Rating: 2 out of 5
I am appalled. Appalled! I’m not quite sure how Mr Goodwin managed to sell this, as this is neither a history of the politics of the Spanish Golden Age and neither is it a history of the arts of the time. The Siglo de Oro undoubtedly had an expression in the arts, but that doesn’t mean that one can take Cervantes and Velázques, and use them as the reason for political ascendancy—which I felt the author was doing.
I am a great fan of the literary arts and will gladly ponder a painting as well. I’ve even been known to read a poem or two, but even with all that background, I wouldn’t try to continuously use the arts as a means to explain Spanish politics. The author’s attempts at doing so were continuously clumsy and, often, infuriating, especially where there was a two chapter tangent on explaining ‘Don Quixote’ a passage at a time.
Perhaps this additional dimension that has been added to the otherwise fairly dull political history makes it more interesting? I suspect to some it might. It is definitely helpful to learn about the Spanish greats, though perhaps a separate volume dedicated to this purpose would have allowed this title to stay on course for a longer period.
That is relevant because the author often loses himself in describing Poem A, Painting B, or Novel C, such that with the notable exception of the detail that gets dedicated to the Count-Duke, Olivares, almost none of the political actors that played a role in Spanish gains are portrayed in any depth at all. Given that this work should start with a decent grounding in Los Reyes Catolicos and build from there into Karl V, that makes for a relatively sad read, and one which is unlikely to introduce the reader to many new ideas.
Throughout the book, questions such as ‘What were the Portuguese–Castilian relations like throughout the period? and ‘What made the tercios so powerful?’ are hinted at, but never answered. The few times the author does bother to involve themselves with such details, such as when describing the lack of success in 17th century Catalan revolts, the reasons given (‘Catalonian nobles were stuck in their Medieval ways’) are entirely disconnected with how the book has treated the country thus far.
As such, this title is likely to bring up a number of issues that the reader would like to know more about—and then leave them unanswered. Spend your time elsewhere.