Saturday, May 31, 2014

¡Viva Madrid!

On Friday evening my sister-in-law Phyllis and I left on an evening flight from Newark to Madrid.  Unfortunately there is no way (short of a trans-Atlantic cruise) to get to Europe without enduring the rigors of a long flight (7 hours in the case of Madrid)I have never been able to sleep on a plane, and this flight was no exception.  Through the night I watched the flight map on the screen in front of me as the little image of the plane inched its way across the map of the Atlantic.  (Our headphones didn't work, so we couldn't even watch a movie!)

In spite of the fact that I didn't sleep at all, my strategy for fighting jet lag has always been to forge ahead, adjust to the new time schedule and don't give in to the temptation to take a nap.  However, I had not scheduled any sightseeing for today.  We were just going to hang out with my cousin Werner and his spouse Manuel.  (In earlier posts I have mentioned Werner.  He is a cousin on the Swiss side of my family, but he lives in Madrid where he has a translation business.  He and Manuel live in a lovely flat in Malasaña, an old, central neighborhood which is becoming increasingly trendy,)

Werner met us at the airport, and we went by metro (subway) to Malasaña.  Phyllis is staying at a hotel a few blocks from Werner's flat, and I am staying with my cousin.  It was still too early for Phyllis to check into her hotel, so we relaxed for a while at Werner's place.  Later in the afternoon, after she got settled in the hotel room, we all met again for lunch.

Madrid perhaps does not compare in beauty and sheer number of attractions with some European capitals, there is something about the atmosphere and style of life that I find absolutely irresistible.  And I think that Phyllis, besides being charmed by Werner and Manuel, had a sample of Madrid's seductive pleasures.  We had a leisurely lunch at a sidewalk café called "Agrado" located just a block from their flat.  Manuel ordered for us, and one platter after another of delicious Spanish dishes arrived at the table.  It was, in every respect, a delightful meal... the company, the outdoor setting on a narrow Madrid street, the beautiful weather, and the wonderful food.

Werner, Phyllis and Manuel before the food started arriving

Werner then took us to another café/bar which recently opened just around the corner from his place.  It is a rooftop terrace which attracts a young, hip crowd.  We stayed just long enough for a cup of coffee, and to enjoy the view from the terrace.

On the rooftop terrace, with the bell towers of an old church looming behind us

The view from the terrace

We then went back to Werner and Manuel's place.  Some friends stopped by, and we enjoyed more good conversation, and a platter of delcious Iberian ham and sausages, until we decided it was time to call it a day and catch up on our sleep.

A very good first day!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tomorrow is the big day!

Tomorrow I leave on my trip to Europe.
I depart from Cleveland in the afternoon, and will meet my sister-in-law in Newark.  We have an overnight flight to Spain and arrive in Madrid at 10:00 Saturday morning.  My cousin Werner will be at the airport to meet us.

The Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Be sure to follow my blog for our European adventure!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Brief History of Spain (Part Six)

In spite of Spain's humiliating defeat in the Spanish American War of 1898, the beginning of the twentieth century saw increased prosperity, at least for some.  Commerce and industry were booming.  The major cities became increasingly modern.  In Madrid a wide swath was cut through the old city to build a wide avenue, the Gran Vía, which was lined with new buildings in the latest styles.  In Barcelona "modernista" architects such as Antonio Gaudí filled the city with architectural gems.

However, most of the Spaniards, the workers and the rural peasants, still lived in dire poverty.  There was a great gap between the "haves" and "have-nots", and there was increasing social unrest.  Socialist, communist, and even anarchist groups attracted large numbers of the poor.

In 1923 General Primo de Rivera with the support of King Alfonso XIII established a military dictatorship.  His aim was to stabilize and reform the country.  He proved however to be inept, and the beginning of the Great Depression only increased his unpopularity.  In 1930, Primo de Rivera, having lost the support of even the military, resigned.  The following year, King Alfonso, who was also unpopular, suspended the monarchy and went into exile.  A republic was established in Spain.

