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Golden Age of Spain

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Golden Age of Spain

Flourishing arts, daring theatre, and seminal pieces of literature; Spain's prosperous period in the late 1500s birthed what became known as the Golden Age (Siglo de Oro in Spanish). Although the Spanish renaissance period arrived later than much of the rest of Europe’s, it was no less impressive and left a lasting mark on culture and arts.

How did the Golden Age of Spain come about?

There are three main factors that supported the Golden Age of Spain: the Conquest of Granada, overseas exploration, and King Philip II’s patronage of the arts.

Golden Age of Spain: the Conquest of Granada

While many other countries in Europe had begun their journeys into the new Renaissance period in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Spain was preoccupied with the Reconquista -an 800-year war that Christians had been fighting against Muslim Moors in an effort to regain the territories that they had lost to them in the eighth century.

After the successful Conquest of Granada in 1492, Christians had managed to reconquer the different kingdoms and were free to set their sights on other objectives. One major goal was to catch up to the rest of Europe and enter the Renaissance period.

What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance, French for ‘rebirth’, was a period in Europe (beginning in the fourteenth century) that followed the Middle Ages, where new ideas emerged, arts flourished, and economies prospered. Many of the philosophical thinkers, authors, scientists, and artists that emerged from this era are still renowned today. Leonardo da Vinci is one famous example.

Helped by advances in trade and new technologies such as the Gutenberg printing press, which allowed for writing to be distributed and improved communication across Europe, Europe left the Middle Ages behind. The period was one of cross-communication and exploration. Overseas discoveries brought wealth to the European countries and international trade boomed.

Historians agree that the Renaissance ended in the early seventeenth century when it evolved into a new Age of Enlightenment. Whilst many scholars regard the Renaissance as a unique period, some historians believe that it was not too dissimilar to the Middle Ages and that the two periods overlapped.

Golden Age of Spain: overseas exploration

A Golden Age needs, surprisingly enough, gold, or at least some form of economic support. Hence, one of the most important factors in establishing Spain's Golden Age was the success of Spanish exploration. When, in 1492, the rogue seafarer Christopher Columbus came to ask for funding for an expedition, the Catholic Monarchs agreed. This decision essentially sealed the fate of Spain for the next few centuries, as Columbus would chance across Cuba, which paved the way for the Spanish colonisation of the rest of the Americas. Two subsequent conquistadors, Cortés and Pizzaro, however, really drove the Golden Age with their exploration and plundering of Mexico and Peru, which were rich in precious metals.

Conquistador

Spanish for ‘conqueror’, the name given to the Spanish explorers and colonisers.

Golden Age of Spain: King Philip II

Isabella and Ferdinand's consolidation of royal power and the expansion of the Spanish empire under Charles I contributed to the making of the Golden Age. However, its true patron was King Philip II, whose zeal for cultural developments and patronage to the arts drove the Golden Age of Spain. He funded the arts by giving them patronage.

Patronage

Support, encouragement, privilege or financial aid that one gives to someone or something.

Art during the Golden Age of Spain

Art and architecture were key features of this period. Art was heavily influenced by the Counter-Reformation so works heavily featured religious themes and mysticism. One major style was Mannerism, where features were exaggerated, often creating asymmetrical paintings. Famous and influential artists of the era include:

  • El Greco

  • Diego Velázquez

  • Francisco de Zurbarán

  • Bartolomé Esteban MurilloGolden Age of Spain The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco StudySmarterThe Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco, Wikimedia Commons.

The architecture of this period was grand and ornate. Juan de Herrera, a Spanish architect, mathematician and geometrician, was a highly influential figure and developed the Herrerian style that characterised many Golden Age buildings.

Many of these are key sites in Spain today, such as:

  • The palace of Charles V

  • El Escorial (Philip II’s residence and resting place)
  • The Plaza Mayor in Madrid
  • Granada Cathedral

  • Valladolid Cathedral

Golden Age of Spain Photograph of El Escorial at night StudySmarterPhotograph of El Escorial at night. Source: Malopez 21, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

What was Reformation and the Counter-Reformation?

During the sixteenth century, a reform movement was spreading across Europe to challenge the Catholic Church and its perceived abuses. This movement, known as The Reformation, offered a new form of Christianity, Protestantism, that differentiated itself from the Catholic Church (notably by stating that people could not pay their way into a better afterlife). Although earlier movements existed, it is considered to have begun with Martin Luther in 1517 and his publication of the Ninety-Five Theses. The newly invented printing press allowed for Luther's work to be distributed widely and his ideas quickly spread across Europe, where they gained ground in countries like the Netherlands and England.

