The purpose of this article is to serve as a future guide for travelers visiting the Buen Retiro Park. More importantly, we hope it will help to fall in love with this fascinating place. It aims to serve as a magnifying glass to scrutinize the secrets that await us in the most unsuspected corners of this space of rest and retreat. For the traveler to see with other eyes what at first may be presented as superficial and devoid of interest; with the eyes of time to contemplate and imagine that which materially no longer exists. Travel with us to a frequently visited but little explored place to decipher the secret history and mysteries of El Retiro.
Buen Retiro Park (“Park of the Pleasant Retreat”) accumulates five centuries of history. The original gardens, which have undergone countless changes over the centuries, would be unrecognizable to us. Each monarch introduced the artistic and decorative style that seemed most convenient to him/her and there were tense and conflictive periods in which the Buen Retiro took great blows that broke it in pieces, in need of urgent reforms.
Its origin dates back to the 17th century. At the end of 1633 Buen Retiro was inaugurated. Three years earlier, Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel Ribera y Velasco de Tovar, better known as Count-Duke of Olivares, Philip’s IV of Spain powerful favourite, had begun to buy large tracts of land at the eastern end of the town and adjacent to the Jeronimos monastery to plant beautiful and royal gardens and a sumptuous palace there. The people were suspicious of the project, not only because of the large sums of money it was going to consume, but also because of the dishonest motivation that moved the Count-Duke of Olivares. For some, this character has gone down in history as one of the individuals who sought to control the power of Spain from the shadows. Therefore, the Buen Retiro was thought to be a plan of the evil Count-Duke to keep the king occupied and distracted while he took charge of the empire’s future. But the truth is that Philip IV was no stranger to the works. On the contrary, he was attentive to them and interested in their execution, since he wished to have a residence of rest and retirement in which he could momentarily forget his political chores.
Although it is hard to imagine today, the Buen Retiro consisted of a superb palace designed by Alonso Carbonel. Its seed can be found in the Royal Chamber, a room annexed to the Jeronimos Monastery where the king frequently stayed. From this the Buen Retiro Palace will be developed, a place much more in accordance with the tastes and needs of the monarch. The building itself was a contrast: the external architecture, sober and austere, disappointing for some and typical of the Spanish Austrias, differed from the interior, composed of an overwhelming number of works of art, sculptures and furniture. In short, a great exponent of the Spanish Baroque. In 1633 it was inaugurated, but during the following years it continued to undergo extensions to accommodate more guests of the court. It came to have ballrooms, two large squares in which all kinds of events were held, the Hall of Kingdoms, a theater, lion’s cages, a multitude of rooms for guests … And later would come the gardens that would make the Buen Retiro immortal. We must not forget that in the beginning, the Buen Retiro, like any royal property, was destined exclusively for the royal family and their guests, regular people couldn’t access to most of the place. At most, a limited number of citizens could access the “party court” to enjoy some events.
Successive monarchs also settled in this palace, such as Charles II or the French Philip V. The latter wanted to remodel the palace on the basis of the French baroque court style and make it look more like the Palace of Versailles. However, his desires never saw the light, partly eclipsed by Queen Elizabeth Farnese, who was disinterested in the Buen Retiro. It was not until the arrival of Ferdinand VI that El Retiro would come back to life.
Another substantial change occurred with the arrival of Charles III in the eighteenth century, nicknamed “the best mayor of Madrid” for all the innovations he introduced in the kingdom’s capital. With Charles came the opening of the Buen Retiro, because now citizens could also access the gardens, although following strict rules of dress. It is during his reign when the Buen Retiro Porcelain Factory (popularly called “La China”) appeared because the king was very fond of it, not in vain the porcelain was of the most expensive materials and its formula was in several countries a real secret of state. It was located where today is the Fountain of the Fallen Angel and some of its pieces survive today scattered in the various museums of the city.
The beginnings of the 19th century were key to the Buen Retiro Park. On March 23, 1908, the French troops arrived in Madrid under the command of Joaquín Murat, Napoleón Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. The 5th Division of the French army, made up of 2000 men and 200 artillery pieces, dug in at El Retiro and Murat transformed the palace into its base of operations. On May 2, 1808, Madrid’s citizens rebelled in arms and the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814) began. In July of that year a milestone was marked: Napoleon’s troops were defeated for the first time in the open field, specifically within the framework of the battle of Bailén, in Jaén, which forced the French army to withdraw momentarily. This was used in Madrid to carry out the counterattack and the locals reconquer the town, occupying the Retiro and installing a humble sample of artillery pieces. However, in December the Napoleonic army tried it again and easily overcame Madrid’s resistance, conquering it definitively until 1812. During this period, El Retiro underwent a catastrophic metamorphosis, becoming a heavily fortified citadel. To this end, the gardens were massively cut down and various properties and monuments were evicted or destroyed. The park was transformed into a collection of walls, moats and buttresses.
On August 12, 1812, General Wellington’s troops , allies of Spain, arrived and attacked the French garrison of El Retiro. The General ordered the burning and destruction of El Retiro in case of evacuation, and so it happened in October of that year. The Porcelain Factory was completely in ruins, to the point that the only plausible solution was its complete elimination, ending the history of this building. The palace was in a very bad state and, after the expulsion of the French and with Ferdinand VII enthroned, the architects recommended the demolition of the most affected parts, surviving only two elements that we will visit later. Even so, fortunately, many of the paintings that hung from its walls were saved and are currently exhibited in museums such as the Prado (rooms 2 and 9a have an important sample). French and English turned El Retiro into an unrecognizable ruin. It fell to Ferdinand VII and his successors to rebuild and recompose this place, and they did so, giving it a very similar appearance to what we see today. During the reign of Elisabeth II of Spain, a third of the land to the west of the Parterre gardens, where the palace was located, had to be sold due to economic problems, leaving El Retiro with its current 120 hectares.
