Historians are always claiming that their particular topic of research has been unjustly neglected by their predecessors. The claim, usually exaggerated, occasionally turns out to have some justification. Yet it is rarely so obviously justified as in the case of Professor John Elliott’s rediscovery of a major Spanish statesman of the 17th century, the effective ruler of Spain for more than twenty years and the contemporary, the rival and the opponent of Cardinal Richelieu. A choleric man, obsessed with honour and reputation, it is just as well that Don Gaspar de Guzman, Count-Duke of Olivares, is unaware of the long shelf of books devoted to his rival, in painful contrast to the handful of studies concerned with himself. In fact, the handful can be reduced to three. One was written in the leisure hours of a conservative politician, Antonio Canovas del Castillo; another was the result of the possibly more abundant leisure of a physician, Dr Gregorio Marañon (whose patients included General Franco); and the third is Elliott’s own book.
In partial consolation for this neglect, the latest biography is the life-work of a major historian. John Elliott discovered Olivares when he was a Cambridge undergraduate and has been studying his career ever since. His books on Europe in the later 16th century and on the relationship between the Old World and the New look in retrospect like minor distractions from his major task. As for Elliott’s studies of the court and palaces of the Count-Duke’s master, Philip IV, and of the revolt of the Catalans against their joint regime, they complement rather than compete with the book now under review.
There are two obvious reasons for this neglect of a major Spanish statesman. The first is that he failed, while his rival Richelieu succeeded. He failed in the sense that his career ended in disgrace, and also in the more important and longer-term sense that the power and prestige of the Spanish monarchy declined (despite his efforts, or even because of them), while France rose. The ‘planet king’, Philip IV, was eclipsed by the sun of Louis XIV. History, or the historian at any rate, has little patience with failure. The second reason for the neglect of Olivares is the loss of most of his papers, those notorious papers which he took everywhere with him in his years of power, sticking them in his belt and hatband so that he looked – according to one unsympathetic diplomat – like a scarecrow. In order to collect what remains, Elliott has had to spend some thirty years pursuing his quarry, working in 16 archives (private as well as public) in Spain alone, and tracking down manuscripts in eight other countries. Lack of evidence makes even this massive book appear thin in places, notably where domestic affairs are concerned. All the same, the magnitude of Elliott’s achievement is not in doubt, whatever one may think of Olivares.
The first thing he has done is to bring Don Gaspar back to life. ‘Heavy and squat, with a bulbous nose, black moustachios and a splayed black beard’ – the Count-Duke can thank Velazquez for impressing posterity with his physical presence, so much more powerful than that of his royal master. What of his personality? The most famous characterisation is the Venetian ambassador’s, who stressed his ‘ambition to dominate’. The phrase appears as the subtitle of Marañon’s study, an ambitious piece of psycho-history in a 1930s style, using the vocabulary of Kretschmer and characterising Olivares as a ‘pyknic’ type. Suspicious of such formulations, Elliott presents Olivares in more ordinary language as ‘impulsive and strident’, with a penchant for ‘self-dramatisation’ (as his letters and memoranda make clear), as a ‘man in a hurry’, and as ‘a restless, ambitious, hyperactive man, who wanted to be everything, know everything, do everything’. He describes the contradictions, or more exactly the tensions between the Count-Duke’s bravado and his caution (even timidity), between his ‘temperamental instability’ and his icy self-control, between his self-confidence and his ‘self abasement’, between his ‘harshness and irritability’ and his ‘basic generosity of character’. Elliott is himself too cautious to offer explanations for the traits of character he describes so well, and contents himself with the laconic remark that ‘there is very little information on Olivares’s early years’. He refuses to engage in Freudian or other psychological speculations. Here and elsewhere readers will note the contrast between the histrionic style of the statesman and the sober, self-effacing manner of his biographer.
Olivares did not rule alone. He was officially no more than the privado, the minister or favourite of a king who was 16 years old when he succeeded to the throne, but in his late thirties when he decided to do without the Count-Duke. Elliott has some perceptive remarks to make about Philip’s gradual transformation from sportsman into bureaucrat, his need for, and his resentment of, his favourite, and the gradual development of their relationship from that of master and pupil into a ‘genuine partnership’ in government.
The focus of the book, however, is not so much on the personality of Olivares as on his intentions, his political ideas. These ideas can be summed up in two words, reform and reputation. Olivares was criticised by some contemporaries for his love of ‘novelty’, and he certainly believed in what he called reformacion, a break with present practice in order to return to a past – but undated – golden age. Indeed, a Junta de Reformacion, or committee for reform, was set up soon after the Count-Duke came to power. This flamboyant figure was, in fact, committed to a programme of austerity. He fiercely opposed bribery, corruption, conspicuous consumption, sexual immorality and its representation on the stage, and he advocated purity and simplicity of manners and clothes. The symbol of the new regime was the famous golilla, a simple collar which replaced the enormous and expensive cartwheel ruffs of the previous era. Olivares also supported economic reform, notably the control of inflation, and the reform of education. Above all, he wanted the transformation of the ramshackle Spanish Empire (in which the king ruled each region under a different title and with different powers) into a strong, unified monarchy, whose ruler, Philip IV, officially described from the early years of the reign as ‘Philip the Great’, would enjoy the reputation he deserved.
