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The Master Builder

To the English-speaking world, Spain is a country with architecture but no architects. Everyone, of course, knows of Antoní Gaudí, although his claim to Spanish nationality would be hotly contested by Catalans, who interpret his works as embodying their historical identity. Otherwise, the buildings constructed in Spain roughly between 1500 and 1900 apparently just came into being through some mysterious combination of men and materials. Architecture without architects is “vernacular” architecture, which may be admirable in a folksy sort of way, but offers no competition to architecture by high artists. Thus four centuries of Spanish architectural history are usually neglected.

Of all the Spanish architects who languish in oblivion, none is less deserving of his fate than Juan de Herrera (c. 1530–1597), the leading architect of the Spanish Renaissance. Herrera’s stature has always been hard to measure, despite the fact that, for thirtyfour years, he served the most powerful monarch of the time, Philip II (1556–1598), and was involved in dozens of projects, including the Escorial, arguably the greatest architectural work of the later sixteenth century.

Herrera’s virtual disappearance from the artistic map of Europe is partly explained by the grudging evidence of his activity. Although he was prolific, only a handful of his designs were realized in his lifetime. In addition a good number of them consist of additions or alterations to existing or incomplete structures. As a consequence, his identity often has to be almost archaeologically excavated, with magnifying glass and tweezers, from buildings of composite authorship. This problem might be easier to deal with if his drawings had survived in quantity. Not that they were discarded; on the contrary, they were saved too carefully. Philip II established an archive of drawings from the royal works in his principal palace, the Alcázar of Madrid. On Christmas Eve of 1734, however, the palace was consumed by fire and Herrera’s drawings, along with numerous paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez, were burned to a crisp.

Documents of Herrera’s career, on the other hand, abound. As a cog in the bureaucratic machine created by Philip II, Herrera left a trail of paper that fills several cupboards in the Archivo General de Simancas, the principal archive of the Spanish crown. Yet this huge store of information is hardly satisfying. Here again, the particular terms of Herrera’s employment are to blame. As a royal servant, Herrera was compensated by an annual stipend, occasionally augmented by special grants and favors, and thus, unlike a contract architect, did not receive payment on a project-by-project basis. Herrera was a salaried functionary, and the reading of the evidence sometimes suggests that he was the senior vice-president for architecture in a large corporation rather than a practitioner of the art.

The problems do not end here. Herrera’s entry into the architectural profession, and eventually his career, were highly unconventional by Spanish standards. In Spain, architects were both born and made. Lucrative practices were perpetuated by dynastic succession, in which a master of the works (the term “architect” was not used until 1559 and thereafter only sparingly) trained a son or close relative in the building trade and gradually turned the business over to him. By contrast, Herrera’s formative years, although poorly documented, seem to have had nothing to do with architecture. He was born to a family of the lower nobility and of modest means. Around the age of seventeen, he entered the service of the future Philip II and accompanied him on a journey to northern Italy and Flanders in 1548–1549. After his return to Spain, Herrera, perhaps for financial reasons, joined the army and fought in Italy, later moving to Flanders and a post in the imperial guard. Between 1556 and 1563, Herrera’s activities are largely a mystery. When he next appears, it is as an architectural draftsman in the employ of Juan Bautista de Toledo, who was the royal architect from 1559 until his death in 1567. The courtier turned soldier now became an architect in defiance of the time-honored route into the profession and in the seeming absence of any previous experience in the field.

A further obstacle stands in the way of our appreciating Herrera’s architecture, and a formidable obstacle it is. This is his patron, Philip II. Although one risks inciting the opposition of Italianists here and abroad to say it, not to mention the partisans of Rudolph II of Austria, Philip II was the greatest art patron of his time in Europe. The case for Philip is admittedly difficult to make because he is painted in the historical literature in such somber hues. Between the Spanish Fury and the Black Legend, there is little space in which to admire this complex and in some ways remarkable ruler. Obviously the destruction by his armies of thousands of Protestant and Indian lives (heretics and heathen, as this pious monarch saw them) cannot be redeemed by the record as a patron of the visual arts. Yet it is not quite fair to condemn the patron for the faults of the prince.