In 1868, a Decree gave the government of the Buen Retiro to the City Council of Madrid, becoming now a public park in the fashion of the urban movements of the time, which saw in these places a therapy for the bad habits and frequent immoral behaviors of urban centers. The City Council auctioned various establishments and attractions of El Retiro (in this way, many of its buildings were converted into restaurants, kiosks or party halls) to get financial support for its maintenance and carried out various reforms to transform the park into the public place that today thousands of Madrid citizens and tourists can enjoy.
Some see in El Retiro not only a place of recollection but a place of power replete with alchemical and talismanic symbols. The arrangement of gardens, ponds, statues and monuments would not be casual, but would be such that only the initiate in the esoteric and alchemical mysteries would know how to interpret. Perhaps these opinions are not too wrong, since Philip IV and other monarchs were fond of astrology and symbology, an interest that had to be hidden from the eyes of the Inquisition. Be that as it may, we promise the reader that if he already had an appreciation for this place, he will now like it even more. Let’s start with our trip through El Retiro.
1. The Fallen Angel
Let’s start our excursion by entering Madrid’s lung through the Puerta del Ángel Caído (Fallen Angel Gate), located in the southwest corner. Going along the Paseo del Duque Fernán Núñez (Duke Fernán Núñez’s Walk), you don’t have to walk too far to reach a roundabout in the centre of which stands a large circular fountain crowned by a winged, blackish statue. The sculpted character is one of the symbols of this park, because if this area of leisure and rest is known is thanks to this statue and two other monuments that together make up the triad that characterize El Retiro: the Crystal Palace and the Great Pond, which we will visit later.
This is the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, and its name is due to the character to which it gives sustenance: Lucifer, Luzbel, the Fallen Angel. Before, this square was known as the China Roundabout and in its center was located a different fountain to what we see today known as the Fountain of the China. So much reference to the Asian giant was due to the fact that the Royal Porcelain Factory was located in this same place. In 1879, the Fountain of the China was replaced by the current ornamental fountain. However, even before the Porcelain Factory, this same roundabout was sacralized by the hermitage of Saint Anthony of the Portugueses (consecrated to Saint Anthony of Padua, patron saint of Portugal), which has now disappeared and was part of a group with seven other hermitages that have also disappeared. They were not regular hermitages however, as their main objective was to attract the attention of visitors in order to hide in some way the destructuring of the gardens. They had small gardens and orchards and, in addition to religious worship, celebrations and festivities were also held in their outbuildings. The one we are now bringing up was the most important of them all and also the largest. In addition, it had a very beautiful peculiarity, because it was located in the middle of a lobular pond. It was finished in 1637 by the Portuguese community of Madrid and later became known as the hermitage of Saint Anthony of Germans when Portugal was separated from Spain in 1640. Inside there were two altars, one dedicated to St. Elizabeth and the other to St. Gonzalo. Its vital period lasted until 1760, when it was demolished to make way for the Porcelain Factory.
The sculpture of the Fountain of the Fallen Angel was inaugurated in 1885. As can be seen, Lucifer crowns a cylindrical pedestal which in turn rests on an octagonal column that widens towards its base. It will not be the only monument that includes the number 8 in its design; we will see how this number appears many more times. In the basal area of each facet of the octagon, demonic and grotesque faces between whose claws mercilessly hold various reptiles (the reptile, another symbol associated with evil by Christians since the serpent of the Garden of Eden tempted Eve with the apple of the Tree of Knowledge) nourish the pylon with water.
The sculpture of the Fallen Angel was made by the sculptor Ricardo Bellver, student of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, while he was in Rome pensioned by this institution. Later he would send a plaster copy to the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid for which he was decorated with the First Class Medal. The work was a great success, as it later traveled to Paris, where it was cast in bronze and presented at the Universal Exhibition, deservedly taking the First Prize. The decision to be installed in the Retiro was made by the Duke Fernán Núñez, an educated man, lover of good art and Commissioner of the Park. Obviously, he had to face a great detractor: the ecclesiastical sector, which saw a heresy placing a statue of the devil in a public space. However, the duke managed to convince the clergy of the moralistic function of the monument. Being visible to all, it would serve as a reminder of what happens when we do not follow the path of righteousness and faith. Even so, the criticism of the monument has not ceased. In more recent times, the evangelizing community led by Willy Contreras, a Chilean ex-military who, after suffering a mystical experience, has since dedicated himself to preaching the gospel of Christ, called El Retiro the “throne of Satan,” not only for housing a statue in his honor but also for the fortune-tellers who settle around the Great Pond.
But who is Lucifer? Although it’s a subject for another post, it depends on who we ask. Naturally, for Christianity it is evil, the personified pride, it is a fallen angel for challenging God and for wanting to reach His power. He would be a different character from Satan, the one who deviates, the one who corrupts, the true devil, although he also represents anti-Christian values. For others, Lucifer was yet another victim of the “compassion” of the Almighty, a character who rebelled against the yoke of his creator, his father. In more esoteric environments, Lucifer is the carrier of light (in fact, that’s what his name means), the Prometheus who sacrificed himself to bring divine enlightenment to a humanity forsaken and punished by its God.
The sculpture represents precisely the moment in which the angel is expelled from heaven and sent to hell for all eternity. His young face manifests grief, anguish and rage. He seems to cry out to the infinite heavens to curse his supposed father. Between his legs and his arm is rolled up a serpent, symbol of evil, his avatar. However, this ophidium has a peculiarity, because it has seven heads, a feature that is not easy to see. The number seven in Christianity is a symbol of perfection and fullness, but also of evil (seven are the capital sins for example), and perhaps that is why this numerology appears on the statue.
