The Landscape Guide

The Escorial Garden, near Madrid

Juan de Herrera's design for the Escorial

Charles V's life as a monk only lasted two years. When towards the end of 1558 his son Philip received his father’s will, he found a request that he would set up a worthy tomb. A year previously, after the victory of St. Quentin, when one of his generals had destroyed a monastery of St. Laurence, the King of Spain had vowed to build a handsome new monastery to that saint. These two ideas were now combined with a third one, which had long ago taken root in Philip’s heart, and now through the noble example of his father had gained new importance: it was to weld together a monastery and church built for a royal tomb with a princely palace, and so to create a place of hitherto unheard-of magnificence. Thus arose the plan of the Escorial (Fig. 290).

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The final act of reparation made by Charles impressed the whole world with a feeling of reverence and surprise; for it was thought to be the most noble step a man could take. It looks as though the son had wished, by building a royal cloister residence, to produce the impression that he also was minded to combine the monkish life with the royal power, and unite the two in his own person. The actual idea of connecting a cloister with a royal dwelling was not foreign to the Spanish court, for long ago the kings had possessed a retreat at the monastery of San Jeronimo that lay above the prado before the gate of Alcalá at Madrid. The royal rooms were close to the sanctuary. The combination of religious exercises with the pleasures of a festival was congenial to the Spanish character. “The chapel is the first room that Spanish kings set up in their houses.” 

When Philip II. ordered the restoration of Aranjuez, he began with the chapel, and the old Aranjuez was originally a summer-house for the Brothers of Santiago. “ In this place ceremonies, audiences, and other formal occasions alternate with devout exercises, just like the times of sleep and waking, and the one seems to summon the other.” Such is the description of the court of Philip V. by an Italian, and it holds good in a different way, but more intensely, of his grandfather’s.

This state of things was quite foreign to the Italian temperament, though a certain pride in having a hermit at one’s country place, with a view to getting some peaceful pious support when a stay was made there and therefore more happiness, was certainly to be found here and there even in Italy in Early Renaissance days, and a landowner liked to build such an asylum in his park. We shall find this disposition more marked in France; but there was at a very early date a kind of playful theatrical feeling about it, which extended over the whole of Northern Europe, till in the end to have a hermitage in the park was a sort of unwritten law. But on one occasion there was a great desire genuinely felt by Spaniards of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to unite the refreshment of the body with the most profound devotion of the soul. The gigantic expression of this desire is seen in the Escorial Garden.

The first architect who made the plans for the royal cloister, Juan Bautista de Toledo, died soon after the foundation stone was laid in 1563. His successor, who really built it, was Juan de Herrera. It must have been more than chance that both he and the gardener Marcos de Cordona, whom Philip then called to begin on the garden as soon as the foundation walls were up, were men who had stood faithfully by his father’s side to the last. Juan de Herrera, after his apprenticeship to architecture, had become an officer and gone to Yuste in the emperor’s bodyguard, but after his master’s death he went for his education to Toledo. When his teacher there unexpectedly died he succeeded to the place and was worthy of it. The grouping of the parts of the Escorial building had to satisfy the very far-reaching demands of the King of Spain. The whole forms an immense square, and through the chief entrance in the middle of the west front we come to the court which faces the entrance to the church, having on the left the college and on the right the cloister. The chief chapel with the high altar stands above the east front, and grouped round it are the private dwellings of the king’s family. The king’s own rooms, in contrast to the other buildings, are very simply arranged, for his wish was to stay here as monk and not as king. In any case the whitewashed walls which strike visitors to-day can tell us nothing, for Charles himself had tapestries from Flanders to hang on his walls, and among the private properties that he ordered Philip by his will to have sold, these possessions were valued at seven million gold thalers. The wall-coverings of his rooms in the Escorial were included.

