In Praise of “Real Books”: Velázquez and the Filtered Reality of Spain’s Siglo de Oro

This week I read a post from the Smithsonian Insider blog on Why Museums and Libraries Are More Relevant than Ever, which is an exceptional read in a time when continued funding for the arts and humanities has suddenly been jeopardized. The title of the post (and the content) echoes many of the thoughts I’ve been having over the past few years — and especially the past six months or so — about “traditional sources of information“. In this era of Google, Wikipedia, and 24/7 internet access, it’s becoming more common each year that my students are unfamiliar with or unable to find materials in the actual brick(limestone!?)-and-mortar building on campus known as the library. When I require “traditional sources” (aka – books and academic journals, not internet blogs, travel sites, or Wikipedia) for final papers and projects, I’m often met with (a) bafflement and confusion, (b) emails asking if a certain website is “ok for the final,” or (c) the hastily-arranged meeting a week before the end of the semester meant to reassure students that their purely internet-based bibliography is in fact acceptable (hint: it’s not!). But students are not the only ones who tend to over-rely on the internet for their main sources of information — I catch myself doing it at times, too! In fact, information is so readily available to us, from so many different instantaneous online sources, that it’s easy to think that we’ve “found everything” about a certain topic simply after spending 5, 10, or maybe 20 minutes perusing a variety of Google results at our desks or on our phones.

Hale Library, Kansas State University… unfortunately, a much less-visited site than Image via K-State Global Campus.

In addition to the article’s mention of libraries and museums, I also love bookstores, particularly USED bookstores, which are a treasure-trove of information created during a pre-internet world. The historical and cultural perspectives in mid- and early-twentieth century books, for example, are often dramatically different than our own contemporary views. This past summer I posted about finding an early edition of Havelock Ellis’s The Soul of Spain here in my Manhattan bookstore, The Dusty Bookshelf  (which was tragically destroyed by fire a mere 2 weeks ago). Last fall semester I stopped in again and found vintage 1969 copies of Time Life Books’ The World of Velázquez (1599-160) and The World of Goya (1746-1828), in impeccable condition with both black-and-white and color images, as well as illustrated protective sleeves. As I was paging through the Velázquez book, within the margins on one of the last pages I found this gem featuring Carlos II,  the last Habsburg ruler of Spain who left no heir to the throne. A product of generations of Habsburg endogamy (i.e. incest), Carlos II was not only impotent, but also, it is said, mentally and physically deranged — a symbol of the decline of the once-powerful Spanish Empire. Yet of all the descriptions I’ve read of this particular “Bewitched” (hechizado) Habsburg King, I definitely think this (somewhat problematic…) caption is my favorite — Dale Brown and the 1969 Time Life Books editors sure had a way with words… “ulcerated,” “scrofulous,” “ricket-ridden,” “distemper” and “misbegotten” — all in one short caption!

Carlos II, “el hechizado,” gracing page 175 of “The World of Velazquez”. Image mine, via Time Life Books.

I also discovered several other images and details that I hadn’t found anywhere online, one of which was by chance as I was procrastinating preparing for my Spanish Culture class dedicated to the legacy of “Don Quixote,” both within Spain and globally. To take a break from historical readings, I had assigned a short essay from the LA Review of Books that was published just this past December (2016) prior to the spring semester: “Oh, Sancho: The Ongoing Ride of Don Quixote in American Politics” by Colby College English professor Aaron R. Hanlon. In his essay, Hanlon discusses the relevance of the term “quixotic” (quijotesco)  in contemporary U.S. politics, asserting that it can be applied to candidates across the political spectrum, from Trump to Clinton to Stein. He identifies two reasons for this, citing articles that refer to each candidate in these particular ways:  “quixotic signals two things in particular about political actors: a foolhardy attempt to do something impossible, or a delusional comportment not compatible with the exigencies of real life.” Moreover, he proposes a third element of “quixotic,” derived from his analysis of particular episodes of the novel in which “Quixote has a way of severing rationality from fact. He represents a failure of empiricism — an unreliability arising not from the absence of rationality, but from the stubborn complexity of perception.” What I appreciated about this essay was (1) his critique of all political parties and all voters, along with his recognition of their (and his own) biases, (2) the close attention he pays to literary representation and the impact of fiction, and (3) the fact that his analysis essentially led him to predict the #AlternativeFacts  phenomenon — which now has a Wikipedia page, by the way —  before it became a media sensation in late-January.