In 1931 a new constitution was written which guaranteed freedom of speech, gave women the vote, legalized divorce, stripped the nobility of their status, and put restrictions on the Catholic Church, most notably stripping the Church of its role in education.  The liberal constitution, especially the provisions against the Church, infuriated conservatives and the devout.  The country became more polarized between the left and the right.  In the elections of 1933 a more conservative government took power.  But in the elections of 1936, the leftist parties formed the Popular Front and took power.  Violence, strikes and assassinations escalated.  The son of Primo de Rivera founded a pro-Fascist party known as the Falange, which sought to defend Spain and the Catholic Church from the threat of Communism.

In 1936 the military began a coup to overthrow the government of the Republic.  Although the military made gains in southern and rural Spain, they met stiff resistance in the cities which remained loyal to the Republic.  The military had hoped for a quick coup, but instead the conflict stretched in a protracted and violent war, The Spanish Civil War was probably the most disastrous event in the nation's history.

The war raged on for three years and left a half million dead.  The commander of the fascist forces was Generalísimo Francisco Franco.  He received the assistance of Hitler and Mussolini... both weapons and troops.

(image from the web)
Francisco Franco

The Republic was aided primarily by the Soviet Union.  (The United Kingdom and France remained neutral in the conflict.  Around 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 countries also joined in the defense of the Republic.  They were known as the International Brigade.)

During the war atrocities were committed on both sides.  Franco ordered mass executions of leftist sympathizers, trade unionists and school teachers.  Estimates of the number killed range from 130,000 to 200,000.  Among the most famous victims of the Franco terror was the great poet and dramatist, Federico Garcia Lorca.  Antclerical supporters of the Republic burned churches and murdered perhaps 8,000 priests, monks and nuns.

One of the most famous incidents of the Civil War was the bombing of the northern Basque town of Guernica by Hitler's Luftwaffe.  More than 1,600 civilians were killed in the bombing.  The tragedy was portrayed in Pablo Picasso's masterpiece, "Guernica".

(image from the web)
"Guernica" by Pablo Picasso

Eventually the better supplied forces of Franco gained the upper hand.  In 1939, the last bastions of the Republic, the cities of Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia fell.  Franco established himself as the dictator of Spain.  His rule was characterized by repression of all political opposition, and the restoration of the privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church prior to the Republic.  Divorce was once again illegal, all trade unions were outlawed, and the only permitted political party was the Falange, which became known as the National Movement.  Women were relegated to their roles as wives and mothers, and were not allowed to work as university professors.
From 1939 to 1943, during what is known as the "White Terror" opponents to France were rounded up, and either executed or put into labor camps.  The prisoners were forced to work on projects such as the "Valle de los Caídos" (the Valley of the Fallen), a grandiose monument to Franco's victory.  Some historians claim that as many as 200,000 died either through execution or deaths in labor camps.

The same year that Franco took power, World War II began.  Hitler hoped that Franco would join the war on the side of the Axis, but he was not willing to agree to the demands that Franco made as a condition to joining the alliance.  Spain remained neutral during the war, although Franco remained sympathetic to the Axis and allowed German ships to use Spanish naval bases.

The country was ravaged after the brutal civil war, and suffered years of economic deprivation.  After World War II, Spain was viewed as a pariah for its pro-Axis tendencies, and was not allowed to join the United Nations until 1956.  However, due to the Cold War, the United States eventually forged an alliance with Spain due to Franco's anti-communist stance.
Franco's repressive rule lasted for 36 years.  His hated "Guardia Civil" (Civil Guard) maintained strict order throughout the country.  Franco surrounded himself with economic advisors (many of them members of the Catholic organization Opus Dei) who spurred the nation into tremendous growth during the 1960s.
During the years of dictatorship, a terrorist group known as ETA emerged.  They sought the independence of the Basque province.  (The Basques are an ethnic group living in northern Spain and southern France who speak a language completely unrelated to Spanish or French.)  There were many bombings carried out by the ETA.  Although there were innocent victims, the ETA tended to target the police, the "Guardia Civil" and government officials.  In 1973 they killed Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, who had been chosen by Franco to be his successor as the head of government after his death.
In 1975 Franco died.  He had arranged for a restoration of the monarchy under Prince Juan Carlos (the grandson of King Alfonso XIII).  Franco assumed that Juan Carlos would be a figurehead dominated by Franco's circle of advisors, and that Spain would continue on the same course as it had during the long years of dictatorship.  Juan Carlos, however, proved to be a surprise.  He allowed free elections and the writing of new liberal constitution that transformed the country into a secular, democratic constitutional monarchy.
 (image from the web)
Juan Carlos
In 1981 a group of Franco supporters in the "Guardia Civil" seized the parliament building and attempted a military coup.  But King Juan Carlos ordered the rebels to surrender, and since the majority of the military backed the monarch, the coup fizzled.