But the most interesting curiosities about this monument begin now. There is an extremely suggestive one that refers to the altitude at which it is found. Using any altimeter online, Google Earth or simply our mobile phone, we will see that the Fallen Angel is at a rounded altitude of 666 meters above sea level. 666, the number of the Beast, of the Antichrist (although other sources mention that it was 616). The average elevation of Madrid is 650 meters, so is it a coincidence or did the Duke Fernán Núñez know what he was doing? Who knows, the fact is that this is another detail that surely caught the attention of the luciferist and occultist groups that frequently gathered around this monument to carry out their rites during the last century. Such was Lucifer’s attraction that it is said that the Police had to cordon off and watch the sculpture for a time.
In addition, if the traveler pays attention (although it is better to use binoculars), he will be able to see that the angel has bullet wounds in various parts of his anatomy. These are impacts possibly originating during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). One mark can be found on the left hip and three on the right wing: two on the back and one on the front.
On the other hand, there is a legend around this sculpture that states that it is the only one dedicated to Lucifer in the world. Quickly we see that this is not so, because without having to go very far, to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, we will enjoy a perfect replica made of polyester and fiberglass in which we can also see more easily the seven heads of the snake and bullet wounds. Another statue of Lucifer is located in the Capitol in Havana, Cuba. Many others shine in other parts of the world supposedly representing Lucifer, although in these cases it is not so clear: it is more likely that they represent other characters or figures from local legends.
Before moving on to our next destination it is worth going back slightly to see another witness to of past of the Buen Retiro Park. Returning on our steps by the Duke Fernán Núñez’s Walk and just before the public baths there is an old restored waterwheel. This one is of the “draught” or “blood” type, so called because it needed animal traction to draw water from a well. It is one of many inventions that we inherited from the Persians. As this one there were many others scattered by all El Retiro from its origin, although today they are mere memories. They were essential so that the irrigation systems and the ponds and estuaries were constantly supplied with water. The one that was once installed here supplied water directly to the Porcelain Factory. In 1858 they stopped providing their services and were replaced by more modern hydraulic systems.
2. The “botanical” Crystal Palace
Let’s continue along the Duke Fernán Núñez’s Walk or the Uruguay Walk that starts at the roundabout of the Fallen Angel, it doesn’t matter, because the objective is to reach the Jardines de la Rosaleda (“Rose Gardens”), a beautiful oval-shaped space in which to walk with a lost view among the thousands of roses that give color to this small corner of El Retiro. They were made by the chief gardener Cecilio Rodriguez commissioned by the City Council of Madrid in 1915, one of the first works that no longer responded to the whims of any king, as El Retiro had already become municipal property. Mr. Cecilio was a man of whom we can only say that had an exquisite taste, since his are also the redesigned gardens of the House of Beasts. La Rosaleda was built around a greenhouse donated by the Marquis of Salamanca. Unfortunately, both the La Rosaleda and the greenhouse were destroyed during the Civil War. The Rose Garden had to be restored in the 1940s and the greenhouse dismantled. Currently, the enclosure occupied by the greenhouse is now the small central pond that presumably follows its traces. As a curiosity, it should be noted that before this garden there was a pond built shortly after El Retiro became a municipal park that was primarily intended for ice skating in the short period of time in which it remained frozen.
Once we have been drunk with so many colours and smells, it is time to head north to visit another of the characteristic symbols of El Retiro: the Crystal Palace. Of course, we recommend the small walk through the gardens protected by the shade of the different tree species.
The Crystal Palace is one of the most particular monuments in Madrid and one of the most beloved and photogenic of the Buen Retiro Park. In addition, the small pond overlooking its façade, inhabited by numerous specimens of anatidae and exotic sliders, gives it an idyllic touch. This is an example of what is known as iron architecture, as it is made of this metal, the main material along with the glass. Its architect, the magnificent Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, also author of the Palace of the Ministry of Development or the headquarters of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, took only 5 months to make it a reality. It has some elements that resemble the apse of a Gothic temple: the lateral arms are assimilated to the transept of this kind of churches and the central body is like a polygonal apse. The rest of the features resemble a classical temple, such as the tetrastyle door of Ionic order, the only solid element of the palace. Inside, which is now diaphanous, there was a small pond 10 metres long. Its only point of colour appears in its external basal area thanks to the ceramic decoration.
However, what is truly interesting is the purpose for which it was built. Anyone who penetrates its bowels of glass and cast iron on a hot, sunny day will instantly notice a horrific concentrated heat. This is already giving us clues of its usefulness, because whatever it housed inside would be at a warm temperature and insulated from the cold outside, functioning as a greenhouse. That was indeed its original function. In 1887, the year of its inauguration, the Philippine Islands Exhibition was held in Madrid (from April to October), for which various plant specimens, materials and tools were brought from the Pacific islands. The main pavilion function was supplied by the Palace of Velázquez, where the eight main sections of the exhibition were installed, while the Crystal Palace was built precisely to house in an adequate climate the exotic plants brought from those distant territories, although in the end it had little success because many specimens arrived in poor condition.
The pond located in front of the palace also had its function in this respect. It was extended that year to allow Filipino boats to sail… with their Filipinos as crew. Because not only plants and materials were brought… also people. More than 40 people of different ethnicities from the Philippine Islands were brought to El Retiro, many of them staying to live in the gardens the way they lived in their homes or at least simulating it for the enjoyment of the curious. Visitors could contemplate how the natives grazed their flocks, sailed with their small boats, related to each other and to the environment… Indeed, El Retiro functioned for a short period of time as a human zoo or ethnographic exhibition, an aberrant practice in vogue in nineteenth-century Europe. So much so that in the vicinity of the small lake were built huts and houses of cane and nipa so that the natives felt “at home”. It would not be the last time that people of different ethnicities would be exhibited before the people of Madrid. In 1897 it would be repeated, in this case in the time of Elisabeth II, when she ordered to convert a large area of El Retiro into a “recreation area” for the people of Madrid in order to raise funds to help the battered economy to manage the park. Here, visitors could enjoy a large number of recreational activities and exhibitions, including ethnographic ones, for which members of the Ashanti tribe of Ghana or Inuit were brought.
