Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 31, 2023
Jesús Escobar Habsburg Madrid: Architecture and the Spanish Monarchy University Park: Penn State University Press, 2022. 288 pp.; 117 color ills.; 26 b/w ills. Hardcover $124.95 (9780271091419)

Few early modern European ruling dynasties generate such fascination as the Spanish Habsburgs. In particular, the figures of Charles V and Philip II are well-known as monarchs who understood how architecture could be employed to propagate an image of empire and did so by patronizing such works as El Escorial, the Alcázar de Toledo, the Alcázar de Madrid, and Charles’s palace at La Alhambra, while Philip reimagined Madrid as the empire’s capital city.

Turning away from these figures, in Jesús Escobar’s new book, Habsburg Madrid: Architecture and the Spanish Monarchy, the author focuses on the period from 1620 to 1700, which includes the reigns of Philip IV, the regency of Mariana of Austria, and Carlos II’s reign, which marked the end of Habsburg rule in Spain and its overseas territories. As Escobar recognizes, this period was plagued by political and economic turmoil in Spain and has been rendered by historians as one of “decline” (7). Added to this, the Madrid de los Austrias, as madrileños, refer to the central core of the city center and deeply associated with the Habsburg era, are difficult to research given the level of destruction and extensive alterations that buildings from that period have suffered. Escobar, hardly intimidated by these conditions, has produced a work of formidable strength that brings to light the ways the seventeenth-century Habsburgs employed architecture in continuation of Charles V’s and Philip II’s legacies to build on their image of monarchical power. In this context, as argued by Escobar, Madrid acted as the seat of its “worldly court,” (23) a town where the built environment changed rapidly to accommodate an aspirational sense of local and global grandeur transmitted through architectural and urban projects.

People familiar with Escobar’s first book, The Plaza Mayor and the Shaping of Baroque Madrid (CUP, 2004), will recognize how this new work is, in various ways, a logical continuation of his scholarship. The author’s first work was, in essence, a study of Madrid’s incredible transformation from 1561 as a modest Castilian village into the capital of the largest early modern empire. The time spent in the Spanish archives and the rich material analyzed by Escobar seem to have driven the desire, or necessity even, to write a continuation of the history of the Habsburg dynasty’s architectural and urban efforts in their capital. In contrast to Escobar’s first book, which employed the term baroque (as developed by José Antonio Maravall) to refer to Habsburg-era architecture and urbanism, in his new work, the author wholly embraces the term estilo austriaco which he and others have adopted to refer to the Habsburg architectural style since the Italian-based stylistic taxonomies of Renaissance and Baroque proved unfit and problematic to describe it.  

Escobar draws from the work of important Spanish scholars such as Antonio Bonet-Correa, Fernando Marías, Beatriz Blasco, and Alicia Cámara, lesser known in the English-speaking world. Still, he also draws from English-speaking Hispanists like Richard Kagan, John Elliott, and Catherine Zerner. For his new work, the author has polished his method of employing variegated archival and primary material to articulate the contexts of the studied buildings and sites. This way, notarial records, payrolls, expense reports, tax records, and contemporaneous visual imagery, such as engravings, plans, paintings, historical cartography, and literary sources, are employed to reconstruct the spirit of the age, the everyday life in Madrid, and the intricate politics of the elusive Madrid de los Austrias. The author’s reconstructions of the studied buildings through architectural plans proved to be particularly useful in illuminating the everyday uses and rituals associated with their interior spaces.