Philip’s patronage usually is studied in bits and pieces. Philip and Titian is a favorite theme, another is Philip and the Escorial, the most important of his architectural undertakings. It was not until just last year that Philip II: Patron of the Arts, the first comprehensive study of Philip and the arts, appeared, which convincingly makes the case, often in great detail, for the King’s achievements.^1

Professor Checa’s book provides abundant confirmation of a phenomenon familiar to students of Philip’s patronage, his obsessive involvement with his artistic enterprises. After spending much of the day wrestling with the intractable problems of governing a worldwide empire, Philip turned for solace to the arts, where an order given was an order obeyed. The King was especially devoted to architecture, which somewhat paradoxically has worked to Herrera’s disadvantage. To many, Philip has appeared as his own architect and Herrera a faithful dogsbody, turning ‘he monarch’s ideas into stone and mortar.

In truth, powerful arguments have been made that Herrera was never an architect at all, at least in the conventional sense of the word. Some have said he was a glorified draftsman; others cast him in the role of a remote overseer of the site architects (aparejadores), who were experienced builders and supposedly made Herrera’s abstract drawings into architecture. Another line of attack interprets Herrera as a military engineer, a competent technician with little understanding of architecture as an art. It is into this crossfire that Catherine Wilkinson Zerner has bravely stepped, disarming the detractors of Herrera and establishing his place in the history of European architecture.

Wilkinson Zerner plays with the same deck dealt to other scholars. While the book draws on rigorous research, it offers no major discoveries of unknown material—no new drawings have appeared, no key documents have been unearthed that might clarify some of the mysteries of Herrera’s peculiar career. The brilliance of her approach lies in accepting Herrera for what he was, an unconventional architect employed by an extraordinary patron, who created forms and devised methods by which the image and aura of a powerful ruler were translated into three dimensions. At the heart of the book is an original insight which makes Herrera’s approach to architecture comprehensible. In chapter two entitled “Architecture between science and art,” the author establishes a contrast between architecture as a function of artistic design (or disegno, to use the evocative Italian word) and as a function of mathematics and engineering. This distinction is inherent in Vitruvius, but was lost in the Italian Renaissance when the mastery of figure drawing became valued as the crucial force of artistic creation. By making drawing supreme, the Italians opened the way to the shared practice of the arts which permitted painters and sculptors such as Raphael and Michelangelo to undertake major architectural commissions. However, what might be called scientific architecture did not disappear; it was channeled into engineering projects of which military architecture, particularly fortification, is the most familiar example. This was the route into the profession taken by Herrera.

Whatever he may have done in his youth, Herrera became an excellent mathematician, and all his life was deeply interested in mathematical theory and practice. He was instrumental in founding the royal academy of mathematics and wrote a short treatise on the divine proportions of the universe inspired by the Catalan theologian Ramón Lull. Herrera’s conception of architecture was scientific, not artistic. Instead of adopting a pictorial approach, which employed what Wilkinson Zerner calls the naturalistic aspects of design—the massing of forms and the lively use of classical ornament and orders—Herrera turned the art into the application of mathematical principles. The visual consequences are abstract geometrical plans and a severely reductionist treatment of the classical orders, which make up what is called the estilo desornamentado (plain style). As the author says, Herrera’s plans refer to “abstract mathematical relationships rather than to a metaphorical [human] body.”

Philip’s choice of Herrera to be royal architect now seems inevitable, although it would not have been so obvious in 1567, when Juan Bautista de Toledo died. The King always cast his artistic net wide and might have lured almost any Italian architect to his court with the promise of great projects and rich rewards. (Even the aged Michelangelo briefly toyed with the idea of working for Philip.) Instead, he made the unexpected choice of the inexperienced Herrera, although he withheld the appointment as royal architect until 1579. The motives behind this decision are lucidly explained by Wilkinson Zerner. Indeed, the title of her book indicates that she has judiciously placed the dynamic relationship between patron and artist in the foreground. After years of study and thought, the King had formulated an idea of the architectural style appropriate for his conception of monarchical rule. As can be seen from his buildings, it may be described as remote grandeur achieved through abstract relations of order and harmony. No suggestion of extravagance or self-indulgence is allowed; only the King who rules himself is fit to rule his subjects. By these lights, the selection of a person who was accomplished as a mathematician yet untried as an architect was inspired. Herrera possessed the essential theoretical equipment and was free of the unwanted preconceptions of a fully formed architect.

Herrera had one more vital qualification: he was a superb organizer. Traditional Spanish building practice tended to rely on improvisation, finding solutions to construction problems as they occurred. Philip could not abide such time-consuming methods, particularly for the Escorial, which he wanted to complete before he died. In 1569 and again in 1572, Herrera drafted drastic reforms in the chain of architectural command, which centralized all decisions in his hands, subject to the approval of the King. These instructions were communicated to the contractors via precise, measured drawings, which had the force of royal decrees and were not subject to discussion or amendment at the building site. Architecture was made to function like a branch of government. However, unlike the political and financial sections, the “Department of Architecture” worked smoothly. The proof of its efficiency lies in the fact that the major part of the Escorial was completed within twelve years after the second reform. No structure of comparable size in the sixteenth century, and these were few, was completed as quickly as the Escorial, which took just over twenty years to build (1563–1584).

