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. Elliott's Imperial Spain 1469-1716 (New American Library).
Most accounts of the Spanish Armada's defeat are written from the English point of view. For a change of perspective, try David Howarth's The Voyage of the Armada (Penguin).
The story of the Spanish Inquisition is told by Edward Peters in Inquisition (University of California Press).
One of the best accounts of Spain's earlier history is found in Joseph F. O'Callaghan's History of Medieval Spain (Cornell University).
In the 20th century the focus shifts to the Spanish Civil War, recounted in Hugh Thomas's classic, The Spanish Civil War (Harper & Row). For a personal account of the war, read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). The poet García Lorca was killed during the Civil War; the best account of his death is found in Ian Gibson's The Assassination of Federico García Lorca (Penguin).
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.
Art & Architecture -- The Moors contributed much to Spanish culture. Their distinct legacy is documented in Titus Burckhardt's Moorish Culture in Spain (McGraw-Hill).
Antoni Gaudí is the Spanish architect who most excites visitors' curiosity. Among the many illustrated books on his work, Gaudí (Escudo de Oro's "Collection Art at Spain" series) contains 150 photographs.
Spain's most famous artist was Pablo Picasso. The most controversial book about the late painter is Picasso, Creator and Destroyer by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington (Simon & Schuster).
Spain's other headline-grabbing artist was Salvador Dalí. In Salvador Dalí: A Biography (Dutton), author Meryle Secrest asks: Was he a mad genius or a cunning manipulator?
Andrés Segovia: An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920 (Macmillan), with a translation by W. F. O'Brien, is worth seeking out.
Residents of Catalonia truthfully maintain that their unique language, culture, and history have been overshadowed (and squelched) by the richer and better-publicized accomplishments of Castile. Robert Hughes, a former art critic at Time magazine, has written an elegant testament to the glories of the capital of this region: Barcelona (Knopf). This book offers a well-versed and often witty articulation of the city's architectural and cultural legacy. According to the New York Times, the book is destined to become "a classic in the genre of urban history."
The richly illustrated Juan de Herrera: Architect to Philip II of Spain, by Catherine Wilkinson Zerner (Yale University Press), describes (for the first time in English) the remarkable 3-decade partnership between Herrera (1530-97) and his royal patron.
Catalan Painting: From the 19th to the Surprising 20th Century, by Joan Ainaud de Lasarte (Rizzoli), has a title that tells its theme accurately. A lavish volume written by the former director of the Art Museums of Barcelona, it contains more than 100 color plates, from Joan Miró's The Farm to Dalí's nightmarish prefiguration of the Spanish Civil War.
Travel -- Cities of Spain, by David Gilmour (Ivan R. Dee), is a collection of perceptive essays on nine Spanish cities. Containing more literary background and historical lore than most guidebooks have space to cover, Gilmour ranges from Granada to Santiago de Compostela, from Toledo to Córdoba.
Fiction & Biography -- Denounced by some as superficial, James A. Michener's Iberia (Random House) remains the classic travelogue on Spain. The Houston Post claimed that this book "will make you fall in love with Spain."
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. Despite the unparalleled fame of Miguel de Cervantes within Spanish literature, very little is known about his life. One of the most searching biographies of the literary master is Jean Canavaggio's Cervantes, translated from the Spanish by J. R. Jones (Norton).
Although the work of Cervantes has attained an almost mystical significance in the minds of many Spaniards, in the words of Somerset Maugham, "It would be hard to find a work so great that has so many defects." Nicholas Wollaston's Tilting at Don Quixote (André Deutsch Publishers) punctures any illusions that the half-crazed Don is only a matter of good and rollicking fun.
The collected works of the famed dramatist of Spain's Golden Age, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, can be read in Plays (University Press of Kentucky).
The major works of pre-Civil War playwright Federico García Lorca can be enjoyed in Five Plays: Comedies and Tragicomedies (New Directions).
Ernest Hemingway completed many works on Spain, none more notable than his novels of 1926 and 1940, respectively: The Sun Also Rises (Macmillan) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (Macmillan), the latter based on his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Don Ernesto's Death in the Afternoon (various editions) remains the English-language classic on bullfighting.
For travelers to Granada and the Alhambra, the classic is Tales of the Alhambra (Sleepy Hollow Press) by Washington Irving.
The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself (Penguin), translated by J. M. Cohen, is said to be the third-most widely read book in Spain, after the Bible and Don Quixote. Some parts are heavy going, but the rest is lively.
Isabel the Queen: Life and Times, by Peggy K. Liss (Oxford University Press), an American historian, is a vividly detailed study. It provides a "spin" on this controversial queen not often taught in Spanish history classes. One of the most influential women in history, the Catholic monarch is viewed as forging national unity through the holy terror of the Spanish Inquisition, which was launched in 1478 and resulted in the expulsion of Jews and Moors from Spain and religious intolerance in general. Even her sponsorship of Columbus, it is suggested, led to "genocide" in the Caribbean.