‘Reputation’ was a key concept in the political thought and political action of the 17th century. As the Count-Duke’s uncle once put it, a monarchy without reputation is ‘a sky without light, a sun without rays, a body without a soul’. The desire for it underlies and explains the large sums, which the Crown could ill afford, spent on the building and decoration of royal palaces, notably the Alcazar of Madrid and the Buen Retiro on the outskirts of the city. In 1980, Elliott published a study of the latter palace in partnership with the art historian Jonathan Brown, reconstructing its appearance from literary sources (since the palace itself was destroyed by the British during the Peninsular War), and paying particular attention to the programme of the paintings by Velazquez, Zurbaran and others in the throne room, the Hall of Realms. Brown and Elliott suggested that the Buen Retiro was ‘a projection in three dimensions of the personality and policies of the Count-Duke’, and drew attention to many iconographic details which support their case.
Steven Orso’s study of the Alcazar of Madrid may be seen as a companion piece to Brown and Elliott. The author, a pupil of Brown’s, faced similar difficulties in attempting an imaginary reconstruction of a lost palace (destroyed by fire in the 18th century). His discussion of the pictorial programme of the great Hall of Mirrors (named after what a contemporary described as eight ‘opulent mirrors adorned with bronze imperial eagles’) parallels Brown and Elliott on the Hall of Realms, though the author has to admit that the works he is studying form a ‘looser assemblage’, running as they do from Titian’s great equestrian portrait of Philip IV’s great-grandfather Charles V to the scenes from the myth of Pandora represented on the ceiling.
Comparisons with the earlier study are inevitable, and they are not to Orso’s advantage. His work still smells of the doctoral thesis it once was – painstaking and thorough, but narrow, technical, and generally rather pedestrian, though enlivened with occasional flashes of insight and wit. The author does make some interesting general remarks, about the importance of Philip IV as a collector of paintings, for example, or about Velazquez as a court official. It is his misfortune that these and other points were recently made by Jonathan Brown in his Velazquez: Painter and Courtier.
Despite his efforts, Orso cannot altogether free himself from anachronism. He calls the Alcazar Philip’s ‘home’, as if that modern bourgeois concept would have meant anything to a king who moved backwards and forwards between one vast palace and another, and he describes Velazquez as benefiting from ‘favouritism’, as if favour was not the mainspring of the whole court system. He is, however, concerned to put works of art back into their context, to show, among other things, the relation between the decorative scheme of the Hall of Mirrors and the uses of the room, such as the reception of distinguished foreign visitors. A similar point can of course be made about the other famous Hall of Mirrors, at Versailles. Here as elsewhere, the debt of Louis XIV to the example of his father-in-law Philip IV is as clear as it is generally unacknowledged. There are the formal court rituals, for instance, or the official title of ‘Great’, bestowed on both monarchs, and even, perhaps, the French king’s explicit emphasis on gloire, the equivalent of what the Spanish called reputacion.
The desire for reputation was the justification for the Count-Duke’s grandiose plans for the reform of the kingdom, as well as for the aggressive foreign policy (the refusal to make peace with the Dutch, the military intervention in northern Italy, the open war with France) which made internal reform ineffective and led, when its failure could no longer be denied, to the ruin of the Count-Duke’s career. Elliott’s pages on the idea of reputation are one of the best things in his book, a successful blend of political and cultural history, quietly dismantling the barrier which too often divides the study of political theory from political practice. He also discusses Don Gaspar’s intellectual interests, his magnificent library, his verses, his art patronage, his awareness of Classical writers such as Seneca and Tacitus and modern ones such as Machiavelli, Bodin and Botero, and the relevance of all this to his grand designs. Olivares was, in fact, criticised by a contemporary for taking Roman imperial history too seriously and for basing his policies on maxims he found in books – ‘maxims which were unsuited to the humour of our times’.
The last phrase, ‘the humour of our times’, is worth considering for a moment. It is a not uncommon 17th-century expression (which recurs in Clarendon’s History of the Great Rebellion). It is a kind of shorthand, like our own phrase ‘social structures’, for referring to whatever escapes human control. To what extent was Olivares aware of structural constraints on his freedom of action? To what extent is Elliott aware of these constraints, and how does he deal with them?
