Guest post written by Alexander W. Samson, Reader in Early Modern Studies at University College London.
If Philip IV was a dumbfounded king, as he is dubbed by Imanol Uribe’s 1991 film El Rey pasmado, it is no wonder. Not as in the film because of the hypocrisy and absurdity of a junta of theologians deciding whether it is licit for him to enjoy a rear view of his naked queen, mirroring the pose of Velázquez’s infamous Venus del Espejo. But because the technologies of horse and sail struggled to keep pace with the proliferating bureaucracy associated with managing a global empire. No one man could keep on top of the vast expanses of paperwork required, as his brief experiment in personal rule (i.e. taking charge himself of the day to day business of government) quickly showed.
This Spanish king, who ruled from 1621 until 1665 and whose changing visage was so memorably captured by his court painter Velázquez’s virtuoso images, might have been forgiven for feeling melancholy. This feeling is palpable in the portrait of 1651, following the death of his last remaining heir and beloved wife, and reverses on the battlefield against France and Portugal. The competing demands of being a dynast as head of the house of Habsburg and the ruler of so many kingdoms around the world were irreconcilable. In a state of almost constant war throughout his reign, no financial expedient seemed able to address the fundamental problems of effectively ruling a world empire in an era before telecommunications.
On the other hand, his extensive building work, art collecting and patronage, particularly in the visual arts, and interest in geography and science inaugurated a period rightly dubbed a Golden Age. The most notable aspect of this was his support for and love of the theatre, with a constant stream of palace performances and then a dedicated theatre, El Coliseo, being constructed in the grounds of the Buen Retiro Palace itself. His use of culture as a political tool to impose his own vision and disseminate his ideology of monarchy was cutting edge, even though, how exclusively and fulsomely supportive it was, is much disputed. His court was literally bathed in light, if amounts spent on illumination are accurate, animating a glittering Baroque festive world at the centre of which like the sun stood this planet king.
Perhaps the key debate is the extent to which Philip IV can be held personally accountable for the alleged decline Spain suffered in the 17th century or whether this was an inevitable consequence of climate change and the Little Ice Age, the development of political cultures rooted in print and news, an increasingly important public sphere and the growing strength of enemies in the Dutch Republic, England and France. Maybe his greatest achievement was to stand still, his sphinx-like demeanour and immobility leading ambassadors to compare him to a statue. In the same way, Spain managed to hold on to most of its vast, global patrimony in this period, neither advancing nor retreating.
Our book, Philip IV and the World of Spain’s Rey Planeta, surveys this complex and controversial period as well as digging down into specific revealing aspects from organized crime in Seville and its relationship with central government to the geopolitics of sainthood, the practice of privanza or royal favourites, collecting practices, the neuroaesthetics of the regal image and the amounts spent on illuminations, torches and candles, in celebrations seeking to transform him literally into a resplendent planet king.
Whether the period was a Golden Age or an Age of Decline will continue to be debated, cutting across contemporary debates about connected history and of course the legacies of colonialism and empire. Perhaps the most we can say is that during the reign of Philip IV, his kingdoms endured, and some did so in certain aspects with elegance and aplomb, even if fundamental, structural problems could not be overcome. Despite indecisive conflicts persisting on many fronts, he had to face the first European war, endemic Caribbean piracy and growing independence in the Americas from the metropole, his reign also gave us the picaresque, the art of Velázquez and a public theatre that is a treasure of world heritage.
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Image attribution: Diego Velázquez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons