Philip IV of Spain was born in 1605 and died in 1665, after an eventful and troubled reign of forty-four years. The number four featured heavily in the iconography created for him by the eloquent and ingenious panegyrists of his court. Described variously by his flatterers as “the Jupiter of Spain”, “the Christian Jupiter” and “the Catholic Caesar”, he was known above all as “the Planet King” – an appellation inspired by the notion that, just as Philip was the fourth monarch of that name, so he deserved comparison with the sun, fourth planet in the then traditional hierarchy of the stars. Like the sun, the rays of his enlightened rule touched every corner of the known world. That, at least, was the theory. In practice, his life turned out to be a long, hard lesson in the gulf that separates myth from reality.
This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of Philip IV’s birth. Proving, perhaps, that ancient numerological superstitions still distantly haunt the city that he once ruled, the Prado Museum in Madrid has chosen to celebrate his quatercentenary in ambitious style. “Paintings for the Planet King” is a fascinating albeit somewhat flawed attempt to commemorate, and partially recreate, one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of Western European taste. Its subject is the uniquely extravagant decoration of a vast and long-since vanished complex on the outskirts of the old city of Madrid – a place designed to serve, simultaneously, as occasional royal retreat, as home to one of the largest art collections ever assembled and, perhaps above all, as a palace of propaganda. It was known as the “Buen Retiro”, or pleasant retreat. Built with astonishing speed, given its scale, this sprawling array of red-brick buildings was the brainchild of Philip IV and his principal adviser, the hyperactive and megalomaniacally ambitious Count-Duke Olivares – a redoubtable individual whose haughty, seemingly infinite sense of his own power and significance was immortalised in the numerous portraits painted of him by the greatest Spanish painter of the age, Diego Velazquez.
Olivares, who was a generation older than Philip IV, had a messianic sense of his royal master’s destiny. The King of Spain, in his view, was not only the greatest monarch in the known world, but the rightful inheritor of the ancient Romans’ imperial mantle. Philip IV, only sixteen when he came to the throne, was a thoughtful and intellectually curious young man, who struggled to find a sense of direction during the early years of his reign. He would later write, in the introduction to his erudite translation of the Florentine Renaissance author Guicciardini’s History of Italy, that “I found that I did not know what I should apply myself to, adrift in this sea of confusions and ocean of difficulties.” Olivares it was who set the ship of state on its course.
Determined to maintain control of a hopelessly over-extended empire, with limited resources of cash and troops at his disposal, he persuaded his king to campaign simultaneously on numerous different fronts. The United States of Holland, rebelling against Spanish rule and eventually winning their independence, were a constant thorn in Olivares’ side. Attempts were made to bolster Portugal’s allegiance to Spain, but that allegiance was eventually lost. Meanwhile, Spain’s position of influence in the New World came under increasing challenge from the other principal European powers, as, closer to home, Catalonia showed increasing signs of fractiousness, eventually rising in revolt against the crown in 1640. Olivares would eventually be dismissed from his post by Philip IV, but nothing could stop the seemingly inexorable decline and fragmentation of his empire.
That decline is the historical background to the construction of the Buen Retiro Palace. The building was conceived and erected in the early 1630s, before the succession of military reverses that was to cripple Spain had struck home – but at a time, never the less, when the writing was already on the wall for Olivares and his gung-ho policies. This may help to explain the amazing energy that the Count-Duke and his king brought to the project. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Buen Retiro presented an image of Spanish majesty, enlightened rule and patronage, designed to camouflage the less palatable political reality of the situation. The building cost more than three million ducats to construct, making it the Millennium Dome of its time. Its parks and gardens, which included the world’s largest aviary – testament to Olivares’ ornithological interests – were as large as the entire existing city of Madrid. The entertainments of the court included bullfights, jousting with canas, or reed spears, tilting at the quintain, plays, concerts, mock-naval battles, poetry contests, masquerades, boating in gondolas. One of the favourite diversions of the noble ladies of Madrid is said to have been fighting with perfumed eggs. The ordinary people of the city were forced, by a series of extraordinary fiscal measures, to foot the bill for the palace and its landscaped grounds, the treasury having been exhausted by the expenses of war. According to a bitter popular joke of the time, the king was in retiro when he should been on campaign. Meanwhile, Olivares’ aviary was caustically satirised as the “Gallinero” – the chicken coop.
Unlike the Millennium Dome, the Buen Retiro had large amounts of meaningful content. Almost all of this came in the form of painting, which Philip IV arguably took more seriously, as a medium of beauty, power and significance, than any European monarch before his time. His tastes had been shaped by two decisive encounters. The first was with the youthful Charles I, who came to Spain seeking the hand of the Infanta Maria early in Philip IV’s reign, and whose passion for art made a lasting impression on the Spanish king. The second was with Peter Paul Rubens, in whose studio Philip spent many hours, by his own choice, acquiring a lifelong taste for the colouristic traditions of “painterly” painting which Rubens himself held up as the standard of excellence. This meant, in essence, the tradition associated with Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and Venice – albeit with more than a nod to the violent drama and chiaroscuro of Caravaggio – which helps to explain the distinctly italianate tendency of Philip IV’s taste. It is no coincidence that the most famous and brilliant painter of his court, Velazquez, should have painted like a Venetian transplanted to Madrid.
