and the Art of Armor
by Corinna Lothar
Spanish Habsburgs were the masters of Europe with an empire that included
not only Spain, but Belgium, Austria, Sicily and parts of Italy, France
and Germany. Spain had begun its age of discovery when Queen Isabella
dispatched Christopher Columbus on his voyage of discovery to the New
The Alcazar in Segovia where Isabella gave Columbus
funds for his voyage.
The Spaniards, seeking new trade routes, gold and the
Fountain of Youth, laid waste to much of what they found, but Renaissance
Spain gave us Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Goya, El Greco and Velazquez.
And, of course, the Inquisition.
A taste of the glory and splendor of Spain at the height of its power
in the 16th and 17th centuries, is on display in Washington, D.C. at
the National Gallery of Art in a stunning exhibition called The Art
of Power. Suits of armor, portraits of the kings in early full-metal
jacket, and tapestries recounting royal victories, make this a once-in-a-lifetime
exhibition. The exhibition will be up until November 1st, when portraits,
objects, tapestries and armor return to Spain.
Armor was the haute couture of 16th century. Much as European (and
American) gentlemen would turn to Saville Row centuries later for sartorial
splendor, royalty sought out certain armorers for their expensive suits
of steel and silver. Italian master armorer Filippo Negroli was a favorite,
as was German master Desiderius Helmshmid, the favorite of Emperor Charles
V. (After the military loss to Austria in 1551, the Spanish no longer
patronized German armorers.)
There was armor for battle, for light cavalry, heavy cavalry, tilting,
tournaments, ceremonial functions and even for weddings. A suit of armor
consisted of some 20 pieces, covering the body, the arms and the legs.
A full garniture included an additional 20 to 40 pieces.
A full suit of armor could weigh up to 40 pounds. The style and elegance
of armor bears little similarity to contemporary helmets, flak jackets
or bullet-proof vests.
|Parade helmet of Emperor Charles V
Royal armor was often adorned with opulent decorations, including the
golden fleece, symbol of the Spanish royalty, and images of saints and
the Virgin Mary to underscore the ruler as the ideal Christian soldier
and defender of the Faith. Decorations were chosen by the client. The
Negroli designed helmet of Emperor Charles V, which is in the exhibition,
alludes to Ottoman Turkey, Charles Vs principal enemy in the Mediterranean,
with a symbolic image of an Ottoman Turk, hands bound.
If you miss the Spanish armor in Washington, you will
be able to see it upon its return, or if you are in Madrid during this
summer, there’s still plenty to be seen there, particularly at the Royal
Armory, which has the finest collection of weaponry in Spain.
Spain today, after the difficult years of the mid-twentieth
century, is once again rich, elegant, fun-filled and fun-loving. Madrid
is a city of high style, fabulous museums, fascinating architecture,
excellent restaurants and lovely parks. It’s an easy city in which to
get around on foot, or via buses and the well-marked metro system.
The heart of Madrid is its Old Town, with the Puerta
del Sol as the city center. Here, every new year’s eve, as the clock
strikes 12, the celebrating Madrillenos eat 12 grapes – one with each
chime of the clock – to invite good fortune in the new year. It is from
the Plaza del Sol that all the highways leading from Madrid start, and
it is in this square that many important events in the history of Spain
took place. The bronze sculpture of a bear and a strawberry tree, the
symbol of Madrid, is in the square.
The Plaza Mayor is rimmed by beautiful arcaded buildings,
now home to curio shops. Once, the Plaza was the scene of bullfights,
pageants and religious autos da fe, where the king and queen watched
the burning of heretics. The fires are extinguished now, and the square
is occupied by students and young travelers.
View from the Plaza Mayor to a
small square in Madrids Old Town
Tucked into the narrow streets surrounding the Plaza
Mayor are small shops and countless little restaurants and tapas bars.
The restaurant Botin, founded in 1725, claims to be the world’s oldest.
Botin, like many restaurants in Madrid, specializes in roast suckling
A few blocks from Botin stands the curiously named Monastery
of the Royal Barefoot Sisters – so called because the nuns wore sandals.
