“Be assured my young friend, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” Adam Smith wrote to a distraught friend after the battle of Saratoga (1777). Smith’s assurance begs a large question: Just how much ruin is there in a nation?

History’s stores contain food for thought. For those seeking a classic case of precipitate unraveling, it would be difficult to better the example of Spain under Philip IV (1621“1665), a truly remarkable plummet from the heights of European power to something very like decrepitude in a span of little over twenty years.Hapsburg Spain was off to a head start by the time Philip inherited a longstanding fiscal crisis along with the throne from his father, the feckless Philip III (1598“1621), whose greatest service to his realm may have been dying prematurely and leaving the Spanish empire to a boy of sixteen.

More serious perhaps than the neglect of the treasury was the neglect of the prince himself. A haphazard education had ill prepared him for the throne. In time, habit would contort him into an assiduous royal bureaucrat in the mold of his grandfather, Philip II. But authority never sat easy on his brow, and he much preferred the hunt”in the field and in the boudoir”to governing, The vacuum of royal authority meant government by favorite. Philip, for better or worse, found a man who knew his mind better than he did”Gaspar de Guzmán, the Count Duke of Olivares.

No man ever served his monarch with greater devotion. From the earliest days of Philip’s reign, Olivares set upon on an ambitious campaign of reform to transform a moribund and far-flung empire into a modern, rational administrative state. Olivares wanted to resolve the perpetual fiscal crises and crown debts, and reduce a tax burden that fell disproportionately on Castile’s peasants and merchants. Under a planned “union of arms,” each of the crown’s possessions would bear a proportionate responsibility to supply the money and soldiers need to defend the realm and the Catholic faith.

By the early 1630’s, a decade into Philip’s reign, Olivares’ program of reform, although it had not been abandoned by its indefatigable architect, had been met with determined resistance from every quarter. The crown’s finances were in abysmal shape, and Olivares spent much of his time in an increasingly desperate search for revenue. Foreign affairs were not going so well either: the longstanding war against the Dutch”doubly damned as rebels and as heretics”preoccupied Philip’s government, and war with France loomed.

The times were not propitious for costly side projects, or so it would seem to anyone other than Philip and Olivares. But the Buen Retiro was to be a pleasure palace with a purpose.

Hastily built on what was then the outskirts of Madrid, the Buen Retiro squandered the time and the resources of a crown that had neither to spare. The already overburdened Castilians whose taxes were raised to finance its construction were understandably resentful. The grumbling fell on deaf ears. Olivares’ conviction that a great monarch was a great patron of the arts was unshakable: the Buen Retiro was the showcase wherein that pledge would be fulfilled. In turn, great art would reflect upon the greatness of the king”and by extension, his chief minister”at a time when confidence in the future of the monarchy and the wisdom of the favorite were decidedly ebbing.

If the Buen Retiro was conceived as a theater for the display of Spain’s imperial and artistic grandeur, its center stage was the Hall of Realms. When completed in 1635, the opulent hall was hung with resplendent images of Spanish power executed by Diego Velázquez and other court artists. Twelve life-size battle paintings depicting the military victories of Philip’s early reign, were interspersed with Zurbaran’s scenes from the Life of Hercules (whom Philip claimed as an ancestor), and equestrian portraits, again by Velázquez, of the king, the queen, and the crown prince. Yet for all the fanfare, the intervening years of military and political failure had opened a chasm between the image the monarchy chose to exhibit to the world and the reality of Spain’s political fortunes.

The best known of the Hall of Realm’s battle paintings is Velázquez’ Surrender of Breda . On its surface, the painting is an encomium to modesty and grace in victory: The dismounted general of the Spanish forces, Ambrosio Spinola, receives the key of the smoldering Dutch town from his defeated foe, Justin of Nassau, and prevents him from kneeling in supplication with a gesture of tender regard. At the time of this triumph in 1625, Breda had been considered impregnable, and the surrender of this strategic fortress was interpreted, at least within the confines of the Spanish court, as a sign of the Dutch rebels’ inevitable defeat.

Velázquez’ rendition, painted ten years after the fact, is about the return of the prodigal: Spinola’s humane magnanimity is but a reflection of that of the monarch who was prepared to welcome his Dutch heretics back within the imperial and Catholic fold with the same generous restraint. The chorus of Spanish lances pointed devoutly heavenward makes explicit, if there were any doubt, for which side the Almighty has worked His just verdict on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, whatever its other admittedly immense virtues, when considered as a piece of royal propaganda, Velázquez’ great painting uneasily displays a deep strain of what might politely be called wishful thinking; for the hard fact remained that despite the intervening years, there had been no ultimate triumph of Spanish arms and the Dutch remained as obdurate as ever. The fashion of present day scholarship is to deny the elements of allegory in Velázquez’ art, especially when the interpretation runs counter to the prevailing political sentiments and interests of his employer. The argument, such as it goes, was that Velázquez was too much the devoted courtier to risk inserting meanings in his art that discreetly undermined official Hapsburg dogma.

Yet Philip was a connoisseur and avid collector of painting”and susceptible to a kind of indulgence, at least where Velázquez was concerned. Consciously or not, a desire to be the patron of great works of art undermined in subtle ways a zealous commitment to the pictorial politics of Hapsburg Spain. Everyone from the king to the meanest courtier understood the inherent tension of sustaining an official reality at odds with persistent and inconvenient truths. Velázquez’ painting is a pointed commentary on that duality, so that the Surrender of Breda is both the outward celebration of a triumph and the silent acknowledgment of a tragedy.