When the Philippine Islands Exhibition ended, everything was dismantled except the large buildings. It was the first and last time that the palace would serve as a greenhouse. Since then it has been used as an exhibition centre, currently managed by the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid City Council and other institutions.
Before the Philippine Islands Exhibition the pond was smaller, and a curiosity that many people do not know is that above the waterfall that nourished it (and that still does today), where today there is a viewpoint over the small “tunnel” of rockery, rose a beautiful temple of Arabic dome called Royal Pavilion or Arab Pavilion, whose author was the aforementioned Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, who also made the “sculpture” of rockery. It was built on the occasion of the National Exposition of Mining, Metal Arts, Ceramics, Glasswork and Mineral Waters of 1883, which took place between the months of May and November of that year. Together with the Palace of Velázquez and the Crystal Palace it formed a triumvirate that hosted several exhibitions, although the Royal Pavilion did not exhibit anything inside, it was simply a decorative element. The aforementioned was the most important exhibition held until then in Spain. The aim of all these exhibitions was to show the world Spain’s industrial and economic potential. It should be borne in mind that in 1874 the country’s throne was restored with Alfonso XII and the period known as the Bourbon Restoration began. This was a period of recovery of socio-political stability in Spain, which had recently emerged from the Third Carlist War, and of plunging into the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, Spain somehow needed to demonstrate to the world that it had regained control and that it was prepared to continue moving forward, and that was what the exhibitions were for.
As we said, the Royal Pavilion was crowned by a colourful golden bulbous dome in Arabic style (which were not installed before the opening of the exhibition) and its main function was that of a lookout. It appeared to have two floors and its interior was diaphanous, although its ceiling was richly painted. The façade had a porticoed terrace surrounded by columns and semicircular arches. Unfortunately, this building, which brought its charm to the area, had to be dismantled in the 1960s because of its deplorable state of abandonment. Without a doubt, it would have been more charming to walk through El Retiro contemplating this temple rather than a simple viewpoint…
Now we are going to talk about a work that would have competed perfectly with the Eiffel Tower in magnificence. The monumental idea was born in a grandiose mind as it could not be otherwise: that of Alberto de Palacio, better known for having been the architect of the Atocha station. De Palacio was a great engineer and architect who collaborated with others who did not lag behind him like Gustave Eiffel (of whom he was also a disciple). He also participated, for example, in the execution of El Retiro’s Crystal Palace and the Palace of Velázquez. The fact is that Alberto de Palacio sent his creation not yet materialized to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892, but it was rejected even though he would have been awarded the first prize. In this way, he decided to obtain the necessary permits to build it near the Crystal Palace.
The monument would have been cyclopean and very worth seeing. Its purpose was to commemorate the fourth centenary of Columbus’ discovery of America. We are talking about a gigantic metallic sphere with a volume of 4.1 million cubic metres and a height of 200 metres, to which should be added the 100 metres of the reinforced concrete base that would support it, thus reaching a height similar to that of the Eiffel Tower. The sphere would really be a representation of the world in which all the continents and oceans would be shaped. It could be climbed, because at the equator there would be a platform 700 meters long that would act as a lookout. It would have been an incredible experience, because the walls inside the sphere would show the positions of the stars at the time Columbus arrived on the shores of the New World. As if that were not enough, at different heights different establishments would have been built that would house conference rooms, museums, libraries, music rooms…, all related to the Columbian world. In other words, it would not only have been a great monument but also an entire cultural centre. At the foot of the entrance to the structure, a statue of the Genoese explorer would have welcomed visitors and the summit would be crowned by a (life-size!) figure of La Santa María with its crew, thus surpassing in height its opponent the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, this great work would never see the light, since the budgets, 31 million pesetas of the time, were unattainable and interest was lost when Spain lost its overseas colonies in 1898.
3. The Palace of Velázquez
Continuing a little further north by what used to be the Campo Grande, a large garden surrounded by rings of trees and clear in its center, we will reach the nerve center of the past art exhibitions. This great building, whose entrance through the marble staircase is defended by two sphinxes, is the Palace of Velázquez, which like the Royal Pavilion was built on the occasion of the National Exposition of Mining, Metal Arts, Ceramics, Glasswork and Mineral Waters of 1883, the first major thematic exhibition in Spain. However, unlike the Royal Pavilion, this building of iron, glass and brick became the venue that would host the bulk of the various exhibitions, including of course the Philippine Islands Exhibition. Its name pays homage to its ideologist, who, as the reader will have guessed, was the omnipresent Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, who was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace. London was a pioneer in the construction of iron and glass pavilions dedicated to exhibitions due to the great natural lighting that its design allowed to enter. The rest of Europe liked it and wanted to import this new architectural style, including Spain as we have just seen. Alberto de Palacios, among others, also participated in its construction.
The Palace of Velázquez was the first building in Spain to have its exterior walls decorated with ceramics. The reliefs that can be seen on the outside refer to Fine Arts and Mining (as a tribute to the exhibition) and the masks between the semicircular arches represent the faces of different artists. It is currently used as a temporary exhibition centre managed by the Reina Sofia Museum.