20th Century Voices -- Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1922, Jacinto Benavente is best known for such plays as La Boernadora (1901) -- called The Governor's Wife in English -- and particularly for Señora ama (1908), or The Lady of the House in English, two psychological dramas taking place in a rural atmosphere. Los intereses creados (1907), or The Bonds of Interest, is hailed as his masterpiece.
The controversial Don Camilo José Cela Trulock, the Marquis of Iria Flavia, was one of the most influential Spanish writers of the 1950s, although the Franco government viewed his work as indecent. Cela's best known work, La Colmena (The Hive), published in 1951, featured more than 300 characters. A devotee of Spanish realism, he was sarcastic, even grotesque in print. In later years he created scandal, including a claim he could absorb a liter of water via his anus, offering to demonstrate in public.
Mercè Rodoreda, a Catalan novelist of Barcelona, wrote La plaça del diamante, or The Diamond Square, which was translated into English in 1962 as The Time of the Doves. It became the most acclaimed Catalan novel of all time and is the best novel dealing with the Spanish Civil War (forgive us, Ernesto).
Adept in such forms as novels, short stories, children's literature, poetry, and essays, Carmen Martín Gaite was one of the most awarded writers of her generation, dying in 2000. A major Spanish writer, Almudena Grandes, writes about life in contemporary Spain, including the 21st century. Her most celebrated work was the erotic novel Las edades de Lulú, translated into English.
Finally, Ana Rossetti, a Spanish poet born in Cádiz in 1950, is one of the most exuberant female voices in Spanish literature. The artist's repertoire embraces not only poetry but opera librettos, novels, and several works of prose.
The first Spanish feature film, Los Guapos del Parque (The Dandies of the Park), directed by Segundo de Chomón, was released in 1903, 7 years after the film industry began in Barcelona.
Film studios opened in Madrid in 1920, and by 1926 Spain was producing some 30 feature films a year. Before World War II the biggest name was Florian Rey, who made both silents and talkies, his most notable work being Le Aldea Maldita (The Damned Village) in 1929.
After the Civil War and under Franco, Spain produced a lot of mediocre films. Even General Franco, using a pseudonym, wrote a propaganda piece called Raza (The Race) in 1941.
In the 1950s, Spanish film achieved world recognition, mainly because of two directors, Luís García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem. Both made satirical films about social conditions in Spain, sometimes incurring the government's wrath. During the filming of Death of a Cyclist, in fact, Bardem was arrested and imprisoned. Upon his release, he finished the film, which won acclaim at Cannes.
Luis Buñuel became one of the biggest names in Spanish cinema, his films mirroring the social, political, and religious conflicts that tore Spain apart during most of the 20th century. In 1928, Salvador Dalí and Buñuel cooperated on the director's first movie, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), considered the most important surrealist film. Two years later, sadistic scenes in L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age) -- again written with Dalí's help -- led to riots in some movie houses. Buñuel also directed La Mort en ce Jardin (Death in the Garden) with Simone Signoret (1957). In 1960 he made Viridiana, which subsequently won the prize for best picture at Cannes, even though Franco banned the film in Spain.
In 1982 José Luis García became the first Spaniard to win an Oscar for best foreign film with Volver a Empezar (To Begin Again), even though local critics considered the film inferior to his earliest, Asignatura Pendiente (Anticipated Assignation). Volver a Empezar takes a look at an exiled writer's homecoming to Spain.
One of the biggest box-office hits in Spanish film history (and still available on DVD) is El Crimen de Cuenca (The Crime in Cuenca), directed by Pilar Miró, who went on to become "chief of state of television." The film, which derails Civil Guard torture, caused a furor when it was released and was suppressed until the coup attempt of 1981.
The Basque problem reached the movie screens in 1983 with La Muerte de Mikel (Michael's Death), which dramatizes the tortured love story of a young Basque nationalist and a transvestite from Bilbao.
The 36-year dictatorship of Franco imposed on the Spanish arts an anesthetizing effect whose aftermath is being explored cinematically today. One of the best-acclaimed examples is Vicente Aranda's steamily entertaining and psychologically insightful Lovers (1992). A dark, melodramatic romance set in the Franco era, it charts the changing eddies of a love triangle and the bewitching influence of a slightly over-the-hill temptress.
Hailed by some critics as a variation of the farmer's daughter tale, Belle Epoque, directed by Fernando Trueba and written by Rafael Azcona (in Spanish with English subtitles), won the 1993 Oscar as best foreign language film. It's a hot-blooded human comedy of a handsome innocent, a deserter from the Spanish army in the winter of 1930 to 1931, who is seduced by the four daughters of a droll old painter.
Today's enfant terrible is Pedro Almodóvar, whose Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown won an Academy Award nomination in 1990. Ostensibly, the film is the story of a woman's abandonment, but its madcap proceedings deal with everything from spiked gazpacho to Shiite terrorists. An iconoclast like Almódovar, who has publicly declared his homosexuality, flourishes in the contemporary liberal Spain, which abolished censorship in 1977.
