How Much Ruin is in a Nation?

By Christopher S. Johnson

“BE ASSURED MY YOUNG FRIEND, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” Adam Smith wrote to his distraught friend, John Sinclair, after the battle of Saratoga (1777).  Smith’s words are a model of equanimity; the defeat would bring French forces into the conflict and effectively decide the outcome of the Revolutionary War.  Britain would lose its American colonies. Sinclair had reason to be unhappy.

Yet as it turned out, Smith was right: The loss of the American colonies was not a decisive blow to the burgeoning British empire. But his assurance begs a large question:  Just how much ruin is there in a nation?  How many blunders and failures can be endured before those things that make for national greatness—power, prosperity, prestige—are squandered, and the fate of a nation and a people are irreparably changed for the worse?

History’s stores contain food for thought.  For those seeking a classic case of precipitate unraveling, it would be difficult to better the example of Spain under Philip IV (1621-1665), a truly remarkable plummet from the heights of European power to something very like decrepitude in a span of little over 20 years.

True, Hapsburg Spain was off to a head start by the time Philip inherited a longstanding fiscal crisis along with the throne from his father, the incompetent and feckless Philip III (1598-1621), whose greatest service to his realm may have been dying prematurely and leaving the Spanish empire to a boy of 16.  His father’s reign was one of peaceful neglect and corruption. Favorites, like the Duke of Lerma, feathered their nests, while the crown spent more than it extracted from the declining silver mines of Mexico and Peru, and the peasants of Castile. It borrowed the rest from Genoese bankers.

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More serious perhaps than the neglect of the treasury had been the neglect of the prince himself.  A haphazard education had ill prepared him for the throne.  By accounts the younger Philip was more intelligent than this father; and, in time, habit would contort him into an assiduous royal bureaucrat in the mold of his grandfather, Philip II.  But authority never sat easy on his brow, and he much preferred the hunt – in the field and in the boudoir – to governing, and as king he was nearly as irresolute as his father had been.  What this vacuum of royal authority meant in practice was that the institution of government by favorite would continue for the foreseeable future, and Philip, for better or worse, found a man who knew his mind better than he did – Gaspar de Guzmán, the Count Duke of Olivares.

No man ever served his monarch with greater devotion than Olivares.  His duty, as he saw it, was to bring glory to the Spanish throne, and to that end he sacrificed himself with an unstinting and tireless energy.  His position, which amounted at times to that of de facto ruler of the empire, would have sorely tempted other men. But corruption was not among his greater faults, and his personal interests remained subordinate to the interests of the crown, as he saw them.  Though his enemies might complain – and Olivares accumulated more and more of these as the years passed – his actions were taken in accordance with his single-minded goal of making himself a more potent and useful instrument of his sovereign, while keeping his king the most powerful temporal ruler in Europe.

To that end, from the earliest days of Philip’s reign, Olivares set upon on an ambitious campaign to transform a moribund and far-flung empire into a modern, rational administrative state.  Olivares wanted to resolve the perpetual fiscal crises and crowns debts by reforming the currency (copper vellon were minted whenever expedient – an early example of quantitative easing) and reducing a tax burden that fell disproportionately on those productive subjects of Castile – its peasants and merchants – while doing away with hereditary privileges that allowed the rest of Spain to avoid the costs of empire. Under a “union of arms” as envisaged by Olivares, each of the crown’s possessions would bear a proportionate responsibility to supply their king with the money and soldiers need to defend his realm and the Catholic faith.  Rival crown heads and Protestant heretics were in abundance in early 17th century Europe, while the demands upon the king’s resources were always greater than the ability to meet them.

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Of those many demands – the defense of Italy, the outfitting of the fleets that protected the annual infusion of American silver, the skirmishing with the Protestant princes of Germany  –  it would be the war against the Dutch, doubly damned as rebels and as heretics, that most preoccupied Philip’s government.  When a 12-year truce lapsed during the first days of the young king’s reign it was not renewed, and the on-and-off conflict with the Dutch – which had been ongoing for over half a century – would sorely test Spain’s human and fiscal resources for the next 25 years.

