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The Escurial

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Before my departure for Andalusia, I went to see the famous Convent of the Escurial, the leviathan of architecture, the eighth wonder of the world, the largest mass of granite upon the earth, and, if you desire other imposing epithets, then you must imagine them, for you will not find one that has not been used to describe it. I left Madrid in the early morning. The village of the Escurial, from which the Convent received its name, is eight leagues from the city, not far from the Guadarrama; you pass through an arid and uninhabited country whose horizon is bounded by snow-covered mountains. A light, fine, and cold rain was falling when I reached the station of the Escurial. From it to the village there is a rise of half a mile. I clambered into an omnibus, and at the end of a few minutes, I was deposited in a solitary street bordered on the left by the Convent and on the right by the houses of the village, and shut in by the mountains. At the first glance you understand nothing; you expect to see a building and you find a city; you do not know if you are already in the Convent, or if you are outside; you are hemmed in by walls. You advance, and find yourself in a square; you look about you and see streets; you have not yet entered, and already the Convent surrounds you: you are at your wit's end, and no longer know which way to turn. The first feeling is one of depression: the entire edifice is of mud-coloured stone, and all the layers are marked by a white stripe; the roofs are covered with lead. You might call it a building made of earth. The very high walls are naked and pierced by a great number of windows which resemble barbicans. You might call it a prison rather than a convent. You find this gloomy colour everywhere: there is not a living soul here, and the silence is that of a deserted fortress; and beyond the black roofs, the black mountain, which seems to be suspended over the building, gives it mysterious solitude. It seems as if the founder must have chosen the spot, the plan, and the colours, everything, in fact, with the intention of producing a sad and solemn spectacle. You lose your gaiety before entering; you can smile no longer, you are thinking. You pause at the door of the Escurial with a kind of quaking, as if at the entrance of a dead city; it seems to you that if the terrible Inquisition is reigning in any corner of the world, it must be between these walls; for it is here that you can see its last traces and hear its last echo.

Everybody knows that the Basilica and the Convent of the Escurial were founded by Philip II. after the battle of San Quintino to fulfil his vow made during the war to Saint Laurence when he was forced to cannonade a church consecrated to this saint. Don Juan Batista of Toledo commenced the building and Herrera finished it, and the work upon it lasted for twenty-one years. Philip II. wished the building to have the form of a gridiron in memory of Saint Laurence's martyrdom; and, in reality, this is its form. The plan is a rectangular parallelogram. Four large square towers with pointed roofs rise at the four corners, and represent the four feet of a gridiron; the church and the royal palace, which extend on one side, represent the handle; and the interior buildings, which are placed across the two long sides, represent the parallel bars. Other smaller buildings rise outside of the parallelogram, not far from the Convent, along one of the long sides and one of the courts, forming two large squares; the other two sides are occupied by gardens. Facades, doors, and entrance-halls, are all in harmony with the grandeur and character of the edifice: it is useless to multiply descriptions. The royal Palace is magnificent, and in order to keep a clear impression of each individual building, it is better to see it before you enter the Convent and Church. This palace is in the north-east corner of the building. Several halls are filled with pictures, others are hung from the ceiling to the floor with tapestries, representing bull-fights, dances, games, fetes, and Spanish costumes, after Goya; others are decorated and furnished in princely style; the floor, the doors, and the windows are covered with marvellous mosaics and dazzling gold-work. But among all the rooms, that of Philip II. is especially remarkable. It is a dark and bare cell, whose alcove communicates with the royal oratory of the church in such a way that, when the doors were open, from his bed he could see the priest celebrating Mass. Philip II. slept in this room, had his last illness there, and died there. You can still see some of the chairs he used, two little benches on which he rested his gouty leg, and a writing-desk. The walls are white, the ceiling is unornamented, and the floor is of stone.

When you have seen the royal Palace, you go out of the building, cross the square, and re-enter the great door. A guide joins you and you pass through the large entrance to find yourself in the Kings' court-yard. Here you gain an idea of the enormous structure of the building. This court is entirely shut in by walls; opposite the door is the facade of the Church. Above a wide stairway stand six enormous Doric columns; each of these supports a large pedestal, and each pedestal upholds a statue. These six colossal statues are by Batista Monegro, representing Jehoshaphat, Ezekiel, David, Solomon, Joshua, and Manasseh. The court-yard is paved and bunches of damp grass grow here and there; the walls look like rocks cut in points; everything is rigid, massive, and heavy, and presents the indescribable aspect of a fantastic edifice hewn by Titans from a mountain and capable of defying earthquakes and lightnings. At this point you really begin to understand the Escurial...

