The Landscape Guide

Madrid gardens

In the year 1558 the King Philip of Spain had bought a great tract of woodland on the other side of the Manzanares, opposite his residence, and had it made into a park with fish-ponds, pheasantries, aviaries, and cages for wild animals ; he also had a hunting-box made, called Casa del Campo (Fig. 291), with a flower-garden.
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But in 1582 Philip found this garden had been much neglected. He writes to tell his children how sorry he is about it, but says he will take care to get a new gardener who will restore it to its former beauty. Here also Philip put statues in the four corners of the parterre, marking the centre with a very fine shell-fountain and many sculptures. Later on the standing figure of his son Philip was erected there. The unusually large shady trees, admired in the seventeenth century, were also planted by him.

At the east of Madrid the king made another garden, where on a hill stood the royal retreat already mentioned at the monastery of San Jeronimo. Philip had it enlarged by his architect Juan Bautista de Toledo, and the king and queen had thirty rooms each on the east of the choir of the Gothic church of the old cloister. One report says that Philip gave orders to the architect to build the whole place with galleries, towers, moats, and flower-gardens, after the pattern of the country house in England where he had lived with Queen Mary; and we think of Winchester, Hampton Court and Richmond. But unfortunately these gardens at the monastery have disappeared, leaving no trace, and there is no drawing to confirm the report which is so interesting, giving as it does a slight touch of piety and human feeling to the relationship of Philip with England’s “bloody Mary.”

The ancient retreat of San Jeronimo looks down on the prado, formerly a field-property belonging to the cloister. It had long ago been turned into a public walk, very likely a garden for the people, or a promenade for the townsmen, like those we found in Paris, Florence, and other towns. In Philip’s time it was a rendezvous for the fashionable world, especially when in Lent or at any time of mourning the court was living at San Jeronimo, and also when on coronation occasions kings made their entrance into the town. The threefold avenue—now the Salon del Prado—was already in existence, and in Philip’s time there were fountains in it. The place then had a world-wide reputation, and in the words of an old chronicler, Veneri sacer est et amoribus aptus.

Philip clung to Aranjuez with a peculiar affection, and made it the real summer residence of Spanish royalties. The Order of Santiago had formerly owned at this place a four-square castle that could only be approached by two wooden drawbridges. The kings of Spain had long ago annexed it, attracted partly by the abundance of water, and partly by the tall vegetation, hitherto unknown in Castile, and Isabella had been fond of staying there. At that time the place was known as Isla (island), for it stands on an island made by the Tagus and the Jarama. Charles V. was often here, and by one account it was he who made the gardens. Saint-Simon says he had them laid out according to the old Flemish taste, and commanded that they should always be kept up by Flemish gardeners, adding that his orders were faithfully carried out. The revered tradition of the emperor held sway till his race came to an end; but as a fact these gardens, when Saint-Simon saw them in the beginning of the eighteenth century, had suffered so many alterations that it is extremely difficult to recover the original form. These alterations were made by Philip II., who converted the little shooting-box into a permanent summer residence, and greatly enlarged it. And the gardens round the castle may have been quite small still (Fig. 292).

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It was very late before the king thought of joining on the Tagus Island, now the Jardin de la Isla, to his gardens. It was only in the eighties that Juan de Herrera built the bridge over the Tagus, and it was then that the garden was laid out. When Philip’s daughters send word to him in Portugal, how pretty the garden is now, he cannot remember just at first which island they mean, but it then occurs to him that the new bridge has just been built across the Tagus. All these gardens were drastically treated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and especially is the hand of Philip shown in the south parterre, the Jardin de las Estatuas, which he decked with statues, in the same way as in Madrid, and with the busts of the emperors; Philip IV. added the whole-length standing figure of his father. Philip II., as we said before, introduced the elm into Spain, and this tree, which stands in many rows of avenues, more often than not, was a great success. Apparently little canals were cut at this time alongside the trees, and the water they supplied has been rightly held to account for their enormous height. In the island garden one of the avenues was composed of plane-trees, and it bore the name of Salon de los Reyes Católicos (Fig. 293), and might perhaps hark back to an older time.
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The best specimen avenue, known as Calle de la Reina, was certainly planted by Philip: it is so long that standing in the middle one cannot see either end of it. This avenue had reached a considerable height when Velasquez painted it.

