A style, or an age? We all know (or think we know) a baroque building or painting or sculpture when we see one, but, after that, the difficulties begin. Since Burckhardt and Wölfflin first sought to identify and analyze a distinctive style of the baroque, generations of scholars in pursuit of the baroque have suffered all the frustrations of Bernini’s Apollo in pursuit of Daphne. If, as has been argued in recent times, we are pursuing not merely a style but a “mentality,” the pursuit becomes still more complicated. It presupposes the existence of certain common traits in European civilization over a given span of years, transcending national or religious boundaries. These traits in turn demand explanation, and there has been no lack of attempts at explanation, from the political and religious to the socioeconomic.

For some, baroque has been the art of the Counter-Reformation Church and of absolute monarchy, an art expressive of power and triumph. For others (a diminishing band in recent years), it has been the art of an expanding and creative seventeenth-century Europe, an art of exuberance. For still others, it has been the art of a society in crisis, an art of anxiety and tension. All of these “explanations” have had their critics, and none has proved very persuasive. This is scarcely a cause for surprise. It is hard enough to find common denominators in the infinitely complex and varied Europe of the seventeenth century, and harder still to make convincing connections between the aesthetic and literary sensibility of an age and its political and social organization.

Aside from Carl J. Friedrich’s The Age of the Baroque (1952), where “baroque” serves as little more than a catchall for the political history of Europe between 1610 and 1660, the most influential explanatory effort of modern times has been Victor L. Tapié’s Baroque et classicisme (1957).1 But Tapié’s books is badly flawed. It is unconvincing in its attempt to make the baroque the style of a rural and seigneurial society while identifying the “classical” as preeminently the style of the urban middle classes, and it is limited and arbitrary in its geographical coverage. In particular, it has little to say about the immense Spanish contribution to the development of baroque sensibility. This unfortunate omission makes all the more welcome the appearance in English of a major work of synthesis, first published in 1975, by Spain’s leading cultural historian of the postwar years, José Antonio Maravall.

Maravall, who died last December at the age of seventy-five, was the author of some twenty-five books, and of a vast number of articles. In spite of his great prestige in his native country, where he did much to liberalize intellectual life during the later years of the Franco regime and to prepare a new generation for the restoration of democracy, his work was not widely known in the Anglo-American world, although in recent years a visiting professorship at the University of Minnesota had begun to give him an audience in the United States. Culture of the Baroque, which appropriately bears the imprint of the University of Minnesota Press, is the first of his books to appear in an English translation. The neglect, while regrettable, is not difficult to understand. The sheer scale of his publications is daunting, and they are not made any more accessible by the inadequacy of the indexes to his books, and by a tendency to repetitiveness which he has defended as essential to his enterprise, but which makes one sigh at times for the pruning knife. There is, in addition, the problem of subject. Although Maravall was distinguished for the European perspective that he brought to bear on his work, his concern was with the development of Spanish culture and society, a theme that is hardly in the mainstream of Anglo-American intellectual preoccupations. Yet he had things to say both about his own country and about Europe that make him a figure of more than national significance.

The leitmotif running throughout Maravall’s work since his first book, published in 1944, on Spanish political theory in the seventeenth century—a study that has never been superseded2—is a quest for the origins of modernity. Widely read in European political and social theory, he sought to identify and trace through the premodern age the characteristic features of the world as we know it today. At first sight it might be thought that Spain, so long a byword in the non-Spanish world for everything antimodern, was a peculiar choice of terrain for this particular enterprise. But it is all too easily forgotten that sixteenth-century Spain, the imperial Spain of Charles V and Philip II, was the first great bureaucratic state of the modern world. Indeed, much of Spain’s subsequent history may be read as an object lesson in the price of pioneering, in this instance bureaucratic pioneering. Maravall was fascinated by the developing structure and apparatus of the modern state, especially in its Hispanic manifestations, and some of his best pages are devoted to the nature of the state and to the nature of the opposition that this new leviathan evoked. For to Maravall the sense of individual liberty was as much a feature of the modern world as the relentless development of the power of the state, and in one of the most influential of his books, Las comunidades de Castilla, he makes a powerful, if not entirely persuasive, case for the 1520–1521 revolt of the comuneros of Castile as the first modern revolution.


