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  • The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance
  • Catherine W. Zerner
The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance. By Henry Kamen. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2010. Pp. xvi, 291. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-300-16244-8.)

The belief that great buildings are the work of those who commissioned them is as old as history, even if this is never strictly speaking true. It is said "Julius Caesar built a bridge," but neither he nor Solomon—any more than Hadrian, Justinian, Abbot Suger, Pope Julius II, or King Philip II of Spain—mixed mortar for their great works of architecture. We hold them responsible, although this is not to say that there were not professional master builders, architects, designers, and artisans of all sorts who were also involved. The person art historians call "the patron" is given a pre-eminent place in discussions of great buildings, because we believe this person has a uniquely creative part in the conception and design of the building even as it was executed by others.

The distinguished historian Henry Kamen has taken this view very much to heart in The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance, which is ostensibly about the huge monastery of San Lorenzo el Real at El Escorial outside Madrid that Philip II founded in 1563 and saw to completion (except for some of the memorial statues for the cenotaphs in the basilica) before his death in 1598, but is really a book about Philip II as Kamen wishes us to see him. He writes:

It is apparent that the Escorial has seldom been judged simply on its own merits, but rather as a reflection of the personage who created it, a fact that makes it even clearer that we should first seek to understand Philip II before evaluating his masterpiece.

(p. 241)

Kamen sets out well armed—he is the author of the serious biography Philip of Spain (New Haven, 1998)—to dissipate the dark clouds of the "Black Legend" that still linger over Philip II's reputation and replace the old "black spider of the Escorial" and the evil bigot of Friedrich Schiller's Don [End Page 807] Carlos with the humanist prince he believes the king to have been. In each of nine chapters, he takes up a different aspect of Philip II's personality (and the legend and scholarship that surround it) and adjusts the portrait to depict Philip II as more like other contemporary rulers. Much of this is welcome: Philip II's intelligence, personal tolerance, skillful governance, peace-loving character, and profound religious faith are clearly brought out in this well-written book. However, in seeking evidence of the inner man and assuming this to be knowable, Kamen plays down external pressures in the culture that were certainly present and must have been internalized by the king to some extent. No CEO, no matter how principled, can be fully in control of an organization if he or she is to lead it; and no human is free of contradictions.

What does Kamen's portrait of the king reveal about the Escorial? It is always interesting when a historian uses visual evidence as collateral for arguments founded on written texts. Kamen gives an excellent overview of Philip II as a collector (of information, books, paintings, and much else besides), but to see architecture as one of the king's "great hobbies" (p. 52) fails to capture the intensity and scope of Philip II's relationship with building. Philip II's involvement with architecture was deeply felt; however, it is not wise to ignore that it also was a dimension of his statecraft, a vital part of the magnificence and attention to reputación that were expected of kings. Philip II's style of architectural patronage—down to his intimate involvement in the creation of his buildings—followed the humanist project that was first fully articulated by Leon Battista Alberti in the fifteenth century and was carried out with all the tools that Renaissance artists had devised to make it possible. To have undertaken a project such as the Escorial is to have entered assertively into an existing culture of relationships among...


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