Spanish Golden Age

Despite deeply troublesome social, economic, and political conditions, seventeenth century Spanish culture reached rare heights. The Golden Century (Siglo d’Oro), a cultural florescence that expressed itself most fully in drama and painting, began in the 1500’s and reached its apex during the reign of the otherwise undistinguished King Philip IV.

Summary of Event

Spain’s Golden Age, or Siglo d’Oro (golden century), was played out against a dreary backdrop of disruptive social change, economic stagnation and decline, and shrinking prestige and power on the stage of European affairs. Spain still ruled a far-flung empire, which included the Philippines and colonies in the New World as well as Portugal, Sicily, Naples and Milan in Italy, and the Spanish Netherlands, with pretensions to the Dutch provinces as well. Less creditable were the three Habsburg kings who ruled Spain from the death of Philip II in 1598 until 1700. [kw]Age, Spanish Golden (c. 1601-1682)
[kw]Spanish Golden Age (c. 1601-1682)
Theater;c. 1601-1682: Spanish Golden Age[0210]
Literature;c. 1601-1682: Spanish Golden Age[0210]
Art;c. 1601-1682: Spanish Golden Age[0210]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1601-1682: Spanish Golden Age[0210]
Spain;c. 1601-1682: Spanish Golden Age[0210]
Golden Age, Spanish
Spain;Golden Age

Philip III Philip III (king of Spain) was a pleasure-loving ruler who quite consciously rejected his father’s serious demeanor and attention to administration. His choice of ministers was unfortunate and included Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, the duke de Lerma, Lerma, first duke of who essentially ran the Spanish government for two decades, greatly enriching himself in the process. During Philip’s twenty-three years as king, Spain entered a period of economic degeneration that was exacerbated by the expulsion of the Moriscos Moriscos, expulsion from Spain (converted Moors) in 1609 and the corruption and self-aggrandizing that was common at the highest levels of society.

Philip III’s son, Philip IV Philip IV (king of Spain) , came to power at the age of sixteen. The first two decades of his reign benefited from the guiding hand of his principal minister, the count-duke of Olivares Olivares, count-duke of . Olivares was a cultured and serious student of governmental affairs who sought to revivify Spain’s position in a Europe embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);Spain and and to reform a society and ruling class that were gripped by corruption and lassitude. Philip resembled his father in his disinterest in administration, but Olivares shaped the young monarch into a passable ruler and a truly great patron of the arts, especially painting and theater.

The 1640’s saw the Portuguese and Catalan rebellions, the fall of Olivares, and the defeat of the Habsburgs in the Thirty Years’ War. By mid-century, it was clear that Spain had fallen as a major European power, despite its retention of Europe’s greatest overseas empire. Habsburg inbreeding resulted in the tragic figure of King Charles II Charles II (king of Spain) , who was both mentally and physically disabled. Only four years old when Philip died, Charles never quite outgrew his childhood and depended utterly on his mother, Mariana de Austria Mariana de Austria , and his ministers to direct Spain. Young and ambitious King Louis XIV Louis XIV;Netherlands and of France took advantage of Spain’s problems and pressed his advantage in the Netherlands (the War of Devolution Devolution, War of (1667-1668) and the French-Dutch War French-Dutch War (1672-1678)[French Dutch War (1672-1678)] ) and along the Spanish border, especially in the Wars of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) Spanish Succession, Wars of the (1701-1714) , which began following the death of the childless Charles.

Despite the steady income from its colonies, Spain’s economy stagnated and people felt sharply the pangs of inflation and high taxation. Much Spanish wealth drained out of Iberia to pay for its wars and the constant flow of foreign goods. The large influx of silver from Potosí in the New World caused severe inflation, and subsequent government debasement of coins worsened the situation, causing a further drain of specie to pay foreign debts. Having but a small entrepreneurial middle class, Spain fell rapidly behind countries that were more advanced economically and technologically, such as England and the United Provinces. Better-designed foreign ships carried away Spanish goods, and Spanish industry slowly retarded as the wealthy diverted potential investment capital to foreign luxury goods.

As Madrid grew in prestige as the court’s permanent home (after 1605), it drew nobles from their provincial seats, stripping the countryside of leadership and capital, and often leaving it in the hands of unscrupulous underlings. On the other hand, the congregation of competitive and often sophisticated aristocrats with deep pockets meant that Madrid, and to a lesser extent Seville and Toledo, would become even greater centers of artistic patronage and production.

