Reviewed by:
  • The Plaza Mayor and the Shaping of Baroque Madrid
The Plaza Mayor and the Shaping of Baroque Madrid Cambridge University Press, 2003 By Jesús Escobar

Spanish architectural historians have increasingly focused their attention on site-specific studies through interdisciplinary research. By incorporating a vast array of discrete archival sources and methodologies, scholars have become adept at integrating seemingly peripheral documentation into a coherent analysis of the construction, purpose and function of urban monuments and public spaces. The result is the emergence of a new intellectual framework through which Spanish cultural history is being written from the inside out. Historic structures that have been seen from afar as illustrations of the vision of a few, or, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, as illustrations of a nationalist impulse, are now being scrutinized from within complex contexts evolving through collaborative processes involving many. [End Page 295]

Professor Jesús Escobar, an outstanding exponent of this new writing of Spanish history, has focused his attention on one of the most significant urban structures of Spain, the Plaza Mayor of Baroque Madrid. Through interdisciplinary methods he has succeeded in bringing primary archival resources into an intellectual framework that allows the reader to appreciate the literal, social and symbolic construction of Madrid's principal public space. He has also succeeded in delineating the centrality of the Plaza Mayor to the creation of Madrid under the Habsburgs.

After reconstructing the inchoate urban scene from which the Plaza Mayor emerges at the end of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth, Escobar provides a careful study of various aspects of the creation of the Plaza Mayor in context. Perhaps most important in his reconstruction of the creation of the Plaza Mayor is his invaluable study of its actual construction. By carefully examining accounting records and construction appraisals, Escobar has grounded his commentary on archival documents. By scrutinizing property suits filed against the municipal government, he has developed a means to follow the building chronology and to explore the spatial organization of the housing as well as the history of the inhabitants. Parallel to the examination of the construction of the Plaza Mayor is an excellent analysis of the role of the monument in the thinking of the Habsburg rulers, and many others, who conceived and executed the Plaza for political and social reasons.

Balanced between the scrutiny of construction and the grand vision is a study of the execution of the Plaza Mayor by committee. Escobar persuasively argues that the monument was the result of extensive discussions by a host of figures over a period of time: aldermen, judges, scribes, architects, construction architects, and appraisers (alarifes). Regarding this latter group, Escobar provides a nuanced study that reveals an intricate web of trades and personalities who contributed to the making of the Plaza Mayor. Moreover, as the result of this careful study of the creation of the Plaza Mayor by committee, Escobar demonstrates that the monument resulted from a consensus formed by many and over time as to the nature of the building and its symbolic role in the city and the realm.

A further strength of the book is to be found in the exploration of the public uses of the Plaza Mayor. Escobar affords glimpses into the Plaza Mayor as the great market of the city, an environment filled with shops, stalls and tradesmen. His research in archival resources has thus resulted in more than a description of the making of the Plaza Mayor. It has allowed him to document lived experience within Madrid's principal space.

As a counterpoint to the examination of daily life, Escobar elaborates on the Plaza Mayor as the city´s stage and place of spectacle. Although it is understood that public ceremonies were essential to development of an urban culture on a grand scale in Baroque Europe, Escobar has shown how the Plaza Mayor fulfilled this role in the imperial city through a wide range of festivals generated by equally diverse communities within the city.

The book is clearly a significant contribution to our understanding of Spanish history. No scholar of city of Baroque Spain or the Americas should pursue research without a careful reading of this work. My few reservations pertain less to Escobar's analysis of the Plaza Mayor in the shaping of Baroque Madrid than to the presentation of a book to be read in the twenty first century. For example, it would have been helpful to the reader to understand more fully Juan de Villanueva's restoration of the Plaza Mayor after the fire of 1790. Completed during the first third of the nineteenth century, the reforms not only changed the physical appearance of the Plaza but also transformed the environment in which the monument functioned within the urban fabric. Those reforms that altered the Baroque Plaza Mayor deserve more than four concluding paragraphs and a brief mention in the introduction to the subject, especially given the fact that many illustrations that accompany the text necessarily postdate the neoclassical reforms of the Plaza Mayor. [End Page 296]

Unfortunately, the book's illustrations form an insufficient graphic support for this excellent text. Although the author has retrieved historic images from various archival sources, their reproduction and integration appear to be insufficient. For a book in which visual documentation could be an extraordinary support, the images diminish its overall effectiveness, especially for students of Spanish cultural history.

Of the 123 illustrations included to support the text, some two dozen images are snapshots taken by the author. Poorly composed and insufficiently edited, these images are improvisations that undermine the rigorous study itself. When Escobar introduces his own photographic reproduction of plans and elevations from the Archivo de la Villa de Madrid, the reduced contrast and rumpled papers render them virtually unintelligible. The results are satisfactory in the reproduction of documents held in the Library of Congress, The New York Public Library, the Biblioteca Nacional, and other institutions with credible photographic services.

Nevertheless, the study itself is an important contribution to the study of Spanish architectural, social and cultural history. Thoroughly grounded in disciplines that range beyond architectural history, Escobar has written a book that shall be essential reading for any study of the development of cities in Habsburg Spain and the Americas.

Conrad Kent
Ohio Weslyan University

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.