Programmes for the royal hunting lodge
Source:the art newspaper Date: 2015-03-24 Size:
JONATHAN BROWN on A study of the paintings made for Philip IV’s Torre de la Parada

Casually hanging around: Diego Velázquez, The Court Jester Don Diego de Acedo, around 1645

You can’t tell this book by its cover. The subject is the creation of a royal hunting lodge known as the Torre de la Parada, situated in the mountains of El Pardo, a vast game reserve north of Madrid. The structure itself was small, consisting of nine rooms. Like almost all of the buildings commissioned by Philip IV (reigned 1621-65), the Torre has been destroyed. Were it not for the pictorial decoration, executed for the most part by Rubens and assistants with a small contribution by Velázquez, the Torre would have faded into oblivion. The title, Rubens, Velázquez and the King of Spain, indicates a basic problem—the king is unnamed and is relegated to last place. The authors are Rubenistes, not Filipinos.

The history of the construction is well documented to 1635-37. Meanwhile in Antwerp, Peter Paul Rubens and a coterie of assistants were churning out 63 episodes from The Metamorphoses of Ovid and a number of hunting scenes. The commission was under way in November 1636 and completed in March 1638. Most of the paintings are in the Prado; the modelli passed into private hands and are in various locations. The several paintings by Velázquez are a mixed bag—royal portraits, dwarfs and jesters, ancient philosophers.

While the documentation is informative on certain questions, there are several missing pieces. Perhaps the most important concern the putative programme. The authors assume that the entire decoration by Rubens and Velázquez was programmatic and dialectic, by which they mean that Velázquez’s works for the Torre can be understood as responses to some of the works by Rubens. In short, the authors try to impose unity on the heterogeneous. As they observe: “Despite the lack of a written programme, surviving works provide eloquent testimony of several themes that embody Neo-stoic ideals of self-restraint and prudent government.” No monarch was more in need of this advice than Philip IV, but why expend so much talent to imbue this remote, little-used hunting lodge with recondite significance?

The authors attempt to construct a missing programme. They divide the Ovidian subjects into thematic sections and write traditional iconographical studies of each painting. The research is a model of its type, learned and lucid. However, the notion that Spanish royal commissions were written in such detail is problematic. The authors interpret the cycle as if it were devised at an Italian court of the 16th-17th centuries, with scholars and artists close at hand. No such document for the Spanish Habsburg court is known to exist except for the reign of Philip II. However, if I were to search for a possible author, I would have looked for Francisco de Rioja, the royal librarian and a member of the inner circle of the Count-Duke of Olivares.

Another problem concerns the installation. Previous scholars (Svetlana Alpers and Matías Díaz Padrón) have noted that, based on the inventory of 1700, the paintings were not installed in any particular order; they were not even placed within the same room or sequence of rooms. This casual practice can be observed in the Alcazar inventories of 1636, 1666 and 1700; a few state galleries were decorated with a message in mind, particularly, between 1645-1660, when Philip and Velázquez re-installed part of the collection in the palace of Madrid. Otherwise, paintings were hung where they looked best or simply just to fit the available space.

To return to the question of the title, the authors have fashioned an encomium of Rubens’s intellect and imagination that will give students much to think about. But by shining the spotlight on Rubens, they consign the “Planet King” to darkness.

[Editor] 万兰