Discovering Spain

As the people of Madrid threw themselves wholeheartedly into celebrating the 200th anniversary of the spontaneous uprising against the French invaders on May 2nd, 1808, which started the War of Independence, British historian Henry Kamen asked in an article last week – independence from what? He rightly pointed out that the war didn’t make anybody independent from anything. Napoleon’s army had only just invaded the country so the Spanish were not throwing of years of French occupation and while the war did in fact awaken a national sentiment of unity against a common enemy, Mr Kamen prefers to call it the “discovery of Spain”. He notes that the war was not exclusively Spanish, but involved two other countries – Portugal and, more notably, England – as well as the French. The most famous person involved – after Napoleon – was Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington, who has gone down in history as the man who beat “the Corsican” at Waterloo on June18th, 1815. But it was his years in Spain, where he reached the rank of field marshal after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813, that brought him to prominence. He had assumed control of the British, Portuguese and Spanish forces in 1808, and led them for the six years it took to force the French out of the Iberian peninsular. When Napoleon abdicated in 1814, Wellesley returned home a hero and was created Duke of Wellington. Meanwhile, according to Mr Kamen, he had put Spain on the map – again. Spain captured the imagination of the known world in 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World during an expedition financed by Isabel of Castille and Fernando of Aragon – the Catholic Monarchs. While Spain ruled South America and a large chunk of North America for the next three centuries, the rest of the world were fascinated by the possibilities opened up by the new lands, and Spain tended to fade into the background. The English, French and Dutch vied to possess the northern part of the New World while pirates and scientists were fascinated by the southern half. However, thanks to what is known as the Peninsular War in British history, writers, artists, poets and politicians from Britain, France and Germany – plus a few Americans – discovered that Europe did not end at the Pyrenees. The English artist G A Wallis arrived as early as 1808 and wrote to his friends: “If you have the time and can bear the horrors of the journey to Spain, it will be worth your while.” He said he had discovered “Velazquez, Alonso Cano, El Greco, undoubtedly first class artists who are unknown outside Spain”. In 1815, the essayist Charles Lamb confessed to the poet Robert Southey that “he felt happy in Spain”. Southey himself had traveled widely throughout the country, learning Spanish in the process. He set his epic, “Roderick, the last of the Goths” in medieval Spain. Southey’s friend, Lord Byron, visited Andalucia in 1809, and gave Spain a prominent place in his “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, published in 1811. The Peninsular War also captured the imagination of several Irish writers, who saw parallels between the Spanish struggle against the French and the Irish struggle against the English. These included Alicia Le Fanu whose novel “Don Juan de las Sierras” combined romantic echoes of Spain with Irish nationalist issues, and Charles Duffy who, inspired by El Cid, compared Spain and Ireland in their fight for freedom. Increasing numbers of foreign visitors discovered the Escorial and the Alhambra, which was invaded by gypsy squatters and falling into disrepair until the American writer Washington Irving, who was attached to the US consulate in Madrid in the late 1820s wrote his “Tales of the Alhambra”. The book encouraged several foreign governments, including the British and the French, to exert pressure on the Spanish for its restoration. Spain would have an even greater impact on the composers. Sevilla in particular influenced Bizet (Carmen), Rossini (The Barber of Seville), Verdi (Don Giovanni and El trovador), and Beethoven (Fidelio), who all set their works in the Andalucian capital. Later composers inspired by Spanish music included Rimsky-Korsakov (Capricho espanol). Debussy (Iberia) and Ravel (Bolero). Mr Kamen pointed out in his article that while Spanish love fiestas, they have always been a bit tardy in recognizing commemorative dates that involve them. Take National Day – October 12th, the date Columbus discovered the Americas. By 1910, that day was already a national holiday in the US, thanks to the Italians who remembered the feat of their countryman – Columbus originally came from Genoa. October 12th had for centuries been celebrated in Spain as the Day of the Virgin Pilar but it wasn’t until 1935 that the Spanish government began to call it Dia de la Hispanidad (Spanishness) to mark Columbus’s discovery. It became Spain’s official National Day in 1982 after The Royal Decree 3217/1982 was published in the Official Gazette.


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