Spanish Language and Culture



The culture of any country or group is best understood as a sort of continuous flow, with the creative energies of new talents contributing to change. At any single moment, culture is a complex amalgam of past glories and the current avant-garde.

This is true of any society, but there are few whose culture is in such close contact with present-day reality, so deeply rooted in popular tradition, as the Spanish. The great names in Spanish arts have all been strong characters, with the confidence to break away from established mores, and have always been closely involved in the society in which they lived and which they portrayed. Think of Goya and Velazquez in painting, Cervantes and Quevedo in literature, Falla and Albeniz in music...

This very Spanish characteristic has given rise a very Spanish culture, in a nation whose cultural heritage has been enriched by the many external influences to which it has been subjected in the course of its long history. The Iberian Peninsula's geographical position has made it a natural bridge between cultures of the north and the south of Europe and Africa. The vicissitudes of its history have transformed it into a crossroads for many different cultures. For this reason, its cultural heritage offers enormous wealth and diversity, and perceptible in it is the human imprint of an agitated and intense past.


Languages spoken in Spain

Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. However, Castilian is not the only Spanish language. At present, there are other Spanish languages, which make up a singularly rich linguistic patrimony.

The Spanish Constitution recognizes the right of the Autonomous Communities to use their own languages.

The Article 3 of the Constitution reads:

1. Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. All
Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it.
2. The other Spanish languages shall also be official in the
respective Autonomous Communities in accordance with their
3. The wealth of the different language variations of Spain is a
cultural heritage which shall be the object of special
respect and protection.

The Spanish languages that are officially recognized by the Statutes of the Autonomous Communities are: Euskera (Pa's Vasco and Navarra), Gallego (Galicia), Catalan (Catalu­a and Islas Baleares) and Comunidad Valenciana where, as stated at the Dictionary of the Real Academia, this variety of Catalan is called Valenciano.

Castilian, usually known as Spanish, which is spoken in all the national territory, Equatorial Guinea, the Sahara, Central and South America, except Brazil and the Guyanas, and parts of the United States and the Philippines,is the fourth language in the world in terms of numbers of speakers, over 330 million.

Spanish Speaking Countries and Population

1. SPAIN-------------------------------------------------39,500,000
2. U.S.A --------------------------------------------------22,500,000
3. GUINEA ECUATORIAL-----------------------------300,000
4. PHILLIPINES------------------------------------------2,900,000
5. GUATEMALA----------------------------------------9,200,000
6. EL SALVADOR---------------------------------------5,200,000
7. HONDURAS ------------------------------------------4,500,000
8. NICARAGUA-----------------------------------------3,100,000
9. COSTA RICA------------------------------------------3,100,000
10. ECUADOR-------------------------------------------10,000,000
11. PERU--------------------------------------------------22,000,000
12. MEXICO----------------------------------------------80,000,000
13. CUBA-------------------------------------------------10,800,000
14. REPUBLICA DOMINICANA-------------------7,300,000
15. PUERTO RICO---------------------------------------3,500,000
16. PANAMA---------------------------------------------2,100,000
17. VENEZUELA----------------------------------------18,000,000
18. COLOMBIA------------------------------------------33,600,000
19. BOLIVIA-----------------------------------------------6,900,000
20. PARAGUAY------------------------------------------4,500,000
21. ARGENTINA---------------------------------------32.500,000
22. CHILE--------------------------------------------------13,600,000
23. URUGUAY--------------------------------------------3,150,000

First Cultural manifestations

The first cultural manifestations of great importance date back to Prehistoric times. As far as the Paleolithic period, about 15,000 B.C., there existed a Franco-Cantabrian cave art culture that extended from the north of Spain through Europe to Asia. It was manifested by poly-cromed animal figures painted for magical or religious purposes in caves. The masterpiece is the big gallery of the Altamira caves in Cantabrica, called
the Sistine Chapel of Quaternary period art, and of which there is an exact replica in Madrid's National Archaeological Museum.

In subsequent epoch the Mesolithic the paintings correspond to the Levantine school, of African origin, located in rock shelters extending from Lerida ( Catalunya ) to Albacete (Castilla-La Mancha). They depict the human figure. Certai critics have remarked upon the connection between the pictorial revolution promoted by Picasso and these artistic antecedents from Spanish pre-history.