Ten years on, by the early 1630’s, Olivares’ program of reform, although it had not been abandoned by its indefatigable architect, had been met with determined resistance from every quarter.  The crown’s finances were in abysmal shape, and Olivares spent much of his time in an increasingly desperate search for revenue.  Foreign affairs were not going so well either. The conflict with the Dutch was at an expensive stalemate, and war with France loomed.  The times were not propitious for costly side projects, or so it would seem to anyone other than Philip and Olivares.  But the Buen Retiro was to be a pleasure palace with a purpose.

Hastily built on what was then the outskirts of Madrid, the Buen Retiro was the epitome of royal folly, an endeavor that squandered the time and the resources of a crown that had neither to spare.  The already overburdened Castilians whose taxes were raised to finance its construction were understandably resentful.  Their grumbling fell on deaf ears: to Olivares the Buen Retiro was a necessity, not a bauble.   The king needed a nearby palace where the court could retreat to escape the stultifying ritual and formality of the main palace, the Alcazar.   Of greater import was Olivares’ conviction that a great monarch was a great patron of the arts, and the Buen Retiro was designed as the showcase wherein that pledge was to be fulfilled.  In turn, great art would reflect upon the greatness of the king – and by extension, his chief minister –  at a time when confidence in the future of the monarchy and the wisdom of the favorite were decidedly ebbing.

If the Buen Retiro was conceived as a theater for the display of Spain’s imperial and artistic grandeur, its center stage was, quite literally, the Hall of Realms.  When completed in 1635, the opulent hall was hung with resplendent images of  Spanish power freshly executed by Diego Velázquez and other court artists.  Twelve life-size battle paintings depicting the military victories of Philip’s early reign were interspersed with Zurbaran’s ten scenes from the Life of Hercules (whom Philip claimed as an ancestor), and equestrian portraits, again by Velázquez, of the king, the queen, and the crown prince.  But the intervening decade of  military and political failures had undermined the optimism of the early years of Philip’s reign, and sense of foreboding lay just beneath the surface of the Hall of Realm’s triumphalist celebration.  For all the fanfare, a chasm had opened between the image the monarchy chose to exhibit to the world and the reality of Spain’s political fortunes.

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The best known, deservedly, of the Hall of Realm’s battle paintings is Velázquez’ Surrender of Breda.  On its surface, the painting is an encomium to modesty and grace in victory:  The dismounted general of the Spanish forces, Ambrosio Spinola, Commander of the Army of Flanders, receives the key of the smoldering Dutch town from his defeated foe, Justin of Nassau, and prevents him from kneeling in supplication with a gesture of tender regard.  At the time of this triumph in 1625, Breda had been considered impregnable, and the surrender of this strategic fortress was interpreted, at least within the confines of the Spanish court, as a sign of the Dutch rebels’ inevitable defeat. Velázquez’ rendition, painted ten years after the fact, is about the return of the prodigal:  Spinola’s humane magnanimity is but a reflection of that of the just monarch who was prepared to welcome his Dutch heretics back within the imperial and Catholic fold with the same generous restraint.  The chorus of Spanish lances pointed devoutly heavenward makes explicit, if there were any doubt, for which side the Almighty has worked His verdict on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, whatever its other admittedly immense virtues, when considered as a piece of royal propaganda, Velázquez’ great painting uneasily displays a deep strain of what might politely be called wishful thinking; for the hard fact remained that despite the intervening years, there had been no ultimate triumph of Spanish arms and the Dutch remained as obdurate as ever.

The fashion of present day scholarship is to deny the elements of allegory in Velázquez’ art, especially when the interpretation runs counter to the  prevailing political sentiments and interests of his employer.  The argument, such as it goes, was that Velázquez was too much the loyal and devoted courtier to dare risk inserting meanings in his art that discreetly undermined official Hapsburg dogma.