If we head towards the northeast corner of the pavilion, on its right we can see a tree sacred to the Celts. It is the largest yew (Taxus baccata) in El Retiro. Its symbolism was dual: it represented both life and death, as it served as a portal between this world and the hereafter during the samhain, the day of the dead (our November 1), and the night before, what we celebrate today as Halloween, a festivity that has lost all its sacred character. It was also a tree that served to kill, and the Romans knew that very well, to the point of suffering it in their own flesh, as the Celts made arrows with their toxic wood. It should be borne in mind that the entire tree except the false fleshy fruit (which can be consumed but with great caution) is poisonous because of taxin, a powerful neurotoxic. So you know, you can look but better not touch it.
In this same area, once occupied by the Campo Grande, a cemetery was built, although there are no longer any remains that would allow us to glimpse it. It was in the time of Charles III and its purpose was to bury the workers of the park and, later, those who fell during the Spanish War of Independence. To give us an idea of its size, the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, the Crystal Palace and its pond are now located in the area occupied by this forgotten cemetery. It was closed in 1874 on the occasion of the construction of the Paseo de Coches (“Cars Walk”). Ten years later the Almudena Cemetery was inaugurated, so we assume that the bodies buried in El Retiro ended their days there.
4. A zoo in El Retiro?
To reach our next destination, we must head east and cross one of the main arteries of El Retiro: the eastern branch of the Count Fernán Núñez’s Walk, although it used to be known as Paseo de Coches (“Cars Walk”), but its name was changed in homage to Fernán Núñez for having financed the project.
It was built in 1874 following the fashion of the rest of Europe according to which these walks were installed in large urban parks to circulate horse-drawn carriages and, later, motor vehicles. In El Retiro it was necessary to asphalt the walk and install traffic lights and zebra crossings to regulate the ever-increasing traffic. Originally, this walk was much longer as it even left El Retiro, sharing space with the streets of Alcalá and O’Donnell. The old Cars Walk was the scene of various motorbike and cycling competitions. Road traffic was banned throughout the park in 1981 due to ecological degradation. It is here that the essential Madrid Book Fair, one of the most important cultural events in Spain, is held every year.
The House of Beasts was one of the most popular places of El Retiro. Now, many people pass by and don’t pay attention at these facilities. This is the first of the “caprices” we are going to see. The caprices were a series of constructions ordered by King Ferdinand VII after the War of Independence against the French to restore the park to its past splendor and restore it. These caprices are based on the recreational pavilions that had been built in the gardens of England or France for the enjoyment of royal families.
The House of Beasts was built in 1830 at the eastern end of the park, following the parallel marked by the trellis. In the beginning it was constituted by a rectangular house with two plants: in the one below inhabited the specimens brought from different parts of the world in separated and fenced compartments (today the glazed modules reproduce in some way the old cages) and the superior plant served as dependencies for the royal family. In front of it was a circular courtyard. Today its place is occupied by the Eugenio Frías Municipal Public Library.
The precedent of this enclosure is the “animal park” that King Charles III the Enlightened inaugurated near the Botanical Garden, in a building (the same that today occupies the Prado Museum) that was intended to be annexed to a future Museum of Natural Sciences and that housed mainly exotic specimens brought from the American colonies. Subsequently and shortly before the outbreak of the War of Independence, the animals were moved to El Retiro, but not to the House of Beasts, but to the northeast end of the park that became known as La Leonera (“the Lion’s Cage”). Many died during the war. Finally, around 1830 the survivors were sent to the present House of Beasts.
At that time, the entrance to the enclosure was closed and could be visited upon payment of an entrance fee. The money collected was used to clean and care for the facilities. The stony lions that currently guard the entrance to the House of Beasts (located next to the Library) have been doing so since the nineteenth century.
If the visitor inspects the small square at the entrance, he will see that on the back of the benches there is a coat of arms with a dragon-griffin appearing on its right-hand side over an azure field. This creature remained on the Madrid coat of arms from the 16th to the 20th century and its origin can be found in a legend that Philip III helped to forge. It seems that in 1569 a dragon was found engraved on a stone during the demolition of the wall of Puerta Cerrada. The fact is that at that time Valladolid and Madrid disputed the title of capital of Spain and somehow it was necessary to justify which of the villas was the most suitable. To do this, it was customary to resort to mythology or to invent it in order to justify the mythical origins of some place. Somehow, King Philip III managed to link that engraved stone with the supposed mythical origin of Madrid, which would go back to Ocno Bianor, a hero of Trojan descent and ancestor of Romulus and Remus. Following the recommendations that Apollo had given him in his dreams, he founded a kingdom in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula, in the heart of the Carpetani territory, which he consecrated to the goddess Metragirta, i.e. Cybele. According to this legend, Metragirta changed its name to Magerit and from here the name of Madrid would come. Be that as it may, the plan went well for the king, because the Courts would end up being transferred to Madrid.
From the 19th century it is also the great octagonal trench in the centre of the courtyard which served to house numerous species of primates, which is why it is known as the monkey trench. Visitors will also be able to see several claustrophobic caves enclosed by bars. Well, if they look like to us, let’s imagine what the polar and brown bears that were locked up there must have felt like.
In addition to monkeys and bears, there were also elephants, crocodiles, lions, tigers, hyenas, leopards, zebras, antelopes, a hippo (called Pipo), various species of birds. Many were donated by individuals, others came from circuses or other zoos. In fact, the House of Beasts served as a refuge for many animals from zoos in war-torn countries. For example, during World War II many exotic animals came from Berlin zoo.