The architectural complex usually and misleadingly called the monastery of the Escorial is justly renowned as the masterpiece of Philip’s architectural patronage. It is unequivocally a monumental structure but it is ironic that such a well-documented project should be subject to so many and conflicting interpretations about its meaning. Much of the confusion arises from preconceptions about Philip II. In the Protestant world, the King is an anathema and the Escorial is regarded as a fortress of bigotry and religious fanaticism. The depth of this prejudice can be gauged by this quotation from the writings of that subtle historian H.R. Trevor-Roper. “The geometrical severity of the Escorial was the architectural corollary of the fierce autos de fé of Seville and Valladolid.”2

In recent years, an interpretation put forward by René Taylor partly as an antidote to Protestant venom has gained some support.3 Taylor attempts to connect the King and his monument to the mysterious world of sixteenth-century magic and astrology. While it may be intellectually provocative to tie the most orthodox man in the Catholic world to the practice of occult science, and to propose that he built a great building inspired by its precepts, Taylor’s thesis distorts the significance of the quintessential monument of the Counter-Reformation. The King, like many curious spirits of his time, had an interest in astrology but it pales beside his major concern, the salvation of his soul and the souls of his family members through the redeeming power of the Catholic faith.

Somewhere the Escorial has been called a “factory for the salvation of the royal souls,” and this irreverent description is confirmed by the plan. Enclosed within the almost square walls are a monastery of the Hieronymite order, a palace precinct, a seminary, a library, and, at the heart, a large church, called the basilica but in reality the royal chapel. Beneath the altar of the chapel is a crypt (not completed until the mid-seventeenth century) for the burial of the royal family while they await the Day of Judgment. By Philip’s calculations, this will be a day of joy because the Hieronymites were installed expressly to intone a daily ration of prayers for those entombed therein. From his bedroom, which overlooks the sanctuary of the chapel, the King of Spain could witness the celebration of the mass and prepare his soul for the final accounting.

Wilkinson Zerner, who sedulously avoids polemics even when taking polemical positions, subordinates interpretation of the monument to her main concern—which is to identify and assess the contribution of Herrera to the Escorial. Everyone agrees that the plan of the building and, up to a point, the ornamental vocabulary were established by Juan Bautista de Toledo, who oversaw the initial stages of construction. Anti-Herrerans describe this architect’s contributions to the project as a mopping-up operation. However, Wilkinson Zerner’s analysis of the evidence proves that the supposedly minor adjustments by Herrera entitle him to be considered one of the Escorial’s chief architects.

Her arguments first take up those parts left unresolved at the death of Toledo, or subsequently altered. These include such principal elements as the design of the roof, the main cloister, the forecourt of the basilica, the imperial staircase, and even the basilica itself, although for the latter it was necessary to combine existing proposals rather than create an original design. Wilkinson Zerner considers the sometimes slippery visual and documentary evidence and clearly and persuasively evaluates it. The prose of architectural historians is often technical, but nonspecialist readers will have no difficulty in following her discussions of how Herrera’s judgment was often decisive in constructing different parts of Escorial.

Wilkinson Zerner makes one more claim about Herrera’s contributions to the Escorial, which concerns what might be called the look of the building and which is, to her thinking, a key to its meaning. While its genesis and function are complex, the structure possesses remarkable unity of appearance and effect. Even the casual tourist on a day trip from Madrid, who is permitted to visit no more than a third of the building, is struck by its unequivocal statement of power and piety. The cool, abstract classicism imposed by the architect holds it all together. And Herrera took a final measure to make the building seem perfect. He devised a method of polishing the stone, a rather coarse-grained granite quarried from the neighboring hills, which, even after four centuries of weathering, reinforces the insistent geometry of the design. As a result of Herrera’s intervention, the Escorial became the first convincing expression of the power of the absolute monarchies which would control the destiny of Europe over the succeeding two centuries.

