Re-imagining Cardenio

The Escorial

January 26, 2011
Niki Turner at the Escorial

Niki Turner at the Escorial

On our research trip to Spain, with our Spanish fixer Ann Bateson, and designer Niki Turner, we visit the grim grey granite Escorial. The grid-like monastery-fortress was built by Philip II in the hills to the North West of Madrid. We see his bedroom - the sombre little cell where he died in agony, his ulcerating body unable to bear the weight of even a single sheet. It isn't hung with velvet now, 'black and soft as sin', and the dwarves that Velasquez painted so frequently and whose portraits now hang on the walls of the Prado, no longer steal in and out. And I am disappointed to find that the crowned skull he kept by his bedside is no longer there (see image in previous post: 'Toledo and the Prado').

At the far end of the room is a small window from where the sickly monarch could watch the services being conducted on the high altar of the echoing marble basilica below. Philip died early in the morning of September 13th 1598, as the seminary boys were singing the dawn mass, 'the last service held for his health, and the first for his salvation'.

The Pudridero is a rotting chamber, where the corpses of nearly every Spanish monarch since Philip, have been left to decompose, before being deposited in the Kings' pantheon. Unsurprisingly it is not open to visitors. Ann tells us that the present King Juan Carlos' father is still in there. We descend past it, into the sepulchral gloom of a circular vault. It houses the bodies of the kings and queens of Spain, Hapsburg or Bourbon, racked on shelves, in bronze and blue marble coffins.

At the end of several chilly chambers in this necropolis-palace there is a white marble tomb like an iced cake, carved with the image of the hero of Lepanto, the young Don John of Austria himself. Here he is, handsome in death, surprisingly slight , gripping the Toledo sword, (like Othello's sword, 'the ice-brook's temper'), with which perhaps he charged his ships into the smoke of the Turkish lines at Lepanto.

In fact Don John died tragically young, not in the roar of battle, but, like the young Prince Henry of England after him, of typhoid. He was just 30. His legend is enhanced by miraculous events, such as the crucifix he had with him at Lepanto, which he later presented to Barcelona Cathedral. Its body is contorted, it is said, from twisting to escape a cannon ball during the famous battle.

As we wander round this humourless mausoleum of a palace, I get a profound sense of death as a central theme in Spanish life. This persistent flavour of mortality gives me a strong sense of the opening of Cardenio where the Duke Ricardo, contemplating his imminent death with a steady gaze, tells his son not to grieve.

We leave the pantheons of the dead infantas, and head back into the cloisters. The vast spectacular mural painted by Luca Giordano on the vault of the Main Staircase of the Escorial, depicts the then King, Carlos II, at the end of the next century, pointing to the apotheosis of King Philip II as he is welcomed into heaven, surrounded by vast hoards of saints and angels in a vortex of pink and golden clouds. Carlos looks for all the world, as if he is commenting blithely on a particularly charming sunset, and indeed in a way he is, for the sun had set by then upon The Glory of Spanish Monarchy as this baroque masterpiece is known. For with Philip II, the Spanish Empire died also, the empire he had ruled over for so long, slipping into decadence and losing its influence and grip, as the Inca and Aztec gold from its South American empires was frittered away.

The high point of Don John's glorious victory over the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto, should have been matched by trouncing the upstart English with a magnificent Spanish Armada in 1588, but instead, their defeat at the hands of the Queen Elizabeth's ships marked the start of a slow decline.

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet

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