Another Almodóvar international hit, High Heels (1991), is a soap opera involving a highly theatrical and highly emotional film diva who returns to Madrid and the daughter she abandoned years before. Praised by critics for "spanking his favorite ideas until they turn red with pleasure," Almodóvar plays with what has been defined as "the theatricality of the real and the authenticity of the theatrical -- all in an engagingly funny combination of high and low camp." Almodóvar continued his glitz with Kika (1994), which he both wrote and directed. His eponymous heroine, Verónica Forqué, a beautician, is full of surprises. For example, she meets her lover-to-be, Ramón, when she's making up his presumably dead corpse. He wakes up and they fall in love -- but that's only the beginning of twists and turns in this crazed soap opera.
Almodóvar has continued into the 21st century to turn out wildly popular films marked by complex narratives, using the elements of pop culture, irreverent humor, hit songs, and a vividly glossy decor. Desire, passion, family, and identity are prevalent themes in such releases as Bad Education in 2004 and Volver in 2006, the latter starring Penelope Cruz.
Other Spanish filmmakers attracting international audiences include Julio Médem, whose Lucía y el Sexo (Sex and Lucía), became celebrated for its lyrical eroticism. His film La Pelota Vasca (The Basque Ball), a documentary about political problems in the Basque Country, caused a furor in right-wing Madrid.
A Canadian film director, Michael Dowse, achieved renown with his British film It's All Gone Pete Tong, which was set in Ibiza, one of Spain's Balearic Islands. The 2004 flick was a fictional independent biopic about Frankie Wilde (played by Paul Kaye), a DJ who goes completely deaf.
Penelope Cruz won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2009 for her contribution to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, directed by Woody Allen and also starring Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardém. The film, about relationship strife, shows Allen's long love for Barcelona, including his fascination with Gaudí's architecture -- especially the Sagrada Família.
Classical -- Don Odilo Cunill directs the Cor Monastic de Abadía de Montserrat in Cants Gregorians de la Missa Per Els Fidels Missa Orbis Factor, Gregorian chants recorded in the chapel of the monastery at Montserrat.
In the album Andrés Segovia, España, the late master plays guitar versions of fandangos and tonadillas. In a more classical vein, the same artist plays Bach, Scarlatti, and also music by the Czech composer Benda (1722-95) in Recital Intimo.
The Orquesta de Conciertos de Madrid performs Falla's El Amor Brujo and El Sombrero de Tres Picos. The same group, conducted by Enrique Jorda, can be heard in Albéniz's Suite Española and Dos Piezas Españoles.
Folk/Ethnic -- Isabel Pantoja, widow of the late bullfighter, sings soulful interpretations of Andalusian ballads in Se Me Enamora el Alma; Rocío Jurado renders them smolderingly in Punto de Partida and Canciones de España.
Carlos Cano performs popular interpretations of Spanish Argentine tangos, habaneras, and sevillanas on Luna de Abril. In Canalla, Antonio Cortés Chiquetete is heard in 19th-century folk melodies. Felipe Campuzano gives piano interpretations of Andalusian folk music in Cádiz: Andalucía Espiritual.
Pasodobles Famosos, performed by the Gran Banda Taurina, is popular with older Spaniards, partly for its nostalgia value. This was the music played until very recently at every Spanish gathering, from bullfights to weddings to christenings.
In Siroca, Paco de Lucía combines traditional flamenco guitar in its purest form with modern influences, including tangos, bulerías, and tanquillos. You can also hear Paco de Lucía on Fantasía Flamenca, interpreting authentic flemencas in a traditional manner. One of his releases, Zyryab, is named for the 8th-century Persian musician who brought new musical techniques to Córdoba, including (probably) the basis for the modern guitar.
The brilliance of late virtuoso Narciso Yepes can be heard on Música Española para Guitarra, performing traditional favorites.
Contemporary -- In the closing years of the 20th century, several Spanish groups rose to prominence, including Ana Belén singing contemporary love ballads in her album A la Sombra de un León. When a Madrid band, Radio Futura, appeared on the scene they were hailed as the "Einsteins of Spanish rock." Yet another group, Cabinet Caligari, taking their name from one of the most famous German silent films, specialized in what might be called macho Hispano pop.
One of the biggest record sellers in Spain is Joan Manuel Serrat, a singer-songwriter recording more-traditional popular music in both Catalan and Castilian.
In Madrid, traditional Spanish music is also offered by singer-songwriter Luis Eduardo Aute, who has thousands of fans in the Spanish-speaking world.
In current Spanish jazz, Tete Montoliu's recordings represent some of the best the country has to offer. All, or most, of these records are available at Spanish music stores in the United States. They are available throughout Spain as well.
In the early '80s, the pop rock Madrid group the Pistons achieved renown in the music world for their great songs, pop simplicity, and vitality. Formed in 1978, Nacha pop dominated the '80s as well. Even though they made their last record in 1988, their fame has endured.
Of course, Julio Iglesias, born in 1943 in Madrid, is the king of Spanish singers, having sold 250 million albums. He has released an astonishing 77 albums. His son, Enrique Iglesias, has followed in his father's footsteps, enjoying world renown as a Spanish pop singer and songwriter.