The importance of the Escorial for Herrera’s reputation has diverted attention from his many other commissions, and for this he must accept part of the blame. In 1589, the published the Sumario y breve declaración de los diseños y estampas de la fábrica de San Lorencio el Real del Escurial, eleven magnificent engravings of the structure which made it known throughout Europe. Herrera claimed authorship only for the publication, not the building, leaving readers to draw for themselves the unavoidable conclusion that he was responsible for both. For taking credit for the Escorial, Herrera has paid a price, which is the neglect of most of the rest of his architectural production, except by a few dedicated specialists.

In the concluding chapters, the author reconsiders this body of work, work that is difficult to grasp, consisting as it does of additions to existing buildings, or of monuments no longer extant, or of projects initiated by Herrera and completed by others. Seeing the unity and significance of these projects is the most original part of the book and does much to enhance the understanding of his artistic achievement.

The most ambitious of these projects is the cathedral of Valladolid, designed between 1578 and 1582. Although its construction commenced soon after, little progress had been made by Herrera’s death, and work proceeded fitfully over the next fifty years, moving ever farther from the original conception. Fortunately, a set of Herrera’s designs which clarifies his intentions survives in the cathedral archive. Wilkinson Zerner’s analysis starts with a consideration of the continued strength of the Gothic in sixteenth-century Spain. Major Gothic cathedrals, such as those at Segovia and Salamanca, were erected at this time, and it was to these that Herrera turned for inspiration.

The decision of a classical architect to use a Gothic plan is noteworthy; in Italy, this would not have been acceptable or perhaps even conceivable. However, Herrera was always careful to distance himself from Italian models and, as the author argues, had genuine respect for the Gothic. The result, as seen in the drawings, is little short of astounding. As the author observes.

His cathedral is not Gothic, nor is it a traditional structure in classical dress, but the plan is one allusion to the medieval past that has been separated from any direct reference to the Gothic style. Gothic survived in Herrera’s design as a significant component of classicism.

The author interprets Herrera’s numerous secular projects, mostly sponsored by the King, with a comparable degree of imagination. Among these are the market squares (plazas mayores) of Madrid, Valladolid, and Toledo, the royal mint in Segovia, the merchants’ exchange in Seville, and the Segovia Bridge in Madrid. The evidence of Herrera’s intervention in some of these undertakings is not always direct, which may trouble literalminded specialists, although we can well believe they were produced by Herrera in his capacity as royal architect. The King wanted him to produce utilitarian structures that could be identified as sponsored by the crown. The concept that authoritarian rule promotes public order and welfare recurs in architectural and political theory alike, so in this sense Herrera’s ideas are not new. However, his modular solution to the problem, as characterized by the author, is ingenious.

In one of her more telling comparisons to Italian practices, Wilkinson Zerner contrasts Herrera’s conception of urban planning to that of his contemporary Domenico Fontana, the architect of Pope Sixtus V.4 Fontana’s plan for Rome is organized to concentrate on monumental structures. Philip II wanted forms that expressed his authority but needed no external references to make their point and could be built on the cheap. Herrera’s stripped-down, geometrical classicism was made to order. Using what is called the extended façade, Herrera was able to encompass large spaces and build structures for various purposes with the same vocabulary deployed in the Escorial, thus impressing the King’s authority on the daily life of his subjects.

As he emerges from the pages of this book, Herrera may seem like a precocious postmodern architect, bending styles past and present to fit a willfully intellectual conception of the art of building. While ahistorical, this notion is not entirely far-fetched. Spanish architecture of the sixteenth century is maddeningly heterogeneous in comparison with the classicizing style employed in central Italy. In Spain, as almost everywhere else in Europe, Renaissance classicism was unself-consciously combined with the still-powerful conventions of the late Gothic. Wilkinson Zerner understands the intricacies of the distinctive, hybrid styles of the non-Italian Renaissance and frequently draws illuminating parallels between Spain and France, which made comparable uses of classicism.

As can now be seen with unprecedented clarity, Herrera’s contribution to this process was decisive because of the intellectual discipline and consistency with which he transformed the Renaissance style. And by placing his talent at the service of his powerful, intelligent patron, he produced the first buildings that fully expressed the power of the European monarchical state.

  1. 2

    Hugh Trevor-Roper, Princes and Artists: Patronage and Ideology at Four Habsburg Courts, 1517–1633 (Harper and Row, 1976), p. 55.

  2. 3

    René Taylor, “Architecture and Magic: Considerations on the Idea of the Escorial,” in Essays in the History of Architecture Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, edited by Douglas Fraser, Howard Hibbard, and Milton J. Lewine (London: Phaidon Press, 1967), pp. 81–109.

  3. 4

    See Garry Wills’s article on Sixtus V in The New York Review, June 10, 1993.

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