In the first millennium before Christ, a culture of huge megalithic structures (navetas, taulas, talayots) arose, among which the Naveta dels Tudons, near Ciudadela (Menorca) stands out. At the same time, in the lower reaches of the Guadalquivir valley, the mythical culture of the Tartessians was developed, related to trade with the Phoenician colonies and, according to some specialists, to the myth of Atlantis. The Archeological Museum in Sevilla has on exhibit the splendid Carambolo treasures, an exceptional sample of this civilization. Also at this time, a culture was developing in
Almeria, symbolized by the dolmens in covered galleries and circular burial chambers, covered by a false dome; the Menga cave near Antequera (Malaga) should be mentioned.

Among the first primitive peoples inhabiting the Peninsula were the Celts, whose culture was responsible for, according to all available evidence, the large animal sculptures, such as the Guisando bulls in Avila; and the Iberians, whose culture is a mixture of different Mediterranean influences, illustrated by the three female sculptures on exhibit in Madrid's National Archaeological Museum - the Ladies of Elche - from the hill of Los Santos (Montealegre, Albacete) and of Baza. The Greeks also founded colonies along the Mediterranean coasts, where they left an important artistic imprint in such places as Ampurias (Gerona).

Roman Imprint

Romanization culturally unified the Iberian Peninsula and left, in addition to language and numerous social institutions, abundant artistic remains. Some of them are fundamental for the understanding of Roman art, such as the aqueducts in Segovia and Los Milagros (Merida), the Alcantara bridge or the arch in Medinaceli (Soria), the ruins at Bolonia (Cadiz), Sagunto (Valencia), Tarragona, Ampurias and the circus at Tarragona.

Two exceptional Roman remains are those of Italica (Sevilla) and Merida, with its splendid theater, in which, every July, an international festival of classical theater is offered. The great amount of Roman ruins in this city led to the construction of the National Museum of Roman art, opened in 1986.

If during its first five centuries Hispania was shaped by Rome, the favor was soon returned in the form of its most capable sons -some of whom became emperors: Trajan and Hadrian. Marco Anneo Seneca, Lucio Anneo Seneca, Marco Anneo Lucano represented an exceptional family. Other important figures were the geographer Pomponio Mela, the writer of treatises on agriculture, Columela, the erudite Quintiliano, and the best epigrammatic poet, Valerano Marcial.

Rome's legacy impregnated institutions and the world of Law. It introduced, through vernacular Latin, almost all of the Peninsula's languages with the exception of Euskera (Basque language): Castilian, Catalan, Gallego and Portuguese.

Middle Ages

The expansion of Christianity in Spain coincided with the beginning of the Germanic invasion. Few vestiges of Visigothic art have survived and they seem to reveal more Byzantine and North African influences than Roman ones. The horse-shoe arch, arched twin windows separated by a column, and tunnel vaults characterize the primitive Christian churches (Santa Comba de Bande in Orense and San Pedro de la Nave in Zamore).

Asturian pre-Romanesque art began in the 8th century and attained its highest peak during the reign of Ramiro I (the Church of Santa Maria del Naranco and that of San Miguel de Lillo).

The Moorish invasion and subsequent period of the Reconquest produced an amalgam of three cultures. Their harmonization and cultural exchanges represented one of the most fruitful processes of European culture.

The perpetration of the Classical legacy was guaranteed by Alfonso X's School of Translators in Toledo and Seville. Alfonso X (the Wise) supplemented the legislation initiated at the beginning of the Visigothic period with the Code of Eurico (466), the Codex Revisus de Leovigildo and the Liber Juidiciorum (656), by promulgating his Siete Partidas, and he also contributed to the world of science (Lapidario).

The conjunction of Arab-Christian culture generated the double phenomenon of Mozarabic and Mudejar art. In the 11th century, Andalucia and Valencia were rival centers of Islamic culture. Poetry reached its zenith with the outstanding Ibn Zaydin, Ibn Khafaja and the poet King Al-Mu'tamid. But the two best poets were Ibn Quzman (d.1160), innovator of the classical meter with his introduction of muwasahas and zejeles. Among philosophers, the extraordinary Averroes (1126-98 Cordoba), who produced a series of commentaries on Aristotle's works deserves special attention.

If it proved to be a fruitful age for literature it was not less so for architecture. The Mezquita or Great Mosque of Cordoba (begun in 784) and Medina Azahara are the two outstanding examples of art under the Cordoban Caliphate. In Seville the ancient minaret of the mosque, the Giralda, the Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold) and the Alcazar represents some of the most celebrated monuments of Islamic architecture to which we must add the citadel-palace of the Sultans of Granada, the Alhambra.