Seventeenth century Spain was more than merely a Catholic country; it was the great force for militant, Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation] Catholicism. The Spanish took very seriously their Tridentine mission to thwart the heretic and convert the pagan, and authorities both secular and ecclesiastical tolerated little that smacked of dissent. Like Protestantism in England, Catholicism Catholicism;Spain formed a core around which early Spanish nationalism was fostered, a very important step in creating a true Spain from Castile, Aragon, and their constituent parts. The Church served the state and the state the Church. The arts—theater no less than painting—served the interests of both, not least of all through popular entertainment that was both nationalistic and religious. This relationship was reinforced by the growing cultural legacy of Catholic Renaissance Italy and early Baroque Papal Rome that found its way to Iberia, often through Spanish Naples and Milan. All that was needed for the cultural flowering of the sixteenth century to continue were a few people of genius.

Although Miguel de Cervantes’ Cervantes, Miguel de novel Don Quixote de la Mancha
Don Quixote de la Mancha (Cervantes) (1605, 1615) casts a long shadow over early seventeenth century Spanish literature Literature;Spain , the Siglo d’Oro produced numerous authors of the first caliber in lyric poetry Poetry;Spain and drama. The Salamanca-educated cleric and Royal Chaplain Luis de Góngora y Argote Góngora y Argote, Luis de wrote complex poetry for a sophisticated, aristocratic audience. Góngora adopted strong, stylized, classical literary influences and utilized a very high and often pretentious tone, convoluted constructions, obscure or exotic vocabulary, and hidden, metaphoric meanings that constituted a novel poetic approach known as culturanismo
Culturanismo . Together with conceptismo
Conceptismo , a poetic approach that featured concision and brevity of expression studded with brilliant turns of phrase, culturanismo characterized what came to be called Gongorism Gongorism and was manifested in Góngora’s Soledades (1627; The Solitudes of Don Luis de Góngora
Solitudes of Don Luis de Góngora, The (Góngora) , 1931; The Solitudes, 1964) and consciously classical Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (1627; Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea
Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea (Góngora) , 1961).

Spanish writer Pedro Calderón de la Barca, following in the footsteps of dramatist Lope de Vega Carpio, wrote some of the greatest dramatic literature of the seventeenth century.

(Library of Congress)

Many poets and virtually all playwrights rejected the obscurity and artificial style of Gongorism. The Humanist Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas Quevedo y Villegas, Francisco Gómez de was an outspoken critic of Gongorism. As a propagandist for the Olivares government under Philip IV, Quevedo utilized a wide range of literary forms, including theological and philosophical tracts, history and fantasy, drama and political treatises, and satire and poetry, to point out Spanish society’s ills. Even his staunch support of the regime, however, could not insulate him from censorship by a paranoid state, and he spent more than three years in prison for being an “enemy of the government.”

Spanish drama, like that of other European traditions, had its roots in Catholic liturgical performances and classical theater. Theater;Spain Madrid built its first permanent theaters in the 1580’, and by the seventeenth century, there had developed an insatiable hunger for daily performances in theaters in all of Spain’s major cities and at the court in Madrid. With the work of the enormously prolific Lope de Vega Carpio Vega Carpio, Lope de , a native of Madrid and a superb poet, the Spanish comedia
Comedia —a term used for any type of play in this period—received its classical shape and many of its best examples.

In his academic poem of 1609, El arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (The New Art of Writing Plays
New Art of Writing Plays, The (Lope de Vega) , 1914), Lope de Vega supported the classical ideal that drama should entertain and teach, though he rejected classicism’s many rules of composition, including the firm line between tragedy and comedy. In his more than one thousand plays, he blended a naturalistic treatment of society and language with a firm moralistic purpose that was often satirical or even mocking in tone. In works like Fuenteovejuna (1619; The Sheep-Well
Sheep-Well, The (Lope de Vega) , 1936), he explored the developing notion that nobility was a matter of character and not birth. Like most playwrights, he supported the rigid and often brutal code of honor that demanded bloody revenge for serious slights. Generally conservative in his view of society and the regime, his plays tended to blend love, patriotism, religion, and the social code in a way that was primarily entertaining. In cape-and-sword (capa y spada) comedies he featured the loves, intrigues, and duels of the aristocrats, whom he often satirized to the delight of all classes. His vast output included plays based on Spanish and Italian stories, folk ballads, historical events, chivalric literature, the Bible, and saints’ lives.