After seeing the Church and the Sacristy, you visit the Picture-Gallery, which contains a large number of paintings by artists of all countries, not the best examples, however, for these have been taken to the Madrid gallery, but of sufficient value to merit a thoughtful visit of half a day. From the Picture-Gallery you go to the Library by means of the large stairway, over which is rounded an enormous vaulted ceiling, painted all over with frescoes by Luca Giordano. The Library is an immense hall adorned with large allegorical paintings, and contains more than fifty thousand rare volumes, four thousand of which were given by Philip IL, and beyond this is another hall, which contains a very valuable collection of manuscripts. From the Library you go to the Convent. Here human imagina tion is completely lost. If my reader knows Espronceda's Estudiante de Salamanca, he will remember that the persistent young man, when following the mysterious lady whom he met at night at the foot of a tabernacle, runs from street to street, from square to square, and from alley to alley, turning and returning, until he arrives at a spot where he can no longer see the houses of Salamanca and where he discovers that he is in an unknown city; and in proportion as he advances the town seems to grow larger, the streets longer and the intertwining alleys more tortuous; but he goes on and on without stopping, not knowing if he is awake or dreaming, if he is intoxicated or mad; terror begins to enter his brave heart and the most peculiar phantoms crowd into his distracted mind: this is what happens to the stranger in the Convent of the Escurial. You pass through a long subterranean corridor, so narrow that you can touch the wall with your elbows, so low that your head almost hits the ceiling, and as damp as a grotto under the sea; on reaching its end, you turn, and you are in another corridor. You go on, pass through doors, and look around: other corridors extend as far as your eye can see. At the end of some of them you notice a feeble light, at the end of others an open door which reveals a suite of rooms. Every now and then you hear a footstep: you stop; all is silent; then you hear it again; you do not know if it is above your head, or to the right, or the left, or before you, or behind you.

You are about to enter a door; you recoil in terror: at the end of a long corridor you see a man, motionless as a spectre, who is staring at you. You continue your journey and arrive in a strange court, surrounded by high walls and overgrown with grass, full of echoes, and illuminated by a wan light which seems to come from some strange sun; it reminds you of the haunts of witches described to you in your childhood. You go out of the court, walk up a stairway, arrive in a gallery, and look down: there beneath you is another, and deserted, court. You walk down another corridor, you descend another stairway, and you find your' self in a third court; then again more corridors, stairways, suites of empty rooms, and narrow courts, and everywhere granite, a wan light, and the stillness of death. For a short time you think you could retrace your steps; then your memory forsakes you, and you recall nothing: it seems as if you had walked ten leagues, that you have been in this labyrinth for a month, and that you will never get out of it. You come to a court, and exclaim: " I have seen this before! " No you are mistaken: it is another one. You think you are on one side of the building and you are on the opposite one. You ask your guide for the cloister, and he replies: "It is here," and you continue walking for half an hour. You fancy you are dreaming: you have glimpses of long walls, frescoed, and adorned with pictures, the crucifix, and with inscriptions; you see and you forget; you ask yourself " Where am I? "You see a light as if from another world: you have never conceived of such a peculiar light. Is it the reflection of the granite? Is it moonlight? No, it is daylight; but a daylight sadder than darkness; it is a false, sinister, fantastic daylight. Let us go on! From corridor to corridor, from court to court, you look before you with mistrust; you expect to see suddenly at the turn of a corner a row of skeleton monks with hoods drawn over their eyes and their arms folded; you think of Philip IL; you fancy you hear his step growing ever fainter down the distant passages; you remember all you have read of him, of his terrors, of the Inquisition; and everything becomes suddenly plain; you understand it all for the first time: the Escurial is Philip IL, you see him at every step, and you hear him breathe; for he is here, living and fearful, and the image of his terrible God is with him. Then you want to revolt, to raise your thought to the God of your heart and hope, and to conquer the mysterious terror which this place inspires; but you cannot; the Escurial envelops you, possesses you, crushes you; the cold of its stones penetrates into your very bones, the sadness of its sepulchral labyrinths takes possession of your soul. If you were with a friend, you would say: "Let us go! "; if you were with your loved one, you would tremblingly clasp her to your heart; if you were alone, you would take flight. Finally you ascend the stairway, and, entering a room, go to the window to salute rapturously the mountains, the sunshine, liberty, and the great and generous God who loves and pardons.

How one breathes again at this window!

From it you see the gardens, which occupy a restricted space and which are very simple, but elegant and beautiful, and in perfect harmony with the building. You see in them twelve charming fountains, each surrounded by four squares of box-wood, representing the royal escutcheons, designed with such skill and trimmed with such precision that in looking at them from the windows they seem to be made of plush and velvet, and they stand out from the white sand of the walks in a very striking manner. There are no trees, nor flowers, nor pavilions here; in all the gardens nothing is to be seen but fountains and squares of box-wood and these two colours-white and green-and such is the beauty of this noble simplicity that the eye is enchanted with it, and when it has passed out of sight, the thought returns and rests there with pleasure mingled with a gentle melancholy...

An illustrious traveller has said that after having spent a day in the Convent of the Escurial, one should feel happy for the remainder of his life in thinking that he might be still between those walls, but that he has escaped. That is very nearly true. Even now, after so long a time, on rainy days when I am sad I think about the Escurial, then I look around the walls of my room and I become gay; during nights of insomnia, I see the courts of the Escurial; when I am ill and drop into a feverish and heavy sleep, I dream that all night I am wandering in these corridors, alone and followed by the phantom of a monk, screaming and knocking at all the doors without finding a way out, until I decide to go to the Pantheon, where the door bangs behind me and shuts me in among the tombs.

With what delight I saw the myriad lights of the Puerta del Sol, the crowded cafes and the great and noisy street of the Alcala! When I went into the house I made such a noise, that the servant:, who was a good and simple Gallician, ran excitedly to her mistress and said: ac Me parece el italiano se ha vuelto loco." (I think the Italian has lost his senses).

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