The Baroque Period in 17th Century Spain: Literature, Art, and History

The Baroque Period: A Historical Overview of the 17th Century

Economic Crisis

The 17th century in Spain was marked by economic hardship. A combination of poor harvests, the expulsion of the Moriscos, and a demographic crisis led the country into bankruptcy.

Social Unrest

Social tensions escalated as conflicts arose between the rising bourgeoisie and the established nobility. The gap between the classes widened, leading to increased poverty and begging.

Political Decline

Spain began to lose its dominant position in Europe. The Inquisition stifled intellectual and ideological development.

Literary Characteristics of the Baroque

  • Pessimism: A prevailing sense of disillusionment and pessimism permeated the era.
  • Contrasts: The Baroque embraced stark contrasts, reflecting the tension between escapism and introspection in art.
  • Time and Mortality: The passage of time, the inevitability of death, and the ephemeral nature of life were central themes.
  • Rhetorical Excess: Baroque literature employed elaborate and often exaggerated rhetorical devices.
  • Metric Variety: While the sonnet remained popular, traditional forms like romances and songs continued to flourish.

Trends in Baroque Poetry


Some poets, like Lope de Vega, continued the classical tradition of Garcilaso de la Vega, albeit with a heightened sense of pessimism or vitalism.


Characterized by condensed language and intricate metaphors, conceptismo aimed to express profound ideas succinctly. Francisco de Quevedo and Baltasar Gracián were prominent figures in this style.


Culteranismo, championed by Luis de Góngora, emphasized elaborate language, complex syntax, and obscure vocabulary, deliberately creating challenging and highly stylized poetry.

Major Baroque Poets

Lope de Vega (1562-1635)

Lope de Vega’s prolific and influential body of work includes Rimas, Rimas sacras, and Rimas humanas y divinas del licenciado Tomé de Burguillos. His poetry, rooted in clasicismo, is celebrated for its wit, spontaneity, vitality, and clarity.

Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645)

Known for his sharp wit and satirical verse, Quevedo’s poetry explored political, philosophical, religious, amorous, and satirical themes. His works range from Petrarchan love sonnets to biting social critiques.

  • Love Poetry: Quevedo’s love poems often depict love as a tormenting experience, drawing inspiration from Petrarch and the Spanish tradition of courtly love.
  • Satire: He excelled in satirical and burlesque verse, targeting various social classes and professions with humor and irony.
  • Moral Reflections: Quevedo grappled with themes of time, mortality, and the human condition, often expressing a pessimistic worldview.
  • Religious Poetry: His religious poems reflect his spiritual side and engagement with faith.

Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627)

Góngora’s poetic career can be divided into two distinct phases:

  • Early Period: Until 1610, his poetry was characterized by simplicity and clarity, encompassing pastoral, amorous, and religious themes. Notable works from this period include romances, letrillas, and sonnets.
  • Later Period: After 1610, Góngora embraced culteranismo, creating highly complex and challenging works like Soledades and Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea.

The Early Modern Age (1453-1789)

The Early Modern Age, spanning from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the French Revolution in 1789, witnessed significant transformations in Europe.

Economic Transformation

  • Agricultural Growth: Despite the absence of major technological advancements, agricultural production increased due to expanded cultivation. The three-field system remained prevalent.
  • Commercial Expansion: Surplus agricultural production fueled trade, with merchants seeking new markets and establishing trade routes.
  • Growth of Craftsmanship: Guilds, associations of craftsmen, controlled production in workshops. To meet rising demand, the domestic system emerged, with merchants outsourcing work to families.
  • New Products: Voyages of exploration brought new goods to Europe, stimulating trade and consumption.
  • Mercantile Capitalism: This economic system, characterized by private ownership of capital, gained prominence, particularly among the bourgeoisie.
  • Banking and Finance: Economic growth led to the development of banking, with bankers providing money-changing services, safeguarding valuables, and offering loans.
  • Bills of Exchange: This new financial instrument facilitated trade by guaranteeing payment to merchants at specified times and places.

Social Change

Economic prosperity and reduced epidemics contributed to population growth and urbanization. Cities, especially those along trade routes or with ports, expanded significantly.

Social Structure

  • Privileged Estates: The nobility and clergy, though a minority, held most of the land, political power, and privileges.
  • Unprivileged Estates: The majority of the population, including peasants and the bourgeoisie, paid taxes and lacked access to high positions.
  • Peasants: The largest group, peasants worked the land as serfs, owing rent or a portion of their harvest to feudal lords.
  • Bourgeoisie: City dwellers not bound by feudal ties, the bourgeoisie gained wealth and influence. The upper bourgeoisie consisted of merchants, bankers, and officials, while the petite bourgeoisie included small merchants, artisans, and laborers.
  • Marginalized Groups: Beggars and vagabonds relied on charity for survival.

The Rise of the Modern State

Monarchs consolidated power, leading to the emergence of the modern state. Key developments included:

  • Strong Armies and Diplomacy: Monarchs established powerful armies to subdue rebellious nobles and engaged in diplomacy to forge alliances.
  • Centralized Bureaucracy: Officials appointed by the monarch oversaw state affairs, enhancing control and reducing the autonomy of feudal lords.
  • New Institutions: Monarchs created centralized institutions to administer justice, collect taxes, and govern effectively.
  • Royal Courts: Permanent seats of power, often in capital cities, housed these institutions and projected royal authority.

Cultural Changes: The Rise of Humanism

Humanism, an influential intellectual movement originating in Italy, spread throughout Europe, emphasizing:

  • Classical Revival: Renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture and philosophy shaped art, literature, and thought.
  • Anthropocentrism: Human beings became the focus of inquiry, shifting away from the God-centered worldview of the Middle Ages.
  • Optimism and Creativity: Humanists embraced human potential and the possibility of progress.
  • Critical Thinking: Reason, observation, and experimentation gained importance in understanding the world.
  • Vernacular Languages: Humanists promoted writing in vernacular languages, breaking away from the dominance of Latin.

Key Concepts

  • Three-Field System: An agricultural method of rotating crops among three fields to maintain soil fertility.
  • Trade Routes: Land and sea routes connecting distant regions, facilitating trade and cultural exchange.
  • Guilds: Associations of craftsmen that regulated production and trade in specific crafts.
  • Domestic System: A production system where merchants provided materials to families working from home.
  • Mercantile Capitalism: An economic system based on private ownership and the pursuit of profit through trade.
  • Loans: Money lent by banks or individuals with interest charged as a fee.
  • Interest: The fee charged for borrowing money, usually a percentage of the loan amount.
  • Bill of Exchange: A document guaranteeing payment to the holder at a specific time and place.
  • Estates: Social classes with different rights and privileges.
  • Privileged Estates: The nobility and clergy, enjoying significant advantages.
  • Unprivileged Estates: The majority of the population, including peasants and the bourgeoisie, with fewer rights.
  • Peasants: Rural farmers working the land, often as serfs tied to feudal lords.
  • Bourgeoisie: City dwellers involved in trade, crafts, and commerce.
  • Beggar: A person who relies on charity for survival.
  • Humanist Philosophy: An intellectual movement emphasizing human reason, potential, and classical learning.
  • Anthropocentrism: A worldview that places humans at the center of existence.
  • Vernacular Languages: Languages spoken by ordinary people in a particular region.