Lope de Vega’s most prolific follower was Tirso de Molina Tirso de Molina , a well-educated cleric and masterful playwright who wrote some four hundred comedias. More intellectual than Lope de Vega, he carefully crafted his plots around well-formed characters and highlighted moral and theological issues where Lope de Vega emphasized action and social critiques. Tirso’s El burlador de Sevilla (pb. 1630; The Love Rogue
Love Rogue, The (Tirso) , 1924) featured his greatest creation, the unscrupulous lover Don Juan, a dramatic character who would have a long and fitful life on the European stage. Pedro Calderón de la Barca Calderón de la Barca, Pedro , a poet and playwright praised by Lope de Vega, carried on the tradition of the new comedy, reaching new rhetorical heights in his rich, dramatic poetry. Though he wrote for the popular stage, he revolutionized Spanish stagecraft in spectacular works produced in the Coloseo (1640), the fully equipped, Italian-style theater at Buen Retiro, Philip IV’s new palace near Madrid. In later life, Calderón concentrated on public religious plays known as autos sacramentales
Autos sacramentales , a genre that Lope de Vega had first developed from liturgical and morality plays into richly textured and sophisticated Christian dramas.

Spanish painter Diego Velazquez’s late work, The Maids of Honor (1656), has been compared with the genre paintings of the contemporary Dutch school.

(Harry N. Abrams)

The Golden Age also produced some of Spain’s greatest painters. Painting;Spain In Toledo, El Greco Greco, El dominated religious art until his death in 1614. Philip IV developed a strong taste for the work of Flemish and Italian artists, bringing to Madrid hundreds of paintings that stimulated the work of court painter Diego Velázquez Velázquez, Diego and forms most of the Prado Museum collection. Working hard to raise the status of the Spanish painter, Velázquez blended what he learned from Roman, Venetian, and Flemish art into his native Spanish style, creating rich, complex, and expressive courtly compositions such as Las Meninas
Meninas, Las (Velázquez) (1656; the family of Philip IV). Though Seville was hit hard by Spain’s economic downturn, its church and its cosmopolitan nobility sponsored scores of religious paintings. Most popular were the serene and idealized devotional images by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo Murillo, Bartolomé Esteban . Francisco de Zurbarán Zurbarán, Francisco de served the tastes of the Sevillan aristocracy with paintings marked by forceful realism and accepted Philip IV’s invitation to help decorate the king’s Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro palace.


Like the Italian Renaissance or the Elizabethan era in England, the Golden Age of Spain saw the production of many of the early modern era’s greatest artistic and dramatic masterpieces. Inspired by Late Renaissance Italian and Flemish masters, painters in Madrid and Seville found patrons among a generous royalty, a wealthy and powerful Church, and art-conscious nobility. Velázquez and Zurbarán scaled new heights in lush naturalism, while Murillo created works perfectly suited to the bourgeois Tridentine piety of the later seventeenth century.

While the arcane sophistication of Gongorism died out with the Baroque Age, the naturalism and fundamental humanity of the comedias of Lope de Vega and Calderón found both willing imitators and satisfied audiences well into the eighteenth century. Like all cultural eras, the Siglo d’Oro came to a close, a point perhaps best marked by the deaths of Calderón and Murillo in 1681 and 1682.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Jonathan. Painting in Spain, 1500-1700. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. A detailed overview of the major figures, trends, and monuments in seventeenth century Spanish painting.
  • Brown, Jonathan. Zurbarán. New York: Abrams, 1991. A lavishly illustrated study of Zurbarán and his major works.
  • Casey, James. Early Modern Spain: A Social History. New York: Routledge, 1999. Casey explores the various classes that constituted Spanish society from about 1500 to 1800, the forces that shaped them, and the effects they had on Spanish history.
  • Defourneaux, Marcelin. Daily Life in Golden Age Spain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1979. This work details urban and rural life and the customs, beliefs, and social structures of the period.
  • Elliott, J. H. Spain and Its World, 1500-1700: Selected Essays. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989. A collection of essays, some of which place Spanish decline in a broad context.
  • Jones, R. O. The Golden Age: Prose and Poetry, the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1971. A broad examination of the major authors, works, and trends in Spanish literature in the seventeenth century.
  • Kamen, Henry. The Golden Age of Spain. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. An updated version of a broad introduction to Spanish history in the seventeenth century.
  • Parker, Mary, ed. Spanish Dramatists of the Golden Age. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. This work contains extended biographical essays on nineteen of Spain’s most important dramatists from around 1500 to around 1700.
  • Wolf, Norbert. Diego Velazquez, 1599-1660: The Face of Spain. New York: Taschen, 2000. A well-illustrated overview of the artist’s major works.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Pedro Calderón de la Barca; Charles II (of Spain); Luis de Góngora y Argote; Bartolomé Esteban Murillo; Count-Duke of Olivares; Philip III; Philip IV; Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas; Tirso de Molina; Lope de Vega Carpio; Francisco de Zurbarán. Golden Age, Spanish
Spain;Golden Age