Son of Joan the Mad of Castille and Philip I of Habsburg "the Handsome", he was born on Feb. 24, 1500, in Ghent and died on Sept. 21, 1558, in San Jerónimo de Yuste, (Cáceres, Spain). He was the grandson of Emperor Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy, as well as of the "Catholic Kings" Isabella I the Catholic, of Castile, and Ferdinand II the Catholic, of Aragon. After his father's death in 1506, Charles was raised by his paternal aunt Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. His spiritual guide was the theologian Adrian of Utrecht (later Pope Adrian VI), a member of the devotio moderna, a religious and educational reform movement promoting literacy among the masses. Holy Roman emperor (1519-56), king of Spain (as Charles I, 1516-56), and archduke of Austria (as Charles I, 1519-21), who inherited a Spanish and Habsburg empire extending across Europe from Spain and the Netherlands to Austria and the Kingdom of Naples and reaching overseas to Spanish America. He struggled to hold his empire together against the growing forces of Protestantism, increasing Turkish and French pressure, and even hostility from the Pope. At last he yielded, abdicating his claims to the Netherlands and Spain in favour of his son Philip II and the title of emperor to his brother Ferdinand I and retiring to a monastery.
At the age of 15, he assumed the rule over the Netherlands. His scope of activities soon widened. After the death of his maternal grandfather, Ferdinand II, in 1516, Charles was proclaimed sovereign of Spain, together with his mother (who, however, suffered from a nervous illness and never reigned). In September 1517 he landed in Spain, a country with whose customs he was unfamiliar and whose language he was as yet barely able to speak. There he instituted, under Burgundian influence, a government that was little better than foreign rule. When his election as king of Germany in 1519 (his paternal grandfather, the Habsburg emperor Maximilian I, having died) recalled him to Germany, Charles left behind him, after some two and one-half years in Spain, a dissatisfied and restless people. Adrian, whom he had installed as regent, was not strong enough to suppress the revolt of the Castilian cities (comuneros) that broke out at this point. Making the most of their candidate's German parentage and buying up German electoral votes (mostly with money supplied by the powerful Fugger banking family), Charles's adherents had meanwhile pushed through his election as emperor over his powerful rival, Francis I of France.
In October 1520 Charles was accordingly crowned king of Germany in Aachen, assuming at the same time the title of Roman emperor-elect. In the spring of 1521 the imperial Diet, before which Martin Luther had to defend his theses, assembled at Worms. The reformer's appearance represented a first challenge to Charles, who had his own confession of faith, beginning with a sweeping invocation of his Catholic ancestors, read out to the Diet. Rejecting Luther's doctrines in the Edict of Worms, Charles declared war on Protestantism.
Gradually, the other chief task of his reign also unfolded: the struggle for hegemony in western Europe, a legacy of his Burgundian forefathers. Long before, the grand design of his ancestor Charles the Bold had come to naught in the fight against the French Valois, Louis XI. Now the great-grandson was brought face-to-face with the main problem of his great-grandfather's existence. It was to become a fateful problem for Charles also.
After defeating Duca Massimiliano Sforza at Marignano in 1515, the reigning Valois, Francis I, compelled him, in the Treaty of Noyon, to renounce his claim to the Duchy of Milan. The vanquished Sforza turned for help to Pope Leo X and Charles V, with whom he concluded a treaty in 1521. Despite the outbreak of war with France, Charles hurried back to Spain, where his followers had meanwhile gained the upper hand over the comuneros. Even though he granted an amnesty, the young monarch proved to be an intransigent ruler, bloodily suppressing the revolt and signing 270 death warrants. These actions were nevertheless followed by a rapid and complete rapprochement between the pacified people and their sovereign; in fact, it was during this second and protracted sojourn in Spain (1522-29) that Charles became a Spaniard, with Castilian grandees replacing the Burgundians. There soon developed an emotionally tinged understanding between Charles and his Spanish subjects that was to be steadily deepened during his long rule. Henceforth, it was primarily the material resources of his Spanish domains that sustained his far-flung policies and his Spanish troops who acquitted themselves most bravely and successfully in his wars.
