Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 2004
Jonathan Brown and John Elliott, eds. The Sale of the Century: Artistic Relations between Spain and Great Britain, 1604–1655 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 320 pp.; 120 color ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300097611)
Jonathan Brown and John H. Elliott A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 316 pp.; 75 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300101856)
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It takes only a few minutes of reading to discover that A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV is a most unusual book. First, it is the product of close collaboration between a historian and an art historian. In this case “close” is not a cliché. John Elliott is a historian with an extraordinarily deep knowledge of and appreciation for art. Jonathan Brown is known for an approach to art history that eschews the abstractions of theory for exhaustive archival research aimed at contextualizing from cradle to grave—that is, from the networks of patronage and commissioning that joined with individual stylistic temperament to bring works into existence, to the persistent labors of connoisseurship and assemblage that helped to establish the huge royal and aristocratic collections that eventually formed the nucleus of the great national museums of the present, among them the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. The result is a remarkably seamless text that shows the hand of both authors throughout its pages. Moreover, A Palace for a King is a history of a building that ventures far beyond the usual confines of the genre. It offers instead a “total history” that subsumes architecture, construction, use, decoration, furnishing, and content—in the latter case, the extraordinary collection of art that it housed. In addition, the book has an ambitious notion of setting that ranges from its physical site to the high (and low) politics that literally surrounded the palace’s existence. Finally, it tackles the especially difficult task of reconstructing the past of a building that no longer exists. To be more precise, the Buen Retiro survives in the skeletal form of two rooms now lodged in two separate museums, as well as in the toponymy and historical memory of Madrid, whose most prominent open space is the park that now occupies the palace’s former grounds.

Although the Buen Retiro was built for a king—Philip IV, who ruled from 1621 to 1665—it was nevertheless the brainchild of a very different person. The Count-Duke of Olivares—the royal valido or favorite from Philip’s accession to the throne until Olivares’s disgrace and dismissal in 1643—was a man whose talents and vision allowed him to rise well above the prevailing mediocrity of the Spanish nobles (and kings) of his time. He brought to the design and building of the Retiro the same ambition and energy with which he pursued his central goal: that of assuring the Spanish monarchy its position of supremacy among European nations, which was under threat. That this goal was increasingly unrealistic in a period of economic decline for the heartland of Castile—a downturn much aggravated by imperial overreach abroad—renders the decision in 1632 to embark on the construction of a new royal residence all the more puzzling. This ends up as the central question of the book: why a statesman noted for his hard political savvy devoted so much effort and so many resources to building a vast pleasure palace at a time of fiscal crisis and ruinous military and diplomatic commitments.

Brown and Elliott unfold a carefully nuanced explanation for this risky but not unintelligible plan. Olivares had always been acutely sensitive about the “reputation” of the Spanish monarchy. Indeed, some of his most disastrous decisions had their origins in what he saw as the unavoidable need to display strength—and lavish spending—on all fronts, despite the staggering costs involved. From the perspective of international rivalries, one could hardly doubt that the greatest power in Europe deserved a more up-to-date showcase than Madrid’s Alcázar, a refurbished but cramped medieval castle with relatively few amenities. Yet more personal issues also came into play, most of them centered around Olivares’s relations with the king. The Count-Duke’s status as royal favorite depended on his unrivalled access to the monarch, and the unusual degree of influence he had managed to wield over such an ill-prepared and indecisive ruler. Building the Retiro would help consolidate his ascendancy over Philip, not only by keeping him in reach, but most important by providing him with a setting in which the king could do what he liked best: to act as a patron and collector of art, and to enjoy the amenities of theatre and festive life. In the dramatic world of the court, the king naturally took on the role of leading actor. Olivares was more than content to act as director, and for that he needed a stage that he could control without rivals or opposition. When asked to justify the much-criticized expenditure on the Buen Retiro, Olivares trotted out a long list of reasons for its construction. These ranged from employing the poor through public works to endowing Madrid with a palace and above all gardens that—unlike Philip II’s Escorial—could be visited by a broader range of inhabitants. This populist dimension of the Retiro—which even included opening court fêtes and plays to the public for an admission fee—is one of the many intriguing asides of this story. But the crucial reason behind Olivares’s decision—apart from his desire to leave for posterity a tangible marker of his march through history—should in the end be sought in his complex relations with a monarch, whom he needed constantly to please as well as to advise and instruct.

