A Cultural History of Madrid: Modernism and the Urban Spectacle

By Deborah L. Parsons | Go to book overview
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The Nineteenth-Century Capital

‘How wonderful it would be to hold all the streets of Madrid in one glance’ [Qué magnífico sería abarcar en un solo momento toda la perspectiva de las calles de Madrid], the young Benito Pérez Galdós wrote in the newspaper La Nación in 1865. 1 Echoing Mesonero Romanos, he recommends the bell-tower of Santa Cruz as the site for such a panorama, although again his tone is arch, recognising the superficiality of the bird's-eye view even while he aspires to its promise of totality. For Galdós, the writer of the city required more than a panorama or blueprint; he needed a telescopic vision that could penetrate into the depths of streets and buildings. Like Mesonero, Galdós would also descend from the heights of Santa Cruz to the street, and he too would pose as a dramatised narrator of contemporary Madrid. Whereas the older writer channelled the conflicting interests of everyday urban life and modern urban planning into separate discourses, however, Galdós represented the clash of the castizo and the bourgeois within the narrative of the modernising city. Another interminable walker, Galdós revelled in abandoning himself to the street, yet he also desired the panoptic omniscience promised by the tower of Santa Cruz: ‘to see who enters and leaves, who prowls, watches and lies in wait’ [ver el que entra, el que sale, el que ronda, el que aguarda, el que acecha]. Within the part-material and part-imaginary Madrid of the novel, he attempted to reconcile the two.

In the era of the costumbre, Galdós states in his novel Fortunata y Jacinta (1886), ‘For all its ridiculous vanity, Madrid was a metropolis in name only’ (FJ, 28), masquerading as a European capital. ‘[A] bumpkin in a gentleman's coat buttoned over a torn, dirty shirt’, it was yet ‘about to become a real gentleman’ (FJ, 28). The city that Galdós observed from the tower of Santa Cruz in 1865 was no longer that of 1828, but instead a new secular landscape rising from the land cleared by disentailment and on the point of expansion. The inauguration of the first railway line between Madrid and Aranjuez in 1851 had initiated industrial and economic growth, and the beginning of work on the Canal de Isabel II in the same year assured a regular water supply that the beleaguered Manzanares river could not provide. Constitutional and bourgeois Madrid, however, required an urban scenography that would symbolise its developing modernity. The Puerta del Sol was remodelled into the commercial, administrative and financial heart of the city, and new public squares were created, including the plazas of Santa Ana, Pontejos,


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A Cultural History of Madrid: Modernism and the Urban Spectacle


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