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5. Festivals in Spain

David Sánchez

What little testimony has survived from medieval festivities on the Iberian peninsula is mainly in royal chronicles and literary manuscripts. Elaborate banquets, exhilarating jousts, fantastic theatrical interludes, imaginative make-believe battles and lengthy processions were all staged to celebrate political events. These festivities, however, remained limited to an exclusive courtly culture, which paralleled vibrant - but largely unknown - customs of religious and popular celebration.

It was not until the 16th century that various factors transformed the medieval legacy into the Early Modern festivities that we find described in festival books. Foremost among them was the development of printing and visual reproduction (woodcuts, engravings), both of which established themselves irregularly and late on the Iberian peninsula. Textual descriptions and images of festivities could now be used to immortalise ephemeral festivities. They broadened the public sphere reached by festival events, geographically as well as chronologically, and thus augmented their propagandist and representative functions.

Plaza Mayor, Seville
Plaza Mayor, Seville. Madrid?, Louis Meunier, c. 1650
BL 559*.b.33.(6), f.5. Larger image

Another factor was the dissemination of Italian Renaissance culture in Spain. For festivals this meant primarily the renewal of the antique triumphal entry, the use of decorations with classical allusions, such as triumphal arches, and the references to classical mythology. The conscious choice of Italian Renaissance forms was primarily motivated by political reasons, not aesthetic. The advisors of Emperor - and king of Spain - Charles V fully appropriated the revival of Roman antiquity as best suited for expressing imperial ambitions, particularly triumphal entries celebrating the ruler as triumphator.

Those accorded Charles V in Italy in 1535-1536 were witnessed by the Spanish members of his entourage, just like the festivities in Italy and in the Netherlands during Prince Philip's journey in 1548-49. They brought these impressions back to Spain, and were assisted in their introduction of Renaissance festival culture by the lengthy festival descriptions in Juan Christoval Calvete's widely-disseminated account of Philip's journey (Antwerp 1552).

All these influences led to the formation of Early Modern festivities in Spain. This festival culture was essentially homogeneous, based on models and sources shared with the rest of Europe and at the same time incorporating popular, typically Spanish entertainments. Its highpoint ranged from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century, yet continued essentially unchanged till the middle of the 18th century.

In the festivals themselves elaborate decorations in the form of triumphal arches, arcades, stages, statues, fountains and triumphal wagons lined the routes of processions. Although temporary structures of wood, canvas and plaster, they simulated the marble, gold and stone of permanent monuments. These decorations carried a profusion of paintings, inscriptions, statues and emblems. Their iconographic content was drawn from an international literature of emblems and a common European heritage of mythological and allegorical themes.

The performance of the festivity itself was regulated by a rigid ceremonial code and by the precedence of long-held traditions. Popular entertainments such as bullfights and cañas were peculiarly Spanish components. The former were an obligatory part of any Spanish festival, even religious ones, while the latter consisted of teams of horsemen throwing javelins at each other. Both developed as a result of changes in military technology, necessitating teams of lightly armed, agile riders.

Decorations and entertainments were employed to celebrate a variety of occasions, such as the triumphal entries of kings, queens, foreign ambassadors, papal legates or rarely of foreign princes, like Charles, Prince of Wales in 1623. The extravagant festivities held during his six-month stay also reveal how festivities could be used to mask fierce diplomatic conflict. Military victories, political or historical events, juramentos (oath of allegiance to the heir) and court entertainments were likewise celebrated.

Religious festivities similarly belonged to this common festival culture, employing the same types of forms and of content as secular celebrations. In fact, the distinction between religious and secular festivities is misleading for Early Modern Spain, as every religious festival had political implications and almost every secular occasion included religious rites. A royal baptism was clearly a political as much as a religious act, just as lavish state funerals commemorated the political and spiritual aspirations of the deceased sovereigns. Moreover, the annual Corpus Christi festivities were the prototype for religious as well as secular festivities in various aspects. Special religious occasions, such as canonisations, church dedications or translation of relics, allowed the church to occupy secular urban space and turn it into a sacred area.

Festivals were essentially urban celebrations; even courtly occasions such as entries or funerals were organised, carried out and paid for by the cities. A centralised monarchy meant that Madrid, as seat of the court after 1561, was the venue for most secular and religious festivals. Other urban centres such as Seville, Toledo or Valencia however contributed their own unique characteristics to festivities. Political events were also commemorated in many other cities of the Spanish monarchy, from Brussels and Naples to Lima and Mexico City, with descriptions translated into local languages. In these festival books we can therefore experience a culture in which European influences, classical learning, local elements and political interests coexist.

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Reading list

Jenaro Alenda y Mira, Relaciones de solemnidades y fiestas públicas en España (Madrid: Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1903)

Salvador Carrerés y Zacarés, Ensayo de una bibliografía de libros de fiestas en Valencia (Valencia: Hijo de F. Vives, 1926)

José Simón Díaz, Relaciones breves de actos públicos celebrados en Madrid de 1544 a 1650 (Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Madrileños, 1982)

Pilar Pedraza, Barroco efímero en Valencia (Valencia: Ayuntamiento, 1982)

Barroco español y austríaco: Fiesta y teatro en la Corte de los Habsburgo y los Austrias (Madrid: Museo Municipal de Madrid, 1994)

La fiesta en la Europa de Carlos V (Sevilla: Sociedad Estatal para la conmemoración de los centenarios de Felipe II y Carlos V, 2000)

Teresa Zapata, La entrada en la Corte de María Luisa de Orleans. Arte y Fiesta en el Madrid de Carlos II (Madrid: Fundación de Apoyo a la Historia del Arte Hispánico, 2000)

1. Festivals in Italy
2. Festivals in the Holy Roman Empire
3. Habsburg festivals
4. Festivals in Valois France
5. Festivals in Spain
6. Court and civic festivals in Tudor and early Stuart England