The Landscape Guide

Buen Retiro Park, Madrid

The territory that he acquired, partly through presents and partly by purchase— and the cloister-ground of San Jeronimo was brought into it—was a mile in circumference. With amazing haste and secrecy Olivarez made in little more than two years the Buen Retiro of Madrid (Fig. 300), which from this time was the main theatre for the history of the Spanish court. 


The architect of the palace which adjoined the old cloister-house on the north, the Italian Crescenzi, could not win himself much glory, for Olivarez was not able to attach great importance to the outside architecture, both because of his great haste and because of the enormous expense. Cosimo Lotti had a much better chance for showing his powers. It was his task to build the theatre, to lay out the gardens, and to conduct the festivities which were soon to be held with a show of unexampled luxury.

The palace, and with it the flower-gardens proper, have now completely come to grief; but if we look at old engravings it is evident to the eye that there is an entire want of unity in composition as compared with what we find in their Italian predecessors— not to speak of French garden schemes that had by now arrived at the threshold of their perfection. It all hangs together with the usual Spanish architecture, not quite vanished in the seventeenth century: the palace rooms were grouped round courts, and the plan was very highly esteemed. But there is more than this: the gardens in front of the façades are treated as separate court gardens each by itself, with walls all round. At Buen Retiro the planted courts of the cloister of old San Jeronimo and the beautiful Jardin del Principe in front of the windows of Philip II,’s old house have precisely similar treatment. It is just like an Italian parterre of the sixteenth century, adorned in the main lines of direction with two shell fountains. North lies the chief parterre of the palace, the Jardin de la Reina (the Nuremberg design (Fig. 302) gives a wrong arrangement of the park), which clearly shows the influence of certain Italian villas — Medici, Ludovisi, Borghese, and others—in that by the side of the parterre a large place is left open for games.

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Since 1642 the bronze equestrian statue of Philip IV of Spain., cast by Pietro Tacca, has stood in the centre of this square (Fig. 301). Once more the parterre answers to Spanish taste, not Italian, in that a wall encloses it on the park side, and apparently it has no gate leading into the park (Fig. 302). In the walls there are the customary niches for busts. Towards the north of Buen Retiro are other small parterres beside the rooms of the palace and the theatre house, but all of them completely shut off on the side of the park. The Countess d’Aulnoy thus describes the garden belonging to the palace court : “Four large corps de logis, with four larger pavilions, form a complete square, in the middle of which one finds a parterre filled with flowers, and a fountain whose statues pour out streams to water the flowers and avenues, which cross one another, and lead from one corps de logis to another.”

The world art wonder of that time—for which the rough drawing (Fig. 300) offers scarcely any help—was the Buen Retiro park, which in spite of its magnificence had no connected plan. In this work the artist took his model from Italian suburban parks, which this one sought to rival. But the Spanish place lacked the fine views straight through, that in Italy connected the main buildings and the park. The park as such had (according to the accounts we find) to contain every single thing that the long ages of garden development had brought into being. The central feature on the eastern side was the great star, which had eight covered walks leading from an octagonal piece of ground into the different parts of the park. The water constructions were a source of great pride, and the huge pond still exists, 500 by 270 feet in size, with pavilions all round partly used for draw- wells, It was meant as a place for a naumachia, with an island in the middle ; and a canal led out of it to other ponds, so that they were all connected, and navigable by gondolas. At the eastern circumference of the garden the canal turned at a right angle by the side of a tennis court where there were also several rows of trees, All over the place there were little groups of trees with a great many fountains, in case anyone wanted a place in which to be quiet. Wide views were to be got from raised mounds on the walls.

By the west wall were the flower parterres. A certain Jesuit priest who saw these in 1638 describes the beauty of the beds in his own idiom:

Here one beholds beds glowing with colour, where letters are cut in rosemary, revealing the secrets of the interwoven flowers : in vessels of painted Talavera ware, which shame the finest silver, the heads of pinks show bright, with basil all round about, just as if the earth were clad in red and blue gauze, in Oriental fashion. Here too are streams clear as mirrors, paths sown with rose and jasmine, leafless pinks of shining purple hues, meadows where Arabia must have bestowed all her lilies. There is no imaginable beauty that this garden lacks.

Flowers were brought here from every part of the world. In the year 1633 thirteen wagon-loads arrived from Valencia, and gifts of this sort from princes were very sure of a welcome. Cardinal Pio of Savoy sent his own gardener Fabrizio from Rome with bulbs worth 10,000 ducats. There were certain bits on the south that were more like open country, with meadows and trees, “ keeping the simplicity of country life and remarkably pleasing.”

In two matters destined to prove very important in a future development of the garden, Buen Retiro Park was the precursor : the custom of making hermitages in the park, and holding festivities in the actual garden. We have already mentioned the intimate connection of pleasure with piety in the Spanish nature. Though the severe fanaticism of the sixteenth century had by this time vanished, perhaps its decay led to more rapid and immediate changes in festivals and church practices at a court where there was always a burning desire for something new. From the start Buen Retiro had the monastery close at hand. And as Philip II of Spain had no objection to the monks looking on from the windows of the Escorial at any shows that he was pleased to give, so it was now the custom for the Fathers at San Jeronimo to be invited to the parties at Buen Retiro. They knew very well that their services would be in request at the confessional after these doings. But the jaded palate did not remain for long satisfied with the older monastic habits, and little hermitages were now scattered about the park, mostly near the outside. These were small garden villas, each with its chapel, a turret for the view, a small parterre, a labyrinth, a grotto, and other invenzioni boscherecci. There was one hermitage to Saint Isidoro, next to the palace on the north-west, and others to Saint Bruno, Saint Inez, Saint Magdalena and Saint John the Baptist. The largest was dedicated to Saint Paul (Fig. 303) ; and in its garden, adorned with statues, stood a triple Narcissus fountain. The house stands in a parterre enclosed by trellises. The hermitage farthest towards the south-east was Saint Anthony’s, which was surrounded with moats like a little castle, the outside one bending in a curious way and connecting with the great canal in the park.

