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From the NS archive: Escorial

13 October 1923: The dingy violet hills of the King of Spain’s residence seemed curiously Northern.

By Roger Fry

Here the artist and Bloomsbury Group member Roger Fry admires the Escorial, the historical residence of the King of Spain. Built between 1563 and 1584, the Escorial is one of the largest Renaissance buildings in the world. Yet when Fry visited on a rainy day in 1923 the “uncompromising cold stone cloisters and dingy violet hills” didn’t inspire him to think of royalty but Yorkshire. Despite its interior offerings of ornate ceiling paintings by Luca Giordano and tapestries by Francisco de Goya, what stayed in Fry’s memory was the “granite vaults of immaculate simplicity… granite pilasters and narrow winding staircases, and everywhere the same grey unyielding gritty surface”. Fry concluded that death must have been the central theme of the design – so it is fitting that he opened with a quote from Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Poésies”, which translates to “Luxury, O ebony chamber where, to seduce a king / The famous garlands writhe in their deaths.”

Luxe, ô salle d’ébène où pour séduire un roi
Se tordent dans leur mort des guirlandes célèbres.

Everyone agrees that the Escorial is one of the most impressive sights of Spain. Surely no king has ever left a sharper imprint of his spirit than Philip II. Gloomy and bigoted that spirit may have been, but it was not, I imagine, without a kind of genius. For genius there must have been somewhere behind this strange conception of a royal residence and monastery rolled into one and called into portentous being on the lonely slopes of the Guadarrama. Was it wrong, I wonder, to see it as I did under ragged skies and soaked with a perpetual downpour of chilly rain or wasn’t that just the way to understand how Philip felt.

Anyhow, those uncompromising cold stone cloisters and dingy violet hills seemed curiously Northern. On the desolate side of a Yorkshire moor there stands just such another grey stone, cloistered court built by a Quaker of the eighteenth century for a charitable school. I kept on remembering it at Escorial, so similar a language did Catholic and Quaker puritanism find to express themselves in. Plainness is their common idiom, though the plainness of the one was practical and philanthropic, and the plainness of the other grandiose and mystical.

Certainly the Escorial is plain to a degree, and not all Luca Giordano’s flighty improvisations on its ceilings avail even to mitigate its austerity. Only perhaps in that suite of rooms where Goya’s tapestries have found a home does the tension relax. But would Philip have let Goya in? Would his instinctive good taste or his puritanism have won the day? It would have been a hard battle. No, what stay in one’s memory are granite vaults of immaculate simplicity of curve and purity of surface, granite pilasters and narrow winding staircases, and everywhere the same grey unyielding gritty surface.

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One remembers most of all Herrera’s great attempt, the Church of St Lorenzo. For once a Spanish artist is out to pit himself deliberately against a great Italian. For Herrera has definitely attempted to design in a Michelangelesque idiom. He has aimed at the great Italian architect’s effects of sublimity in the proportions of his colossal pilasters, and at something of his sharpness of definition in the saliences of architrave and moulding, and most of all at his concentrated and unified design. And no doubt up to a point he has succeeded; the effect is of tremendous mass and overpowering weight, the circular forms of arch and dome are well related to the emphatic and sparse perpendiculars, and the lateral proportions are clearly and definitely established. In fact he has been able to grasp so much of the Italian tradition of the High Renaissance and early Baroque as to enable him to be really impressive – as far as that general scenic effect on the casual spectator goes he can carry the style, and that, after all, is just what almost all Spanish religious art aimed at.

It always had the effect on the worshippers’ mind in view, how to overawe and impress him was its great concern. But for that very reason Herrera went no further. So that when once the first genuine shock of wonder which one gets at the moment of entering has worn off, the longer one looks the less impressive it becomes.

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There is here no such idea of perfection as haunted and urged on the Italians of the Cinque Cento. The sequences of relief are good enough for effect but not for contemplation. The proportions are good, but they are not final and entirely inevitable. No further correspondences, no unexpected subtleties of sequence, reveal themselves as one goes on looking. It is a skilful enough adaptation of ideas but not a great creation. If this judgment is too severe, it is because this building so definitely challenges the great Italians, and against them it cannot hold.

But perhaps it is better to accept what there is and, above all, to admire the relentless conviction of the general idea of the building, the monotonous gravity and asceticism of its endless courts and cloisters and corridors; and all designed perhaps to lead up to the culminating effect of the mausoleum below the High Altar. For to Philip’s mind death must have been the central and dominating theme, and so down there the austerity at last gives way; all that has been denied to life is reserved to give fitting honour to death. Gold and chiselled metal and rare polished marble make of this octagonal room with its elaborate dome a place of shining and dreadful luxury. And ranged one above the other, all round the walls like chests of drawers, are the black polished sides of the royal sarcophagi.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).