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The artistic and cultural heritage of Spain is the sum of a succession of factors that have interacted throughout millenniums of history. The geographic situation of the Iberian Peninsula - the crossroads between Africa, Europe and America- surrounded by the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, has been decisive in the configuration of its art and culture. On the other hand, the mark of a multitude of peoples from the Palaeolithic Period to our days who have lived amongst its lands has also remained.

The first of its artistic manifestations are some of the oldest in the world: the Palaeolithic cave paintings in the Cantabrian region, framed as part of what is known as the Franco-Cantabrian school. The paintings found in the Altamira Cave known as the “Sistine Chapel” of Palaeolithic art stand out among them. Besides Cantabria, there are also excellent examples in Asturias.

In chronological order, next come the Mesolithic paintings which due to their stylistic features and geographic situation have been classified under the “Levantine School”: from Lerida in the north to Albacete in the south, it’s possible to find rocky shelters where monochromatic scenes are witnesses of human activities like hunting and honey collecting.

The Neolithic Period left its artistic mark particularly in the south of the Peninsula. Along with the cave paintings, which are now quite abstract, small carved idols began to appear as well as the first megalithic structures erected during the Chalcolithic Period with excellent examples such as the portal tombs and chamber tombs present in Antequera. Tartessian art, which flourished in the Guadalquivir Valley and which has been mainly found in the form of jewels such as those comprising the Carambolo Treasure, dates back to protohistoric times. Iberian art featuring the so-called “offering ladies” such as the famous Lady of Elche is also native to this land. Both styles demonstrate the influence of the Phoenicians and Greeks, who at the time came into contact with the native inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula and founded various colonies. These contacts in turn gave rise to the presence of Phoenician and Greek works of art (sculptures, ceramic, jewellery...)

It was during this period when Celtic and Celti-Iberian art developed in the northern and central parts of the Peninsula. The most characteristic of Celtic art are the structures known as hill forts. The wealth of figures in the form of bulls as well as the famous Guisando Bulls in the province of Avila stand out among the Celti-Iberian works.

The most outstanding achievements in Iberian art are the so-called “offering ladies” including the Lady of Elche; however, other sculpture pieces such as warriors or fantastic animals speak to the excellent and peculiar assimilation of the culture brought by the colonizing peoples, especially by the Greeks, which is also reflected in their artistic productions.

Despite the fact that the Roman conquest of Hispania went on for two centuries, it would become in the long run one of the most Romanized provinces of the Empire and the presence of Roman works of art is plentiful and outstanding. The public works have left examples as grandiose as the Aqueduct of Segovia and the Alcántara Bridge, among others. As far as civil architecture, the Roman Theatre of Mérida and the amphitheatres found in that city and Italica stand out. The statuary is also abundant and of great quality. Jewels, glasswork and ceramic can also be found among the outstanding works. Roman art is so important in Spain that there’s a National Museum of Roman Art in the city of Mérida.

The styles known as the “art of the invasions” include Visigoth art with architectural works in the Northern Meseta such as churches of San Juan de Baños in the province of Palencia and Santa María de Quintanilla de las Viñas in Burgos. The precious metal craftsmanship such as the jewels that comprise the Guarrazar Treasure must also be mentioned.

Muslim presence in Spain, which began in 711, marked an artistic evolution in the country which was totally different than the rest of Western Europe. It produced various styles of Hispanic-Muslim art (caliphal, taifa, almohad, nazari…) with a legacy of works of the calibre of the Cordoba Mosque, the Aljaferia Palace in Zaragoza and the Seville Giralda Tower in Granada. On the other hand, the fusion of Islamic and Christian artistic elements would give rise to unique and native styles that would stem into Mozarabic and Mudejar art which produced the synagogues in Toledo, the Royal Alcázar Palace in Seville and the bell towers in Aragon. At the same time in the northern Christian areas, the international medieval, Roman and Gothic styles were developed although they were preceded by a native Christian style - Asturian art - which is best reflected in the Santa María del Naranco church. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela stands out among the many Roman churches and monasteries as it’s the most important Roman pilgrimage church in Europe. There are also splendid Gothic works such as the cathedrals in Burgos, León and Toledo.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the first echoes of the Italian Renaissance materialized first in a native architectural style known as “plateresque” given its similarity with silversmithing works. It’s a style that features abundant and meticulous decoration that unites Gothic and Renaissance elements. The façade of the University of Salamanca or the Town Hall of Seville are examples of this style.