The Catholic Church viewed Protestantism as a great threat to its power, hence the Counter-Reformation was established to push back against the Reformation and internally renew the Catholic Church. Efforts against the Reformation included establishing inquisitions (tribunals to root out heretics (non-Catholics) and engaging in foreign wars to suppress Protestantism such as the Eighty Years' War. Efforts to internally renew the Catholic Church involved purging itself of its abuses and ambiguities. A key moment in the Counter-Reformation was the Council of Trent in 1545. This Council addressed ambiguities and formed the Roman Catholicism of modern history.

Theatre during the Golden Age of Spain

Theatre blossomed in this age, rivalling the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists of the English Renaissance. In Spain, three main styles evolved and took centre stage: the comedia (comedy), the auto sacramental (a short allegorical religious play performed in verse), and the entréme (a short piece performed during intervals of full theatre performances).

Allegorical play

A play where the characters symbolise something else (often with moral or political significance). In the autos sacramentales, the allegories were religious.

Some of the most famous plays of this period include:

  • Life is a Dream - Calderón de la Barca (a philosophical drama)

  • Fuente Ovejuna - Lope de Vega (a historical play)

  • The Trickster of Seville - Tirso de Molina

Photograph of the Teatro Lope de Vega (Lope de Vega Theatre) in Valladolid. Source: Luis Fernández García, Wikimedia Commons.

Literature during the Golden Age of Spain

The Golden Age is often seen as the high point for Spanish literature. Many of the works that emerged from this period were religious, realist, and patriotic.

The most important literary works were Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (published in two parts in 1605 and 1615), which tells the story of a Spanish noble who goes in search of his own chivalrous adventures, inspired by his love of reading.

The economy during the Golden Age of Spain

The exploitation of the colonies in the Americas reaped enormous amounts of wealth for Spain. Most historians believe that in the mid-sixteenth century, Spain reached the height of its economic growth. However, the extent to which this actually benefitted the Spanish people themselves is questionable.

During this age, Spain poured vast amounts of money into the fight against Protestantism, which put the country in huge amounts of debt. The costs of the Eighty Years War and the Armada's disastrous attack on England far superseded the amount of money Spain was generating from the Americas, hence Philip had to introduce heavy taxation and use loans. By 1596, Philip's government had declared its third bankruptcy. In the late sixteenth century, the Spanish economy was on a downwards trajectory, which culminated in a severe economic crisis until the mid-seventeenth century.

Golden Age of Spain: population

A rapid decline in the population led to economic problems in Spain, which came to a head during the Golden Age. Attacks and expulsions against Jews and Muslims, as well as famines and plagues, wiped out a large amount of the population.

Many of the people that left were skilled workers, such as traders, business people, and farmers, creating a labour shortage in Spain. This led to a decline in agriculture, which directly affected the poor. Many moved to urban areas in search of work, leading to plagues, high unemployment, inflation, and famine.

Golden Age of Spain: class disparity

There was a high amount of disparity between the different classes. Increased trade benefitted merchants, sheep owners, and industrialists but not the poor, who still suffered from plagues, inflation, and famines. The cultural developments were of interest to Philip II and some of the higher classes but had little effect on the poor.

The end of the Golden Age of Spain

The Golden Age of Spain ended in the late seventeenth century as Spain entered a new era and its power and prosperity began to decline. Some mark the Golden Age of Spain by Caldéron's (one of the greatest writers of the age) death in 1681, whilst others argue it ended earlier with the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 that ended the Franco-Spanish war and signalled Spain's end as the dominant power in Europe.

You might be asked in an exam:

‘To what extent were the years 1556 to 1598, both socially and culturally, a Golden Age for Spain?’

For this question, you need to explore the arguments that support or oppose this statement and come to your own conclusion, using them as evidence.