In 1986 Spain joined the European Union. (In 2002 the Euro replaced the Spanish peseta as the currency.)  Spain enjoyed great prosperity and growth during the last decades of the twentieth century.  1992, the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Columbus, was a banner year for Spain.  Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympics, and a world's fair was held in Seville.

The story, however. does not end a happy note.  The worldwide economic downturn of 2008 hit Spain especially hard.  Unemployment is still running around 25%, even higher among the young.  The country has weathered far greater disasters, and hopefully it will weather this downturn also.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Gardening Update

I had told myself that today would be the last day that I devote to gardening before I leave on my trip to Europe on Friday.  Tomorrow through Thursday I have to get ready for the trip and clean house.  I had resigned myself to the fact that I would probably not get all the flower beds cleaned up before my departure.  Well, with several days of beautiful weather, and four to six hours of work outside each day, I surprised myself.  Today I finished clearing out the worst of the debris and weeds, and edging the beds.  I even had time to spray deer repellant on the hostas. Granted, there are no annuals this year in the empty spaces between perennials, no hanging baskets, no pots of flowers on the patios.  And by the time I return home, the weeds that I overlooked will probably be standing tall and proudly mocking me.  But, for the moment the garden looks respectable. 

Right now the flower beds are mainly a jungle of different shades of green.  But within a few days the Siberian iris will bloom, followed by the primrose and astilbe.  As we head into summer a succession of various varieties of day lilies will flower, as well as the purple, pink and white flowers of the loosestrife, and the lacy pink blooms of the filipendula.  I will miss a good deal of the show, but my housesitter will enjoy the changing display of flowers. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014


This year, because of my trip Europe, I decided that I would not do as much in my flower gardens.  I have a large number of perennials, but I usually fill in spots with annuals and also plant a large number of annuals in pots for the patios.  Because I will be leaving at the end of May and will be gone all of June (my prime gardening time), I will simply let the perennials do their thing and forget about the annuals.  However, all of the flower beds are in need of a thorough cleaning out and weeding.  I figured that I would be able to get that done before I leave.  But we have had a terrible spring.  It has been chilly and rainy.  On the occasional nice days I needed to mow the lawn.  Today we had a bright, sunny day, although the temperature was still only about 60 degrees.  I spent around five hours outside, and I have the front of the house looking respectable.  The brutal winter played havoc on some of the plants.  The azaleas only have a few flowers at the bottom, and my roses only have leaves at the base.  I cut back all the dead wood today.  

Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny again.  I will have to mow the lawn, but hopefully I can get started on the flower beds in the back.  There is so much to do.  I know that I won't have time to get it all done...  oh well.  But at least, even at its worst, my yard will not look as bad as that of my one neighbor who seems to cultivate four foot high weeds.  And my other neighbor, who has a beautiful yard, will be understanding.

Creeping phlox

This gives you an idea of the mess in the back flower beds.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Brief History of Spain (Part Five)

In 1700, Carlos II, the last of the Habsburg kings of Spain, died childless.  The throne passed to his nephew Philippe, a member a France's royal family of Bourbon and a grandson of King Louis XIV.  The rest of Europe was alarmed.  They feared that the balance of power would be upset with Spain and France united under the Bourbon family.  Thus, the War of Spanish Succession began.  An alliance of England, Austria, the Dutch Republic, and Portugal fought against Spain and France.  At first it seemed that the Bourbons had no chance of winning against the alliance, but then the French began to win some important victories.  In 1713 a peace was negotiated.  According to the Treaty of Utrecht, the Bourbon claimant was recognized as King Felipe V of Spain.  However he was required to give up any claim to the French throne, thus eliminating the possibility of the union of the two countries.  Also, Austria took over Spanish possessions in Flanders and Italy, and England took Gibraltar which guards the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Bourbon dynasty ruled Spain for the remainder of the eighteenth century.  Felipe V was succeeded by his son Fernando VI, who in turn was succeeded in 1758 by Fernando's half-brother, Carlos III.  Carlos was the greatest of the Bourbon kings of Spain.  Although he ruled as an absolute monarch, he was strongly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.  He sought to make Spain a more modern and progressive country, and passed many reforms, decreasing the influence of the Church and the Inquisition, and improving the economy and colonial policies.  The people of Madrid gave him the nickname of "El Rey Alcalde" (The Mayor King) because of his many projects to modernize and beautify the capital city.

