David Bestué’s recent take on Philip II’s reification of centrality (El Escorial: Imperio y estómago, 2021) is an open contestation of the royal site’s conception—and later reception—as an immutable, transcendental edifice meant to “stop the entropy of physical processes.” Distancing himself from castizo evocations of El Escorial as “piedra lírica” (Ortega y Gasset) and “líneas puras” (Unamuno), Bestué guides us through the building’s secluded sewers, the granite quarries that nourished its construction, and its many scenes of fire and dereliction to dismantle the monastery’s value as purely symbolic permanence. As Bestué explains, his book functions “no como un acto más de significación, otra capa, sino como un corte.” This mechanistic notion of the written word as a device with which to shape abstraction back into physicality, however, is not a novel addition to the literature on El Escorial. This article revisits José de Sigüenza’s Fundación del monasterio de El Escorial (1605)—the most exhaustive and authoritative chronicle of its construction—as a reaction to the official representational apparatus of the building. Whereas the language of Philip II’s instructions allied with Juan de Herrera’s designs to project an immutability beyond space and time, Sigüenza, this article shows, enacts a ventriloquist mimicking of artisanal practice that vindicates process and local experience in conflict with the notion of a petrified center of empire. It also examines, as reverberations of these disparities, late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century appraisals of Sigüenza’s text that have projected the unblemished geometrical lines of the Escorial onto the friar’s writing. Its overall aim is to shed light on the lingering tensions around language, architecture, and place that characterize the most instrumentalized—and yet paradoxically dematerialized—of Iberian materialities.

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