In this reading of the past, Spain becomes an early setting for a universal drama in which power and liberty, resistance to change and the idea of progress, are locked in remorseless struggle. Maravall was deeply influenced, like so many others of his generation, by Ortega y Gasset, but this reading clearly reflects also the experiences of a man who had lived through the Spanish civil war and the intellectually stifling early years of the Franco regime. Inevitably it involves pitfalls which Maravall could not entirely avoid. There is a standing temptation, for example, to identify a kind of honorary fellowship of precursors of modernity, and in so doing to lift the candidates out of their historical milieu. But over and over again Maravall’s historical insight, and the extraordinary range of his reading in contemporary sources, saved him from the worst excesses of anachronism. His little book on Velázquez, in which he seeks to show the artist at work in a “modern” world defined by science, reason, and personal experience, remains one of the most perceptive of all Velázquez studies.3

If his awareness of contemporary problems tended at times to sway his interpretation of the past, Maravall resolutely turned his back on the strong tradition in Spanish historiography that sought the “meaning” of Spanish history in those allegedly peculiar characteristics of the peoples of Spain and their historical experience that set them apart from the other peoples of Europe. His reading of Max Weber and other social theorists helped turn him into a practitioner of what he called the “social history of the Spanish mentality,” and in studying the impact of social and economic forces on the mental attitudes and cultural behavior of early modern Spaniards his exposure to modern sociological and historical works left him more impressed with the similarities than with the differences between his countrymen and their fellow Europeans. This made him a controversial figure at a time when the “uniqueness” of Spain, for good or ill, was being vociferously proclaimed from different sides of the ideological spectrum; but his determination to place the development of his country in a broad European context may in retrospect prove to be his most enduring contribution to Spanish historical writing.

“Baroque” Spain—the Spain in which, according to Maravall’s formulation of the historical process, absolute monarchy gives way to “monarchical absolutism”—was a favorite testing ground for his ideas. His illustrative material was drawn overwhelmingly from books and not from archives, and Golden Age Spain, with its rich dramatic and literary tradition, and its extraordinary outpouring of political and economic treatises aimed at diagnosing and remedying the ills of the body politic, provided a wealth of apt contemporary quotations with which to develop his points. No scholar of our times has moved with such ease as Maravall through this mass of material, or had so many relevant, and recondite, references at his finger tips. It is not therefore surprising that he constantly returned to one aspect or another of seventeenth-century Spanish culture and society during the course of his career, and that this continuing encounter compelled him to address himself to the origins and character of baroque civilization.

Since Culture of the Baroque was regarded by the author himself as the culmination and synthesis of his work on Spanish baroque society, it must have seemed to the editors the natural candidate among his books when they were casting around for the best means of introducing him to an English-speaking public. Logically their choice looks right, especially since there must be many readers waiting for an intelligent and up-to-date survey of the fundamental characteristics of the European baroque. But for various reasons I am not sure that this book will have either the reception or the impact for which those who sponsored its publication must be hoping.

One major reason is to be found, regrettably, in the way in which Culture of the Baroque has been presented to an Anglo-American audience. Readers coming to Maravall for the first time are going to need all the help they can get in understanding his approach to his subject. Unfortunately, neither editors nor translator provide them with such help. The editorial foreword, by Wlad Godzich and Nicholas Spadaccini, would have been more useful if it had spent less time on generalities about the nature of historical discourse and more time in introducing Maravall and his work to a new, and presumably uninformed, set of readers.


Of the translator’s introduction, entitled “The Translating Mechanism,” the less said the better, especially since the mechanism in this instance leaves much to be desired. Maravall is not an easy writer to translate, and one can sympathize with Mr. Cochran’s problems, but there is no excuse for producing a version that is marred by carelessness and inaccuracies, and is rendered into an English that is all too often impenetrable. Readers will understandably be baffled by a sentence that reads: “In these terms, the modern creation of baroque culture, an urban work because of its public, its ends, and its resources, was the instrument of the city’s culture par excellence.” Recourse to the original shows that Maravall wrote: “the modern creation of baroque theater,” which at least makes the sentence intelligible, if hardly elegant. Similarly, it is puzzling to find Zurbarán painting his saints “below the image of Spanish ladies of the epoch,” rather than in their guise or image, and not everyone can be expected to recognize in “the king of Romanos” the Holy Roman Emperor’s son and heir, who traditionally was elected King of the Romans.