With the thought of his father always in his mind, King Philip of Spain had his bedroom so close to the church that he could take part in the Mass from his own bed, and there he died with a crucifix in his hands. Like his father, he took care to have his private dwelling isolated from both cloister and town; and because it projected over the east front he had a garden round it on three sides. A large wide garden terrace lies in the front of the whole east façade, and extends, equally wide, along the south of the house. It was a large parterre laid out in box and flower-beds, compared by visitors of old to hanging gardens : the best feature was the lovely view of the mountains. The walls beside this terrace seem to have had at their base originally only kitchen gardens ; at any rate we hear of nothing else in older accounts. The lower park, with the Casa de Abajo, a pretty pleasure-house, is not earlier than the eighteenth century.

Originally the gardens were full of statues and fountains, which also served to ornament the numerous inner courts. There were no fewer than seventy-six fountains and seventy-three statues which the king set up here; for he was the first whose love of art induced him to import the precious treasures of the Italian Renaissance to Spain. Among the smaller courts there is the very largest court, not only of the Escorial Garden, but of the whole world, the Patio de los Evangelistas (Fig. 290a).

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 In the middle there is a little octagonal temple with four square basins at the corners, above which stand statues of the four evangelists, their attendant symbols supplying the basins with water. Round about is a bordered parterre now laid out with box in arabesque patterns of the eighteenth century, but originally a brighter picture of geometrical beds and flowers. In this sacred spot, which answered to the innermost soul of the king, he was fond of lingering, and ever more so as he grew older and more gloomy.

It was he, however, who quite at the beginning of his reign began to rebuild the mediaeval fortress of the Alcazar. He had the great square on the south front laid open and an imposing façade built in the Italian style, but left the palace on the river side, where it stands on the steep hill, to preserve its mediaeval appearance. In front of the west side, at the foot of the ascent, Philip found an extensive park, and did not want to spoil it for the chase. It has been said that Charles V. had rooks brought over from the Netherlands and that they nested in the tops of these trees. Little is known about the gardens that Philip laid out at the north-east of his palace, the King’s Garden, the Queen’s Garden, and the Garden of the Prioress. All perished, whatever gardens there were, in the great fire of 1747, and for long decades everything lay waste. At the north side there must have been a space large enough for an amphitheatre where bull-fights could take place.

There is more information about one favourite spot that the king made. On the south side, near the Torre d’Oro and only approachable from that direction, he made a little garden for statues. There was a terrace with fountains laid out as a parterre, and all round Philip set up half-length figures of Roman emperors, which had been sent to him as a present in 1561 from Cardinal Ricci da Montepulciano, who had then begun to build Villa Medici in its later form. These and a copy of the Boy with the Thorn were brought from the cardinal by the artists themselves, who may also have helped the king to set them up. Philip’s wish was to make this garden of statues an imitation of Italian ones, but he found he had none too many pieces even when the whole series of emperors arrived from the Pope, and put them all up in the same garden. Later on a bronze bust of himself was added, also one of his stepbrother, Don Juan of Austria. In the garden-rooms which looked out on the terrace of statues the king hung his favourite pictures, which Titian painted for him.

In this quiet remote corner of the great sombre palace he spent hours of untroubled peace and enjoyment. For this gloomy ascetic, whose stern figure has appeared in the world’s history painted in the darkest colours, had a tender human side. This part of his character is not only shown in the quiet, humble joys of life : in his children, in nature, in his garden, or towards his faithful servants. It comes out very clearly in some letters that have lately been discovered, written by him during the occupation of Portugal in the years 1581 to 1583, to his two daughters, girls of fourteen and fifteen. Nothing could be more surprising, because so unexpected, than the tenderness and fatherliness which we find here ; there is almost a mother’s insight into the nature and needs of his young daughters. With affectionate words that are most unusual in the sixteenth century he writes to them of his delight in nature and his longing for his home and his children.

It is indeed a different picture that appears in these letters from the one we know of a tyrant despising mankind, for here he is seen longing to hear the nightingales in the gardens at home, and reminding his daughters of the evenings when they sat chatting together on a garden seat in the moonlight. He had taken with him his own servants and an old woman who was his cook, and he enjoys their gossip, and has a bunch of flowers brought in every day by his gardener. He greatly admires the gardens at Lisbon, and has plans drawn of them. The first sweet orange, presented to him in Portugal, he sends to the girls and is eager to hear what they think of its taste. In these letters a great part is played by his gardens at home and the care to be taken of them.