As every schoolboy knows, ‘the empire on which the sun never set’ was British, and ‘blue-blooded’ was a phrase applied to the nobility who ruled it for most of its history. And every schoolboy is wrong. The phrase was coined to describe the dominions of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (or Charles I of Spain), which were the first to span the requisite number of time zones; and ‘blue blood’ — sangre azul — referred to his Visigothic ancestors who reconquered Spain from the Moors, who had held it since 711 AD. These northern warlords would apparently show the purity of their ancestry by revealing the visible veins in their untanned forearms.
The Reconquista was completed by Charles’s grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492, when they finally took Granada. A few weeks later they met Columbus in Cordoba and sent him on his ultimately vastly remunerative westerly voyage to the ‘Indies’.
Robert Goodwin’s book — whose title correctly places Spain, Jerusalem-like, at the centre of the 16th-century geopolitical map — picks up events in 1519, just as the first American treasures arrived in Seville, the southern capital of Spain and sole licensee to all cargo returning across the Atlantic.
On one level this book is the story of how that treasure was spent: on pomp and on war, on the arts and the architecture to house them. And what a lot of treasure there was. Goodwin sticks rather sheepishly to calculations in ducats and other contemporary measures, because adjusting for inflation is notoriously misleading. Nonetheless I once tried to calculate how much wealth came across the sea from the discovery of the Americas to the end of the Thirty Years War (1648). The records show 190 tonnes of gold arrived with an average value over that century and a half of £3 per fine ounce. Adjusted to average earnings (rather than the Retail Price Index), this would be worth £45 trillion today. The silver shipped was worth almost six times that.
These vast riches were placed in the hands of the master of one of the most brutal and battle-hardened armies in the world at the very moment that the faith of which he was secular head was undergoing a massive schism. Martin Luther penned his 95 theses in 1517.
What distinguishes Goodwin from other historians of the period is the sheer multiplicity of his perspectives. He is erudite and concise in covering familiar ground, while full of original insight when it comes to the motives and actions of the key players. These include Charles’s pious, uxorious son Philip II, who knew the empire only through the paperwork of a staggeringly vast bureaucracy, and favourites such as Philip IV’s Ozymandias-like vizier, the Count-Duke of Olivares.
Goodwin also has an eye for the apposite detail to illustrate his general theme. In 1580 Spain had a greater caseload of litigation in its courts than the United States did in 1970, yet had a 20th of the population. This endless recourse to law across all social classes was the direct result of a system of legal aid so comprehensive it almost ground this global empire to a halt.
However, Goodwin’s real interest shines through in his description of the art and literature of this golden age, and he offers a detailed analysis of many great works, from the famous — such as Don Quixote, Cervantes’s postmodern take on the picaresque, and ‘Las Meninas’ ,Velázquez’s masterpiece of misdirection and reflection — down to lesser-known masterpieces such as Francisco de Zurbaran’s vivid ‘Christ on the cross’ and Juan de Valdés Leal’s terrifying ‘In ictu oculi’.
At times I did begin to wonder whether the author’s hispanophilia might not verge on hispanomania. Only a man blinded by love could say of the garish and crude (though admittedly striking) processional sculptures of Seville’s Holy Week: ‘These works mark an emotional and psychological apogee in western sculpture, after which all else seems tastefully bland or excessively vulgar.’
However, it is this irrational passion that removes Goodwin’s learned book from the shelves of academia, giving it breadth and breath. The most notable effect on this reader was an urge to return to Spain, especially to Goodwin’s beloved Seville, that ‘deeply religious and very beautiful provincial backwater’, with ‘its quiet lanes and courtyards’, its ‘grand monuments’ and its ‘ghosts’. After all, it is not enough to bring truth to history. One must also bring life — and this book has it in golden abundance.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £24 Tel: 08430 600033