Four hundred years ago, Spain was the centre of the largest empire in history – an empire born of bold and rapacious adventure in America and royal inheritance from Europe, an empire that inspired some of the greatest writers, artists and thinkers of the Western world.
Spanning the reign of four kings, Spain begins with the arrival of the first ship from Mexico to ever reach the shores of Europe. It was a ship laden with extraordinary treasure, sent from Cort.s as a gift to the newly crowned King of Spain, Charles V, and included a gold disc as tall as a man and a necklace of woven gold threads set with 232 red gems and 173 green stones. The arrival of such unimagined treasure prompted the unsustainable expansion of the Spanish empire, an empire that was fraught with contradictions between the old and the new, the foreign and the familiar.
While baroque painting, new forms of literature and professional theatre were being shaped for the first time, Spaniards were also in the depths of the Counter-reformation, ruthlessly policed by the Inquisition. The political and administrative realities of the Spanish empire’s expansion led to the reformation and rebellion that eventually doomed the empire, though the cultural flowering that came out of this ruin from Cervantes great novel Don Quixote, the plays of Lope de Vega and the poems of Quevedo, to the glorious painting of El Greco, Zurbur.n and, above all, Vel.zquez, were some of the most important developments to take place in Europe at this time.