Magic Mountain 11

Magic Mountain 11
pen and ink on paper, 32 x 40 in.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Remarkable Esquilache

I was reading a book on Goya when I came across this interesting anecdote, which oddly enough has absolutely nothing to do with Goya.
Late 18th century Spain was not a happy place. The country, having spent the last 200 years expelling all the Jews and Moors, mismanaging its South American colonies and participating in a variety of dubious military engagements, now found itself in the midst of a terrible economic slump. On top of this there was a country wide drought that rendered food scarce, people were becoming alarmed, the pueblo was not happy. In to this scenario enters a man who would become a lightning rod for public frustration and in the process come close to causing a nation wide revolution through one unlikely bit of misguided sartorial legislation.

His name was Esquilache, a former governor of Naples and close friend of the Spanish king Charles III, Esquilache is brought to Spain to be the minister of the interior with disastrous consequences for all parties concerned. In a time of Nationwide  panic over the rising price of common food like bread, eggs and cured meats, Esquilache first gains public attention for the extravagant parties he throws with what seems like alarming frequency, parties which quickly become notorious for their debauchery and luxurious excess. This perception is exacerbated by the fact that Esquilache is not even a Spaniard but a foreigner living on the beneficence of the Spanish crown which is itself supported by the sweat of the common people. Yet, years of profligate autocrats, inept governors, venal public servants and aristocratic sinecures had to some extent inured the population to the excesses of the elite. The eye may not be completely blind but it is turned none the less. The public can begrudgingly put up with aristocratic negligence, even out right despotism, but Esquilache crosses a line that nobody expected to have even existed.
To be fair, for once the minister of the interior had his heart in the right place. Economic decline is always accompanied by a rising crime rate and the cities of Spain, including the capital Madrid, were becoming hotbeds of criminal activity. Streets were no longer safe to travel at night without armed escort, murderous bands of brigands patrolled the roads often killing the passengers of the coaches they robbed. The situation was becoming alarming if not all together untennable. Esquilache with the aid of his advisers diagnoses one facet of this problem that if rectified could, if not halt the crime wave all together, at least help deter the ease with which it was perpetrated. The Spaniards of this time were particularly fond of wearing long black cloaks and large wide brimmed hats (a la Zoro), in fact such is the strange power of fashion that they saw this outfit as an essential part of their Spanish identity. One of those things that is unique to their country and helps to set them apart from those other Europeans. This is a fact that Esquilache failed to perceive, instead what his practical if not particularly intuitive mind realized was that the long black cloak that the Spaniards so adored was perfect for concealing any number of lethal weapons. Swords, knives, pistols even a heavy blunderbuss could all be carried around beneath the cloaks protective cover without the criminal attracting any more attention than the common blacksmith on his way home from the shop. In addition, the wide brimmed hats (Chambregos), concealed something all together entirely different, something that in the world of the criminal is almost as important to keep hidden as any weapon, the face. Draped in this outfit the criminal was afforded a degree of anonymity and Esquilache decided to put an end to it in the only way that a bureaucrat with little direct experience with the public knows how, he issued an edict outlawing, by threat of imprisonment, the long cloak and the hat.  

It seemed like a perfectly plausible idea at the time, the citizenry would be asked to make a sensible exchange, their native costume for an increased sense of safety, however as the jails began to accumulate dissident cloak and hat wearers a degree of outrage began to seep it's way through the already exasperated masses. With jails overflowing and the resistance mounting the Spaniards decided they had had enough. They saw this as an attack not on the criminal underclass but on a carefully cultivated Spanish heritage, made all the worse by the fact that it was perpetrated by an Italian. Palm Sunday marked the beginning of the first riots which would grow with alarming intensity, gaining momentum as well as a grass roots fervor that began to take on a revolutionary aspect. Government soldiers clashed in bloody, street fought battles leaving numerous casualties on both sides.

Fearing for his safety the King fled the capital in a state of panic. As the rioting threatened to become a nationwide revolt the King had no choice but to send his embattled minister in to exile while simultaneously repealing the cloak and hat ban. The jails were open, and the riots quickly subsided. Calamity was averted and as though to emphasise the point, a Spaniard was appointed in place of Esquilache, the Count of Aranda. 

If the story ended here it would be interesting though perhaps not entirely remarkable, but the new minister had other thoughts. Realizing that his predecessor had erred not in concept but in execution he quickly set out to figure out a way to do away with the hated cloaks and hats without arousing the volcano of anger that rocked the country the first time around. His solution was brilliant to say the least, the public administration version of Sir Walter Ralaighs method of weighing tobacco smoke. Like Esquilache, Arnada also issued an edict, one that was not to ban cloaks and hats but rather to make them the official uniform of all jailers and executioners in the country. Within a year the outfit had become so unfashionable that no self respecting Spaniard, criminal or otherwise would be caught dead wearing it.