Economic, Political & Social History -- Historically, Spain's Golden Age lasted from the late 15th to the early 17th century, a period when the country reached the height of its prestige and influence. This era is well surveyed in J. H. Elliot's Imperial Spain 1469-1716.
If you like more contemporary history, read John Hooper's The Spaniards (Penguin). Hooper provides insight into the events of the post-Franco era, when the country came to grips with democracy after years of fascism.
The Arts -- The Moors contributed much to Spanish culture, leaving Spain with a distinct legacy that is documented in Titus Burckhardt's Moorish Culture in Spain.
Spain's most famous artist was Málaga-born Pablo Picasso. The most controversial book about the late painter is Picasso, Creator and Destroyer, by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington (Simon & Schuster).
Andalusia, by Eliane Faure and Christian Sappa, is a great picture book on the province, covering major cities such as Seville along with popular customs and old traditions. Andalusia, by Brigitte Hintzen-Bohlen, is good for an armchair tour, with architectural drawings, along with brief narrative descriptions of the people and places of the province.
Fiction & Biography -- Denounced by some as superficial, James A. Michener's Iberia remains the classic travel log on Spain.
The latest biography of one of the 20th century's most durable dictators is Franco: A Concise Biography, which was released in the spring of 2002. Gabrielle Ashford Hodges documents with great flair the Orwellian repression and widespread corruption that marked the notorious regime of this "deeply flawed" politician.
The most famous Spanish novel is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Readily available everywhere, it deals with the conflict between the ideal and the real in human nature. Nicholas Wollaston's Tilting at Don Quixote takes us on a panoramic tour of Quixote's Spain, unfolding as a backdrop against Wollaston's own personal life journey. The writer has great sympathy for the half-crazed don and his illusions.
Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia, by Chris Stewart, is a charming book, telling the story of an English sheep shearer, Chris Stewart, who buys an isolated farmhouse in the mountains outside of Granada.
That late, late show, The Loves of Carmen (1948) is still around, starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, who achieved screen immortality in their classic Gilda. This is no Gilda, but the Technicolor and Rita's Gypsy dance number capture some of the flavor of Andalusia. The chemistry is good between Rita and Glenn, who were real lovers off screen.
Belmonte (1995; with English subtitles) is one of the best films ever made about bullfighting in Andalusia, focusing on the famous bullfighter, Belmonte. It starred Achero Manas as Juan Belmonte. Ernest Hemingway once said that he'd met only two geniuses -- Einstein and Belmonte. The film is a good period piece that faithfully reproduces the backdrop of southern Spain.
The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca (1996) introduced many younger viewers to the work of an artist hailed by some as Spain's greatest poet. Andy Garcia plays Lorca in this tale of a journalist who starts an investigation into the disappearance of famed poet and political agitator Garcia Lorca. He vanished in the early days of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. This is definitely Andalusian film noir, and Garcia as Lorca delivers a passionate performance. The shots of the Andalusian countryside are so gorgeous that the film in part is a travelogue in spite of its dark overtones.
Yerma (1998) was director Pilar Távora's attempt to bring this play by Frederico Garcia Lorca to life with Aitanas Sánchez-Gijón cast as Yerma. Critics hail Távora as an expert on Andalusian culture and flamenco in particular, and this is definitely a director's picture. Yerma provides insights into Andalusian culture as it tells of a woman's "impossible" love for another man. It's filled with violent passions that one critic noted could "come only out of an Andalusian soul."
Oh Marbella! (2003) depicts life along the Costa del Sol as filled with "sun, sea, and sex." Piers Ashworth was both the writer and director of this comedy that even dabbles in goat herding.
Flamenco dancing, with its flash, color, and ritual, is evocative of Spanish culture. The word itself has various translations, meaning everything from "gypsified Andalusian" to "knife," from "blowhard" to "tough guy." Accompanied by stylized guitar music, castanets, and the fervent clapping of the crowd, dancers are filled with tension and emotion.
Experts disagree as to where flamenco came from, but most point to Andalusia as its seat of origin. Although its influences were both Jewish and Islamic, the song and dance of flamenco was perfected by Gypsy artists, who took to flamenco like "rice to paella," in the words of the historian Fernando Quiñones.
The deep song of flamenco represents a fatalistic attitude toward life. Marxists said it was a deeply felt protest of the lower classes against their oppressors. Protest or not, rich patrons -- often brash young men -- liked the sound of flamenco and booked artists to stage juergas, or fiestas. Flamenco was linked with pimping, prostitution, and lots and lots of drinking, both from the audience and the artists. Dancer-prostitutes became the "erotic extras." The style reached its present format by the early 17th century.
By the mid-19th century flamenco had gone legitimate and was prevalent in theaters and café cantantes, or "singing cafes." By the 1920s even the pre-Franco Spanish dictator, Primo de Rivera, was singing the flamenco tunes of his native Cádiz. The poet Federico García Lorca and the composer Manuel de Falla preferred a purer form, attacking what they viewed as the degenerate and "ridiculous" burlesque of flamenquismo, the jazzed-up, audience-pleasing form of flamenco. The two artists launched a Flamenco Festival in Grenada in 1922. Of course, in the decades since, their voices have been drowned out, and flamenco is more flamenquismo (a burlesque, jazzed-up form of flamenco) than ever.
In his 1995 book Flamenco Deep Song, Thomas Mitchell draws a parallel to flamenco's "lowlife roots" and the "orgiastic origins" of jazz. He notes that early jazz, like flamenco, was "associated with despised ethnic groups, gangsters, brothels, free-spending bluebloods, and whoopee hedonism." By disguising their origins, Mitchell notes, both jazz and flamenco have solidly entered the musical mainstream.
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