A Cultural History of Madrid: Modernism and the Urban Spectacle

By Deborah L. Parsons | Go to book overview

2
Madrid, ‘Villa y Corte’

Under the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, Madrid was the fifth largest city in Europe and the royal court of an empire over which the sun never set. Somewhat paradoxically, however, its capital status was in part the result if its lack of earlier historical eminence. Originating as an Arab fortress town in the ninth century, founded to protect the nearby Toledo from Christian attack, it remained little more than a small rural town and modest trading centre throughout the medieval period, despite gradually gaining royal favour as a residential retreat. Ferdinand and Isabella preferred Valladolid for the location of their court, and their grandson Charles V, Habsburg king and Holy Roman Emperor, travelled too widely to settle in any one city. His son, Philip II, however, to whom he left the largest empire in history (including the Iberian Peninsula, Central and Southern America, Burgundy, the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and the Philippines) sought a central and permanent capital.

Philip's decision to install the Habsburg court at Madrid in 1561 is generally agreed to have been both arbitrary and short-sighted. The city had no illustrious past to speak of, no grand monuments and no navigable river. What sixteenthcentury Madrid did offer, however, was a suitably blank page for the writing of the king's narrative of imperial monarchy. The relative insignificance of Madrid's political and religious heritage in comparison with that of Toledo or Valladolid was ideally suited to Philip's desire for a neutral centre, and the city's geographical centrality within Spain seems to have appealed to his fascination for mathematical order. Moreover, its elevation to the status of capital would provide a clear demonstration of his absolute monarchical power. In making the provincial town the capital of an empire, Philip inscribed upon it a specific material and symbolic identity. Socially, politically, economically and topographically, Madrid had become la Villa y Corte, a capital by royal decree (Fig. 1).

Madrid's population rose dramatically with the arrival of the court, from about 18,000 in 1561 to over 80,000 by the end of Philip's reign in 1598, as people flooded to the city from the local provinces in search of work. An overwhelming majority were serviced to the court as servants, military, bureaucratic or religious staff, or as artisans in luxury trade, resulting in what was a predominantly floating population. 1 The consolidation of the permanency of the royal household brought with it significant urban embellishment, notably in the building of the

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A Cultural History of Madrid: Modernism and the Urban Spectacle
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • List of Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • Abbreviations xiii
  • 1 - Introduction: The Castizo Metropolis 1
  • 2 - Madrid, ‘Villa Y Corte’ 13
  • 3 - The Nineteenth-Century Capital 33
  • 4 - City of Contrasts 57
  • 5 - Cosmopolitan Lights 77
  • 6 - Urban Cosmorama 93
  • 7 - Epilogue 105
  • Notes 109
  • Select Bibliography 121
  • Index 127
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