I hadn't originally intended to visit San Lorenzo de El Escorial on a recent trip to Spain, but changed my mind because my father was very keen to hear what it was like. I went with almost no idea of what to expect, and because I absolutely hate audioguides, I wandered through what proved to be a really interesting, impressive, and in many ways very attractive, building complex with nothing but the minimal written information to guide me. So I've completely missed the mythology that has apparently grown up around the Escorial and its founder, Philip II. As a consequence, I may not have been the best audience for Kamen's book, which is largely concerned with dispelling that mythology. Yet I'm glad I read it for the insight it gave me into a place I really enjoyed visiting, and its examination of the preconceptions and historiographical shortcomings that seem to dog this particular field.
This is not a book about Spanish history or the process of designing and constructing the Escorial. Instead, Kamen presents a short examination of the design influences, purpose and status of the Escorial. The book is focused on Philip's lifetime, with little information on the Escorial's subsequent history. Since the Escorial was a personal project of Philip, his actions and beliefs form a significant part of the book. Each chapter is short and easy to read, with extensive footnotes. Since they are thematic rather than chronological, it's an easy book to dip in and out of, but requires some effort to keep track of the framing dates and events (which makes the timeline provided helpful). A general background in European history of the 16th century would be a pre-requisite for reading this, I think. The colour plates are relevant and reproduced well (though some of the photos look rather old), but weren't directly referenced in the text.
While I found this book a good read and would definitely recommend it, it is not without flaws. Kamen's insistence that Philip must have seen and been inspired by the the monastery complex of Ettal, stating it as fact at times when he admits that there is no direct evidence, sits awkwardly with his critiques of others for sub-standard research and reasoning. Also, Kamen seems more concerned with what the Escorial is not than what it is. Debunking is all very well, and I do like to see it done well as it is here, with frequent reminders of the importance of establishing the basics and going back to primary sources, but it can create a negative feel that makes the reading experience less pleasant than it might have been. This is purely a question of style, I admit, but I find it hard to believe that Kamen couldn't have chosen an approach that would highlight and examine the achievement the Escorial represents, and Philip's motivations for building it, in a more positive way.