Naturally, each animal had its own story. Some were collateral victims of the wars, others were used for fighting in anachronistic shows (people enjoyed watching a bull and a lion or a bull and an elephant fighting in bullrings), others were sacrificed to feed the hungry, others ate more, as in the Civil War, where it is estimated that between 20 and 30 Nationalists were thrown alive to the carnivores. However, one story stands out from the rest: that of the elephant Pizarro. The fact that a female elephant was named “Pizarro” is a complete mystery. This pachyderm was one of the main attractions of the House of Beasts and one of the animals most loved by visitors. She was one of those animals that were used in fights against bulls, lions, pumas, panthers. For example, in Valladolid she broke one of her tusks against a bull. Even so, she was always victorious. Later she was taught some tricks to amuse the visitors, such as uncorking bottles and drinking their contents. However, if she became famous, it was for her escape. One day she managed to break the chains that tied her and took a walk without hurting anyone along Madrid’s Alcalá Street, entering a tavern to finish off the stock of freshly baked bread. Her end was very sad: a degenerate took advantage of a lonely night to murder the poor animal.
The enclosure was closed in 1969, as another more advisable place had been proposed to house the animals in Casa de Campo, as it relatively reproduced more faithfully the natural habitat of the species, in addition to having more space: the current Madrid zoo. Luckily for the animals, because the House of Beasts was overpopulated and dilapidated. The animals were crowded and badly lived in small cages, because after the chaos of the Civil War the House of Beasts experienced a real boom, to such an extent that it came to house 550 animals of 83 different species and to receive about 20000 people a day. Even so, some of its remains continue to tell the past history of a forgotten place that today has become idyllic gardens in which to take a pleasant walk.
Before leaving this place we have to look at a discordant element. Sitting on one of the bear caves, the closest to the entrance, a goblin plays a flute cheerfully (José Noja was the author of the sculpture). Why is a goblin here? His legend takes us back to the times of Philip V, the first Bourbon in Spain. It is said that both the king and the royal gardeners would remain engrossed contemplating beautiful flowers that seemed to sprout from nowhere, until some workers began to realise what was happening: a little goblin was who planted them. Many tried to hunt him down, but like a good goblin he was very slippery and disappeared into the undergrowth. They also say that the couple who see him will be blessed with a long and intense relationship. This is one more of those romantic legends that dot the Buen Retiro Park.
5. The misterious Ramón y Cajal Monument
We could say that the twentieth century was the sculptural century for El Retiro because of the large number of monuments, statues and fountains that were placed within its boundaries. In fact, we could make another post talking exclusively about the statues of the park. On the contrary, in this case we are going to focus our attention on a specific monument because of the curious symbology that it has. Possibly, it is one of the most beautiful of El Retiro. We speak of the Ramón y Cajal Monument on the occasion of his retirement at the age of 70, located in the Venezuela Walk, because it was the neurologist’s favourite, or so it is said. Mr. Santiago did not attend his inauguration, presided over by King Alfonso XIII, and since then he has not set foot in El Retiro again. It seems that the monument was not to his liking, since he judged as impossible to estimate the vital achievements of anyone without a sufficiently broad temporal perspective.
Santiago Ramón y Cajal is one of the great Spanish geniuses. He was the first Spaniard to win the first Nobel Prize in Science for his invaluable studies in neurology. He was also a great doctor, and in his most unknown facet, a great draftsman. The aforementioned monument, made by Victorio Macho, presents us a semi-jacent Ramón y Cajal on a triclinium dressed in typical Greco-Roman clothes. Behind the sage, a bronze statue of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, watches over his effigy, offering him a laurel wreath for his achievements.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the monument are the extremely symbolic reliefs on the sides of the façade. The one on the right says Fons Vitae, the fountain of life, represented by a birth. The child seems to hold a symbol in his hands. Unless it was a crack, it looks very much like the Kano rune, although it would be inverted. In the esoteric sphere, this rune represents the arrival of light, wisdom and enlightenment, inseparable qualities of Ramón y Cajal. The one on his left reads Fons Mortis, the fountain of death, in which a burial appears. On the towel hanging from the shoulder of the person who watches over the dead there is another element of the runic alphabet: the Odal rune, also called Othala, and it corresponds to the omega of the Greek alphabet (Ω), symbol of the end in the Judeo-Christian culture. The dichotomous waters coming from both fountains are mixed in the pond surrounding the figure of the scientist. It may be that these reliefs allegorically symbolize the office of Santiago, which is ultimately medicine, a discipline that works equally with life and death. Or it could be an allegory of science and the scientist: the source of life as the birth of scientific ideas, inventions and knowledge, and the source of death as a metaphor for the immortality of the revolutionary knowledges and of the authors who have given them life.
6. Egyptian elements in El Retiro
We continue our path through the mysteries of El Retiro westward along the Venezuela Walk in search of another pagan element, another of Ferdinand’s VII caprices. When we arrive approximately at the center of the southern shore of the Great Pond and, we see a monumental fountain of brick and stone, today inactive. It is popularly known as the Fountain of the Sphinxes, the Fountain of the Pot-bellied Woman, the Fountain of the Canopic Jar or the Fountain of the Mallo and was designed by Isidro González Velázquez, also the architect of the rest of the caprices.
The popular name of “pot-bellied woman” refers to the female figure that occupies the niche in the centre of the structure, mistaken for a woman with a conspicuous belly. Of the Canopy Jar is the most appropriate term, because what represents the central figure is an Egyptian canopic jar. These served as funerary vessels in which the embalmed viscera of the deceased were stored. Normally four vessels were used, one for each viscera (stomach, intestines, liver and lungs), closed with head-shaped covers representing the daughter entities of Horus that protect the viscera from corruption. Originally, the monument was called Egyptian Fountain of the God Canopus, because indeed Canopus was also an Egyptian god, specifically the one that gives name to an arm of the mouth of the Nile and, therefore, is a god related to water, so there is no better place for this god than a fountain. On the other hand, Fountain of the Mallo mentions a small pond located just in front of the fountain, which was on its northern shore.