The tale of the rise and fall of the Retiro is told here in considerable detail. This is no small feat considering the source problems involved. Foremost among these is the relative lack of contemporary commentary. One would think that the construction of a new palace for display in the capital of the largest monarchy in the world would have left in its wake copious paperwork and numerous descriptions. It did not. This is in part a question of documentary survival. While Louis XIV burned the accounts of Versailles, the mice got to those of the Retiro. The haphazard preservation of papers from the Royal Works Committee and other sectors of the bureaucracy involved in its construction means that a history along the lines of, say, George Kubler’s painstaking reconstruction of the building of the Escorial, is simply out of the question. Somewhat more surprising is the lack of contemporary descriptions. Apart from a handful of travellers’ accounts—subjected to particularly close scrutiny in this study—few of the many persons who got close to or inside the palace bothered to leave any record of what they saw. Perhaps the greatest frustration, though, is the absence of visual material. There are surprisingly few renditions of the Retiro in any medium. If one adds to this the near-total lack of architectural drawings and building plans, one’s respect for what Brown and Elliott have managed to reconstruct increases immeasurably.

Many of these limitations stem less from the lack of industry of early modern Spaniards and those who visited them than from the simple fact that the building itself was not much to look at. Olivares’s partisans—and there were some—joined his critics in admitting as much. This was partly the result of the speed and improvisation with which the palace was built. But it also reflected the Count-Duke’s deliberate decision to limit the Retiro’s grandeur to its interior. Indeed, the paintings and works of art with which it was furnished make a far more interesting story. Olivares personally never showed a strong interest in collecting art—his passion was for books—but many of the members of his kin and patronage networks were avid connoisseurs. They were pressed into service to purchase and commission works for the Retiro, especially in Italy and Flanders, as well as to donate paintings from their own collections. The centerpiece of this massive scramble was the famed Hall of Realms, a rich and coherent scheme for the decoration of a formal throne room. Its holdings by contemporary masters not only exalted Philip and other members of the royal family, but the works also highlighted the importance of the favorite responsible for the creation of such a splendid scenario for the display of princely—and arguably “national”—virtues. These ranged from martial prowess (hence the many battle scenes, the best known of which was Diego Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda) to the varied exploits depicted in Francisco de Zurbarán’s cycle of ten paintings celebrating Hercules, a central figure in Habsburg dynastic iconography.

Originally published in 1980, A Palace for a King is well known to students of early modern art and architecture. This revised and expanded edition offers several advantages over the original, notably a larger format and illustrations of much higher quality. Among these are eight computer-generated simulations of the Retiro’s facades and interiors, produced in 2001 by the architectural historian Carmen Blasco. Also of considerable interest—not least thanks to their being the only available visual documentation—are the six plans and drawings of buildings and sculptures within the gardens executed by the Earl of Sandwich during a visit in the mid-1660s. What has not changed since the first edition is its remarkable felicity—and economy—of style. The result is a book endowed with an uncommon ability to interest general readers while informing specialists about a building that symbolized the values of a ruling elite. That elite, while failing in its self-appointed task of regenerating an empire that had aspired to rule both the Old World and the New, nevertheless could seek consolation in the burst of artistic and literary creativity that accompanied the final decades of the Siglo de Oro.