Philip IV’s vast enthusiasm for painting explains the great singularity of the Buen Retiro, which was not so much a palace in which to live – its living quarters were stark compared to those of the later but equally spectacular palace of Versailles, which was certainly inspired by it – as an enormous shell for the display of art. Between December 1633, when it was more or less complete, and 17 January 1643, the day on which Olivares was finally dismissed from his post as the king’s principal adviser, the Buen Retiro was enriched by no fewer than 800 paintings by the leading Spanish, Italian and French artists of the period. Many of those pictures were specially commissioned, although others were purchased, so to speak, off the peg. The effect stunned and bemused those privileged with a visit, to judge by the few surviving eyewitness accounts of it. The most suggestive description of it was written a Frenchman, Jean Muret, who saw it in high summer: “In the palace we were surprised by the quantity of pictures. I do not know how it is adorned in other seasons, but when we were there we saw more pictures than wall; the galleries and staircases were full of them, as were the bedrooms and salons, and I can assure you, sir, that there were more than in the whole city of Paris…”
The problem facing the organisers of the Prado exhibition is largely one of scale. Given that the palace of the Buen Retiro has disappeared, with the exception of the odd surviving wing, and given that only a relatively small number of the pictures commissioned for it can now be identified – almost all of which, at least, are conveniently held within the Prado’s own collection – it will never be possible to recreate its awe-inspiring splendour of effect. A valiant attempt has been made, however, to recreate the spirit of the place, by installing some 50 paintings – admittedly, only one-sixteenth of the number once in the Buen Retiro itself – within the three large galleries that form the spine of the Prado. The exhibition is organised along lines suggested by the tantalisingly incomplete account of Muret: “In one place we saw the modern battles that have taken place, in another the most curious classical subjects, here various histories, both sacred and profane, there a wealth of capricci, in other places the most lascivious nudes, and everywhere a unique selection of the taste and genius of each painter.”
Despite the difficulties of the challenge they have set themselves, the organisers do have the advantage of being able to recreate more or less fully the ensemble of paintings – those of “modern battles” – that formed the propagandistic centrepiece of the entire palace. This was a group of fourteen monumental canvases, designed to fill the so-called Hall of Realms, on the theme of notable recent Spanish victories. Their titles suggest the somewhat heavy-handed jingoism that they were intended to serve: The Relief of Genoa; The Battle of Fleurus; The Surrender of Julich; The Recapture of San Juan de Puerto Rico, and so on. This group of works was plainly inspired by the monumental pictures of notable Florentine victories painted a century earlier for the Medici, in the Palazzo Vecchio, by Giorgio Vasari. It makes for a similarly depressing effect, of variations played on the theme of celebrating tyranny and empire.
The pictures for the Hall of Realms, the majority of which were commissioned from Spanish artists, were broadly speaking painted according to formula. Impassive eminent Spanish generals are shown lording it over their defeated enemies in the foreground, while behind them, in the distance, their troops complete largely bloodles victories and round up their prisoners. One or two of the more able artists successfully injected their own personalities into this pictorial stereotype. Francisco de Zurbaran, in particular, imparted a sinister solemnity to his portraits of the Spanish grandees shown overseeing The Defence of Cadiz. But only Velazquez managed to create a masterpiece from within the confines of this unpromising commission. His Surrender of Breda, popularly known as The Lances, vividly conveys the destructiveness of war in the smoky, ravaged landscape that extends behind the principal players, in his snapshot of an historical event. Even more original, however, is Velazquez’s treatment of the Spanish triumph, symbolised by the handing of the keys to the city of Breda by vanquished to victor. Both men at the centre of the painting are given equal dignity, the general accepting the keys seeming even to commiserate with his rival, as he puts a hand on his shoulder in a gesture of respect mingled with compassion. The retinues of each party look on, with expressions of appropriate solemnity. Velazquez’s painting, a beacon of humanity in the context, is the only work in the series to mitigate the horrors of war with the suggestion of an impending peace.
The paintings for the Hall of Realms are well known and documented, but the biggest revelation of the Prado’s exhibition is the gallery dedicated to pictures from the Buen Retiro on classical themes. These have never been gathered together before, and many have been restored especially for the occasion. It is not known precisely why they were commissioned, but it seems likely that as an ensemble they were intended, loosely, to suggest comparisons between Madrid under Philip IV and Rome under the Caesars. So quickly did they have to be commissioned and painted, it seems probable that no coherent iconographic scheme was ever devised for them, so they were always more of a miscellany than the pictures for the Hall of Realms – and all the more entertaining, and odd, for that. Commissioned from a wide variety of Italian and French artists, working principally in Rome and Naples, they amount to a wonderfully eccentric mixture of archaeological reconstruction and pure fantasy – ranging from Domenichino’s Funeral of a Roman Emperor, with its cast of thousands, to a series of prospects of the Colossoem, as it once might have been, by Domenico Gagiuli and Viviano Codazzi, to a series of frenzied and violent classical imaginings by the Baroque master Giovanni Lanfranco, who painted acres of canvas for Philip IV on themes such as gladiators fighting or Roman generals addressing their soldiers. The artists involved seem to have competed with one another to explore more and more exotic or sexy aspects of Roman life. Aniello di Falcone contributed a depiction of splendidly caparisoned elephants riding into the circus, while their attendants dance and clash symbols, while Jusepe de Ribera gave his Spanish masters the frisson of Battling Women – a picture of female gladiators fighting to the death which not only takes the Renaissance preoccupation with reimagining the antique world to a new erotically charged extreme, but might also be said to prefigure the modern cult of female mudwrestling.
Sadly, the organisers have not been able to reconstruct the rooms filled with lascivious nudes mentioned by Jean Muret, so they have contented themselves by concluding this truncated reconstruction of Philip IV’s great white elephant of a palace with a stunning room of landscapes by Claude Lorraine and his followers. Despite its relatively small scale, this show does suggest some of the variety of Philip IV’s extraordinary collection, as well as evoking the mania for collecting that animated the entire enterprise. Quite simply, there had been nothing like the Buen Retiro. It was not only the first truly enormous display of individual, portable works of modern painting ever seen – it was, in effect, the first large-scale installation of contemporary art.