In 1522 his teacher Adrian of Utrecht became pope, as Adrian VI. His efforts to reconcile Francis I and the Emperor failed, and three years later Charles's army defeated Francis I at Pavia, taking prisoner the King himself. The victory assured Spanish supremacy in Italy. Held in the alcazar of Madrid, the royal captive feigned agreement with the conditions imposed by Charles, even taking the Emperor's oldest sister, Eleanor, the dowager queen of Portugal, for his wife and handing over his sons as hostages. But, as soon as he had regained his freedom, Francis rejected the terms of the Treaty of Madrid of January 1526.
With the accession of Süleyman the Magnificent to the sultanate in 1520, Turkish pressure on Europe increased once more. The Sultan threatened not only Hungary but also those hereditary provinces of the Habsburgs that, by Charles's agreement in 1522 with his brother Ferdinand, henceforth belonged to the younger branch of the Habsburgs. When Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia was defeated and killed by the Turks in the Battle of Mohács in August 1526, Ferdinand assumed this throne both as the childless former monarch's brother-in-law and by virtue of the treaty of succession concluded in 1491 between his own grandfather and Louis' father, Vladislov II. After this, the Turkish danger became the Habsburgs' foremost concern on land, as it had been on the seas ever since Charles's accession to the throne of Spain. Although Charles realized that his first duty as emperor of Christendom lay in warding off this peril, he found himself so enmeshed in the affairs of western Europe that he had little time, energy, and money left for this task. In 1526 Charles married Isabella, the daughter of King Manuel I of Portugal.
In early 1527, instead of fighting the infidel, Charles's Spanish troops and his German mercenaries marched against the Pope, his enemy since the establishment of the League of Cognac. Mutinous and with their pay in arrears, they entered the defenseless city of Rome and looted it during the infamous Sack of Rome (May 1527).
The Pope, having surrendered to the mutinous troops, was now ready for any compromise. The newly started war between the Emperor and France also came to a close when the mother of Francis I approached Margaret of Austria, the Emperor's aunt, through whose mediation the "ladies' peace" of Cambrai was concluded in August 1529. The status quo was preserved: Charles renounced his claim to Burgundy, Francis his claims to Milan and Naples. The Pope, having made peace with Charles, met him in Bologna; there he crowned him emperor in February 1530. It was to be the last time that a Holy Roman emperor was crowned by a pope.
In 1530, Charles, attempting to bring about a reformation within the Catholic Church through the convocation of a universal council, also tried to find a modus vivendi with the Protestants. The Catholics, however, replied to the Confession of Augsburg, the basic confessional statement of the Lutheran Church, with the Confutation, which met with Charles's approval. The final decree issued by the Diet accordingly confirmed, in somewhat expanded form, the resolutions embodied in the Edict of Worms of 1521. This, in turn, caused the Protestant princes to close ranks in the following year in the Schmalkaldic League. Faced with renewed Turkish onslaughts, the Emperor granted some concessions in return for armed support against the enemy. In 1532 a large army under Charles's personal command faced Süleyman's forces before the city of Vienna, but the order to give decisive battle was withheld. Instead, the Emperor returned to Spain in 1533, leaving his brother Ferdinand behind as his deputy.
By taking up his grandfather Ferdinand of Aragon's project of conquering North Africa, Charles endeavoured to undertake by sea what he had omitted to do on land. The attempt to repulse the corsair (and Turkish general) Barbarossa (Khayr ad-Din) was nonetheless no more than a marginal operation, since Charles's capture of Halq al-Wadi and Tunis (1535) did nothing to diminish the strength of Süleyman's position.