(image from the web)

Carlos III of Spain

Unfortunately, his son, the next king of Spain, was far less competent.  Carlos IV was more interested in hunting than governing, and left the affairs of state to his domineering wife, Maria Luisa, and the Prime Minister Manuel Godoy (who is rumored to have been the Queen's lover).  Carlos came to the throne in 1788... during the tumultuous events of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.
Carlos IV is most famous for having been the patron of the great artist, Francisco Goya.  One of Goya's most famous paintings is this group portrait, " The Family of Carlos IV".
 (image from the web)
Goya portrayed the royal family as they really were... Carlos appears rather empty-headed and Maria Luisa looks like a shrew.  One writer commented that the royal couple looked like "the local baker and his wife after they won the lottery."  The King and Queen were supposedly pleased with the portrait however.  It is said that they were so impressed with Goya's rendering of their splendid attire, that they never noticed how unflattering their portraits were. 
Spain was torn by the Napoleonic Wars that were raging across Europe.  Carlos favored an alliance with France, while his son Fernando wanted closer ties with England.  Napoleon, who already had 100,000 troops in Spain, forced Carlos and his son to abdicate, and proclaimed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as the new king of Spain.

Although Carlos had been unpopular with the Spanish people, the French occupiers were even more hated.  On May 2, 1808, the people of Madrid revolted against the French.  (The Second of May is today Spain's national holiday.)  The French troops crushed the rebellion, and the next day, hundreds of Spanish insurgents were executed in retaliation.   The event was immortalized in Goya's masterpiece, "The Third of May".

 (image from the web)

 The executions, however, only stiffened the Spanish resistance, and Napoleon's forces soon found that the uprising against the French had spread throughout the country.  The constant skirmishes were a thorn in Napoleon's side and a drain on his resources.  It is from this uprising that we get the term "guerrilla warfare"  ("guerrilla" means "little war" in Spanish). 

During the war, rebels formed a government known as the "Cortes de Cádiz", and wrote a liberal constitution for Spain.  But after Napoleon's defeat in 1814, the son of Carlos, Fernando, assumed the throne as Fernando VII.  Fernando ruled as an absolute monarch and dismissed the "Cortes".  Meanwhile, the chaos in Spain, had given most of the Spanish colonies in the Americas the opportunity to declare their own independence.  All that was left of Spain's once mighty overseas empire were Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Philippines.

The nineteenth century in Spain was an era of inept monarchs, struggles between conservatives and liberals, and even a couple of civil wars known as the Carlist Wars.  In 1898 Spain found itself embroiled in a short but disastrous war with the United States.  The U.S. declared war on Spain after the American battleship "USS Maine" sank in Havana harbor as the result of an explosion.  Spain was blamed for the explosion, although there is no evidence that the Spanish were responsible.  As a result of the war, Spain lost its last colonies.  Cuba became independent, and Puerto Rico and the Philippines became U.S. territories.  It was a humiliating defeat, but much worse was to await Spain in the twentieth century.

Monday, May 12, 2014

More on the Cleveland Orchestra

(image from the web)

In my previous post, I wrote about the Cleveland Orchestra, which Time Magazine once called "the best band in the land".  For those of you who would like to learn more and hear our great orchestra in action (especially for my readers who live outside the Cleveland area), I searched YouTube for some video clips.  I have provided links to four short videos that were produced by the orchestra.

The first describes the orchestra in its role as Cleveland's global ambassador.

Cleveland's Global Ambassador

The second deals with the life of John Severance, the founder of the orchestra's home, Severance Hall.

John Severance

The third is a brief clip of the orchestra playing Bruckner's Symphony No. 8.


The final video shows segments from a concert in Miami, Florida, where the orchestra does a yearly residency.  It ends with the thunderous conclusion of Ravel's Bolero.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Cleveland Orchestra

Last Thursday a friend and I attended a concert of our world-famous Cleveland Orchestra.  As always, it was a wonderful experience.  A superb performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto was the highlight of the concert, and brought the audience to its feet.