In chapter one, Escobar builds on the concept of grandeza as one of the book’s guiding threads. Grandeza or greatness, argues the author, is a notion that merges monarchical propaganda with urban decorum and cosmopolitanism, an idea that, Escobar argues, emerges in literary, visual, and cartographic material of the era. The chapter is a quick survey of the importance granted by Spaniards to urban environments and urbanity as centerpieces of Spanish culture and as applied to making Madrid the empire’s capital. In this chapter, Escobar guides us through urban chronicles like Gil González de Dávila’s Teatro de las grandezas de la Villa de Madrid (1623), the famed views of the city by Anton van den Wyngaerde, or Pedro Texeira’s Map of Madrid (1656), alongside other compelling material. In chapter two, the author tackles the seventeenth-century history of Madrid’s Royal Palace, an alcázar or stronghold built under Umayyad rule in the ninth century and profoundly transformed to become the seat of the Habsburg court. A fire in 1743 erased all traces of the estilo austriaco era, as it was rebuilt under the Bourbon dynasty following French tastes. In this chapter, Escobar does an impressive job of evoking the Habsburg-era palace and its history up to the fire through an array of visual and archival materials, also producing reconstructions of the palace’s interiors, presented in diagrams and plans, and enhanced with an assortment of contemporaneous paintings and engravings that aid us in reimagining the seventeenth-century atmosphere and everyday uses of its spaces. The role played by the Royal Works, a council dedicated to designing and maintaining the monarchy’s sites and buildings, and the Gómez de la Mora clan of architects and artists, is introduced in this chapter.

In chapter three, the author discusses another critical building of the Madrid de los Austrias, the Cárcel de la Corte, or court prison, designed and supervised by Cristóbal de Aguilera. The author presents the building and its construction history under the lens of the royal court’s efforts to publicly display the magnanimous exercise of justice by the monarchical powers. Of note are the parallels cited by the author, in terms of overall composition and elevation designs, between the royal palace and the court prison, a testament to how grounded and established the concept of the estilo austriaco was in the 1620s when the jailhouse began its construction. Escobar does a meticulous labor of reconstruction, detailing how the interiors must have functioned and how the institution was operated. Chapter four turns to one of the most intriguing structures in the Madrid de los Austrias, the city’s town hall. No other building in Escobar’s book embodies the tensions between municipal authorities and the royal court in Madrid as this one does, and the building’s complicated architectural program testify to this tension. The town hall required spaces for the town council, notaries, courts of appeals, a municipal jail, tax collection offices, and a royal hall to host the Regent Queen during special events, particularly the Corpus Christi festivities. Through meticulous analysis of archival records, Escobar reveals its protracted and convoluted building history (1640s–1680s) and details the forms in which the building was employed by both the monarchy and the municipal authorities. Chapter five turns away from individual structures to discuss a series of projects undertaken by the monarchy toward the end of the century, revealing, along the way, the critical role played by the Regent Queen, Mariana of Austria, who was able to aptly navigate one of the most economically and politically turbulent eras in early modern Spain. Following the death of her husband and uncle Philip IV, in 1665, with his heir the future Charles II, at three years of age and perpetually ill, Mariana took the reins of power, successfully handling economic crises, political turmoil, constant intrigues, famines, and just about every potential disaster that would have defeated the most daunting ruler ever. In this chapter, Escobar reveals her role as an architectural patron. Mariana led the efforts to reconstruct El Escorial and the Plaza Mayor, both of which suffered extensive and damaging fires. The chapter details both reconstructions and how the Plaza del Palacio, the grand square fronting the royal palace, and the façade of the royal palace came to be designed “in large part owing to her efforts” (200).

This lavish and splendidly illustrated volume is an important addition to the literature on Spanish architecture and urbanism of the early modern era in the English-language literature. Escobar has managed to produce an impressive and meticulously researched study which, together with the author’s first book and the now-classic study by Richard Kagan and Fernando Marías on the images of cities in the early modern Hispanic world, or Catherine Zerner’s study on Juan de Herrera, and Laura Fernández-González’s volume on architecture in Philip II’s era among others, reaffirms and expands the interest on Spanish Habsburg architecture for an English-speaking audience. Another important contribution is that, as Escobar affirms, more profound knowledge of the architecture and urbanism of the imperial metropole might serve future scholars researching Spanish colonial settings to contrast and transfer this knowledge to a global scale, to construct and enhance “transnational and transatlantic frameworks” (16). Indeed, the urban and architectural relationships between Madrid and the Spanish monarchy’s overseas colonial capitals, from Mexico City to Manila and from Naples to Lima and beyond, are topics that will yield important future studies.


Juan Luis Burke
University of Maryland, College Park