From Africa, the Emperor sailed to Naples, entering Rome in 1536 to deliver his famous political address before Pope Paul III and the Sacred College of Cardinals, in which he challenged the King of France (who had meanwhile invaded Savoy and taken Turin) to personal combat. When Francis declined, Charles invaded Provence in an operation that soon faltered. Through the Pope's intercession, peace was concluded in May 1538.
Intent on suppressing the open revolt that had broken out in Ghent, his native city, the Emperor himself went to the Netherlands. The country's regent, Charles's sister, Mary of Hungary, had proved incapable of settling the conflict between herself and the city, which jealously guarded its prerogatives. On his arrival in February 1540, Charles revoked Ghent's privileges, had 13 leading rebels executed, and gave orders to build a fortified castle. Once again his actions, as severe as those he had taken against the comuneros in 1522, were crowned by success. Toward the German Protestants, on the other hand, he showed himself conciliatory; in 1541 the Diet of Regensburg granted them major concessions, even if these were later rejected by both the Pope and Luther. Although Ferdinand, having lost his Hungarian capital in August 1541, pleaded for a land campaign against Süleyman, Charles again decided on a naval venture, which failed dismally after an unsuccessful attack on Algiers.
When Charles enfeoffed his son Philip with Milan, the King of France, enraged because he had hoped to regain indirect control of Milan himself, rearmed and declared war in August 1542. Fighting broke out the following year, even though the Pope had finally convoked, in Trent, the council for which the Emperor had been pressing. Once again Charles's precarious financial situation partially accounted for the failure of his plans. His finances were in a perpetually unsettled state. The "Indian" possessions in America were, of course, in an uninterrupted state of expansion throughout his entire reign, marked by, among other ventures, the conquest of Mexico and the conquest of Peru. The gold from the Indies did not add up to any sizable sum at the time. Only in 1550 did 17 Spanish ships provide the Emperor with 3,000,000 ducats and others with a like sum in the earliest significant monetary transfusion from the New World. The silver mines of Potosí were not exploited systematically until the 1550s, so that their revenue arrived too late for Charles. In 1516 the floating debt amounted to 20,000 livres; by 1556 it had risen to 7,000,000. In 1556, the exchequer owed 6,761,272 ducats. Thus, the campaign of 1543-44, inadequately financed, bogged down. It was to no avail that the French and imperial armies faced one another in the field in November 1543 and again in August 1544. As in 1532, when Charles had faced the Turks before Vienna, neither side cared to open hostilities, with the result that the peace of Crepy (September 1544) again more or less confirmed the status quo.
The Council of Trent did not open until December 1545, but Paul III had earlier offered Charles men and money against the heretics. When the Protestant princes failed to put in an appearance at the imperial Diet of Regensburg in 1546, the religious and political situation turned critical once again. Charles prepared for war. In a battle that decided the whole campaign and placed his archenemies at his mercy, the Emperor (who had been attacked by the German princes the previous September) defeated the Protestants at Mühlberg in April 1547. Ill much of the time, he spent the following year at Augsburg, where he succeeded in detaching the Netherlands from the imperial Diet's jurisdiction while yet assuring their continued protection by the empire. Also in Augsburg, he drew up his "political testament" for Philip and reorganized the Spanish court. The Diet of Augsburg furthermore saw the publication of the "Interim," a formula conciliatory to the Protestants but retaining the Roman Catholic ritual in general. Although Charles believed that he had granted far-reaching concessions to the people and the Protestant authorities in this document, his main concern was to make the Protestants return to the Catholic Church.
North Germany was now on the brink of revolt. The new king of France, Henry II, was eagerly awaiting an opportunity to renew the old rivalry between the houses of Valois and Burgundy, while the German princes believed that the moment was at hand to repay Charles for Mühlberg. After a secret treaty was signed in October 1551 between Henry II, Albert II Alcibiades, margrave of Brandenburg, and Maurice, elector of Saxony, Maurice in January 1552 ceded to France the cities of Metz, Toul, and Verdun, thus handing over imperial lands. When Maurice tried to capture the Emperor himself, the latter barely managed to escape. He soon gathered reinforcements, but the changed political situation compelled him to ratify an agreement made between his brother Ferdinand and the rebels, according to which the new Protestant religion was to be granted equal rights with Roman Catholicism. Charles's attempt to retake Metz that fall ended in a complete fiasco, with Burgundy capitulating to Valois and the Emperor defeated in his struggle for hegemony in western Europe.