The Cleveland Orchestra is considered one of, if not the best symphony orchestra in the country.  In fact, it is critically acclaimed as one of the best in the entire world, and is ranked with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic.  Whenever our orchestra goes on European tours it is met with rave reviews.

The orchestra was established in 1918.  It was under the long leadership of conductor George Szell from 1946 until 1970 that the orchestra gained prominence.  Szell is credited with giving the orchestra its "European sound".

(image from the web)

The orchestra performs at beautiful Severance Hall in the University Circle area of Cleveland.  Severance Hall was completed in 1931, and is named after John Severance, a local industrialist whose donations made the construction possible.  In 1958 an acoustical shell was built around the stage.  While it dramatically improved the sound in the concert hall, its modern style clashed with the rest of the interior, and it covered the pipe organ, making it non-functional.  In 1998 a complete renovation of the interior was undertaken.  The acoustical shell was removed and replaced with one that fit the elegant décor of the hall, and that revealed the pipe organ once again.  The organ was restored.  (A few years ago I attended a breathtaking performance of the "Organ Symphony" of Saint-Saens.)

The main lobby of Severance Hall

The wife of John Severance died before the hall was completed.  It is said that the brocade-like decoration on the ceiling was based on the fabric of her wedding gown.

In the summer the orchestra performs at the Blossom Music Center, which is located 33 miles to the south of Cleveland in the woodlands of the Cuyahoga National Park.  The center was opened in 1968.  The pavilion seats 5,700 people, and the sloping lawn accommodates 13,000.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Brief History of Spain (Part Four)

The Golden Age of Spain

In 1517 Carlos I, whose mother Queen Juana was mentally unstable and confined to a convent, took the throne as the first king of the united nation of Spain. He began the Habsburg dynasty that was to rule the country for nearly two centuries.  Carlos was viewed by many Spaniards as an outsider.  He had spent his youth in Flanders where he had been raised by his father's sister, and he did not at first even speak Spanish.  In spite of opposition, he took firm control of Spain, and centralized royal authority at the expense of the nobles and regional parliaments.

(image from the web)

Portrait of King Carlos I of Spain by Titian

The realms of Carlos extended far beyond Spain.  From his Habsburg father he had inherited the Low Countries of Flanders and the Netherlands.  From his maternal grandfather, King Fernando of Aragón, he inherited extensive holdings in Italy.  Upon the death of his paternal grandfather, he was chosen as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  (The Holy Roman Empire was a weak union of central European states that had its origins in the medieval empire of Charlemagne.  It is by his title as Emperor Charles V that we best know him from the history books. However, in this post I will continue to refer to him as Carlos.)  He was now the most powerful man in Europe.

(image from the web)

The European holdings of Carlos I of Spain (Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire)

During the reign of Carlos, Spain's empire in the New World increased dramatically.  In 1521, Hernan Cortés conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico, and in 1532 Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire in South America.  Vast riches of gold and silver from the Americas poured into Spain.  Spain was the superpower of the era.
Unfortunately, Carlos did not use this vast wealth to develop the economy of Spain.  Rather he squandered it in continual wars with France, the Ottoman Empire and in Italy.  Plagued by poor health (epilepsy and severe gout) and burdened with the responsibilities of ruling two empires,  Carlos abdicated in 1556, leaving the Holy Roman Empire to his brother, and the Spanish Empire, the Low Countries and the Italian possessions to his son Felipe.
 Felipe II of Spain
King Felipe II was a well educated and hard working monarch.  He could have been a great monarch, but, like his father, he wasted his nation's wealth on wars... most of them of a religious motivation.  The devout Felipe was determined to defend Catholicism against the rise of Protestantism and the Moslem threat of the Ottoman Empire.  He was involved in a prolonged war with the Dutch Protestants in the Netherlands who were fighting for independence.  In league with several other states, he led a naval expedition against the Ottoman Turks and won a victory at the Battle of Lepanto. 
One of his greatest obsessions was with England.  During his father's reign, King Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic Church in order to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragón (Felipe's aunt).  When Catherine and Henry's daughter Mary (known in history as "Bloody Mary") came to the throne, she reinstated the Catholic faith in England.  Felipe married his cousin Mary, and they hoped that their children would secure England's Catholic future.  However, Mary died childless, and was succeeded by her Protestant sister Elizabeth.  Felipe considered Elizabeth the bastard daughter of an illegitimate marriage, and planned to bring England back to the Catholic fold by force.  He built a fleet of 130 ships, known as the Spanish Armada, and in 1588 planned to invade England.  The campaign was a disaster.  The heavy Spanish fleet was defeated by the lighter, more maneuverable English vessels, and then the armada was further damaged by storms at sea.  Only one third of the mighty fleet made it back to Spain.
During Felipe's reign, Spain had reached the peak of its power, but his wars bankrupted the Spanish treasury, and Spain's economy was deteriorating. 
Felipe died in 1598, and was succeeded by his son Felipe III.  The Habsburg dynasty continued to rule Spain throughout the 1600s.  Felipe III and his son Felipe IV were much less competent, and the country's economy and political power continued to decline.  Nevertheless, Spain continued to have the largest colonial empire of any country in Europe.  

