The how and why of this guide

This book was not written by a historian, as any professional historian will soon discover. I worked in Spain for long periods as a correspondent and visited the whole country repeatedly. A lively interest in the surprises of historical knowledge prompted me to write down in short notes those aspects of the country´s past and culture that I found most revealing and interesting. I left Spain at the beginning of the 1980s and forgot about these essays. They had been written without a definite purpose and they were the products of my own experience, a great deal of reading and frequent conversations with very knowledgeable people whom I encountered in my Spanish years. I continued to follow the events of Spain, this country I had learned to love, and now, re-reading these notes and encouraged by those friends, I have fallen into the temptation of offering them to the public and I present some of them here as they were written, with practically no changes other than some editing details.

I hope these micro-essays will be useful for the traveller who wants to understand Spain in more depth and in greater detail than is possible using a normal guide book. It is a guide, not so much of places as of events and persons, of those that drew my attention as I travelled and learned about the country. I have in mind the sense in which José Jiménez Lozano wrote his Spiritual Guide to Castile: it describes some moments of Spanish history and culture and invites the readers freely to continue in this way on their own, in search of any other moments that might take their fancy Of course the book cannot seek to cover the whole story, but my hope is that these snapshots, when taken as a whole will help the reader to see the bigger picture, much in the way the apparently random daubs of paint in an impressionist painting become a recognizable scene. Although the book doesn´t respond to a particular method or school, the reader will probably discern the reasons why I chose to stop to ponder certain topics and not others. When I re-read these notes after so many years I discovered myself certain recurrent ideas which seem to have guided most of this imaginary historical journey.

The first is obvious: the story is told backwards. I ordered the notes, which had been written at random and at different times, and I put them into order, starting in the present. I wanted to awaken curiosity in the reader. I wanted the reader to question why things happened in the way they happened and not otherwise. I owe this idea to Giovanni Papini´s book Gog published in 1931. At a certain point, an eccentric American millionaire encounters a no less eccentric Irish historian who explains his methodology to him: understanding history is possible only if you start with the proven facts of the present and look back, searching for their meaning, until the facts become less certain. Another source of inspiration seems to have been a curious essay on Luck and Bad Luck in World History in which the German historian Jakob Burckhardt (1818-1897) defended the historian’s right to express an opinion on whether certain historical events were the result of luck, good or bad. My own appears here and there in my notes more or less explicitly referring to certain features of the Spanish case according to this criterion: the geographical position of Spain, which favored the easy access of invaders from the South; certain decisions which oriented the direction of affairs, as when Castile decided to unite with Aragon and not with Portugal; the discovery of America, and so many others. I also wish to mention a thought that was frequently in my mind when writing on Spanish history. I owe it to Barbara Tuchman’s book The March of Folly in which she developed the idea that, on certain occasions, a course of action is taken by the powerful in spite of the fact that even to contemporaries it is clear that it would have disastrous consequences.

Obviously I do not have to apologize for the complexity of the history of Spain. In Spain the “music of chance”, another guiding idea that I took from one of Paul Auster’s novels, has had an intensive influence on the succession of events and it would have been foolish, if not impossible, to present a simple narrative. That is why I have chosen, when editing these notes, not to delete all the inevitable repetitions, in the hope of making understanding easier. I have kept the original English in which I wrote, although it is not my mother language, thinking that the book would be useful mainly to the readers of this language. To be on the safe side, I had the text revised by my dear friends Laurence Schröder, Alan Robert Gilchrist and Paul House.

E. Volterra
Bologna, Spring 2015

15-Goya - Jovellanos

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