Readers who stay the course will find plenty of rewards, but they will have to work for them, and those who can manage it are advised to turn to the Spanish original. But the original itself, for all its high intelligence, poses certain problems, which seem to me to derive partly from the ambitious nature of the enterprise and partly from Maravall’s distinctive approach to his theme.

For Maravall, the baroque marks a distinct historical period in the history of a number of European countries which, in spite of the differences between them, share certain characteristics. It is a period that stretches approximately from 1600 to 1680, and that is characterized by “monarchical absolutism.” Maravall meant by this that monarchs, having by now suppressed the worst excesses of aristocratic disorder, felt free to stand shoulder to shoulder with their nobilities in defense of the traditional order and traditional values in societies unsettled by the expansive and liberating forces let loose by the Renaissance. If the danger represented by the release of these forces now looked very threatening, this was because of a sharpening of the “conflictive” character of European society as a consequence of a general deterioration of economic conditions. Baroque culture thus becomes the response of Europe’s ruling classes to a social and economic crisis of European proportions, although the crisis was more acute, and the social structure more frozen, in Spain than elsewhere. In other words, the baroque may be seen as a culture of containment, or, more dynamically, in Maravall’s formulation, as a “guided culture,” designed to reintegrate and bind together a society living under the shadow of social and intellectual disruption.

It will be seen that this interpretation accords neatly with modern perceptions of the seventeenth century, or at least of its middle decades, as a period of crisis, and Maravall, as always, produces fascinating and strikingly unfamiliar examples to support his arguments. But the arguments themselves seem to me to contain a number of difficulties. For anyone who looks at the policies of Richelieu in France or of Olivares in Spain, the assumed identity of interests between crown and nobility, at least in the 1620s and 1630s, is difficult to accept. Here, as elsewhere, one could wish that Maravall had shown more awareness both of the internal divergences within ruling groups, and also of change and variation within his chosen period, which he tends to endow with a monolithic uniformity. Nor does seventeenth-century Spanish society seem to me as immobile, or its elite as exclusive, as Maravall appeared to believe. But it could still be argued that, whatever the exact character of the elite or its relationship with the crown at any given moment, crown, Church, and nobles stood side by side in defense of a particular ordering of society as the best bulwark of the values that they held in common.

If we accept this as broadly true of the seventeenth century, we are still faced with the question of how baroque culture was used to achieve this particular goal. Here Maravall’s thesis of a “guided culture” becomes critical to his story. Since the middle of the sixteenth century, he argues, the “criticism and opposition derived from the initial dynamism of Renaissance society came to be accompanied by doubt and insecurity.” This in turn called forth a need for more dynamic methods of control, or, in other words, a dirigiste culture “inspired by the interests of a system of authority”—the authoritarian system of “monarchical absolutism.” “All the multiplicity of controls,” he writes, “that governed in the baroque were centralized in the monarchy. This was the keystone of the system.” But it is crucial to his argument that the system was not simply repressive, although it had formidable powers of repression at its disposal. The monarchical system was also “enticing,” and its enticements were effective because it was operating in an urban culture which, by the seventeenth century, already possessed certain of the essential characteristics of the mass culture of modern society. “Everything that belongs to the baroque,” he concludes, “emerges from the necessities of manipulating opinions and feelings on a broad public scale.”