In order to save what he could of this hegemony, Charles, already severely racked by gout, tried new paths by preparing the ground for his widowed son's marriage with Mary I of England. It looked for a while as if his great hopes were about to be fulfilled, the joining of north and south and the realization of the dream of a universal empire. But, even though Philip married Mary in July 1554, the English Parliament emphatically refused to crown him. Since Mary remained childless, Charles's hopes came to naught. After an abortive last campaign against France, he prepared for his abdication, renouncing, in 1555 and 1556, his claims to the Netherlands and Spain in favour of Philip and those to the imperial crown in Ferdinand's favour. Disembarking in Spain at the end of September 1556, he moved to the monastery of Yuste, which he had long ago selected as his final refuge, in early February 1557. There he laid the groundwork for the eventual bequest of Portugal to the Habsburgs after King Sebastian's death with the help of his sister Catherine, grandmother of Sebastian and regent of Portugal. He aided his son in procuring funds in Spain for the continuation of the war against France, and he helped his daughter Joan, regent of Spain during Philip's absence in the Netherlands, in persecuting Spanish heretics.
Not only the task but the man to whom it was given had a dual nature. By background and training, Charles was a medieval ruler whose outlook on life was stamped throughout by a deeply experienced Catholic faith and by the knightly ideals of the late chivalric age. Yet his sober, rational, and pragmatic thinking again mark him as a man of his age. Although Charles's moral uprightness and sense of personal honour make it impossible to regard him as a truly Machiavellian statesman, his unswerving resolve and his refusal to give up any part whatsoever of his patrimony are evidence of a strong and unconditional will to power. More than that, it is precisely this individual claim to power that forms the core of his personality and explains his aims and actions.
Charles's abdication has been variously interpreted. While many saw in it an unsuccessful man's escape from the world, his contemporaries thought differently. Charles himself had been considering the idea even in his prime. In 1532 his secretary, Alfonso de Valdés, suggested to him the thought that a ruler who was incapable of preserving the peace and, indeed, who had to consider himself an obstacle to its establishment was obliged to retire from affairs of state. Once the abdication had become a fact, St. Ignatius of Loyola had this to say:
The emperor gave a rare example to his successors [...] in so doing, he proved himself to be a true Christian prince [...] may the Lord in all His goodness now grant the emperor freedom."
In this last, metaphysically tinged period of his life, Charles's freedom consisted in his conscious and conscientious preparation for the buen morir, for a lucid death.
One of the major paradoxes of the art of the sixteenth century was that one of the figures most frequently portrayed throughout the first half, the Emperor Charles V, was not, in contrast to his son Philip II, either an art lover or collector of artistic works. However, in the frequent panegyrics (lofredes) that were written about his person, he was often depicted in terms of the Renaissance clichés about the enlightened prince, the patron of culture, whose court exemplified the balance between the arts of warfare and the gentler arts.
There was also frequent recourse to classical figures who, like Hercules, Scipio and Julius Caesar, were to become paradigms of the rhetorical construction of the image of Charles V as Emperor, and who were to have a great influence over the plastic arts.
This creation evolved in a very significant way throughout the first half of the sixteenth century. From a religious perspective, we find a Europe profoundly divided by the religious crisis of Erasmianism and the Reformation. From a cultural perspective, it was the time of the controversies between the different versions of Renaissance humanism, which went from the most manifestly pagan to what was called 'Christian humanism'. From a political perspective, tensions were rife between the universalist ideas of the Christian empire, clearly in decline, and the irresistible rise of the new nation states.