If the traveller pays attention he will see that at the top of the podium there is a pilaster finished off by a column that seems unfinished, as if there had to be something on top of it. The truth is that in the past there was, specifically the effigy of a male character, presumably the god Osiris, judge of the Duat (the afterlife of Egyptians), lord of the resurrection, agriculture, fertility and floods of the Nile. It was probably Osiris because it was located in a fountain dedicated to the god Canopus and, in short, to water.
7. Contemplating the Great Pond from the Monument to Alfonso XII
Once we have established silent communion with the Egyptian gods, we will return briefly on our steps to go by the eastern margin of the Great Pond on our way to the magnificent Monument to Alfonso XII.
The Buen Retiro Great Pond, as it was originally called, is the park’s most famous protagonist. It is like a multipurpose knife: it is used to immerse oneself in its contemplation, for sailing (which is what it was conceived for), to visit its aquatic inhabitants and, why not, to make naval battles. Indeed, this pond served to simulate naumachias during the 17th century. The idea was possibly of Cosme Lotti, Italian painter and scenographer, witness of the naumachias that were carried out in the Pitti Palace of Florence, who wanted to bring them to Spain for the enjoyment of the King Philip IV. Miniature fleets were built specifically for this purpose. Everything was very grandiloquent in order to impress the king and the nobility. Fire rains, earthquakes, storms, lights and sounds, floods, great parades were represented… A great spectacle that sometimes lasted up to 6 hours. The king used to enjoy these representations either immersed in them in his royal gondola or in some of the infrastructures located on the banks of the pond.
But not only of naumachias was witness the Great Pond, but also of floating theatrical representations. The aforementioned scenographer Cosme Lotti created an island located in the center of the pond for the representation of Los Encantos de Circe by Calderón de la Barca for the 1635 Saint John’s Eve.
The pond, a parallelogram of 280×135 meters, is one of the few original works that have survived, as it is contemporaneous to the birth of El Retiro. It was built between 1632 and 1633 and has always been the largest water reservoir in El Retiro, with a capacity of 55000 cubic meters. Four waterwheels located in the corners supplied it with water from the Bajo Abroñigal. It is not very deep: the average depth is 1.27 metres, with maximums of 1.8 metres and minimums of 0.60 metres, which is why it is surprising that it was one of the favourite destinations for Madrid suicides. Its origin is disputed, although it is argued that the lake present here was used to build it.
This place keeps numerous secrets, the problem is that they are not discovered until the pond is emptied, a procedure that is done every 15 or 20 years approximately for maintenance and possible repairs that may need. For example, in 2001 the emptying was carried out because the pond lost 5000 liters of water daily. Obviously, about 8000 fish and the rest of the animals were evacuated before, among them Margarita, the largest carp in El Retiro, 1 meter long and 12 kilos. But in addition to Margarita, the workers removed a significant amount of debris, namely: 40 boats, 41 tables, 192 chairs, 9 wooden benches, 3 containers, 20 litter bins, 19 City Hall fences, 50 mobile phones, several shopping carts, numerous skateboards, a chewing gum vending machine, some colonnades from the Monument to Alfonso XII and an open and empty strongbox among other things. It is clear that human beings never learn.
As we said, on the eastern shore is the Monument to Alfonso XII. However, for a time here was located the wharf, designed by the omnipresent Isidro González Velázquez in times of Ferdinand VII. At the end of the 19th century, the wharf was removed (a bit filthy at the time but still used) to carry out the initiative proposed by the regent María Christina of Austria, widow of Alfonso XII, to build a monument in homage to her husband as peacemaker king paid for by national subscription. A work projected by José Grases Riera and whose first stone would be placed in 1902. The monument would be finished 21 years later
This sculpture has its importance, since it is considered the first one dedicated to the Homeland, figure represented in the King Alfonso XII, again following the European tendencies. At the top of the pedestal and just crowning the central axis is the equestrian bronze statue of the king made by Mariano Benlliure. Just below the viewpoint, in the friezes appear four doves of peace, and just below a medallion in each facet that represents the four cardinal virtues of Christianity, those that make an individual morally perfect and that determine morality itself and, consequently, those that a king should pursue to become a good, just and responsible ruler: Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance. Looking down to the base we will see two more sculptures entitled “Allegory of Peace” and “Allegory of Freedom” and a series of reliefs representing different allegories with Alfonso XII as the protagonist. The visitor will then see that some doors are inserted into the pedestal. These welcomed a crypt that was to be decorated with marbles and various reliefs on Alfonso XII and allow the rise to the viewpoint just below the equestrian statue.
The rest of the monument consists of a semicircular colonnade composed of two series of Ionic pillars. In the frieze of the colonnade appear nothing more and nothing less than the coats of arms of the 49 Spanish provinces. At the base of the vertices of each series are sculptures of the elements that strengthen the country: the arts, the industry, the army, the navy, agriculture and science. Finally, we have the semicircular staircase that is introduced into the pond guarded by four lions and four beautiful sirens at its base. In short, a prodigious set of sculptures for which the intervention of different artists was necessary.
8. The House of the Smuggler
Between the Martínez Campos Monument and the Gate of the Queen Mercedes we find a building that at first sight may go unnoticed as one of the many restaurants and places of gastronomic provisioning of El Retiro. However, this construction, the Florida Retiro, has a striking past.
We return to the post-war times after the expulsion of the French, to that moment in which Ferdinand VII was decorating El Retiro with his particular caprices to try to restore it and give it back its colour. This is one of those that has survived to the present day. We are now in the Reserve of Ferdinand VII, an extensive area of the park that occupied all the northeast and part of the east and north and was restricted for personal use of the king and his family. It is in this area that the king instructs Isidro González Velázquez to raise his caprices. Later, this fraction of El Retiro would become the “recreation area”.
