Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Kings of Old

One of my favorite parts of Madrid is La Plaza de Oriente (East Plaza), the park directly east of the royal palace where one can find statue upon statue of ancient Spanish kings.

Well, "Spanish" might be a misnomer. I've been told that during the reign of the later Bourbon kings in the 18th century, statues were made of "all the kings who had reigned in what is now Spain" to line the roofs of the palace. Unfortunately, the combined weight of the statues was too much, so some were left in the gardens surrounding the palace.

In La Plaza de Oriente, noble-featured Visigoth kings of post-Roman Gaul bear Germanic sounding names and Roman looking tunics. They're some of my favorite because their visages hearken to what we call the "Dark Ages" of Europe, of which there are still many historical holes.

After the Gothic Kings you will find some of the violent rulers of the competing Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Castille, Toledo, Leon and Navarre that slowly reconquered Spain from the Moors while battling and murdering each other at the same time.

 The inbred, but powerful Hapsburg kings who presided over the conquest of the New World, the counter-Reformation and the Inquisition can be found on the palace roof and around the city, astride horses or holding scepters. The last was Charles II, el Hechizado (the Bewitched) who was so deformed he could hardly stand or talk. His death precipitated the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), which both formed the modern Spanish nation-state and marked its fading as a major world power.

Charles II, El Hechizado

Since then (with the interruption of a few republics, dictatorships and a Bonaparte)  the ruling family of Spain has been the Bourbons, a junior line of the family that once ruled France. The current king, Juan Carlos is a controversial figure, popular with older Spaniards for his role in bringing representative democracy to Spain after the death of Franco, but unpopular with parts of a younger generation that sees the whole idea of monarchy as a relic of the past and resents Juan Carlos' ties with the earlier conservative regime.

King JC has kept himself newsworthy, yelling for Venezuela's Present Hugo Chavez to "shut up" at an international conference in 2007 and going hunting for elephants in Africa in the depths of the Spanish economic crisis.

No matter how posterity judges Spain's current monarch, he already can be assured to have added to the rich tapestry of Spanish royal history.