Was this period a Golden Age for everyone, or was it dependent on class? Here are some possible arguments you may want to consider:

ForAgainst
  • Phillip II expanded Spain's empire, securing Portugal in 1581. This boosted Spain's prestige, both at home and abroad.
  • Spain's arts flourished in this period, with the help of Philip's patronage, allowing Spain to experience its own Renaissance.
  • New ideas and intellectual movements spread across Spain.
  • Merchants, sheep owners, and industrialists experienced a Golden Age, where they profited from increased trade.
  • The Church also experienced a Golden Age as it was central to the Counter-Reformation.
  • The Inquisition and suppression of religion limited social and cultural developments. Heavy religious control meant intellectualism and other arts were stifled.
  • Philip was the driving force behind the Golden Age, with few Spaniards as enthusiastic about the cultural developments.
  • Continual wars meant that the Spanish crown was financially worse off in 1598 than in 1556.
  • The poor did not benefit from the Golden Age and many still remained victims of plague, famine, declining agriculture, and inflation.
  • Migration to the urban centres from the land to escape poverty resulted in plague and famine.

Golden Age of Spain - Key takeaways

  • The Golden Age of Spain began in the late 1500s and arrived later than many other European countries' Renaissance period.
  • The Conquest of Granada in 1492 ended the Reconquista and allowed Spain to focus on other endeavours. This is considered the beginning of the Golden Age.
  • Exploration into the Americas provided the funding necessary for Spain's Golden Age, although much of this was diverted to fighting foreign wars.
  • King Philip II drove the Golden Age and was a patron of the arts.
  • Art and architecture were key features of the Golden Age. In the art world, styles such as Mannerism reflected the Counter-Reformation. Architects of this age are highly renowned, and their buildings such as El Escorial and the Granada Cathedral are still admired today.
  • Theatre and literature also blossomed during this period, with highly influential writers such as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Lope de Vega creating their famous works.
  • Although the Golden Age was seen as a high point of the Spanish economy, not all Spaniards enjoyed a prosperous life. The poor still remained victims of plagues and famines.

Frequently Asked Questions about Golden Age of Spain

The Golden Age of Spain describes an era of flourishing arts and economic prosperity in Spain. It is characterised by exploration and the development of new ideas, and birthed some of the most influential authors, architects, artists, and musicians of Spanish history.

The Golden Age of Spain is the period between the early sixteenth to late seventeenth century Spain.

The factors that contributed to the Golden Age of Spain were the Conquest of Granada and subsequent freeing up of Spanish resources for exploration and development, the discovery of the Americas, the Counter-Reformation, and Philip II's zeal for a cultural Renaissance like the rest of Europe.

The Golden Age in Spain is said to have ended around the late seventeenth century. It ended as Spain entered a new era and its power and prosperity started to decline. Some see the end of the Franco-Spanish War as the end of the Golden Age.

It is described as the Golden Age because it was an era of military victory, prosperity, and cultural production.

Final Golden Age of Spain Quiz

Question

What does Siglo de Oro mean?

Show answer

Answer

The Golden Age

Show question

Question

Why was Spain behind other European countries in entering the Renaissance period?

Show answer

Answer

It was pre-occupied with the Reconquista (a series of battles between Christians and Muslims to regain territories) until 1492.

Show question

Question

How did Spanish overseas exploration contribute to the Golden Age?

Show answer

Answer

Exploration brought vast wealth to Spain in the form of precious metals and trade. This wealth contributed to the prosperous economy in the Golden Age.

Show question

Question

Which monarch was particularly influential in the Golden Age and why?

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Answer

Philip II, as he gave patronage to the arts.

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Question

Which of these artists were prevalent in the Golden Age?

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Answer

El Greco

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Question

Which of the following buildings were works by architects of the Golden Age? (Choose three)

Show answer

Answer

El Escorial

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Question

Which of these theatre styles emerged in the Golden Age?

Show answer

Answer

Comedias

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Question

Which highly influential two-part work did Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra produce in the Golden Age?

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Answer

Don Quixote

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Question

Why was Spain having financial difficulties despite the lucrativeness of the Americas explorations?

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Answer

During this age, Spain was investing large sums of money into the fight against Protestantism, which actually rendered the country in debt. The costs of the Eighty Years War and the Armada's disastrous attack on England far superceded the amount of money Spain was generating from the Americas.

Show question

Question

Why did expulsions of Jews and Muslims impact the wealth of Spain?

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Answer

Expulsions of the Jews and Muslims, alongside famines and plagues wiped out a large amount of the population. Many of the people that left were skilled traders, businesspeople or agricultural workers, leaving a labour shortage in Spain.

Show question

Question

Who benefitted from increased trade? Choose three

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Answer

Merchants

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Question

What two events are usually cited as the end of the Golden Age? 

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Answer

The Treaty of Pyranees in 1659 and Caldéron's death in 1681.

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