The interest taken by the king in building and in art awoke in the grandees at court and in the country a desire to collect. They quickly learned from Italy that houses and gardens owed their chief glory to antique or modern statuary, and Italy must have given up many of her treasures to Spanish art-lovers and patrons. The first Duke of Alcalá gained a name of importance among them ; when he was viceroy at Naples he had a fine opportunity of getting antiquities, for which there was not the same enthusiasm in Italy (especially in the days of Pius V.) as in the period of the Early Renaissance.

The Riberas, dependants of the duke, owned a house which a generation before had been built quite in the old Mudejar style, and is now called the Pilatus house. Four mighty antique goddesses are in the double-pillared court, put there by Jusepe Ribera, the Spanish Moecenas of the seventeenth century. Above there are twenty-four busts of emperors, and in the middle of the pavement, adorned with pots of every kind, there is the Janus fountain.

Behind on one side of the house was the garden, on two of its sides closed in by buildings, on the other two by high walls covered with tablets, inscriptions and old carvings. The bordered beds were adorned with baths, fountains, a grotto of Susannah—all reminding us of the taste of the Renaissance.

In rivalry with the Medici the duke instituted a sort of academy at his house, where artists and learned men were always welcome. But the dukes of Alcalá were not the only persons who made their houses a centre for art ; the Duke of Alva also had his antiques that came from Italy to make beautiful his house and garden at Alva de Tormes. In another place of his, called Lagunilla, not far from Plasencia, much of the garden has been preserved. The castle is in a charming situation on the slope of the Sierra de Bajar, with a flower- garden and two terraces in front, niches in the dividing walls, and steps at the side leading down from the balustraded upper terrace. The park, densely planted with trees, is encircled by the little stream of the Ambro. In the middle is an octagonal summer- house, once lined with mirrors, with a fountain on each of its eight sides. In the year 1555 the Duke of Alva engaged a sculptor, Francesco Camilani, to fill his garden and park with statues.

Another castle of Alva’s has been immortaiised in the verse of Lope de Vega. The castle and garden of Abadia on the borders of Estremadura were likewise encircled by a little mountain stream, the Serracinos : on one side the castle was mirrored in the water. The garden is not large, but to the poet’s thinking is a paradise. It is in squares, and planted with oranges, which cannot tolerate the severe winters of Castile, but were brought to Spain about this time. First of all the poet speaks of a parterre planted with myrtles round it and flowers between : it is chiefly the fountains that he admires among the trees. In one of the squares Alva has a Parnassus, on which animals are seen climbing up to the top, where there is a Pegasus, put up as a memorial to Garcilaso de la Vega, a poet and hero who died early and had been a friend of Alva’s youth. Opposite to this, in a cleverly arranged circle of myrtles, antique marble busts stand ; this was once a very favourite garden scheme. In the centre of a basin Lope sees a ship borne by sea deities, and guided by Neptune ; on the deck stands a Venus upon a rock supported by four sea gods. In the middle of the garden between the bushes is the chief fountain which Alva had made as a memorial to himself, ornamented with many statues and carvings, partly depicting the deeds of Alva, and partly allegorical. The river cuts through the garden; on the other side four gates enclose it, also adorned with fountains, statues and little summer-houses, some of these grotesque ; in the walls there are carvings and inscriptions,. and there are also covered avenues and shrubberies with clipped figures.

