The Landscape Guide

Spanish Baroque Garden and Park Design

La Granja  

The Bourbon Charles III. did not take any Italian villa nor even Versailles as the immediate model for Caserta, but the garden where he had spent his time as a boy, La Granja at San Ildefonso, north-west of Madrid. We saw that Buen Retiro was the last great creation of the Renaissance in Spain. After Philip the Fourth’s death, the whole of Spain slumbered while his son, a weak, lazy man, ruled, and things got worse and worse. In 1665 Aranjuez was burnt to the ground, and the king allowed it to lie in ruins during the whole of his reign—one thing typical of many.

After the War of Succession was over, the influence of France was entirely victorious with the House of Bourbon, both in architecture and in gardening. It is significant that there was now no question about the park at San Ildefonso being laid out by French artists, Carlier and Boutelet, in spite of the fact that Philip V. was melancholy, quite unfit to rule, had no will of his own, and was completely governed by his Italian wife, Elizabeth, a princess of Parma, of the Farnese family. She would naturally have preferred Italians as advisers and if possible as artists. We learn, however, from the whole history of the summer residence how much this French grandson of Louis XIV., yielding and easily influenced as he was, succumbed to the peculiar spiritual atmosphere of Spain. 

After the end of the War of Succession the king lived in an old, beautifully situated castle that had belonged to the monarchs of Castile, on the western slope of the Sierra de Guadarama, and from here he used to visit the hermitage of San Ildefonso, which was higher up the mountain, Henry IV. had before this, in 1477, laid out a farm there; it was near the hermitage, and he had presented it to the monks of Porral as a summer retreat. King Philip was very melancholy, and was only affected in a serious way by the beauties of nature and by music; so he was greatly attracted towards this lovely spot, which stood at a height of 1191 metres, and was overhung by the powerful crest of the Pico de Pefialara, He at once determined to put up a shelter here that should be the kernel and centre of a mighty castle and important large gardens. This reminds us of the wish of Louis XIV., who also intended to make himself a hermitage at Trianon, and at Marly, both of them being turned into castles and parks. Here in Spain, however, his grandson was directed to other paths ; for added to his personal recollections of Versailles there was the thought of the Escorial, which was so sympathetic to his temperament; and the actual grouping of the castle buildings was very strongly influenced thereby.

It has rightly been conjectured that the kernel round which Louis XIV. framed his enormous place at Versailles was his own bed-chamber. At any rate, his private rooms were in the old castle of Louis XIII., and they were the actual centre for all later extensions. At San Ildefonso the centre was the old farm with its cloister court, the Patio de la Fuente, with the large collegiate church adjoining on the north-west, completely dominating the palace court. It was the first thing built and was consecrated as early as 1724. La Granja (the farm) was the name by which the whole royal estate was known. There can be no doubt at all that the park, which was the result of diligent anxious work during twenty years, really was meant to copy and rival world-famous Versailles. But in the struggle to overcome nature by art, La Granja is rather to be compared with Many. Monstrous subterranean works were needed, on quite another scale from those at Versailles, so as to get level terraces and plots for gardens in the steep mountain cleft, Of one thing, however, they had enough and to spare, and that was water; it was used so lavishly that we are full of admiration for the artist’s ideas. Some guardian angel seems to have protected this mountain-girt garden from such storms as worked destruction on the French castles, so that the greater part of it has been preserved in its original condition. Nature allowed herself to be mastered, and then added to art her beauties of marvellous plants, grand trees, and the giant frame of her everlasting hills; and this beauty Louis XIV., for all his powerful will, could never attain in the pleasant vale of Marly, to say nothing of the flat marshes round Versailles.

The artists at San Ildefonso never even remotely approached the noble schemes of Le Nôtre, and his masterly grasp of a whole.  To the south-east and south-west the garden rises steeply, so that the part on the north-east is considerably lower.

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 The chief parterre (Fig. 529) is treated in a comparatively simple way, and does not produce the same striking effect in relation to the waters as one gets in French places with the view from the middle windows of the castle. There is a semicircular basin, cutting off the two parterre beds, and a fountain of Amphitrite, at the foot of a marble cascade, which shows at the top a pretty two-shelled fountain of the Graces. The view at the back is cut off by a charming octagonal garden-house. The small garden here is quite independent and almost cut off from all the others, with statues at the side and hedges at the corners, and tall trees overhead which were once more closely cut back. The court of Philip V. had abandoned the idea of a show-garden, which as a middle axis should subordinate to itself every detail of the endless number of separate parts. The eighteenth century with its tendency to seclusion always growing stronger, shows feeling conspicuously here.