Charles V intervened decisively in all of these processes and, in all of them, the artistic image played its part. Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his important work Institutio Principis Christiani, published in 1515 and dedicated to the future Charles V, wrote the following: 'Perhaps to some it could appear to be a trifle of no importance, but this is not so, for it is of great import that artists represent the prince with the gravity and the attire most becoming to a wise and sober prince'.
These ideas on how the prince should be depicted, were in flat contradiction to those developed in the Italian and Italianate artistic movements devoted to the concept of magnificence. The conflict simmered during the early years of imperial policy and then boiled over in its most dramatic manifestation in the Sack of Rome in 1527, to the extent that it was have a decisive influence on the question of the plastic arts and their function throughout the whole of the sixteenth century.
The early portraits of Charles V reveal these contradictions very clearly. A clear dynastic sense is always evident, as much in the series of engravings commissioned by his grandfather, Maximilian I, as in the Triumphal Arch or the Triumphal Chariot, in which the young Charles always appears. Apart from this, the early images of the prince vary between a very simple and direct form of presentation, as we can see in the relatively numerous portraits by the Maestro de la Leyenda de Santa Magdalena, and his presentation in the portraits by Van Orley (the first 'official' image of the prince) whose purpose is to emphasise the trappings of power at all costs.
The conflict between representative simplicity and magnificent grandiloquence is revealed, as I have said, in the pages of the treatise by Erasmus: 'Another milder and more subtle kind of adulation exists -he says- in the portraits, in the sculptures, in the titles and in the treatments. In this manner was Alexander the Great adulated by Apelles, who painted him brandishing a thunderbolt in his right hand. Octavian gratified to be painted with the attributes of Apollo. For this same purpose did the huge colossi that Antiquity erected to the emperors far exceed human dimensions...'
Thus, in Erasmus, there is a critique of the idea of the 'instrumental' portrait that was, nevertheless, to become one of the favourite themes of art at the service of the Caroline court within a very few years.
Furthermore, the dynamic of the military and political deeds of Charles V, his necessary glorification, his active integration into the European world of the sixteenth century that, culturally, was becoming increasingly italianised, made the elaboration of a truly mythico - heroic image of the Emperor indispensable. So it came about that the occasion of the first great imperial victory at Pavia in 1525 was glorified in a great series of tapestries, the work of Van Orley, that are preserved in the Museum of Capodimonte; and in the Cheminée du Franc in Bruges, the work of Lancelot Blondel. Not only do they exalt the victory of Pavia but also its political consequences, principally the Peace of Madrid. On two columns, one on either side of Charles V, two medallions portray the King of France, Francis I, and Eleanor of Austria, the Emperor's sister, who was married to Francis as a result of the treaty.
Erasmian criticism of certain types of images does not focus only on considerations of the way in which a wise and virtuous prince should ideally be represented. As was logical for a scholar in the environment of the first half of sixteenth century Europe, his main interest was directed towards a critique of the sense and utilisation of the religious image itself as a means of devotional exaltation and a stimulus to piety. An event like the Sack of Rome in 1527 came as a tremendous shock to the established ideas on religion, the role of the Pope, the role of the Emperor as the Defender of Christendom and the Papacy, and the very status of sacred images themselves. Under the persistence of the attacks, the intellectual circles closest to the Emperor had to exert themselves to the full in his defence and in defence of such a controversial event as the Sack. They did so by emphasising the idea of the figure of Charles as a wise prince and protector of the true faith. El Diálogo de las cosas ocurridas en Roma, published by Alfonso de Valdés in 1527, is a defence of the imperial position that is wholly Erasmian in tone, and it is the best example of how the function of sacred works of art was interpreted in a very restrictive way in imperial circles in the 1520s.