This imposing red brick building is one of the city’s few remaining
16th century buildings. Originally a palace, it was transformed into
a convent for ladies of the nobility by the sister of Philip II. Inside
are a magnificent staircase and a wealth of beautiful paintings and
The Royal Palace sits high on a bluff over the Manzanares
River. For centuries a fortress, it became a palace in the 18th century
during the reign of Philip V. It remained in use by the royal family
until the abdication of Alfonso XIII in 1931. In 1982, all possessions
of the crown became part of the “patrimonio nacional.” Although the
king and queen continue to have the right to use the palace, the royal
family no longer lives there. The lavishly furnished reception rooms
and state apartments are open to the public. At noon on the first Wednesday
of every month there’s a festive changing of the guards in the square
in front of the palace.
Changing of the guard at the Royal Palace
Madrid’s most famous museums are in the Bourbon section
adjacent to the Old Town. The Prado Museum houses a world-famous collection
of Spanish paintings ranging from the 12th to the 19th centuries, including
outstanding works by Velazquez and Goya.
The neighborhood is home to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
Its collection represents the history of Western art from early Italian
Gothic paintings to 20th century pop art, with every period in Western
Nearby is the Museum of Reina (Queen) Sofia which houses
20th century art, including Picasso’s Guernica, which returned to Spain
from New York in 1981, pursuant to the painter’s wish that the painting
not return to Spain until democracy was established in Spain. The museum
of decorative arts and the archaeological museum are likewise in the
While the Old Town is replete with little restaurants
and tapas bars serving traditional cuisine, the Bourbon section of town
offers diners some contemporary tapas bars. One such popular tapas restaurant
is Estado Puro, where diners perch on stools at high counters to nibble
little squares of potato with a fiery sauce, delicious mussels, and
white anchovies as well as the more traditional Serrano ham and ham
Potato tapas at Estado Puro
Paper mantilla combs serve as wallpaper at Estado
At Dassa Bassa, the décor is ultra-contemporary and
the young chef prepares original dishes, many with a humorous twist.
You might call it Nuevo Espagnol. For more traditional dining, the Taberna
del Capitan Alatriste offers such Spanish favorites as baked cod, Iberian
pork and grilled octopus.
To fully appreciate the splendor of Renaissance Spanish
armor, a visitor should see the 16th century El Escorial palace of Philip
II in the foothills of the mountains northwest of Madrid, and the summer
palace La Granja near Segovia. The Escorial was conceived as a mausoleum
and the funerary urns of Spanish kings line the marble mausoleum in
the Royal Pantheon. The vast building includes a museum of art, a magnificent
library and a basilica.
The 18th century La Granja de San Ildefonso was built
by Philip V, grandson of King Louis XIV of France, as a hunting and
summer residence. This miniature Versailles, with lush gardens and opulent
décor, lies about 50 miles from Madrid. It houses one of the best collections
of tapestries in the world, some larded with threads of gold and silver.
The Royal Glass Factory lies just outside the palace grounds. The factory
made all the glassware for the palace, and visitors today can watch
the long-winded glassblowers at work.
The village of San Ildefonso, where La Granja is located,
is just outside the town of Segovia. Segovia is worth a visit for its
extraordinary Roman viaduct, the 16th century cathedral, the imposing
Alcazar - a castle fortress where Queen Isabella promised Columbus the
financial backing he needed to sail across the Atlantic on his voyage
of discovery - Romanesque churches and a small contemporary art museum.
Most important, Segovia claims to serve the best roast suckling pig
|Cutting a roast suckling pig with a plate
at Restaurant Duque in Segovia
Then it’s back to Madrid, perhaps for tea in the Hotel
Ritz, built in 1910 in the Bourbon section of town. Now restored to
the splendor marred by the Spanish civil war and the poverty that followed,
the Ritz is a hotel of mystery and legend.
If you happen to be in Madrid this summer, enjoy the
city’s summer festival of 1,166 performances. The festival starts on
June 25 and continues through August 23 with concerts, plays, dance
performances, film screenings, circuses and dancing in the streets.
For information on Madrid, contact the Madrid Tourist
Bureau on Spain.info.
For information on “Summer in the City” events, go to
For information on Segovia, go to segoviaturismo.es.