At the same time that the Arab presence persisted in the south, the north of Spain maintanied close contact with contemporary European culture through the Way of Saint James of Compostela, which ends at the tomb of the Apostle. Along the way, churches were being built in which European Romanesque art was blended with the typically Spanish pre-Romanesque art: the cathedral of Jaca in Huesca, the church of Fromista, in Palencia, the pantheon of San Isidoro in Leon, with its beutiful frescoes, and, above all, the great cathedral of Santiago, with its important sculptures adorning the portal of La Gloria, considered Spanish Romanesque's most important expression.

With regards to sculpture, local traditions played a fundamental role which came into their own in the 11th century. Some of the most important works found are: the cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos (Burgos), the pantheon and the doors of the church of San Isidoro de Leon, the capitals in the cathedral of Jaca (Huesca), the monastery of Ripoll and the cathedral of Santiago.

Notable Romanesque monuments are also located in the Castilla-Leon region, in Avila, Zamora, Soria, Salamanca, Segovia, Burgos. In the north, other monuments are to be found in Navarra, Aragon and Catalunya. In this latter province, one can see churches with magnificent paintings, of which the majority are on display in the Art Museum of Catalunya in Barcelona which houses, among other art objets a fresco from the church of San Clemente of Tahull (Lerida) from the year 1123.

The literature of this period -12th century- initiated the use of Castilian as a literary language with the 'El Cantar del Mio Cid' (The Song of the Cid), which introduced the epic poem. Lyric-Narrative poetry would have to wait another century, and it appeared about the same time as the Gothic style in art.

The Gothic style appeared in Spain at the beginning of the 13th century with early Cistercian Gothic -the Monastery of Las Huelgas (Burgos)- and that of Poblet (Tarragona) and reaches its maximum splendor with the cathedral of Leon. In the 14th century Catalan Gothic developed: Barcelona, Gerona, Palma de Mallorca, and in the 15th century, Flemish Gothic evolved: Seville, Toledo and Burgos. Public architectural projects were also undertaken around this same period, the dockyards in Barcelona and the markets in Valencia and Palma are two examples.

Literature developed significantly. The primitive epic poem had been blended with the troubadoir and jongleurs' lyrical poetry of Provence origin and later adapted to Gallego, the language of Galicia. And in addition to the popular minstrels' verses, a clerical verse form appeared. Gonzalo de Berceo became the first poet of the Castilian language with his 'Milagros de Nuestra Senora'.

Alfonso X, the Wise, has already been referred to in relation to his 'Siete Partidas', but the 'Cronica General' of Spain that he had written, and the 'Cantigas de Santa Maria' he composed in Gallego, deserve motion. The first collections of short stories appeared during his reign: the 'Libro de Calila e Dimna' and a first theatrical piece: the 'Auto de los Reyes Magos'.

Golden Era

The period between the Renaissance and the Baroque, Spain's 'Golden Age' really spanned two centuries (the 16th and the 17th) and it is the most fecund and glorious age of Spanish Arts and Letters. The novel would reach its highest level of universality and Spanish expression with Miguel de Cervantes' 'Don Quixote' and other clearly Spanish works such as the picaresque novel: 'Lazarillo de Tormes' and Mateo Aleman's 'Guzman de Alfarache'.

It would be also a Golden Age for poetry. In the 16th century, Boscan and Garcilaso de la Veda adapted Italian lyrical poetry to Castilian which found its maximum expression in the mystical poetry of Fray Luis de Leon and San Juan de la Cruz, and in the prose of Santa Teresa. Two great figures of the 16th-17th centuries were Luis de Gongora whose difficult and complex style originally derived from the Latinizing movement, 'culteranismo' and Francisco de Quevedo, a master of 'conceptismo'.

The theatre is another genre that reached a high level. Stage plays were no longer performed in ecclesiastical surroundings after the creation of the 'Corrales de Comedias' some of which still exist, such as the one in Almagro (Ciudad Real). Juan de la Encina, Torres Naharro and Gil Vicente were the precursors of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina and Calderon de la Barca.

Humanism had also flourished since the beginnings of the Modern Age with Luis Vives and the monumental works in which various authors collaborated, such as the 'Biblia Poliglota Complutense'. prominent works in the field of history and politics were those of Mariana, Zurita, Hurtado de mendoza and the chronicles of many protagonists of America's colonization.

