The Hispanic-Roman epoch produced the philosopher and dramatist Marcus (or Lucius) Annaeus Seneca (54 BC – AD 39), while the Gothic period was marked by the encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (560?–636), author of the Etymologies. Important Spanish thinkers of the Middle Ages included Averroës (Ibn Rushd, or Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, 1126–98), philosopher; Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam, 1135–1204), the great Jewish physician and philosopher; Benjamin de Tudela (d.1173), geographer and historian; King Alfonso X (the Wise, 1226?–84), jurist, historian, musician, and astronomer; Juan Ruiz (1283?–1351?), archpriest of Hita, the greatest Spanish medieval poet; and Fernando de Rojas (1475?–1538?), a dramatic poet. El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, 1043?–99) has become the national hero of Spain for his fight against the Moors, although he also fought for them at times.
The golden age of Spanish exploration and conquest began with the Catholic Sovereigns, Ferdinand (1452–1516) and Isabella (1451–1504), in the late 15th century. The first great explorer for Spain was Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo or Cristóbal Colón, 1451–1506), a seaman of Genoese birth but possibly of Judeo-Catalán origin, who made four voyages of discovery to the Americas, the first landing occurring on 12 October 1492 on the island of Guanahaní (probably on the island now called San Salvador) in the Bahamas. Among the later explorers, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490?–1557?), Hernando de Soto (d.1542), and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (1510–54) became famous for their explorations in the southern and southwestern parts of the present US; Juan Ponce de León (1460?–1521), for his travels in Florida; Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1517), for his European discovery of the Pacific Ocean and claim of it for Spain; Francisco Pizarro (1470?–1541), for his conquest of Peru; and Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) for his conquest of Mexico. Juan de la Costa (1460?–1510) was a great cartographer of the period. Spanish power was at its greatest under Charles I (1500–1558), who was also Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It began to decline under Philip II (1527–98).
In Spanish art, architecture, and literature, the great age was the 16th century and the early part of the 17th. Among the painters, El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos, b.Crete, 1541–1614), Lo Spagnoletto (Jusepe de Ribera, 1589?–1652?), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598?–1660), Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660), and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–82) were the leading figures. In architecture, Juan de Herrera (1530–97), the designer of the royal palace, monastery, and tomb of the Escorial, and the baroque architect José Churriguera (1650–1723) are among the most important names. In literature, the dramatists Lope Félix de Vega Carpio (1562–1635) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681) and the novelist Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547–1616), author of Don Quixote, are immortal names. Other leading literary figures include the great poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561–1627), the satirist Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas (1580–1645), and the playwrights Tirso de Molina (Gabriel Téllez, 1571?–1648) and Mexican-born Juan Ruiz de Alarcón y Mendoza (1580?–1639). Outstanding personalities in the annals of the Roman Catholic Church are St. Ignatius de Loyola (Iñigo de Oñez y Loyola, 1491–1556), founder of the Jesuit order; St. Francis Xavier (Francisco Javier, 1506–52), Jesuit "apostle to the Indies"; and the great mystics St. Teresa of Ávila (Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, 1515–82) and St. John of the Cross (Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, 1542–91). The phenomenon of pulmonary blood circulation was discovered by Michael Servetus (Miguel Servet, 1511–53), a heretical theologian, while he was still a medical student.
The 16th century was also the golden age of Spanish music. Cristóbal de Morales (1500?–53) and Tomás Luis de Vittoria (1549?–1611) were the greatest Spanish masters of sacred vocal polyphony. Important composers include Luis Milán (1500?– 1565?), Antonio de Cabezón (1510–66), Alonso Mudarra (1510–80), and Miguel de Fuenllana. Juan Bermudo (1510?–55?), Francisco de Salinas (1513–90), and Diego Ortiz (c.1525–c.1570) were theorists of note. Two leading 18th-century composers in Spain were the Italians Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757) and Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805). Padre Antonio Soler (1729–83) was strongly influenced by Scarlatti. Leading modern composers are Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909), Enrique Granados y Campina (1867–1916), Manuel du Falla (1876–1946), and Joaquín Turina (1882–1949). World-famous performers include the cellist and conductor Pablo Casals (1876–1973), the guitarist Andrés Segovia (1894–1987), operatic singers Victoria de los Angeles (Victoria Gómez Cima, b.1923) and Placido Domingo (b.1941), and the pianist Alicia de Larrocha (b.1923).
Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) was the outstanding Spanish painter and etcher of his time. Pablo Ruiz y Picasso (1881–1973) was perhaps the most powerful single influence on contemporary art; other major figures include Juan Gris (1887–1927), Joan Miró (1893–1983), and Salvador Dali (1904-89), who, like Picasso, spent most of his creative life outside Spain. The sculptor Julio González (1876–1942) was noted for his work in iron. A leading architect was Antonio Gaudí (1852–1926); an influential modern architect was José Luis Sert (1902–83), dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University for 16 years.
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864–1936) and José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955) are highly regarded Spanish philosophers. Benito Pérez Galdos (1843–1920) was one of the greatest 19th-century novelists. Other Spanish novelists include Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833–91), Emilia Pardo Bazán (1852–1921), Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (1867–1928), Pío Baroja y Nessi (1872–1956), Ramón Pérez de Ayala (1880–1962), and Ramón José Sender (1902-82). Prominent dramatists include José Zorrilla y Moral (1817–93), José de Echegaray y Eizaguirre (1832–1916), and Jacinto Benavente y Martínez (1886–1954). The poets Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881–1958) and Vicente Aleixandre (1900–84) were winners of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956 and 1977, respectively. Other outstanding poets are Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836–70), Antonio Machado Ruiz (1875–1939), Pedro Salinas (1891–1951), Jorge Guillén (1893–1984), Dámaso Alonso (1898–1990), Federico García Lorca (1899–1936), Luis Cernuda (1902–63), and José Angel Valente (1929–2000). Ramón María del Valle-Inclán (1866–1936) was a novelist, dramatist, poet, and essayist. A noted novelist, essayist, and critic was Azorín (José Martínez Ruiz, 1876–1967). Salvador de Madariaga y Rojo (1886–1978) was an important cultural historian and former diplomat. Luis Buñuel (1900–83), who also lived in Mexico, was one of the world's leading film directors.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), histologist, was awarded the first Nobel Prize for medicine in 1906. The physicians Gregorio Marañón (1887–1960) and Pedro Laín Entralgo (1908–2001) were scholars and humanists of distinction. Juan de la Cierva y Codorniu (1896–1937) invented the autogyro. Severo Ochoa (1905–93), who lived in the US, won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1959.
Francisco Franco (1892–1975), the leader of the right-wing insurgency that led to the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), was chief of state during 1939–47 and lifetime regent of the Spanish monarchy after 1947. After Franco's death, King Juan Carlos I(b.1938) guided Spain through the transitional period between dictatorship and democracy.