The reality of a Europe in conflict was soon to shatter the utopian, pacifist, unitary ideal that was being created around Charles V. In order to achieve a truly heroic image it was deemed necessary to resort to another kind of artistic language like that of the Italian Renaissance, and to an ideological support other than that of Erasmus. Figures like Castiglione, Machiavelli and Aretino were introducing a very different image of the court and of power, in which the resurrection dell'antico was fundamental. To all of this, the figure and deeds of Charles were of capital importance.
The episode of the imperial campaign against Turkish domination of Tunis (1535) was not only one of the most brilliant moments of the politico-military career of Charles V, but also a point of inflection in the elaboration of the rhetorical, artistic and literary image of the Emperor. From that moment on, mention of Charles V as the successor to the Romans in general and to Scipio the African in particular became increasingly frequent and coherent, and allusions to the classical world became habitual.
The series of tapestries called The Conquest of Tunis, the work of Vermeyen and Pannemaker, commissioned in 1535 by Maria of Hungary, became one of the imperial emblems. We are already seeing the elaboration of a classico-heroic image around Charles V that was being consciously created within his own court, and it was to have profound consequences for the future.
Little by little the miles Christi was turning into a Christian Hercules and finally abandoning any Erasmian 'timidity' as regards his representation. Charles V excelled the feats of the Romans, personifying an excellence that should be regarded not only in quantitative but, fundamentally, in qualitative terms. The Plus Ultra of his device had to be interpreted in a moral as well as a physical sense. According to Calvete de la Estrella, while the victories of the Romans were like lightning, laying waste wherever they went, and their motives were domination, destruction and devastation: 'You, however, wherever you turn, everything you enrich and, like the resplendent sun, you dispel the darkness, [and] you stilled it with the brightness of joy. They made war in order to rule, [and] you to defend what was won not to obtain what was not yours [...]'.
It was in the 1530s when contacts occurred with some of the principal artists, intellectuals, noblemen and military leaders immersed in the milieu and fashion of the Renaissance all'antica: Parmigiano, Aretino, Ippolito de' Medici, Alessandro Farnese, Ferrante and Federigo II Gonzaga of Mantua, the Dukes of Urbino, Avila and Zúñiga, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and Titian.
The portraiture of Titian and the sculptures and medallions of Leone Leoni brought about changes not only of a stylistic nature in the evolution of the imperial image, owing to the full incorporation of the ways of the Italian Renaissance, but also a fundamental modification of the relationship of the imperial court with respect to artistic images. In other words, the idea of the solemn and the monumental was introduced into court portraits, together with the incorporation of that world of the colossal and the grandiose which Erasmus had criticised so fiercely in the early years of the century.
The main protagonists of the later imperial commissions were two Italian artists, Titian and Leone Leoni, and two principals of outstanding taste: Maria of Hungary, sister to Charles V, and Cardinal Granvelle.
However, in these few lines, it is impossible to even summarise the artistic and ideological complexity that abounds in masterpieces of the category of Charles V on Horseback, A Portrait of Philip II in Armour, A Portrait of the Empress Isabel and The Trinity by Titian, or Charles V Restraining Fury, Bust of the Emperor Charles V or the pair, Philip II and Maria of Hungary by Leone Leoni.
With The Emperor Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg, a work painted by Titian in 1548 after the victory of that name (24th April,1547), and Charles V Restraining Fury by Leoni, the imperial court sought to symbolise the pax carolina that prevailed in Europe after that battle. These were truly imperial icons, which is obvious if we observe the disconcerting expression on the face of Charles V and the paralysis or freezing of temporal expression so evident in both works. These can be explained if we consider the influence of Stoic philosophy and the writings of Marcus Aurelius on the Caroline court. In the equestrian portrait by Titian, the Emperor is portrayed as a miles Christi in defence of Christendom under attack from within itself. In this work, the Venetian artist sums up the early chivalrous ideals of his subject à la Bourguignonne in combination with abundant references to the classical world that we have mentioned and, in this way, he creates the best résumé of an image of such complex construction as that of Charles V.