All these were joined to one another and to the main park by avenues ; inside they were supplied with pictures and all kinds of luxury, and in them lived important members of

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the court. In John the Baptist’s hermitage Olivarez took up his abode, and tried to make gold with the help of the alchemist Vincenzo Massimi—gold which he very well knew how to spend. There is no doubt that here, where these religious dwellings appeared so conspicuously, the step was taken which gradually made the hermitage a mere fashion, One would like to trace the necessity of this both to the nature of the Spanish people and to the busy work of this particular court ; but while these hermitages were springing up
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at Buen Retiro in the seventeenth century, Cardinal Bourbon at his own park at Gaillon had already built in 1560 the érémitage abondant en tout plaisir, which exactly answers to the description of the Spanish ones, Perhaps it is only documents that are wanting to show that Spain also had earlier examples of the same.

But there is no question that Philip has the glory and credit of making great and amazing garden festivities at his court before anyone else did it. In the year 1632 Olivarez first received the king at his own villa, but only to present it to him, handing him the key of office on a silver plate.

Until now it had been necessary to drive out to Aranjuez, if there were any festivities going forward. But in 1623, on Philip’s second birthday after he became king, there was a great theatrical performance for the occasion, produced by an Italian, one Cesare Fontana, perhaps belonging to the distinguished family of Roman architects. The queen and the court ladies took part. At this time, in elaborate affairs of the kind, there would be enchanted castles, earthquakes, marvellous gardens, fire-breathing dragons, genii hovering in the air, all playing a great part. Everything must be new, and ever again new. Engineers indulged in orgies of art. It is a curious reflection that the technique of machinery, now exact and progressive, since in our own time it has been harnessed and subdued to useful ends, came into existence in those childish years of merriment, and devoted its original audacious inventions to the ephemeral delights of the passing hour.

Philip IV. did not find all his engineers and musicians in foreign lands; he had artists in his own country : painters who were ready to do decorations and backgrounds; and above all the greatest dramatic poets that his nation had ever known. The aged Lope de Vega was prepared with a dedication ode for the new villa, and Calderon wrote dramas and prologues and divers pieces that pointed to the creation of Olivarez as the holy city, the blessed Jerusalem. The king had but to utter a wish, and every entertainment became some new link in the chain forged by the pen of the great masters, not to speak of those of second and third rank. In the park the great pond with its island was a favourite spot for these dramas. On the Feast of St. John in 1640 a stage was fixed up above the island, supported on ships, and the machinery and preparations must have been immense, for we are told that in the representation of Circe (an odd mixture of Homer, Ariosto, and Tasso) there appeared first the ship of Odysseus, then Circe’s wood with the wild beasts and talking trees, then the enchanted feast and the metamorphoses, next all the charms and spells that Circe wrought to ensnare Odysseus : sea monsters, Tritons, sirens, love- gods—everything emerging from the water ; and finally the palace of enchantment, which sinks to the bottom accompanied by lightning, thunder and earthquake, as Odysseus falls into the arms of Virtue.

For those spectacles that needed less room the theatre at Buen Retiro had been built in 1637, and this was of great importance for the development of dramatic art in Spain: it was the first Spanish stage except for the people’s theatres, which had long been quite common, Only members of the court had the right of entry, but as the first requirement was pomp and glory, Cosimo Lotti hit upon the ingenious idea of building the stage so that by removing a wall at the back the view was thrown open into the park. As a garden scene was wanted for almost every play, this plan gave the advantage of an unlimited space and complete naturalness, and the possibility of artificial lighting as well. It also had the merit of allowing people to sit in an enclosed place and at the same time to see the picture before them in a sort of frame. Lotti appears to have done his very best ; and yet his successor, who was summoned to Madrid after his death as garden artist and decorator, Baccio del Bianco, surpassed him in the judgment of contemporaries in one important respect. Baccio had been for some time in Wallenstein's palace in Prague, and had made his beautiful loggia and perhaps his garden, When he came to the preparations for Calderon’s Perseus, he went to the king quite overcome, and told him he would have to be given bed and board, for the performance would take eight days with such elaboration of detail. All the same, in the few hours allowed the enormous amount of work was accomplished without a minute’s interruption or delay.

These were the most brilliant days of Spain, when Buen Retiro served as background for the magnificent assemblies of people who were mad for show and festivity. And yet this society, which seemed so highly gifted and so lofty-minded, was stumbling to the edge of a precipice. To contemporaries, Buen Retiro was the Colossus with clay feet. As soon as it was built there arose a general alarm at the way it swallowed up enormous sums, and at the Nero-like unconcern of Olivarez in setting up a barrier on the east for a town, which already on the west was debarred from traffic with the country outside both by the castle and by the Casa del Campo. The rich murmured also because of the plundering of their objects of art, which furnished the spacious rooms of the palace and the gardens. Now, after their complete destruction, the park has been restored to Madrid, just as once in Rome the grounds of Nero’s Golden House were restored to the city. It is metamorphosed into a great town park, and bears the official name of Parque de Madrid.

With Buen Retiro the Italian influence in Spanish gardens came to an end. When under the new royal family of the Bourbons the art flourished for a short time, it was the powerful influence of the culture which they brought with them from the North that allowed any new growth to arise.