The 17th century is known as the Early Modern Period in the history of Europe characterized by the struggle between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Habsburg Dynasty that ruled the Holy Roman Empire consisting of Austria and Spain wished to unify entire Europe under their domination including the other Catholic states leading to the 30-year war. During the period, advancement in science, arts, and literature took place which included the Baroque movement.
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This essay attempts to encapsulate some important events of 17th century Europe focusing on the contributions of Cardinal Richelieu, the decline in Spanish fortunes, Inquisitions, and a focus on a select group of French and Spanish artists of the Baroque movement.
Cardinal Richelieu was a clergyman who became the Chief Minister to the French King, Louis XIII in 1624 A.D. Cardinal Richelieu strove to make France a strong nation by resorting to centralization of power of the Monarchy through suppression of feudal nobility and indulging in pragmatic real politics to oppose the Habsburg dynasty. He aligned with Protestant forces (despite being a Catholic) to fight against the Catholic Habsburg Dynasty.
Richelieu persevered along these lines and remained the prime minister to the King of France right till his death in 1624 A.D. The efforts of Richelieu transformed France into a country with strong central control and laid the foundations for the French Empire to come.
Spain in the 17th century was a nation under attack. The Spanish were being challenged at sea by the Barbary Pirates and by France on land. The 30-year war that ensued left the Spaniards with diminishing fortunes in Europe but an enlarged dominion overseas. Being part of the Holy Roman Empire, The Spanish Monarchs introduced the process of Inquisition in 1498 A.D to strengthen their hold over the people, propagate Roman Catholicism as the only true belief and stamp out any other form of worship. The inquisition procedure included a legal process in which the accused would be encouraged to confess their heretical beliefs.
The court of inquisition would then decide the punishment which varied from execution to monetary fines. In the 17th century, with modernity creeping in and a more liberal outlook, the harsher punishments of the Spanish inquisition reduced considerably and were finally abolished in the early part of the 18th century.
The Baroque movement of the 17th century stressed opulence and grandeur and depiction of realism with large landscapes in visually striking works of art. Of the French painters, Georges La Tour, Claude Lorrain, and Nicolas Poussin were well known. Georges La Tour spent his entire career in France and was famous for his clever use of candlelight in his religious scenes. Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin started their careers in France but found fame in Rome. The former was known for his large realistic landscapes of striking visual effects, while the latter for the classical baroque style with emphasis on order and linearity.
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Amongst the Spanish artists, El Greco became famous for his impressionist style with striking use of color and brushwork in his landscape paintings such as Toledo. Diego Velazquez was yet another Spanish painter celebrated for his lifelike portraits of nobility and landscape paintings with outdoor lighting. The Surrender of Breda is one of his best-known works. Perhaps the most famous Spanish personality of the 17th century was Miguel de Cervantes. His classic tale, Don Quixote is often known as the first modern novel. Cervantes’ style of romantic satire and chivalrous humor inspired a generation of Spanish litterateurs.