A World of Worlds

Philip II of Spain and the Architecture of Empire

by Laura Fernández-González
2021 The Pennsylvania University Press, 240 pages, $94.95 hardcover
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Studying the exchange of ideas and trends is a useful means of exploring how the periphery of empire affected its center,” writes Laura Fernández-González in Philip II of Spain and the Architecture of Empire. “Further explorations of connected histories of empire, architecture, and visual trends would shed new light not only on our understanding of globalization processes, but also on our perception of the buildings at the heart of empire and its political power.”

An architectural and urban historian with expertise in the early modern Iberian world, Fernández-González is senior lecturer in architectural history at the University of Lincoln. 

The ways in which we understand the world depends not on the documents themselves, but on the readers and on the storytellers who spread the word. In other words, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perspective is on the quill of the historian.

The greatest empire ever known in the modern West was built, in many ways, on the grounds of ideas, images, models, and people from around the world. The imperial power of Philip II, who reigned from 1556-1598, could only be understood by means of how knowledge “traveled across the empire,” that is, across the Atlantic. His pan-Iberian conquest was not only territorial, but ideological: he built a world of worlds in his vast empire with his image at the top as an enlightening figure that would take darkness away.

However, not only would he spread the light over his territories, but he received, understood, embraced, and adapted visual and architectonical languages in his reign from faraway places he never even visited. He knew that he needed to incorporate iconographic and symbolic elements from those places into his closest dominions, developing the most sophisticated empire in terms of diversity and exoticism (as understood in the original context). 

Fernández-González takes the readers by the hand and guides us through a fascinating universe through the complexities and the subtleties of visual languages that built the Iberian Union, the ensemble territories. Occupied by diverse communities and histories, they were united by and under the same man, who represented a dynastic succession full of ambition but of intelligentsia as well.

The Spanish royal palace and monastery El Escorial, located outside Madrid, was built by King Philip II 1563-1584. Photo: wikimedia.org/Turismo Madrid Consorcio Turístico

Philip II understood that urban planning would reflect his power by order and beauty, so domestic architecture across his territories would have to be ruled soundly under a new legal frame. He also knew that without memory, there was no kingdom, so he was eager to administrate his empire by stating laws based on history for the future. 

A documented empire could be more easily managed than an imaginary one. For that reason, the emperor erected the Simancas Archive as a multi-universe of words which represented everything that has ever been registered: his world in a chamber. 

An open dialogue with gods and heroes of antiquity displayed through ephemeral architecture in the context of a festival would confirm his power and sovereignty over new conquered territories. Fame and good fortune would guarantee his memory across the world in words and images that narrated the life and feats of a king who portrayed himself as a semi-god to keep order and unity throughout his empire. 

The author’s most powerful point is that not only was Philip II’s world imposed on his conquered territories, but the continental and cross-Atlantic territories helped shape a common language of multiple meanings within the Iberian Union. 

This volume would be of great benefit as a textbook or as a reference book and will open the gate for further research on the ways we understand the relationship of center to periphery and otherwise.