Spinola had been dead for four years when the Surrender of Breda was unveiled. He died in northern Italy of an illness contracted in the field while leading Spanish arms in the siege of Casale during the War of Mantuan Succession. From the beginning, the war”stumbled into by Olivares”was a costly and ill-advised military disaster. Spinola was sent to Italy in the summer of 1629 in an attempt to right a situation that had gone badly from the beginning, and which his arrival did little to alter. Unlike Breda, Casale did not fall, and up until the time of his death in September of 1630, the exasperated general railed bitterly at Madrid’s repeated failure to provide him with promised support.

Velázquez had accompanied Spinola on the journey from Madrid to Milan to take up that ill-fated final command. The presence of Spinola’s ghost in the Hall of Realms, whose fate was common knowledge in the Spanish court, thus invites unavoidable associations: the air of affectionate tribute surrounding the portrayal of his greatest triumph elides with the memory of his more recent death in the field presiding over an ignominious defeat.

The odd doings of the other figures of this richly peopled canvass contributes to the sense of disjuncture. There are the prominent secondary figures”the sunken-eyed young Dutchman on the left, a quizzically preternatural horse, the draped Spanish official, and the soldier at the far right who may be Velázquez himself”who stare back at the viewer with a varying mixture of bewilderment and knowing resignation. Then there are the bulk of the soldiery on both sides whose attention seems to be scattered in every direction but towards the historic scene unfolding before them. The rear end of a horse dominating the foreground adds a touch of low comedy; the discarded white flag in the lowest right corner might well be a silent augury.

When added up, The Surrender of Breda becomes something other than what it first appears: not as a celebration of Spanish might, but a reticent allegory on the vanity of military triumph, where victories are fleeting and the destinies of even the most illustrious are not immune to the cruel caprice of fate.

But perhaps allegory isn’t quite right either. Velázquez’ images are never insistent, but suggestive”a naturalism so saturated with an accumulation of meanings that it bears the weight of allegory without the need for stock figures. This is no better illustrated than in the equestrian portrait of crown prince Baltasar Carlos that hung in the Hall of Realms. Suffused with a spectral, dreamlike quality, the delicate five-year old boy”his soft, insubstantial features partially cast in shadow”is perched atop a lunging, barrel-chested horse, his regal garb flowing against a stony sky of subdued, potentially ominous hue. The painting is both an heroic image of a future king and a depiction of the fragility of the monarchy”at once confident, serene, perilous, poised at any moment on the brink of disaster.

Disaster was not long in coming. Breda was retaken by the Dutch in 1637. In 1639, a Dutch fleet destroyed Olivares’ expensively expanded and refurbished Armada. By the end of 1640, following a French invasion, Catalonia was in open rebellion, while Portugal, following an armed coup, repudiated its union with the Spanish crown. That same year the silver fleet from the Americas simply failed to arrive, provoking another financial crisis.

Universally detested by all but his king, and with his dreams of reform in ruins, Olivares was dismissed in 1643; two years later he was dead. The queen died in 1644. In 1646, so did the crown prince. The crown declared bankruptcy in 1647, and again in 1653. The Dutch were granted their independence in 1648. After twelve years of insurrection, Catalonia again acknowledged the authority of the Spanish crown in 1652. Philip had not only presided over the end of Spain as a European power, he had barely escaped the complete disintegration of his realm.

Bereft of his queen, his heir and his chief minister, the increasingly melancholy and vacillating Philip concluded that the state of his realm was God’s punishment for his sins. Desperate to produce an heir, in 1649 he married his niece”the unhappy Mariana of Austria”and succeeded, after a fashion. The progeny of such an incestuous union were what might be expected: the lovely little Infanta Margarita (immortalized at the center of Velázquez’ Las Meninas ); the hopelessly frail prince Felipe Prospero, who did not live to see his sixth year; and the future Charles II, a disfigured half-wit who by some jest of fate lived to succeed his father at the age of four, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs.

Even before Philip’s death the Buen Retiro had become a symbol of the collapse of Hapsburg Spain. His pleasure palace, born of a crisis of confidence in the purpose and direction of the regime, became instead its perfect metaphor: a palace so hastily and shoddily built that it was literally falling apart nearly as soon as completed”a fitting monument for a regime that invested so much of its waning energies in the belief that its external splendors might somehow arrest the inexorable rot from within.

Yet for all its staggering political failures, Spain’s artistic culture reached a peak during Philip’s reign and produced that rarity”an artist of genius”to render, however obliquely, its decline. Seventeenth century Spain yet possessed a conception of the tragic so as to be capable of both recognizing it, and depicting it in art. Spain’s national tragedy, as events exposed its figureheads and institutions as weak and overwhelmed, became the unspoken, delicately alluded subject of its greatest painter.

How much ruin is in a nation? An answer of sorts might be given as follows: A nation might survive its corrupt or foolish rulers; it might survive years of profligate spending beyond its means; it might survive political arrangements that place all of society’s burdens on some while others enjoy the benefits with none of the costs; it might survive humiliation on the battlefield and incompetence in its dealings with its adversaries; and it might even survive a string of nearly inexplicable bad luck. But no nation can survive all of them, together, simultaneously.

We may yet escape the fate of Hapsburg Spain, but our cultural rot goes deeper; there will be no Velázquez capable of extracting the humanity from our ruin. Our end, should it come, will be accompanied not with a whimper nor a bang, but a tweet.

Christopher S. Johnson is a writer residing in Portland, Oregon.

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