This description of a garden is the most complete one we have of that time, and it fits well with the many scattered bits of information about other gardens, though it may be a little poetical. But in spite of this, it is hard for us to get any living picture of a Spanish garden. And this is not only because (out of what really did exist in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) far too much has changed or been quite destroyed by fire or earthquake or else through neglect—for indeed this is true and lamentable in our unstable art, whatever the country may be—but in Spain there is another reason, which we can find by looking into the history of her development. There are indeed many beautiful and interesting gardens in Spain, but there is no garden style that can be called Spanish. Spaniards never learned from Italy, as we shall see that the French did, to adopt a new scheme of their own as a complete, consistent whole, nor did they allow the influence from abroad to work uncontrolled upon what they had at home, as did many Northern lands. But, since the great merits of their Moorish gardens made an early Renaissance unnecessary, they allowed their gardens to be laid out by Italian artists ; or at any rate they made them themselves so entirely in accord with foreign tradition that they could not be distinguished separately.

And so it came about that the seventeenth century brought no change, though in painting there was such . an immense upward soaring. And when the court and the whole country awoke from that sleep of the spirit in which it was plunged during the dark reign of Philip III., and the young Philip IV., who was chivalrous and loved beauty and art, came to the throne, it was clear that Spain ought to play an important part in this century of great rejoicings. But for this she needed mighty castles and great gardens, and at home there were no architects who had the experience or originality to satisfy the crying need quickly enough. But from Italy ready help was forthcoming to cement the friendship with the Spanish court. The Medici more than any others sent the king architects, engineers, and gardeners.

The artist to whom the flowering of this art in Spain is above all others due is the Florentine Cosimo Lotti. He was a pupil of Barlotti, and a companion of Buontalenti, but younger. All these artists were employed together at Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, where about 1520 a new style of architecture arose, Cosimo Lotti had distinguished himself especially as architect for theatres, decorator for festivals, and architect for gardens; so he was just the man who was needed in Madrid when he appeared there in 1628 with two gardeners from the Boboli Garden. The first thing given him to do by Philip and his powerful minister Olivarez was the reconstruction of the gardens of Aranjuez. To the island garden he gave the character of a grove richly supplied with fountain and ornament. At the entrance we are met with certain signs of the influence of the

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Boboli Garden. lhe Hercules Fountain (Fig. 294) rises from a huge basin, in the middle of which there is an island with a fountain shell, and above it a Hercules swinging his club : from this centre piece there are two bridges leading across the lake. The whole is a simplified version of the Isolotto in the Boboli Garden.

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There are fountains everywhere at the crossways of the avenues, standing on round or octagonal spaces ; the Triton Fountain (Fig. 295) was painted by Velasquez, but this one has been transferred to the palace garden at Madrid. All visitors in the seventeenth century agree that the chief charm of these gardens lies in the number of fountains, to which new ones have constantly been added (Fig. 296). 

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The Countess d’Aulnoy, who saw the place in 1679, found so many that it was impossible to cross an avenue, to step into a hut, to walk on a lawn or terrace, without passing five or six basins with statues. She describes several of them, all tossing the Tagus water on high by some mechanical means. One of them is placed on an artificial mound on a lawn otherwise level; at another the goddess Diana stands with dogs climbing about her, while concealed love-gods squirt water over the animals from the clipped myrtle bushes. Also there is another Parnassus here with a waterfall known as Helicon. Another fountain with streams rushing violently down from three great trees is reminiscent of Arabian water-tricks, and may very likely have come directly from the Moors to Aranjuez.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


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An engraving by Meunier gives a charming group of trees, with a fountain and many figures in the centre of a circular space, from which radiate four pairs of avenues held together by lattice-work (Fig. 296a). The grouping of the trees seemed to the lady’s French eyes, already somewhat pampered, to be narrow, but at least there was an abundance of water. At the beginning of the eighteenth century it was said : “ It appears under the feet of inquiring visitors, it falls from artificial birds, that are seated in the trees, in a heavy rain which wets you through ; and other streams jump out of the mouths of animals and statues and wet you to the skin in a moment, so that you can find no way of escape.” Even now, as one walks along the palace front at the side of the Tagus by the path called Los Burladores (the jokers), one can see some of these water-tricks. This garden was enclosed by the broad ribbon of the Tagus (Fig. 298), which ran all round it. 