This 17th century period closed with the publication of the diplomat, Saavedra Fajardo's 'Idea de un Principe' and of the writer and philosopher Baltasar Gracian's 'El Criticon' (The Critic, English translation, 1681).

The 16th century would produce one of the masters of Spanish painting: Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 'El Greco' who did most of his work in Toledo where many of his paintings are preserved: 'El expolio' (Christ Stripped of his Garments), 'The Martyrdom of San Mauricio', 'The Resurrection of Christ' and 'The Burial of Count Orgaz' represent a decisive moment for Spanish and universal painting.

Among the first 17th century painters who depicted realism were Ribalta and Ribera. but his style reached its summit with Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), whose many works hang in the Prado Museum: "Las Meninas" (The Maids of Honour), "The Surrender or Breda", "The Forge of Vulcan", in addition to his famous portraits of Philip IV, prince Baltazar Carlos and of Conde Duque de Olivares.

Velazquez was a Madrid painter but Zurbaran and Murillo worked in Seville devoting themselves to religious themes. The Golden Age also has its own architectural style, a spartan and purist reaction against the filigre work of the Plateresque, a style resembling silversmiths' work. Its most remarkable monument is Philip II's Monastery of the Escorial, begun by Juan Bautista of Toledo and finished after Bautista's death by Juan de Herrera.

Romanticism in Spain

Romanticism, an artistic and literary expression of Liberal thought, was initially introduced in Spain in 1820 and acquired its maximun importance during 1830-40, a decade marked by the return from exile of many liberals following the death of Ferdinand VII. They had been influenced by late French Romanticism to the exclusion of the English and German models. Mariano Jose de Larra (1809-37) represented its maximun exponent and its influence was still felt at the turn of the century through the poetry of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer (1836-1870) and partially in the grandiloquent drama of Spain's first Nobel Prize winner, Jose Echegaray.

Romanticism would give way to the 'costumbrist' movement of Mesonero Romanos and Estebanez Calderon; to the poetry of Espronceda and to the dramas of the Duque de Rivas, Garcia Gutierres, Hartzenbusch and Jose Zorrilla (Juan Tenorio).

During the second half of the century the Romantic exaltation of nationalist values stimulated the reappearance of regional cultures. In Catalunya, the Floral Games were restored and the Catalan Renaixenca (a literary and linguistic renaissance) was initiated by Rubio i Ors, Verdaguer (L'Atlantida and Canio), and Guimera (Terra baixa and Maricel).

In a like manner, Nicomedes Pastor Diaz laid the foundations for the rebirth of Galician letters, which would produce two exceptional figures: Rosalia de Castro and Curros Enriquez.

During the latter third of the century the Romantic movement found its counter part in a realistic prose writing concerned with 'costumbrismo', the depiction of customs and manners: Fernan Caballero, Alarcon and Pered were amjor exponents. In drama, there were prominent figures such as the sophisticated comedy playwright, Tamayo y Baus, and Ventura de la Vega was an aothor of 'sainetes' (one-act farces) and librettos for zarzuelas. The two greatest figures of the times were Juan de Valera (1828-1905) and Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920). Galdos, father of the contemporary novel,
recreated an historical world spanning some 70 years in his novels the 'Episodios Nacionales'.

Realism and 'costumbrismo' gave way to Naturalism, with three exceptional figures: Leopoldo Alas 'Clarin'; Emilia Pardo Bazan and Vicente Blasco Ibanez.

The end of the 19th century was witness to political, literary, philosophic and artistic restlessness. The institutions founded at the beginning of the century: the Ateneos (cultural associations), Artistic and Literary Societies, reached their highest point of activity. Ethical idealism and Krausist philosophy represented the fundamental ideology of the most progressive intellectuals although many remained faithful to more traditional ideas. Joaquin Costa and Giner de los Rios initiated the 'regeneracionista' movement which produced several extraordinary investigators in the field of historical research: Amador de los Rios, Menendez Pidal, Rafael Altamira, Mila y Fontanals. The most important traditional philosopher was Marcelino Menendez Pelayo. At the same time, a gradual recovery of scientific research came about, above all in the field of medicine, with such prominent figures as Jaime Ferran and the future Nobel Prize winner, Santiago Ramon y Cajal.


 Main Page


Return to all projects home page