Fairfield University professor considers Spain, architecture and city planning in his first book


One of Jesús Escobar's most lasting childhood memories is of walking with his grandmother, candles in hand, in a nocturnal procession to her Mexican hometown's plaza, "a place where the civic and the sacred meet."

Another plaza and how its architecture and planning relate to society, politics and Spanish culture are the theme of "The Plaza Mayor and the Shaping of Baroque Madrid," a new book by Escobar, director of the Art History Program at Fairfield University. Published this month by Cambridge University Press, the book takes an in-depth look at the transformation of Madrid from a secondary market town to the cosmopolitan capital of the Spanish Habsburg empire.

"I was interested in how politics is reflected in buildings," said Escobar, who specializes in Baroque art and architecture and the art of Spain and its former colonies. "Of course, I'm looking through the lens of the 21st century and how people plan cities. But the question remains when did city planning start?"

Though he was studying events that took place about 400 years ago, Escobar said he had little trouble finding sources. Everything from tax records and letters from city officials to the occasional drawing or map showing the names of street vendors in the Plaza Mayor were available in Madrid archives.

"The Spanish wrote everything down. It's all there in the archives," Escobar said.

In Escobar's capable hands, what could be a stodgy recitation of fact comes to life. An architect's letters, a street cleaner's itinerary, and multiple drawings, paintings and maps give the reader a real sense of the size and scope of the landmark plaza that was the scene for markets, parades and bullfights. Politicians, royalty, bakers and vegetable vendors all had an influence on the plaza and, in turn, on the way Spanish life evolved during the period.

"When you put it together it makes one think that there was something going on - a plan - that they're all a part of," he said.

Escobar first researched his topic for a dissertation at Princeton University in the early 1990s. The professor, who was a Fulbright Scholar and also holds a bachelor's degree from Columbia University, put the work aside for a few years when he started teaching at Fairfield in 1996.

The scope of Escobar's topic required lengthy study and attention to detail. He credits the university with understanding what it would take to publish quality work and allowing him to write the book over a period of years.

"I could take my time and write what I think is a better book," he said.

Escobar was raised in Sacramento, Calif. and lives in New York City. A specialist in the architecture and urbanism of early modern Spain and Italy, he has published articles and reviews in leading art history journals in the United States, Italy and Spain. He was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He's currently developing a new book, which will consider Madrid at its apex in the 17th century.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on November 21, 2003

Vol. 36, No. 124