Yet Philip was that rarity among monarchs, a true connoisseur and avid collector of painting. The royal collections – which make up the bulk of the Prado to this day – were fairly bursting with the cream of European painting, including works by Titian and Rubens, who had been a visitor to Philip’s court.  The king’s interest extended so far beyond that of the usual royal patron that, late in his reign, as a refuge from his cares, the king would spend a part of each day in Velázquez’ studio in intimate and informal discussion; a habit as unusual for a monarch as it was an honor for the royal painter.  Philip was susceptible to a kind of indulgence, at least where Velázquez was concerned: consciously or not, a desire to be the patron of great works of art undermined in subtle ways a zealous commitment to the pictorial politics of Hapsburg Spain. In the court of Philip IV, everyone from the king to the meanest courtier understood the inherent tension of sustaining an official reality at odds with persistent and inconvenient truths. Velázquez’ painting is a pointed commentary on that duality, so that the Surrender of Breda is both the outward celebration of a triumph and the silent acknowledgment of a tragedy.

Spinola had been dead for four years when the Surrender of Breda was unveiled in the Hall of Realms.  He died in northern Italy of an illness contracted in the field while leading Spanish arms in the siege of Casale during the War of Mantuan Succession – an obscure conflict stumbled into by Olivares in an attempt to prevent a French claimant from succeeding as the Duke of Mantua, and thereby threatening Spanish control of the adjoining Duchy of Milan.  From the beginning, the war was a costly and ill-advised military disaster for the crown.  Spinola was sent to Italy in the summer of 1629 in an attempt to right a situation that had gone badly from the beginning, but  his arrival did little to alter the situation.  Unlike Breda, Casale did not fall, and up until the time of his death in September of 1630, the exasperated general railed bitterly at Madrid’s repeated failure to provide him with promised support.  A hasty and humiliating peace was signed in 1631.

At the Spanish court Spinola’s fate was common knowledge:  A member of a great Genoese banking family, he had been the most successful commander of the past thirty years, at a time when the Spanish empire produced few competent military men.  But there was also a more personal connection: Velázquez had accompanied Spinola on the journey from Madrid to Milan to take up that ill-fated final command. Velázquez, at the time making his first trip to Italy, had returned to Madrid in 1631 after prolonged stays in Venice and Rome.  The presence of Spinola’s ghost in the Hall of Realms thus invites unavoidable associations:  the air of affectionate tribute surrounding the portrayal of his greatest triumph elides with the memory of his more recent death in the field presiding over an ignominious defeat.

The odd doings of the other figures of this richly peopled canvass contributes to the sense of disjuncture. There are the prominent secondary figures –  the sunken-eyed young Dutchman on the left, a quizzically preternatural horse, the draped Spanish official, and the soldier at the far right who may be Velázquez himself –  who stare back at the viewer with a varying mixture of bewilderment and knowing resignation.  Then there are the bulk of the soldiery on both sides whose attention seems to be scattered in every direction but towards the historic scene unfolding before them. The rear end of a horse dominating the foreground adds a touch of low comedy; the discarded white flag in the lowest right corner might well be a silent augury. When added up, The Surrender of Breda becomes something other than what it first appears:  not a celebration of Spanish might, but a reticent allegory on the vanity of military triumph, where victories are fleeting and the destinies of even the most illustrious are not immune to the cruel caprice of fate.

But perhaps allegory isn’t quite right either. Velázquez’ images are never insistent, but suggestive – a naturalism so saturated with an accumulation of meanings that it bears the weight of allegory without the need for stock figures.  This is no better illustrated than in the equestrian portrait of crown prince Baltasar Carlos that hung in the Hall of Realms. Suffused with a spectral, dreamlike quality, the delicate five-year old boy – his soft, insubstantial features partially cast in shadow – is perched atop a lunging, barrel-chested horse, his regal garb flowing against a stony sky of subdued, potentially ominous hue.  The painting is both an heroic image of a future king and a depiction of the fragility of the monarchy – at once confident, serene, perilous, poised at any moment on the brink of disaster.


