El Casón del Buen Retiro

The vault of the former Hall of Ambassadors at the Buen Retiro Palace, constructed alongside the former Royal Quarters of San Jerónimo at the behest of the Count-Duke of Olivares as a royal residence for leisure and for the monarchs’ public and official receptions. In the eastern part of this complex, a small building was erected after the palace itself was completed (1632). It was designed by Alonso Carbonel but the works were completed in 1692. The only surviving remains are the Casón del Buen Retiro, which now houses the Museo Nacional del Prado’s library. Its structure has suffered successive alterations, and of the original building, only the ceiling painted by Luca Giordano remains, although it has been restored on various occasions and some of its parts have been transformed or lost. The decoration of the vault represents the apotheosis of the Spanish monarchy, for which Giordano developed a complex iconography replete with symbols, historical, mythological and allegorical figures related to the Spanish monarchy and intended to attest to its antiquity, military power and preeminence among European royal families. The eastern wall bears the best-known scene and lends its name to the overall work: Hercules’s delivery of the golden fleece to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. This situates the mythical origins of the Order of the Golden Fleece traditionally associated with the Spanish monarchs. Here, however, Giordano took the license of replacing Hercules with the adulterous Jason. And behind him, we can see the prow of the Argos, the ship that allowed the Argonauts, with Jason at the helm, to conquer the mythical golden fleece -the prize with which he hoped to recover his kingdom. Further back, the sea is represented by Neptune, Amphitrite and some nymphs. Other of Hercules’s deeds are depicted at the ends of the vault: the Gigantomachy on the left, and his battle with Antaeus on the right. Hercules’s repeated presence makes him the undisputable protagonist of the decoration, undoubtedly because of his virtuous character, a victor where all others have failed, and both of these aspects justify his traditional association with the Spanish monarch. The group of Hercules delivering the golden fleece to Philip the Good so that he can place it in the order’s necklace is completed at the top by the elegant coat of arms of the territories ruled by the House of Austria: the kingdoms of Castile and Leon, Aragon, Sicily and Granada, and further down, Austria, Burgundy (ancient and modern), Brabant, Flanders and the Tyrol. All of the are cradled by the royal crown, with the Sun in its interior. This is flanked by nymphs bearing the diadem -a sign of royalty- and the olive branch of peace. Above it all, the heavens, with clear representations of the constellations of Gemini, Argos, Taurus, Leo, the Dragon, and so on. Further on, Giordano depicts Parnassus, with the gods of Olympus presided by Jupiter and the customary eagle flying overhead. An allegorical representation of Spain appears at the opposite end of the vault. This takes the form of a female figure bearing the four scepters of her realms in her right hand. Above her, a series of figures allude to Spain’s virtues. To the right of her feet, peoples of diverse origins and religions meekly submit to her authority. Heresy, in the form of a dragon; the Furor of War; Temporal Power, as a lion with a scepter; and the subjected realms, in the form of ermines and crowns; and finally the spoils of war, in the form of coins, jewels and gold and silver objects, complete the meaning of this group. At Spain’s right, a child unfolds a banner with the inscription OMNIBUS UNUS, a Latin phrase that can be translated one for all. The corner of the vault are occupied by the four Ages of Humanity: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. To represent them, Giordano closely followed Ovid’s (43 B.C.E.-17 C.E.) Metamorphses and the images created by Cesare Ripa (1560-1645) in his Iconologia. The first, alongside the Gigantomachia, corresponds to humanity’s ideal period, with neither war nor illness, in a permanent springtime that produced wheat without the need to plant. The group’s principal figure embodies the Golden Age itself. She is a woman wearing golden robes and sheltered by Jupiter’s tree, a Holm oak. She turns her face toward the coat of arms of the Spanish monarchy. Zephyr, the eastern wind, appears to the left. Gentle and beneficial, it precedes a cortege of figures that reinforce its meaning: a cherub with a pinwheel, an eagle and a woman attaching wings to a second child. Flora appears above them with a horn of plenty containing the fruits of that benevolent period. She is followed by other nymphs with wheat ears and fruits. The Silver Age is presented by another matron with robes of that color. She bears wheat ears and a plow, as the fruits of the Earth no longer spring forth spontaneously. To the right, the four seasons signal the arrival of a less benign climate. Above them: the figure of Time, who rules the cycle of the seasons. This figure is one of the most damaged of all. The Bronze Age appears alongside the peoples who have submitted to Spain’s authority. According to Ovid, this was the age when cruel people were inclined to arms but not to impious crimes (Metamorphoses, I, 125-27). Drawing on Ripa, Giordano depicts a woman wearing a malachite-green robe, a helmet with the jaws of a lion and holding a lance. Minerva presides over a practically unidentifiable group to the right. Her imposing figure, one of the best of the entire work, appears in the vault again following her decisive battle against the giants. This goddess represents the most positive way of understanding war, as she protects the important characters from the cycle of the Argonauts, including Jason and Hercules himself, while simultaneously embodying prudence and wisdom. She is accompanied on a lower level by the two birds customarily associated with her: the carrion crow, which is considered capable of divining the future; and the owl, which is able to see in the dark, and thus to perceive what others cannot. The menacing figure of Mars appears behind them. He is the opposite -a representation of war’s destructive character- and he is accompanied by Terror, with a lion’s head and a whip; and Ire, with a torch, a sword, and a helmet that shoots fire. In front of the group, winged children and youths carry arms towards the Bronze Age, as that Ages already knows war. Last comes the Iron Age, the most destructive and fearful of all. It is represented by a rusty looking figure with a helmet shaped like a wolf’s head, a scythe and a shield with a representation of Fraud, a human looking character with a snake’s tail. Although its relation to the Iron Age is unclear, Cybele’s chariot appears to the left. She customarily represents the Earth, and as with Minerva, who is situation directly across from her, she was considered a protector of cities, which crown her head. Other attributes associated with her are a key, her chariot pulled by lions, her scepter and orb, carried by a boy at the front of the procession, and her priest: a bearded figure with a helmet and lance. Beneath all of this, Giordano situates a balustrade at the level of the lunettes. In their vertices, he painted grisailles with pairs of philosophers, and at the base of the vault, the nine muses, with the disappeared Erato, which clearly reflects Ripa’s recommendations. The muses were originally and quite properly accompanied by Apollo, but at some point, his figure was inexplicably replaced by the libidinous faun that now appears. As goddesses of the arts and sciences, along with the pairs of philosophers that crown the lunettes, they bear the history of the world, which is narrated in the vault, and they adorn the Spanish monarchy. The balustrade constitutes a skilful rhetorical way for Giordano to distinguish the allegorical-mythological world from the real one, which he represents with small figures that lean out to contemplate the amazing scene that unfolds before their eyes (Text from Úbeda de los Cobos, A.: Luca Giordano y el Casón del Buen Retiro, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2008, pp. 99-108).


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