REALLY stupid move) to flee to the Netherlands, and finally drove Phillip to lock him up. Carlos died in seclusion not too long after at the age of 23. The English and Dutch used Carlos’ death to further the Black Legend, the anti-Spanish propaganda machine they spread in order to temper Phillip’s influence.
The amount of inbreeding, at this point, was kind of astounding. According to Wikipedia:
Carlos had only four great-grandparents instead of the maximum of eight, and his parents had the same coefficient of co-ancestry (1/4) as if they were half siblings. He had only six great-great-grandparents, instead of the maximum 16; his maternal grandmother and his paternal grandfather were siblings, his maternal grandfather and his paternal grandmother were also siblings, and his two great-grandmothers were sisters.
Phillip II didn’t learn his lesson though, as he went on to marry his niece, Anna of Austria, with whom he happily produced Phillip III, who was his own great uncle.
Passing through these airy rooms, we ended up in the Hall of Battles. 55 meters long, 6 meters wide, with an 8 meter high arched ceiling, almost every inch of the walls covered in murals depicting Spanish war victories against the French, Moors, and Turks. It was absolutely fascinating. Even Nicky woke up from zombie mode, and explained how you could see the evolution of warfare not just by the armor and weaponry, but also by the formations of the foot soldiers and cavalry. The amount of detail was stunning, battlefields with thousands of figures, sieges, sea battles, executions of captives, it just went on and on. I tried, I really tried, to get a photo, but the octogenarian security guard was ever vigilant, and “No photo, no photo!” echoed in my ears for quite a while after we left the chamber. Now, the curious thing about this hall is that there is no evidence it was ever used for any ceremony. It’s rather out of the way, it’s only real purpose is connecting one end of the queens apartments to the king’s. As far as historians can tell it was a basically a place to take a stroll.
Due to the proximity of the basilica to the palace of the uber-pious Hapsburgs, it was only natural that it was our next stop. It was, like the rest of the place, impressive with a capital I. To quote Frank, “this is breaking my brain.” The church to me epitomizes Spain’s historical reputation of almost fanatical Catholicism. Imagine you are in a deep, dark cold vast well, the only light streaming in is from far above , illuminating images of saints and angels in all of heaven’s glory. This is the basilica of San Lorenzo el Real.
A church is a church is a church, though, for the most part, so other than noticing some rather spectacular paintings of saints, and a rather grand alter piece, it’s time to move our tour along.
Nicky by now was starting to protest fatigue, but as his elder in age and in wisdom, I told him “Stuff it, cultural enrichment is an important, etc, etc.” Nicky: “But the stairs…” I must say the stairs up to the library were rather daunting, but… oh, what a library.
Lining the 54 meter long main hall were shelves containing precious manuscripts, some dating back to the fourth century, books on science, art, religion and history printed on old vellum, decorated in gold and precious gems, inscribed with paintings so precise and detailed they could hold your attention for hours. This library, since it belonged to the king, contained profane and heretical texts that had survived the purges of the Inquisition. Besides the main hall there are several rooms off to the sides, but sadly they are not open to the public. The arched ceiling was a frenzy of brightly painted murals, depicting Seneca, Plato and other ancient philosophers, along with such doctors of the Latin church as Sts. Augustine, Jerome and many others. Embodiments of the arts and science intermingled with depictions of historical church events like the Council of Nicea… I really could go on and on… I suppose I already have.
Aside from the manuscripts, the library also contained several old globes, and a geo-centric armillary sphere of extraordinary detail and craftsmanship. The sphere depicted the path of the sun and other heavenly bodies around the earth, and we spent some time after discussing how back then no one thought the earth was flat, just the center of the universe, and what the heck are schools teaching kids these days… this is how we get flat earthers, by teaching bad history… sigh.
So we had one more thing to see before we could make Nicky happy and head back to Madrid, the Bourbon palace.
While the Hapsburgs used El Escorial as a religious retreat, the rather more flightly Bourbons used it as an autumn hunting lodge, in fact, rather than redecorating the humble rooms of their predecessors, they very logically decided to just redesign and redo a rather large portion of the entire complex. The Bourbons installed a grand staircase (though not TOO grand), hung tapestries everywhere and generally kitted the place out to the nines. It was pretty cool to see the tapestries based on Goya’s cartoons which we had already seen at the Prado a few days before, and Frank and I enjoyed a game of “find the difference,” as many of the tapestries were reverse images of the paintings, and some had changed between the original concept and the execution.
And so ended our tour of El Escorial. There are extensive gardens too, but we were entirely exhausted, and so instead made our way back to the bus station, and enjoyed a 45 minute nap back to Madrid.
One added note: El Escorial is named for the abandoned mines that were in the area when Phillip II started it’s construction, more specifically it refers to the piles of leftover rejected materials. This colossal example of Spanish Golden Age, this World Heritage Site, considered a wonder of it’s time, is literally named Slag Heap.