The second book under review, The Sale of the Century: Artistic Relations between Spain and Great Britain, 1604–1655, takes its title from a crucial moment in what might be called the post-Retiro phase of Philip IV’s reign. The sale in question was the so-called Commonwealth auction that began in 1649, by means of which Oliver Cromwell’s England divested itself of the collection of paintings put together by the recently executed Charles I. The book itself is the catalogue of an exhibition of the same name held at the Prado from March 15 to June 2, 2002. Its detailed register of entries is preceded by five essays that explore the broader context of the political, cultural, and, above all, artistic relations between Spain and England during the first half of the seventeenth century. John Elliott’s opening essay provides a succinct survey of the ups and downs in the often-tense but generally pacific ties between the two countries following the signing of the treaty of 1604 (Juan Pantoja de la Cruz’s group portrait of the negotiators graces the book’s cover). Jonathan Brown then follows with an equally incisive overview of the steeply asymmetric artistic side of this relationship: an impressive number of Englishmen travelled to Spain to shop for art, but not vice versa, until the unexpected entry of Charles I’s collection into the international art market suddenly changed things. The Spanish court was fortunately able to count on the services of its ambassador in London, Alonso de Cárdenas. His skillful manoeuvring to acquire many of the best pieces formerly belonging to Charles can be closely followed, thanks to his correspondence with the king’s new favorite Don Luis de Haro, a nephew of Olivares who had managed to grab the reins of power following his uncle’s disgrace. Haro, whose broader habits as an art patron and collector are studied in a separate essay by Marcus Burke, took care to forward the pick of the lot—a dozen from among the 125 paintings he bought—to Philip. (Many of the paintings that remained with Haro eventually found their way into the Escorial, where Velázquez’s organization of their display—the subject of another introductory essay, by the Spanish art historian Bonaventura Bassegoda—was one of the more important tasks he undertook as aposentador, or court chamberlain.) That the art world of Madrid benefited so directly from the misfortune of the ruling house of England was not utterly without precedent. Charles I himself had launched his career as a major collector with his purchase of the Duke of Mantua’s holdings in 1627, while Christina of Sweden cheerfully carted off the (previously looted) art treasures of Prague following her siege of the city in 1648. What was more unusual about the Commonwealth sale was Philip IV’s involvement—as discreet and indirect as possible, to be sure, but unmistakable all the same. It seems clear that his love of fine painting was stronger than his scruples against dealing with regicide republicans.

The holdings of Charles I were not the only ones being sold off at bargain prices in the troubled years of the mid-seventeenth century. Other major collections also went up for grabs. Among them were those of the Earl of Pembroke, the Duke of Hamilton, and the Duke of Buckingham. (The latter inherited the title of the former favorite to James I, who in 1623 had accompanied his son Charles on the comic-opera journey to Madrid to try to seal the ill-fated “Spanish Match.”) The great catch, however, was the vast trove of paintings, sculpture, inscriptions, drawings, books, and artifacts belonging to Thomas Howard, Second Earl of Arundel. This assemblage, housed in a garden and cabinet specially designed by Inigo Jones for his London residence—the famous Arundel House off the Strand—is studied in detail in an essay by David Howarth, who has published elsewhere about the circle of artists, antiquarians, and scholarly dilettanti who gathered around this somewhat eccentric aristocrat. Part of his collection—some twenty-six paintings—wound up in Haro’s hands, once again thanks to Cárdenas’s diligence and hard bargaining. Most of these paintings, like those belonging to Charles I, eventually found a home in the Prado. Foremost in the collection were works by Paolo Veronese, an appropriate symbol of the overlap in taste between Arundel’s enthusiasm for Italy and the Spanish court’s historical predilection for (and patronage of) a wide range of Italian artists from both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Some twenty-five years have passed since Brown and Elliott began working together to bring the general and artistic histories of the early modern Iberian world into closer contact. These two books are the main fruits of a collaboration that has led to a profound reassessment of the place of Spain, and of its rulers in particular, in the cultural life of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Once written off as an isolated and relatively uninfluential inhabitant of the periphery of early modern culture, Spain is now seen—thanks in large measure to its monarchs’ strenuous efforts at patronage and collection —as occupying a central role in the artistic world of the century that stretched from Philip II’s accession to the throne in 1556 to the death of his grandson Philip IV in 1665. If the present expansion of the Prado—a project involving the renowned architect Rafael Moneo, among others—winds up reconstructing the Hall of Realms of the original Buen Retiro Palace as planned, it will be thanks to Brown and Elliott’s tireless efforts to call attention to the strengths and weaknesses of a polity and culture that for a brief period of time witnessed a “remarkable upsurge of creative vitality in an age of economic decline” (ix).

James S. Amelang
Departamento de Historia Moderna, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.