Elliott’s book is in an important sense an ‘anti-Braudel’. The late Fernand Braudel made his reputation as the most original historian of our century with his study of the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II, in which he undertook to show that the king was to a large extent the prisoner of circumstances, his freedom of action limited by social structures, by long-term economic and political trends, and above all by geography, including the system of communications – and especially the time it took for 16th-century ships to cross the Mediterranean. Braudel was not as rigid a determinist as his critics (including Elliott) have claimed, or as any brief summary necessarily makes him appear, but he occupied a place well towards the determinist end of the historical spectrum. Elliott’s own place is well towards the voluntarist end of the spectrum, and his study of the reign of Philip II’s grandson Philip IV is in its quiet way a challenge to Braudel, a conscious return to the apparently old-fashioned genre of political biography and the narrative of events. The fact that the author has already dealt with the economic, social and cultural history of Philip IV’s Spain in other studies makes the contrast starker than it might otherwise have been, but his message is clear enough. The plan was conceived in the Fifties, but the book itself was written in the Seventies and Eighties, a deliberate contribution to what Lawrence Stone has regretfully termed the ‘revival of narrative’.
The narrative form certainly has its advantages, and Elliott knows how to exploit them. The tone is quiet and even, the style resolutely plain, sober, almost austere, but the author is very much in control of the mass of detail he presents to his readers. The writing is less incisive than that of Elliott’s earlier studies, notably Richelieu and Olivares, but one cannot expect to find incisiveness in a seven-hundred-page book. There are compensations, however. Having refused to exploit the advantages of hindsight, and kept close to the chronological order of events, Elliott can shock his readers, as Olivares was himself shocked, with the news of the twin revolts of Catalonia and Portugal in 1640. In this case, the plain style is more effective than more elaborate forms of rhetoric. But the most memorable feature of the book, for me at least, is its picture of the finally unsuccessful struggle of its hero with the problems of Spain and its monarchy. The energetic Olivares was portrayed by a flattering artist as Atlas, the burden of the world on his broad shoulders. He liked to present himself as ‘toiling at the oar’ of the ship of state, but he was, if not the captain, at least its pilot. A contemporary Spanish writer compared the art of ruling to the art of horsemanship, a comparison which gives extra point to the Velazquez painting of Philip IV’s heir, Baltasar Carlos, in the riding-school: and Olivares was, appropriately enough, Master of the Horse. However, the horse ultimately threw its rider, Atlas could sustain his burden no longer, and Philip IV dropped his pilot. Can the author, can historical narrative, tell us why?
Elliott’s account is, as one has come to expect from him, meticulous and balanced. He suggests that Olivares both was and was not responsible for his ultimate failure. He always was too impetuous and he was also ‘coarsened’, if not corrupted, by the long exercise of almost-absolute power. But he was living in what Spaniards were all too well aware was ‘an age of decline’, as well as the age of the Thirty Years’ War, and his options became increasingly limited as the war progressed.
Elliott can scarcely be faulted for what he is explicitly saying about the relationship of events and structures, individuals and circumstances. On the other hand, literary forms are not neutral, but highly charged with interpretation. The structure of his study carries its own implicit message – a voluntarist message which subverts his more balanced conclusions. The author does not exactly eschew analysis. On the contrary, he halts his narrative at various points to discuss the relationship between Olivares and the Council of State, his power base, the patronage system, the decision-making process, the resistance of the provinces to the actions of the central government, the economic problems of Spain, and even, in the style of Braudel, the speed of communications (notably the three months’ delay before news from Flanders could reach Madrid). However, these discussions are brief, infrequent, and they take the form of interruptions, or, as a Classical historian would have put it, ‘digressions’ from the real business of narrating events. Elliott is characteristically prepared to consider, not only the possibility that the failure of Olivares can be given a structural explanation, but also that his political emergence in the 1620s, like that of Richelieu, in a decade marked by war and economic recession, ‘may ... have been something more than accident’. Equally characteristically, however, he follows this remark by an abrupt change of subject, leaving the idea undeveloped. Might one suggest that he is unable to escape from the prison of a political biography?
What are the options? To submerge Olivares in a general account of Spanish history is to belittle his achievement, but to write a massive biography is to magnify it. Is there no other possibility? In the last few years we have seen some interesting experiments in historical writing – by Natalie Davis, for example, in The Return of Martin Guerre, by Norman Davies in his Heart of Europe, and by Jonathan Spence in a number of studies of China. Their innovations in narrative form – making ordinary people protagonists, telling a story backwards, and so on – owe a good deal to the example of novelists and film directors: but these innovations should also be seen as attempts to solve historiographical problems, more especially to escape or overcome the opposition between events and structures, determinism and voluntarism.
John Elliott has given us a superb political biography of a traditional kind, with all the virtues of that genre. In that sense, his book is an unmitigated success. What the author has not achieved is what he calls in his preface the ‘re-integration’ of politics into ‘total history’. If the work of a historian as sensitive, articulate and judicious as Elliott falls short of this ideal, there must be something wrong with the genre.
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