This fine young fellow with a perky codpiece is Don Carlos, a prince of Spain. Opera lovers will recognize him as the title character of Verdi’s Don Carlo. Schiller lovers will recognize him as the title character of Schiller’s play of the same name, a dramatic study of absolutism and liberal values, and the inspiration for Verdi’s opera. Historians may not recognize him at all because this is a very flattering portrait.
Carlos was the son of Philip II, and this painting shows him in the resplendent armor that is the subject of the National Gallery’s engaging exhibition “The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain.” The show is a mini-history of the Habsburg dynasty in Spain, which saw the country reach its zenith of imperial power, and overlapped with a great age of armor production. The exhibition pairs paintings of Spanish rulers in armor with their still extant tin cans preserved in the Royal Armory in Madrid.
Carlos, seen here in finely worked armor of darkened steel and gold typical of the time, never ruled Spain. If you believe Verdi and Schiller, this is because he was too sensitive for the sordid business of kingship, and because he fell in love with his father’s third wife, and harbored radical ideals about freedom and national self-determination. Dad was not down with any of this, and Carlos was arrested.
If you believe historical accounts, it’s because Carlos was an erratic lout and a violent man, with a temper made all the worse by a traumatic head injury, probably caused by an accidental staircase dive in 1562. But we see him here, around age 20, dressed like a future King of Spain, with royal sword and dagger, a helmet and his rather badly painted hand resting on a desk or table—a common feature in paintings of royal power.
This painting, attributed to Jooris van der Straeten, is not the star of the show, which features works by Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck. And frankly, a nearby painting of Don Juan of Austria, illegitimate son of Charles V (Don Carlos’s grandfather) depicts a more handsome, vigorous and successful man. But the image of Don Carlos underscores and exemplifies some of the basic themes of the exhibition. He may have been bats, but when dressed in royal armor, Carlos was all but a king. Although we prize paintings more than armor today (at least in the museum context), Carlos’s armor would have been far more expensive than the painting that memorializes it. The armor served not just as handsome dressing for a royal figure, but carried with it allegorical and historical data too. Although dramatically lit, many of the portraits are rather stark and barren—in part because the armor was bearing all the necessary messages, about religion, power, famous battles and dynastic networks.
That Don Carlos appears in armor is rather touching. The painting captures his promise, or at least the expectations heaped upon him. His life went a different direction. And Schiller and Verdi took the slim details of his short existence and elaborated an even more fanciful history. But when you hear Verdi’s Don Carlo sing his dreamy, starry-eyed love songs, you’d like him to look good and sound like this. And not remind you of the usual product of Habsburg genetic engineering.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery: Patrimonio Nacional, Convento de las Descalzas Reales de Madrid