In crude terms, therefore, baroque culture becomes a manipulative ideology working on a preconditioned public opinion by means of a multiplicity of devices ranging from the theater to the religious festival. Stated as baldly as this, Maravall’s argument may sound anachronistic and unpersuasive, but he produces an array of telling examples which may well make even the most skeptical of readers pause for reflection. The allegedly “mass” characteristics of seventeenth-century urban culture may sound somewhat farfetched, although it is fascinating to learn of a street in Madrid in which one of Lope de Vega’s gentlemen could buy off-the-rack clothing for his servant. But Maravall is surely right to emphasize the growing importance of public opinion in seventeenth-century Europe, together with its corollary—the need felt by those in authority to make conscious efforts to persuade. Much recent work on seventeenth-century theater, festival, and iconography has tended to support his argument about the dirigiste, persuasive, and integrating intentions of some of the most important cultural manifestations of the age. Indeed, it is a pity that Maravall was unable to take account of R.J.W. Evans’s The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy,4 where a very similar process to that which he discusses for Spain is shown to have been taking place in the Austrian lands. “Counter-Reforming, aristocratic, Austria provides the clearest example,” writes Evans, “of how a set of values embraced by the aulic entourage of the sovereign could create a set of responses in society at large.”

It is difficult to escape the impression, however, that Maravall—excessively influenced, perhaps, by his quest for premodern manifestations of “modernity,” and also, no doubt, by the experience of living in Franco’s Spain—has tended to overestimate the passivity of seventeenth-century societies and to exaggerate the capacity of those in authority to manipulate those societies for their own ideological ends. Of the intention to purvey a set of values there can be no doubt. Yet the degree of success actually achieved is another matter. It is enough to look at the court of Charles I of England or Philip IV of Spain to wonder whether, so far from imposing the aspirations and attitudes of the ruling group on society at large, any efforts in this direction may not, at least in some instances, have been positively counterproductive. In both the England and the Spain of the 1630s, those who fell for the illusion—an illusion carefully sustained by ceremonial, theater, and symbol—were not the subjects but the rulers themselves. As a result, they became dangerously isolated from the outside world, and as the gulf between illusion and reality widened, they fell headlong into a credibility gap of their own creation.

It is a pity that Maravall did not undertake a closer analysis of seventeenth-century court society, which might have suggested to him some of the limits to ideological control. But this is not the only difficulty about his vision of the baroque as an ideology imposed from above. Partly, perhaps, in reaction against those who have put forward popularist and revolutionary interpretations of a play like Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, he may not have given sufficient weight to the elements in Golden Age drama and literature that take their inspiration from below rather than above. Inevitably, censorship and self-censorship made playwrights cautious, but the works of Spain’s Golden Age contain sufficient ambiguities to suggest that subversive subtexts are there for the reading. It is a mark of Maravall’s intellectual range and flexibility that he opened up what was virtually a new subject when he published a little book on political opposition in early modern Spain,5 but he did not carry through his pioneer chronicling of the manifestations of opposition to the point at which it might have modified his general interpretation of the baroque as an imposed ideology.

Yet it would be asking a great deal to expect a wholly persuasive interpretation of any phenomenon as diverse and complex as the European baroque. Maravall’s interpretation, to my mind, is too reductionist, and I think that his extraordinarily perceptive understanding of the “baroque mentality” was not accompanied by an equally well-informed understanding of the political and social organization of the world he was describing. What he has done, however, is to give us a vivid and coherent picture of one of the great ages of European civilization, full of unexpected insights and suggestive ideas. He is splendid, for instance, on the challenge of “novelty” in this traditional and conservative seventeenth-century world, and on the way in which it was deflected into those areas of life where it represented no challenge to the political order. He tells us about the baroque delight in artifice and extravagance, of the reasons for the fascination with clocks and with fireworks displays. He depicts a world of sensibility in constant pursuit of extremes, a world obsessed with fluidity and movement, in which “prudence” was indispensable for those who wished to save themselves from shipwreck. And he brings out well the juxtaposition of a deeply pessimistic view of human nature and an almost unbounded confidence in the measureless powers of man.

There are, no doubt, weaknesses in this interpretation. But in a century characterized by the fragmentation of knowledge into a variety of disciplines that are virtual strangers to one another, his book stands out as an exceptionally brave, and sometimes brilliant, attempt to reintegrate the fragments into a meaningful pattern. Many may regard this as an appropriately baroque exercise, in which the contradictory elements are juxtaposed and held together in a dazzlingly precarious balance. But even those who cannot accept the whole can take pleasure in the parts, while saluting the illusionistic skills of a master architect.

This Issue

April 9, 1987