“Dumb Quixote”, 2015

But back to my Velázquez book…. As I was paging through it, I noticed this fascinating early modern political cartoon depicting King Felipe IV and his válido Conde-Duque de Olivares as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza respectively (below). This image was also placed in the margins of the text as a somewhat tangential illustration to accompany a description of courtly life and politics when Velázquez was the official painter of the Court (1630s-40s). Since I had already selected a few Don Quixote-themed contemporary political cartoons to share in class (one above), I was excited that I happened to find one that dated to 1641… without deliberately looking for it. I am a bit curious, however, as to why the artist made Olivares resemble a lion! I’m sure there are tabloid-esque archives that could shed light on this particular “artistic” rendition of the King’s Favorite, as I know Olivares was a frequent object of ridicule for both his failed policies and lofty endeavors, as well as his increasingly unstable mental capacity later in life (he died in 1645).

Image mine, via Time Life Books, p. 62.

While I cannot decipher the entirety of the 17th-century script that appears below these sketches, the caption in the book reads as follows: “In a rare gibe at Philip IV, a political satirist based his cartoon on the most popular piece of literature of the day, Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, the adventures of an aging knight and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza. The cartoon, which surreptitiously appeared in 1641, shows Philip as Don Quixote [right] and his First Minister, Olivares, as Sancho [left]. This dangerous satire — men were jailed for less — equates Philip’s costly and futile wars with Quixote’s windmill-tilting crusades” (Brown 62).  Though I take some issue with the description of Don Quixote as a picaresque novel, the caption does highlight important aspects of the social and political climate during the later years of Spain’s Siglo de Oro.

The entirety of Velazquez’s first portraits of Felipe IV – the first was painted over, and the second image is a third attempt at refining the King’s appearance. Image mine, via Time Life Books, p. 13.

Finally, I also appreciated the unique organization of different paintings throughout the book. In fact, the attention to the placement and layout is similar to one of the things I love most about museums — the way in which certain images or objects are juxtaposed with others, creating a unique narrative that is often absent from electronic sources or random Google Image-results. Above and below are two sets of images showing Velázquez’s numerous royal portraits of Felipe IV. The below set of four images shows the evolution of the King’s portraiture throughout his reign. Their side-by-side placement makes for an excellent comparison of Velázquez’s depiction of the king, particularly in terms of the artist’s evolving style. The first two images were painted when the king was only 19 years old (these are details from the full-size portraits above). In the first we see that Felipe IV “was in fact a rather ugly man” (Brown 14); in the second, Velázquez had painted over the earlier unattractive version to create a more idealized view of the king. Here, his features are narrowed and softened which, according to Brown, makes him “a handsome young ruler indeed” (14). The third image of the series is from 1626, and the caption notes the further refinement of Felipe’s features and the addition of a “luminous, pearl-like complexion with the inner glow of saintliness” (15). Finally, the last portrait dates to 1632 and, again in the dramatically poetic words of Brown and his editors, “It is not just a portrait of a man, but a vision of a king” (15). While it is relatively easy to find these images online, you will not be able to find such a carefully curated side-by-side comparison… (well, I suppose now you can, since I just posted it here…!).

Details from Velazquez’s numerous portraits of Felipe IV in the early 1600s. Image mine, via Time Life Books, pages 14-15.

In studying these images, I cannot help but think of Velázquez as providing the Royal Family with their own set of early-modern-Instagram filters… perhaps a fun class activity would be to name Velázquez “filters,” or create a social media account for Felipe IV and Olivares… hmmm, maybe next year! Now that I think of it,  Instagram seems to fit quite well within Baroque tendencies (which surged during a time of economic crisis in Spain), as  it more subtly plays with perspectives and alters our view of reality (ex: Don Quixote), rather than outright editing, deleting, or adding to what exists… like Photoshop. I think this “fun” comparison has now given me another topic to explore and research!

Still trying to improve my graphics… Image (obviously) mine.

I have not yet had time to read the entire World of Velázquez, and I have barely turned the pages of The World of Goya, but finding such useful information in this nearly 50-year-old book has already renewed my interest in acquiring older, traditional sources for use in my literature and culture classes. It also justifies my habit of buying so many books!

What are some of your favorite “traditional” resources? How do you encourage students to visit the library and avoid over-relying on the Internet?


Brown, Dale, and editors. The World of Velázquez (1599-1660). Time-Life Books, New York, 1969.

Hanlon, Aaron R. “Oh, Sancho: The Ongoing Ride of Don Quixote in American Politics.” Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), 28 December 2016.










About rebeccambs

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Art, History, Spain and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s