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The Age of Discovery: Portugal and Spain


Discoveries stoked the Renaissance with confidence, bold new ideas, and plundered New World gold. Portugal had its own lacy Manueline architecture and Spain’s rich and art-loving emperor had far flung tastes, including Titian the Venetian.

Complete Video Script

[79] The Renaissance was a time of great curiosity, confidence, and bold new ideas. Leonardo, Luther, Machiavelli, Michelangelo…consider these great names and that they were all living around the year 1500…and so was Vasco da Gama, Columbus, and Magellan. There was a collective sense of adventure to reach out and explore. The Renaissance was fueled in part by the riches generated by the growth of overseas trade. It was a time of exploration…and conquest…an age known — both ethnocentrically and euphemistically — as the "Age of Discovery."

[80] The Age of Discovery changed Europe forever. As explorers sailed east for the luxury goods of Asia, and west for gold in the Americas, they returned with new plants, animals, and lots of booty — including enslaved people. Soon, exotic luxuries and gold from abroad were decorating Europe's palaces and churches.

[81] This age made the sea-faring nations of Spain and Portugal (rather than Italy) the richest countries in Europe, funding another cultural and artistic boom.

[82, Monastery of Jerónimos, 1515, Belém Tower, Lisbon, Portugal] The Age of Discovery began in Portugal — as the ornate architecture of the day recalls. This tower protecting Lisbon's harbor was the last sight sailors saw as they headed out into the unknown, and the first they saw when they returned, bearing plunder, gold, and spices.

[83, Monument to the Discoveries, 1960, Belém, Lisbon] These early explorers were certainly heroic — eyes on the horizon — but, with hands on their swords, they were also cruel conquistadors. They ushered in a time of trade and advancement but also a dark time of exploitation and slavery. Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator holds the ship that made it possible…a caravel.

[84] Tiny Portugal on the Atlantic seaboard eventually emerged as an economic and cultural power with its own distinctive art. This ornate monastery was built by King Manuel as a thanks to God for the wealth that poured in.

[85] Manuel financed the construction by taxing spices brought back from Asia. He built all of this on the site of a humble chapel, where seafarers prayed before leaving on their frightening voyages. The style of Manuel's church — Manueline.

[86, church and cloisters at the Monastery of Jerónimos, Belém, Lisbon] This uniquely Portuguese style of art reflects the wealth and diverse culture of the age. It features motifs from the sea; interiors are open and airy, with slender columns reminiscent of exotic palm trees. Monsters evoke the mystery of uncharted lands…there's a column of indigenous people…artichokes eaten by sailors to fight scurvy…and the ceiling: a scout handbook of knots — it all trumpets Portugal's nautical know-how. These lacy Manueline cloisters are a testament to the bold entrepreneurial and conquering spirit that launched the Age of Discovery and the affluence and art that resulted…in Portugal and beyond.

[87] The Age of Discovery reached its peak in Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella — the monarchs who commissioned Columbus — ushered in Spain's so-called Golden Age. The massive wealth plundered from the Americas was transformed into great art: towering altarpieces of silver and gold…cavernous churches…grand palaces…elaborate carvings…and paintings that told the story as Spain wanted it told.

[88] Europe's mightiest power ruled an empire that stretched across the globe — from the Spanish Netherlands all the way to the Philippines. With their immense wealth, cosmopolitan Spanish monarchs appreciated and collected art from far and wide.

[89, The Feast at the House of Levi, 1573, Veronese, Accademia Gallery, Venice] The Spanish especially loved art from far away Venice — a once-great power that, while in elegant decline, was still producing great art. Rich conservative Spaniards ate up the big canvases and bright colors of the Venetian Renaissance…lush golden women…bathed in a soft-focus haze, like the city of Venice itself. They reveled in the Venetians' buoyant Renaissance spirit.

[90, Titian, c. 1490–1576; Venus with the Organ Player, 1550, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid; Danaë, 1554, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid; Charles V on Horseback at the Battle of Mühlberg, 1548, Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid] Titian, the greatest Venetian painter, captured on canvas the bold confidence of the Spanish king — the most powerful man in the world, Charles V. The emperor's son, though very religious, collected a bevy of sensual Titians. We see the moral conflicts these people must have struggled with as this nobleman — with his hands on his organ — is torn between high cultural pursuits like music and more worldly pleasures. During this age, it must have seemed as if Europe's elites were being showered with blessings from Heaven — at least that's the implied message they hung on their walls.