The country's "Golden Age" included some of the finest literary and artistic production of its history.  Spain's greatest writer, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was Miguel de Cervantes.  His masterpiece, Don Quixote, is considered the first modern European novel, and one of the world's greatest works of literature.  The novel, about an addled Spanish gentleman, who dreams of being a knight in shining armor, began as a satire on books of chivalry, but developed into a portrait of human nature, and an analysis of idealism versus realism.  Another great writer of the era was Cervantes' rival, Lope de Vega. This playwright was the most prolific writer in all of world literature.  He wrote more than 1800 plays, all in verse.  

In the field of art, the two most famous names are El Greco and Velázquez.  El Greco (his real name was Domenikos Theotokopulos) was born in Greece, but spent most of his life in Toledo, Spain, where he painted religious works in a distinctive mystical style.

El Greco's masterpiece, "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz"
Diego Velázquez was the court painter of Felipe IV.  His many portraits include not just pictures of the royal family, but also the jesters and "fools" of the court, and the Spanish peasantry.  Many a Spaniard would tell you, "Forget the Mona Lisa... the greatest canvas ever painted was his masterpiece Las Meninas!"
"Las Meninas" (The Maids of Honor) captures a moment in the life of the royal family.  Imagine that you are looking at this through the eyes of the King or Queen of Spain. (See your reflection in the mirror on the back wall?)  You are posing for a portrait.  There is Velázquez with brush and palette in hand.  Your little daughter, the lovely Princess Margarita, has stopped by to visit you.  She is, of course, escorted by her retinue, her maids of honor, her tutors, and even one of the dwarves who were kept for the amusement of the court.  Whether or not this is the greatest painting of all time is a matter of debate.  It is certainly one of the great works of 17th century art, and today holds a place of honor in the Prado Museum of Madrid.  


The Habsburgs come to an unfortunate end with Carlos II.  Generations of inbreeding among the Habsburgs came to a culmination in Carlos, who suffered such physical and mental disabilities that he was known as Carlos "el Hechizado" (the Bewitched).

 Carlos II of Spain
Carlos died in 1700 leaving no heirs.  (He was most likely impotent.)  His closest surviving relative was a great-nephew, Philippe, the Duke of Anjou and grandson of Louis XIV of France.  So, with the dawning of the 18th century, Spain was to ruled by a new dynasty, the Bourbons of France.



Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Brief History of Spain (Part Three)

1492 was a banner year for Spain.  In January  the armies of Fernando and Isabel (Ferdinand and Isabella) took the city of Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors, bringing an end to more than seven centuries of Moslem occupation.   In the same year, Isabella financed the expedition of Christopher Columbus.  The goal was to find a new trade route to the Far East.  Instead his voyages laid the groundwork for a vast Spanish empire in the New World which was to bring Spain immense riches of gold and silver... far greater wealth than the lucrative trade in spices and silks would have brought.

Fernando and Isabel were probably the greatest monarchs in Spain's history.  Isabel, in particular, was a well-educated, astute and hard working ruler.  And she did not take a back seat to her husband.  Their motto was "Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando" which very loosely translated means that Isabel was just as important as Fernando.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of blemishes on Isabel's legacy.  The third important event of 1492 was the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.  As the Christians gained dominance in the peninsula, the fragile religious tolerance which has existed during much of the Middle Ages unraveled.  Anti-Semitism grew, and there were pogroms in which hundreds of Jews were killed and synagogues were destroyed.  The edict of 1492 forced all Jews to either convert or leave the country.  Since the Jews represented a sizeable portion of the professional classes and were important in banking and finance, this action was to the detriment of Spain's economic development.

