Madrid was my gateway city to and from Morocco. I planned two full days there on the way back for arts immersion. (It wasn’t enough time!) What was quickly revealed were the inextricable links between Spain, Mexico and the Americas, and North Africa. This last stop on my journey tied it all together. Our histories are linked, intertwined, related.
Flanking the entrance to the Palacio Real in Madrid are greater than life-size marble statues of Moctezuma, Mexico’s Aztec ruler (above right), and Atahualpa, Peru’s Inka king. The conquest of Mexico and Peru provided Spain with extraordinary New World wealth and power including gold, silver, cochineal and labor.
These sculptures acknowledge the subjugated people of Mexico and Peru on whose backs the Spanish Empire was built during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor and King Charles (Carlos) V. The sculptures also represent Spanish religious will to convert the world to Catholicism through whatever means. The Baroque 18th Century palace built by Phillip (Felipe) IV honors the role his grandfather King Charles played in empire building and solidifying his succession.
At the beginning of the 16th Century, Spain defined herself as defender of orthodoxy. At the same time as Cortes and Pisarro were funded to plunder and convert the Americas, the Spanish kings were coalescing territory and power on the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish Inquisition, started in 1492 by Ferdinand La Catolica and Isabel la Catolica (as they are known in Spain and Mexico), to purify Spain and purge her of Moslems and Jews, continued until 1834 and extended to Mexico and her territories in the American southwest. At the same time, the growing Protestant movement promised to threaten traditional faith.
As I walked the magnificent Palacio Real halls, grander than Versailles, surrounded by a collection of Renaissance art second only to Italy, handwoven Belgium tapestries, crystal chandeliers, sterling silver, gilded mirrors, and all the adornments of royalty, I could not stop thinking about the human cost to the indigenous peoples of the Americas to finance Habsburg Spain, European Machiavellian politics, and the Thirty Years War.
Velazquez, Titian, Botecelli, Rubens, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Rafael and Tintoretto are only of the few artists commissioned and collected by Spanish monarchs and on exhibit at the Museo el Prado. The collection in the Museo el Prado is extraordinary. At the Palacio Real, I was able to see an exhibition open to the public for the first time of paintings decorating the walls of El Escorial, the monastery and mausoleum constructed as a religious retreat center by Phillip IV, located 45 miles from Madrid.
When I returned to Hostal Don Juan — fabulous and affordable — I conveyed my experience to Juan Antonio. He replied wistfully that Spain was once the most powerful country in the world. Ah, yes, I said, things change, don’t they? America is on the wane and now China takes her turn. Then, I returned to my favorite tapas bar Mercado de la Reina, where locals sip great beer on tap and delicious red table wine starting at 11 a.m.
The Spanish may no longer be a world power, but they sure know how to live!