Incomparable Realms: Spain During the Golden Age, 1500–1700

Reaktion. Jul. 2022. 464p. ISBN 9781789145373. $35. HIST
Robbins (Arts of Perception) begins this exploration of Spanish culture and society in the Golden Age (1500–1700) by introducing us to a painting, and not one that most will know. Antonio de Pereda’s Vanitas was painted around 1634, when Spain was already starting to lose its dominance in Europe. Vanity paintings are intended for moral counsel: disenchantment with the material world. But the focus in this painting is the transience of power and authority. The objects displayed in it point to the Habsburgs, on whose empire the sun never set. Accept it, is the message; empires come and go. There’s a great deal to ponder in this book: the ties between monarchy and Church, which legitimated a non-Spanish dynasty; Spanish artists’ preoccupation with mirrors (Velázquez’s Las Meninas) and illusion; how the tension between heavenly and earthly realms defines Golden Age culture. Calderon wrote, in his play of the same title, that life is a dream, but Robbins notes, there was always a body dreaming it.
VERDICT The illustrations alone make Robbins’s book worth purchasing, but it is also a defining study of a seminal period in the history of Western art.
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