Previous to this, in 1478, Isabel and Fernando had established the Inquisition in Spain, a church tribunal, under the authority of the crown, to root out, try and punish all heretics. Those Jews who converted to Catholicism were suspected of secretly continuing their Jewish faith (in fact, many were), and they were hunted down by the Inquisition.  Later, when Moslems were also forced to convert or leave the country, and when Protestantism spread throughout much of Europe, those groups were also targets of the Inquisition.  Torture was frequently used to gain confessions from the accused.  Those who repented of their heresy were punished with imprisonment, or service as oarsmen in the royal galleys.  Those who were unrepentant were condemned to be burned alive as a part of a public ceremony known as an "auto de fe".  Whether the prisoner was repentant or not, all property belonging to those found guilty was confiscated and went to the crown. (So there was definitely a monetary as well as a religious motive behind the rooting out of heresy!) It is estimated that during the more than three centuries of the Inquisition's existence in Spain, there were 150,000 cases brought before the court, and between 3,000 and 5,000 executions.

(image from the web)

An "auto de fe" on the main plaza of Madrid in 1683

Spain's enemies, primarily the Protestant countries of England and the Netherlands, spread a propaganda campaign vilifying Spain and its Inquisition.  This is known as the "Leyenda Negra" (Black Legend).  While the Inquisition is most definitely a blot on Spain's history and stifled religious and intellectual freedom, one should keep in mind that this was an era of religious intolerance throughout most of Europe.  Pogroms against Jews were  common across the continent.  The Inquisition existed in other Catholic countries besides Spain, and in many Protestant countries Catholics were persecuted and executed.  The total number of deaths from the Spanish Inquisition is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of deaths in the great religious conflict of the Thirty Years' War.  And torture was the usual means of extracting confessions in many countries at that time... it was not something invented by the Inquisition.

As I mentioned in a previous post, although Isabel and Fernando were married, their respective kingdoms of Castilla and Aragón remained separate. Isabel died in 1504, and the crown of Castilla passed to her daughter Juana.  Juana's father, Fernando, continued to rule his kingdom of Aragón.  Upon his death in 1516, the crown of Aragón also went to Juana, and she was the first ruler of a united Spain.

(image from the web)

Queen Juana

Unfortunately, Juana was mentally unstable, a condition that she might have inherited from her maternal grandmother.  She married a Hapsburg duke, Felipe el Hermoso (Philip the Fair), and they had several children.  In 1506 her husband died, and her mental state worsened.  In 1517 her son Carlos gained authorization to rule as King of Spain. Juana was confined to a convent where she remained until her death in 1555.  She is known in Spanish history as "Juana la Loca" (Joanna the Mad).

With Carlos in control, Spain was about to enter its "Golden Age". 


Sunday, May 4, 2014


Cinco de Mayo, as I discussed yesterday, commemorates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.  So let's take a look at the historic city of Puebla.

Unlike many Mexican cities which were built on the site of pre-Hispanic communities, Puebla was planned and built by the Spanish in 1531.  It was situated along the main trade route between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City, and during colonial times it was the second largest city in Mexico.  Today it is the fourth largest city in the country with a population of over 1,500,000 people.  It is the capital of the state of Puebla, and is located about two hours to the east of Mexico City.  It is an important industrial city and boasts the world's largest Volkswagen factory.  In spite of the city's industry and modern commercial areas, its historic center has been preserved.  In 1987 UNESCO declared the "centro histórico" a World Heritage Site.

As in most Mexican cities, the "centro histórico" follows the plan used by the Spanish in laying out their towns in the New World.  At the heart of the city is the central plaza, which in Mexico is usually referred to as the "Zócalo".  The "Zócalo" of Puebla is a lovely green area with fountains and trees..