Disaster was not long in coming.  Breda was retaken by the Dutch in 1637.  In 1639, a Dutch fleet destroyed Olivares’ expensively expanded and refurbished Armada, while French forces invaded Catalonia.  By the end of 1640, Catalonia was in open rebellion, and Portugal, following an armed coup, repudiated its union with the Spanish crown.  Although revenues had long been in decline, that same year the silver fleet from the Americas simply failed to arrive, provoking another financial crisis.  As the historian J.H. Elliot has written, “…1640 had, in fact, marked the dissolution of the economic and political system on which the Monarchy had depended for so long.”

Universally detested by all but his king, and with his dreams of a union of arms and financial reform in ruins, Olivares was dismissed in 1643; two years later he was dead.  The queen had died the previous year. The sixteen-year old Baltasar Carlos died of smallpox in 1646.  The crown declared bankruptcy in 1647, and again in 1653.  The Dutch were granted their independence in 1648; Catalonia, after twelve years of insurrection, again acknowledged the authority of the Spanish crown in 1652.  The costly war with France was not concluded until 1659. Philip had not only presided over the end of Spain as a European power, he had barely escaped the complete disintegration of his realm.

Bereft of his queen, his heir and his chief minister, the increasingly melancholy and vacillating Philip concluded that the state of his realm was God’s punishment for his sins. Desperate to produce an heir, in 1649 he married his niece – the unhappy twenty-year old Mariana of Austria  – and succeeded, after a fashion.  The progeny of such an incestuous union were what might be expected:  the lovely little Infanta Margarita (immortalized at the center of Velázquez’ Las Meninas);  the hopelessly frail prince Felipe Prospero, who did not live to see his sixth year; and the future Charles II, a disfigured half-wit who by some jest of fate lived to succeed his father at the age of four, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs.

Even before Philip’s death the Buen Retiro had become a symbol of the collapse of Hapsburg Spain.  His pleasure palace, born of a crisis of confidence in the purpose and direction of the regime, became instead its perfect metaphor:  While ever expensively expanding, the palace and its grounds were yet so hastily and shoddily built that they were quite literally falling apart nearly as soon as they were completed –  a fitting monument for a regime that invested  so much of its waning energies in the belief that its external splendors might somehow arrest the inexorable rot from within.

Yet for all its staggering political failures, Spain’s artistic culture reached a peak during Philip’s reign and produced that rarity – an artist of genius –  to render, however obliquely, its decline. Seventeenth century Spain yet possessed a conception of the tragic so as to be capable of both recognizing it, and depicting it in art. Spain’s national tragedy, as events exposed its figureheads and institutions as weak and overwhelmed, became the unspoken, delicately alluded subject of its greatest painter.

How much ruin is in a nation?  An answer of sorts might be given as follows:  A nation might survive its corrupt or foolish rulers; it might survive years of profligate spending beyond its means; it might survive political arrangements that place all of society’s burdens on some while others enjoy the benefits with none of the costs; it might survive humiliation on the battlefield and incompetence in its dealings with its adversaries; and it might even survive a string of nearly inexplicable bad luck.  But no nation can survive all of them, simultaneously.

We may yet escape the fate of Hapsburg Spain, but our cultural rot goes deeper; there will be no Velázquez capable of extracting the humanity from our ruin. Our end, should it come, will be accompanied not with a whimper or a bang, but a tweet.

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This is a version of an essay that appeared in On The Square, a daily blog of the journal First Things, March 24, 2011. Christopher S. Johnson is a writer who lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

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3 Comments


  1. Thank for the the reminder that art history has its uses. Art, as a window into
    history, is one real reason to pay attention to it.


  2. Velasquez was more than a court painter. As courtier artists go, we have plenty.
    They’re in Hollywood, mainly. What we don’t have is the quality of Velasquez’s figuration. Which painter today has the sensibility he brought to it? There is still a lot of skill around. But sensibility goes begging.


  3. The political and economic warning stands but, in terms of art, we can’t go back.
    Our current king has Shepard Fairey. So, court painting–court art—continues in its own way. Economics and politics keep going. Twitter is has uses that might have made Velasquez jealous.

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