Spain’s cultural heritage is one of the world’s richest and most varied, and is the result of the interaction of many interesting elements over the course of thousands of years of history. A great deal may be attributed to the geographical location of the Iberian Peninsula, situated as it is halfway between Europe and Africa, and between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Equally influential have been the many peoples who have settled here, dreaming and creating from the Paleolithic to the present.

Pre-history saw the creation of the painted figures in the Altamira caves (Cantabria), a veritable Sistine Chapel of the Quaternary Period; the megaliths of the Balearic Islands and the remains of the Tartessian culture which have appeared in the Guadalquivir Valley. Later came the Roman conquest of Hispania, bequeathing us our mother tongue, Latin, and linking us to many European peoples. A further legacy of the Roman period are the exceptional examples of architecture and urban development, including the aqueduct at Segovia, the bridge of Alcántara and the urban settlements at Itálica, Sagunto, Ampurias, Tarragona, and Mérida. The archeological sites at Tarragona and Mérida have also earned the distinction of being declared World Heritage sites.

Beginning in the 8th century, following a period of decline, the art and architecture of Spain reached levels of exceptional beauty in pre-Romanesque Asturias. (San Miguel de Lillo and Santa María del Naranco are two good examples.) Then would come the Arab invasions, and with them centuries of both struggle and fertile cultural exchange. The fruits of this interaction can be seen in Mudejar and Mozarabic art, with numerous examples scattered throughout the country. The area longest under Arab rule, essentially the south of the peninsula, has left us marvels such as the mosque and palace of Medina Azahara in Cordoba, and the Alhambra in Granada. Further north, where Arab power was more ephemeral and superficial, the ties to European artistic traditions would quickly be reaffirmed. The pilgrimage route of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela saw the building of many primitive Romanesque structures, including the cathedral at Jaca, San Isidoro in Leon, the Church of San Martín in Frómista (Palencia) and the wonder that is the “Portico of Glory” in Santiago de Compostela. The 12th century also saw our first literary masterpiece, the Cantar de Mío Cid, an epic poem which tells of the battles between Christians and Muslims.

During the 13th and 14th centuries a Gothic style developed in Spain with its own unique characteristics, despite its having been inherited from European cultural traditions. Early Cistercian Gothic may be seen at the monasteries of Poblet (Tarragona) and Santa María la Real de las Huelgas (Burgos). Gothic developed further with the cathedral at Leon, 14th-century Catalan Gothic and the Flemish Gothic of the cathedrals of Seville, Burgos and Toledo. The 15th century was witness to events with an extremely significant impact on Spanish cultural history. The first of these was the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, the prelude to the spread of the Spanish language throughout the world. Also in 1492, Nebrija published the first Spanish grammar, the first precise portrait of our language. It was the Renaissance, and Gothic gave way to plateresque, with the universities of Salamanca, Valladolid and Alcalá de Henares as the focal point for world culture.

However, it would be the 16th and 17th centuries which would be known as the “Golden Age” of our culture. El Greco was painting his masterpieces in Toledo, Velázquez in Madrid, and Murillo and Zurbarán in Seville. This was the time of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the architecture of Juan de Herrera and the Baroque period. Cervantes wrote his Don Quixote and the picaresque genre developed. Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca and Tirso de Molina raised Spanish theater to heretofore unsurpassed heights. Quevedo and Góngora did the same for poetry.

The 18th-century Enlightenment saw the arrival of a new dynasty, the Borbons, and with them enlightened policies which gave a major impetus to cultural institutions: the academies of Language, Medicine, Law and Arts were born, as was the National Library in Madrid; and botanical gardens and technical schools of all kinds were created. In Madrid, the neo-classical Prado Museum, Alcalá Gate and Royal Palace are all products of this period. The end of the century brought another peak in our artistic history: the paintings of Goya.

The 19th century arrived with the Romantic movement and its poets (Bécquer), essayists (Larra) and playwrights (Echegaray). There was also a flourishing of regional culture in Catalonia (the Renaixença movement) and Galicia. The coming of the 20th century saw a period of great cultural density between the so-called generations of ’98 and ’36, lasting until the 1936-39 Civil War. From the end of the previous century, Barcelona had watched the amazing buildings of Antonio Gaudí come into being (the Sagrada Familia, Park Güell). This period also saw the great painters Picasso (Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid, Picasso museums in Barcelona and Málaga), Dalí (Dalí museums in Púbol, Figueres and Portlligat), Juan Gris (Reina Sofía Museum), Sorolla (Sorolla Museum, Madrid), Miró (Miró Foundation, Barcelona) and Zuloaga (Zuloaga Museum, Zumaia); the films of Buñuel; the poetry of the Generation of ‘27 (García Lorca, Alberti, Salinas, Aleixandre, Dámaso Alonso, Cernuda, etc.); the music of Falla, Granados and Albéniz; the philosophy of Ortega y Gasset; and the essays of Eugenio D’Ors.

1936 brought our disastrous civil war. With its advent many creators were killed (García Lorca) or forced to leave the country (Alberti, Chacel, Salinas, María Zambrano, etc.). However, not even exile could stop their creativity, home or abroad. Around the 1940s we start to see novels which are critical of contemporary Spain, including the works of Delibes, Cela, Laforet and Torrente Ballester; as well as theater plays (Buero Vallejo, Alfonso Sastre) and poetry (Rosales, Panero, Blas de Otero). The years passed and abstract art began to appear in painting, especially in the Informalism of the El Paso Group, made up of Saura, Tapies, Zobel, Sempere, Rivera, Canogar and Guinovart, among others (Reina Sofía Museum; Antoni Tàpies Foundation; Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, Cuenca). The cinema of Berlanga, Saura and Bardem was also born.

In 1975, Spain recovered its democratic government, opening the door to cultural movements of all kinds, now free from esthetic or ideological constraints. And so we reach the present, as rich and varied as any time. There are literary figures such as Miguel Delibes, Francisco Ayala, José Hierro and Ana María Matute; painters such as Antonio López, Luis Gordillo, Eduardo Arroyo and Miquel Barceló (with paintings at the Reina Sofía, the Institute of Modern Art in Valencia, and the Andalusian Center of Contemporary Art in Seville, among other museums); and sculptors such as Eduardo Chillida (Chillida-Leku Museum, Hernani), Jorge Oteiza (Oteiza Museum, Alzuza) and Agustín Ibarrola (fine arts museums of Bilbao and Vitoria).

Spanish architecture is experiencing a boom with Rafael Moneo (Museum of Roman Art, Mérida; Kursaal, San Sebastián), Santiago Calatrava (Airport of Bilbao, City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia) and Ricardo Bofill (National Theater of Catalonia). A number of foreign architects have also left their mark on Spain, the most spectacular example of this being the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum Bilbao, designed by the American, Frank Gehry.

In the sphere of music, we find artists such as Alicia de Larrocha, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Montserrat Caballé and Teresa Berganza, and the dancers Joaquín Cortés, Víctor Ullate, Trinidad Sevillano and Arantxa Argüelles all warrant special mention. Additionally, new cultural industries have been developed: currently Spanish gastronomy is one of the most advanced, with Catalonia and the Basque Country at the foreront; Galician fashion is exported throughout the world, and the publishing sector, whose centers are Barcelona and Madrid, is experiencing significant growth.

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