Thursday, July 8, 2010

July 8:

Last night I watched episode #3 of the Tudors, which was even more cliche-ridden than the first two. In this one Henry VIII and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had a conversation about the New World and Aztec art that was even more unreal than the conversations between Henry and Francois I of France. And the scene between Sir Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn I found simply funny. Whether or not Wyatt was Anne's lover is still uncertain, and the one poem that seems to be addressed to her out of Wyatt's known works is not the one he recited from the tree in the show. I studied Wyatt in grad school and it was interesting to see that he made the show, and it was also fun to see that they found an actor with a large chin to play Charles V, who was known for the size of his chin; but they fail once more to catch the tone of royal conversation, the formal rodomontade, with the ever-present translators in the background. Most of all they get Sir Thomas More wrong. There he is, showing a kind of unease at the burning, on the King's orders, of Martin Luther's works, when in fact More was a great persecutor, relentless in his pursuit of heresy, and quite eager to burn heretics, not to mention books, at the stake; and most of all the producers are insensitive to the normalcy at the time of things like the burning of heretics and their works. Right now I'm working on Columbus and the Spanish attitude toward slavery, and Columbus and his contemporaries did not think twice about kidnapping natives and sailing them back to Spain to show to their sovereigns, or about establishing the slave trade in the West Indies. It is so easy to apply modern standards of morality and the rights of man to the past, and totally miss the mark. The rights of man had not even been invented in the fifteenth century. Mankind is not always and everywhere the same. Columbus was an avid Christian.


I have been intending to mention books in this blog from time to time. Having lost my book column when National Geographic Adventure closed last fall, I miss recommending books, something I've been doing in print since 1992, starting at Men's Journal; and since I'm talking about Spain and its rulers, I have in hand a new book out of Yale University Press by Henry Kamen, currently the leading light in studies of Renaissance Spanish history. His latest is called The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance. Spanish history is particularly interesting to me right now because my next book begins with the Spanish discovery of America, and the Escorial became a symbol of Spain's power and wealth at the height of its empire, when gold, silver, tobacco, chocolate, and the other products of the New World were making it incredibly rich. So what does a king build to show off his wealth? Something like the Escorial, which was palace and monastery all in one, the Spanish being nothing if not obsessed with the salvation of their souls. It survives as a major tourist attraction, but the focus here is really on Philip II, who built the Escorial (it took twenty years); Kamen had previously written a biography of the man, who also had a long chin, like his father Charles V. He was a fascinating king, capable of great festivities and great austerities at the same time, anything but the typical royal womanizer, and the first king in Spain to build on such a grand scale. He was inspired evidently by his travels in Europe. It was hardly normal for kings to go on grand tours, but Philip spent years doing exactly that, leaving a Hapsburg cousin as regent in Spain. When he came back he set to work on the Escorial.

Part of Kamen's mission is to rescue Philip II from the myth of his isolation, his timidity, and his instability. He works, of course, from a thorough knowledge of the original sources and years of immersion in Spanish archives. Kamen views have often generated controversy, but this book is persuasive about the character of the king and fascinating on the subject of the building. Over the past few years Harvard University Press has been publishing a series devoted to landmark structures like Stonehenge, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, the Dome of the Rock, and so on; these are excellent summaries of the current knowledge about these subjects. Except for its greater length, Kamen's book wouild have been a worthy addition to the series. For anyone interested in great buildings and their builders, The Escorial is well worth a look. [Henry Kamen, The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance, Yale University Press, $35]

And if you like royal intrigue in great buildings, and who doesn't, keep in mind as well a book to be published by Walker and Company next month called The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace. Its author is Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the organization that runs the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace (where some of The Tudors takes place), and Kensington Palace, and her method in this book is to take some of the royal portraits on display at Kensington Palace and use them as windows into the lives lived there during the time the first two Hanovers, George I and George II, ruled England, 1714 to 1760. It's the kind of book that takes more interest in George II's hemorrhoids than in, say, the War of Jenkin's Ear, or Whig and Tory politics; but I don't mean to trivialize it. Worsley has done a great deal of research, she knows the period thoroughly, and she demonstrates a lot of sympathy for the women especially, so often caught up in court intrigue or in the wars between royal mistresses for attention and influence. She writes well, too. It if isn't in the stores already, watch for it in the next week or two. [Lucy Worsley, The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace, Walker and Company, $30]