Around the plaza, the Spanish would always construct a church and the government buildings.  On one side of the "Zócalo" of Puebla is the Government Palace which is the headquarters of the state government.  You can see the bell (under the clock) which is a replica of what you might call Mexico's "Liberty Bell".  On September 16, 1810, the parish priest Miguel Hidalgo, rang the church bell in his town of Dolores, and called on his parishioners to fight for their freedom from Spanish rule.  This was the beginning of Mexico's War for Independence.  Every state's Government Palace (as far as I know) has a replica of this bell, and on the eve of Independence Day, the state governors will ring the bell and proclaim, "Viva México".   (The original bell now is at the National Palace in Mexico City, and is rung each year by the President.)

On the opposite side of the "Zócalo" is Puebla's Cathedral, one of the largest in the country.  The cathedral was begun in 1575 and took over 200 years to complete.  The bell towers are the tallest in Mexico.  The dark limestone used in its construction gives the building a rather severe appearance.

                    The "centro histórico" is filled with beautiful, colonial architecture.

In the 1500s potters were brought from the town of Talavera de la Reina, Spain, to teach the locals their techniques.  Puebla soon became the center for the production of the glazed tiles that adorn colonial buildings throughout Mexico.  These tiles, called "azulejos" decorate many of the old structures in Puebla.

The potters also produced beautiful pieces of ceramics known as Talavera ware. It is still a specialty of Puebla.

In a city filled with churches, the most amazing is the Church of Santo Domingo.  One of the chapels within the church is the incredible Chapel of the Rosary.  It was built between 1650 and 1690, and is a stunning jewel-box of gold gilt, statuary and baroque ornamentation.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Cinco de Mayo

Most Americans have heard of the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo.  It came to the attention of people north of the border when Mexican-Americans began to observe the day as a celebration of their heritage.  It eventually became an excuse for "Anglos" to go to their local "Mexican" restaurant and drink margaritas and Mexican beer.  In spite of frequent articles that appear in the press around this time, many Americans still think that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day.  It is not;  September 16 is the day when Mexico celebrates the beginning of its war for independence from Spain.  The 5th of May is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla at which the Mexican army defeated invading French forces.

In 1861, Mexican President Benito Juarez, whose nation was facing bankruptcy, issued a temporary moratorium on the payment of foreign debts.  Napoleon III of France, organized a coalition with Britain and Spain to send a naval expedition to Mexico to collect payment.  In fact, Napoleon III, who had grandiose dreams of creating a French empire to rival that of his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte, was using this as an excuse to invade Mexico.  Britain and Spain negotiated an agreement with Juarez, but Napoleon's forces captured the port city of Veracruz and marched inland toward Mexico City.  Some Mexican conservatives, opposed to the liberal Juárez, actually welcomed the French invasion.

The Mexican army, composed of 4500 soldiers, met the French invaders, a superior army of 8000 troops, at the forts of Guadalupe and Loreto on the outskirts of the city of Puebla.  The Mexicans, led by young General Ignacio Zaragoza, surprisingly defeated the French and forced the invaders to retreat.  (Tragically, General Zaragoza died a few months later at the age of 33 from typhoid fever.)

(image from the web)

(image from the web)

General Ignacio Zaragoza
The battle was a humiliating defeat for the French army, which considered itself the greatest army in the world.  However, the French reorganized, and continued their march to Mexico City.  President Juárez was forced to flee the capital, but from the remote northern areas of the country he continued to direct the Mexican resistance.  Even though the Battle of Puebla had been only a temporary victory, it had boosted morale, and spurred those opposed to the French occupation to continue their struggle. 

Napoleon III, seeking to legitimize his invasion, in 1864 convinced Austrian Archduke Maximilian von Hapsburg to become the Emperor of Mexico.  Of course, Napoleon viewed Maximilian as his puppet, but the liberal-minded Maximilian proved a disappointment not only to the French emperor, but also to Mexican conservatives.  Maximilian's reign was short-lived.  Mexican resistance to the French occupation continued.  Although Abraham Lincoln was sympathetic to the cause of Juárez, the United States was involved in its own bloody civil war, and could not offer assistance.  However, once the Civil War was over, the U.S. government invoked the Monroe Doctrine, and strongly urged the French to leave Mexico.  By the end of 1866, the French had withdrawn, and Maximilian was left with a small army of Mexican supporters. In 1867 Maximilian was captured and executed before a firing squad.  Juárez returned in triumph to Mexico City to continue his interrupted term as President. 

(image from the web)

The execution of Maximilian as portrayed by the French painter Edouard Manet

¡Viva México!