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It was not made on any particular design of its own. The river gets a very bright effect from a natural weir which rushes down like a cascade to the chief parterre on the east of the house. This bit belongs in its present arrangement to the eighteenth century, and the great Hercules fountain at the end of the lawn was only put there in 1827. The Jardin del Principe and the pleasant garden of the Casa del Labrador belong to a still later date.

After Madrid had actually been declared the capital, a new importance was given to a set of shooting-boxes that stood round this summer residence. The princes of the House of Hapsburg were always great huntsmen, and the chase was famous at ‘Madrid, especially at the extensive landed properties on the north and west. Charles V. rebuilt an old shooting-box on the Manzanares, called El Pardo, with a central block that had turrets at the corners—a favourite idea with huntsmen. Philip II. also was very fond of the place, filled it with pictures, and had transferred there his famous portrait gallery of contemporaries painted by Antonio Moro, There does not appear to have been a garden of any importance at that time, When his daughters described a walk which they took to the place, he wrote that it was perhaps better in winter than in summer, for to him it seemed to be wanting in the greenery of the other castles. It was Philip IV. who first let Cosimo Lotti try what he could do there, and the artist did not take the Florentine garden as a model, for just at the time when he went to Spain the fame of Roman gardens, especially of the villas at Frascati, exceeded that of every other. The theatre wall (Fig. 299), which he put up for the terrace wall of the Pardo garden, with niches, and water playing in them; the water stairway, which cut through to the middle of the castle opposite the wall; the triumphal arch at the end of the upper terrace; the way he embedded the whole ascending structure in the woodland of the park—all these ideas were to be found deeply rooted in Roman gardens, and especially at Frascati.

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From El Pardo one could go out into an immense wild park. Half a mile away Philip IV. had an old halting station, Torre de la Parada, made into a little place to put up at, and fitted inside with valuable pictures; a little farther off was the hunting-box of the king’s brother, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, a place called Zarzuela. Here too there was a terrace-garden in front of the house, and one of the terraces was supported on a great number "which seen from afar, gave a very strange effect.” From the upper terrace you descended by flights of steps with pierced balustrades. Fountains and streams watered this garden, which most likely belonged to the same age and was made by the same architect as El Pardo.

Madrid itself was quite neglected during the dull reign of Philip III. He did not like the town, and had tried to pass it over and make the Residence at Valladolid. But Philip IV. spent nearly the whole of his forty years’ reign at Madrid. For internal decoration of the rooms in the castle he did everything he could, but we hear little of the enlargement or embellishment of the garden. His interest and attention were soon entirely absorbed in another place, Buen Retiro. he also, like his grandfather, frequented with pleasure the summer-house at San Jeronimo. At the beginning of his reign he had been present at a curious incident. In the year 1624 Charles Stuart had come there on his adventurous honeymoon. The two princes first met in the garden, intending to maintain an incognito until the next morning, when the Prince of Wales was to be received into the town with royal pomp.

Quite near by, the king’s powerful favourite, Olivarez, had a little park called Galineria where he bred peculiar kinds of fowl. This minister guided the machine of state with a free hand very much to the detriment of the nation, and insisted on leading the king (who was restless and always in need of distractions) into ever fresh festivities and novel proceedings, to keep his attention from the deplorable foreign policy of his country. In the gloomy Alcazar at Madrid there was not enough room for a holiday crowd, and the love of festivals was taking possession of  European courts, one after another, in the sixteenth century. Alcazar could not make a satisfactory background, therefore Olivarez determined to build, in a place that the king liked, a royal house which should be superior to those villas that Roman nobles had lately set up on the borders of their own city.