However, the best artistic productions of the period were created in the second half of the 16th century when mannerism was at a peak leading to the construction of the Monastery of San Lorenzo el Real del Escorial, the most important Hispanic architectural work designed by Juan de Herrera. It was so transcendent that it inspired the name of the entire style - Herreran. Painting was also dominated by a single figure, El Greco- a Mannerist painter of Cretan origin, who would end up becoming one of the great figures of Spanish art history.

Sculpture also assimilated the new arrivals from Italy, but the themes and materials differed from those preferred in the cradle of the Renaissance. In Spain, materials such as wood - often polychrome- and religious themes befit for a country that advocated the Catholic faith predominated.

It was in the 17th century in the middle of the Baroque period that Spain reached its Golden Age. Painting was dominated by the genius of Velázquez whose tenebrist beginnings show the influence of Caravaggio although he later evolved into a very personal style.

Catholic dogma, reinforced by the ideas emerging from the Council of Trent, pervaded all art which would be predominated by everything religious: several churches were built, many images were carved and there were many paintings with a sacred theme.

The most outstanding sculpture work at the time were altarpieces, a typically Spanish art form since the Gothic period, with great examples such as the one found in San Esteban in Salamanca. Other examples are the processional floats of the pious brotherhoods, which can be classified into two schools: Castilian - centred in Valladolid, and Andalusian, centred in Seville.

Besides Velázquez, painting saw other admirable figures such as Zurbarán, “the white Tenebrist” and the painter of nuns, Murillo, whose Immaculate Conceptions and children captivated the simplest of people and Ribera, who continued practicing his personal Caravaggio-style naturalism from Italy. The Baroque style lasted for much of the 18th century and even some Rococo style works can be found, but the arrival of the French Bourbon dynasty and then the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas encouraged the development of Neoclassicism, one of the most brilliant examples of which is the Astronomical Observatory of Madrid. Goya was one of the main figures in painting and his genius extended well into the next century. In sculpture, the only novelty lies with Salzillo, a sculptor born in Italy who added delicate elegance to the processional floats and helped spread the use of nativity scenes.

The early 19th century was still dominated by Goya’s paintings, whereas the end of the century saw the rise of the architect Gaudí who is the most important figure in Spanish art. Then came the successive European artistic currents such as Romanticism, one of the greatest Hispanic examples of which lies in the painter Madrazo as was Sorolla for Impressionism. Historicisms (Congress of Deputies, the Basilica of Covadonga) and the iron and glass architecture embodied in train stations and markets were the major representations in architecture at the time. Architectural modernism occupied the end of the century throughout the country, although heavily in Catalonia.

The 20th century was witness to the rapid incorporation of Spain to avant-garde styles, some of them led by Spanish artists as is the case of Cubism whose main advocate was Picasso. Surrealism also featured prime Spanish figures such as Dalí and Buñuel.

Besides modernism in architecture, architectural regionalism appeared and later on, the rationalism defended by GATEPAC. During the Franco years, a series of architects began to emerge with very personal works in addition to the totalitarian constructions. The final decades of the century saw the consolidation of internationally renowned figures such as Santiago Calatrava and Rafael Moneo, among others, and works such as the National Museum of Roman Art in Merida.

Avant-garde artists and works can also be found in sculpture. Picasso, himself, was one of the first to use new materials and apply Cubism to sculpture just as Miró would do with Surrealism. Julio González and Pablo Gargallo were also great artists who used hollows as part of their work and leaned towards abstraction, a current which is most well represented in the second half of the century in authors such as Chillida and Oteiza. Although the Civil War brought with it the Diaspora of Spain’s major artistis, new generations quickly proved promising alongside the developments in the avant-garde style in such a manner that abstract, conceptual or pop works were soon produced. The creation of the Museum of Abstract Art in Cuenca by a group of leading Spanish painters or the personalities of authors like Tàpies, Saura and Barceló, all of international standing, demonstrated that Spanish art was at the forefront. This avant-gardism would include hyperrealism and Antonio López, its greatest representative in Spain.

The successful showings at ARCO, the international contemporary art fair held annually in Madrid, leaves no doubt that the country is among the most advanced in the field of art. Added to this is the foundation of several new museums in every corner of the territory, most notably the Queen Sofia Museum and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum as well as heavy investment in the recovery of Spain’s historical and artistic heritage.

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