On the east of the palace, great steps lead to a parterre on a lower level, which is bounded by the canal on one side, and runs in the same direction as the chief parterre, ending in a far more splendid water arrangement. 

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


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


There is a basin approached by steps, with in front a Neptune fountain (Fig. 531), and behind it love-gods riding on sea-horses, called Carreras de Caballos (Fig. 530) ; this idea was developed by Charles in a far larger way later on at Caserta, and here the fountain formed the point de vue from the side windows of the castle, A further parterre, also in the same axial direction, is on the east, and ends in the Andromeda Fountain, a work of incredible boldness in the grouping of its figures, showing the utmost flexibility that statuary is capable of. A labyrinth of no great importance adds an attraction to the bosket on the east side,

All the western part of the park is absorbed in a region which has an importance of its own, in that it unites the tradition of Spain with a more unfettered French spirit. In the centre is a large octagonal place from which go out eight avenues, ocho calles. It is decorated with a single group, of Apollo and Pandora. The avenues are held together in pairs by a fountain with a large marble arch overhead. At the end, as the crowning point for these walks (arranged in two groups of four), there is set up another fountain of some importance, which independently acts as a central point for a round plot. The wide path which runs alongside the façade of the castle ends at the so-called Bath of Diana ( Fig. 532), which is a place of waters similar to the French water-buffet, over-ornamented with marble architecture and bronze statues. 

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From here the water descends in falls at the side, by fountains and in light cascades, into a large semicircular basin. The south-west façade forms the wall of the great court of honour, the Patio de la Herredura, which is joined by a parterre on the side (Fig. 533), which again ends in a colossal fountain-site, the Fuente de le Fama. 

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This is a rock with figures attached to it in the most unnatural positions, and is crowned by a statue of Fame on a winged horse. It is a Mount Parnassus, which no Spanish garden from the earliest Renaissance days cared to be without.

Quite on the top, apart from the castle, there is another great reservoir, called El Mar, which is not utilised for the general view of the garden, although it is in the main axis, and can be approached by park avenues, Standing alone in the solemn surroundings of the dark mountain forest, it makes a happy contrast with the cheerful exuberance of the garden. It is clear that the artists were at this point thinking of particular views, which in the tradition of the Spanish Renaissance are always desired for the surroundings of fountains (Fig. 534). 

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But they are without connection, and so lack the rhythmical feeling needed in the picture of the whole; and that last achievement of the French garden, the subordination of the parts to the whole, is absent here.

The real moving spirit and head of all was Elizabeth, the queen. When Philip abdicated in 1742, feeling himself absolutely unequal to the cares of state, he went back to La Granja, and reserved for its rebuilding an enormous sum which the exhausted country could barely supply. But after nine months the death of the king’s son caused the weary Philip to take the reins once more. The queen hoped to spur on her husband to take an interest in the work at the gardens of Granja by eagerly pressing them forward, and in the course of his long absence in 1727 a great deal was effected, among other things the Bath of Diana being completed. But the king could only give a weary smile, and, it is said, utter these words in front of the Diana: “ It has cost me three millions of money to get three minutes’ entertainment.”

At the same time Philip gave orders for Aranjuez to be rebuilt in the same style as far as possible, but larger. Towards the east the great parterre was added, with a double fountain in front of the new wing. A canal was made round the parterre and a second stone bridge to the Jardin de la Isla. Later the present Jardin del Principe beside the great walk, Calle de la Reina, was made, very like the island garden with a long series of fountains (Figs. 535 and 536).

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


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


The little summer-house at the end of the garden, the Casa del Labrador, conceals under a modest name a luxurious park house such as we have often met with in the North. About the middle of the century a very important change was taking place for the whole town attached to the court. A new plan of building was now to create a regularly-designed little town out of the small wretched village, whose hovels hitherto had leaned against the castle. This was so linked on to the east parterre that two of the star-ray avenues of the park were now extended to form streets in the town, and the third was the old Calle de la Reina; on the other side the walks approached till they were quite close to the castle. We have seen in the North this tendency of the period to build towns on rational principles, and orientated to the centre point of the residence, and it was from the North that this idea came into Spain. The actual originator was the Marquis Grimaldi. He had been ambassador at The Hague, and thus this last form of royal residence came from Holland.