A chronicler of the early twentieth century said, not without some derision, that this was the most Spanish house, not only by its name but also by its construction made by bricks, masonry and tile roof. The polygonal room housed a waterwheel that was discovered in the 1920s during excavations. It seems that it served as a kind of exhibition hall, because inside could be seen a group of automatons representing a friar, a smuggler or several Andalusian characters
Many of the caprices began to lose their charm at the end of the nineteenth century and replace their original functions by others of a more economic nature. It is logical, because it is necessary to bear in mind that after the passage of the French several sections and constructions of El Retiro were rented by different owners in order to resuscitate the park. In the case of the House of the Smuggler, the establishment became a hygienic and therapeutic centre in which patients could undergo oxygenation therapies based on the consumption of carbonated drinks or inhalation of oxygen. Decades later it acquired its gastronomic function until it became the current party hall.
9. A symbol hidden to the naked eye
Without leaving the Reserve of Ferdinand VII, we headed north to study a monument to which passers-by do not pay the attention it deserves. Here it’s paid homage to one of those heroes whom we forget very easily and who is condemned to oblivion. These lines serve to vindicate his figure.
The monument was erected in honour of Francisco José Buenaventura de Paula Martí y Mora (1761-1827) in 1961. This name may not sound at all, but he was the inventor of the fountain pen in 1799 (he devised a model even before the Romanian Petrache Poenaru patented the invention). However, his most important contributions were in the field of stenography and shorthand, not in vain he is also considered the inventor of shorthand in Spanish and the first to produce a detailed study on shorthand (1800) and to found the first school of this discipline in Spain.
On the lintel behind the bust appears a Latin sentence attributed to the Latin poet Martial and partially covered by the vegetation he says:
“CURRANT VERBA LICET, MANUS EST VELOCIOR ILLIS. NONDUM LINGUA SUUM, DEXTRA PEREGIT OPUS”.
He added it at the beginning of the first edition of his work and it could be translated as
“No matter how fast the words are, the hands move faster. As soon as the tongue has completed its meaning, the right hand has finished the task”.
The strange symbol on the front of the pedestal is possibly a combination of several tachygraphic symbols.
We continued northward to a small space governed in its center by a small fountain with an octahedral base. It is the Fountain of the Poets or the Fountain of Seville, thus known by the names of the eight famous Sevillian poets who are inscribed on the marbles of its pedestal. Of the symbol presumably hidden in this place the exhaustive writer Javier Sierra, Premio Planeta 2017 with his research novel The invisible fire, gives account. And if there is a symbol here, it is truly hidden. The only way to observe it is from the sky, as if it were a call to the gods. Clearly from the vertices of the octagonal pedestal start 8 radii that connect to the limit of a roundabout. For the author, what the architect of these gardens tried to represent is an eight-spoke chrismon, a rare variant of the typical six-spoke chrismon. The chrismon or Chi Rho is an archaic Christian symbol. By means of two Greek letters, chi (χ) and rho (ρ), it is representing Jesus Christ in the form of a monogram by means of the first two letters of his Greek name: Χριστός. Normally, these two letters are wrapped in a circle and accompanied by a horizontal bar that together with the column of the letter rho form a cross. In this way, the whole symbol seems to show a wheel, another very old symbol, much more than Christianity itself, a cosmic symbol that is representing perfection and divinity. The Greek letters alpha (α) and omega (ω), symbols of the beginning and end respectively, are also usually inserted.
Well, placing us in the context of Javier Sierra’s novel, in which the protagonists try to find out the origin of one of the great enigmas of the human being, their creativity, through the clues left by another ancestral symbol, the Holy Grail, the abnormal eight-spoke chrismon is presented to us as a mystical marker of those places which, by concentrating a suitable energy level, serve as a “portal” for the initiate to access that world of ideas, the source of all creativity. Perhaps Sierra is not too misguided: seen from the sky, the Fountain of the Poets resembles a bowl (like de Holy Grail) and, in addition, the fountain commemorates several poets, precisely those characters who most have to turn to their muses and to that world of ideas in order to elaborate their magnificent works. Next, we will see that, if this symbol exists, its situation has not been chosen at random, but has a close relationship with other Fernandine caprices of this area of El Retiro.
10. An out-of-place hermitage
Following the north radius of the presumed eight-spoke chrismon, we arrive at the remains of a red sandstone Romanesque church. It could be thought that these remains have always been there, that they could even belong to one of those numerous hermitages that used to be in El Retiro. But nothing could be further from the truth. These ruins come from Ávila, specifically from the ruins of the Church of Saint Pelagian or Church of Saint Isidore (its name was changed because the body of this saint rested within its walls during his journey from Seville to León). This temple, with a single nave, dates from the 11th century and was located on the right bank of the river Adaja. As the visitor can see, only the straight wall, the semicircular apse, several semicircular arches, the carved capitals, and several windows and adjoining columns remain.
In 1896, the remains of the hermitage were acquired by the Madrid City Council and its location was decided. In 1999 its restoration and consolidation began, although the truth is that it is badly placed, as the apse should be facing east, as every medieval church. Continuing with Javier Sierra’s thesis, what if the hermitage had been placed exactly at this point, so close to the aforementioned chrismon? Because chrismons are always associated with Christian temples. Was it placed here precisely to make the specialness of this place more obvious, to serve as an evident compass towards the awakening of the creative force that we all have? Too many questions…
11. The idyllic House of the Fisherman
To the left of the Romanesque temple is the idyllic House of the Fisherman, another of the caprices that has survived since the times of Ferdinand VII. It is situated in the centre of a small lake. It is a small, one-storey enclosure with an attic that can be reached via a footbridge. As its name indicates, the king, his family and guests spent a good time here fishing.
Formerly, its exterior presented several niches with sculptures and Pompeians paintings, giving it very surely a spectacular appearance. Nowadays, it is decorated with tiles with vegetal and marine motifs. Likewise, centuries ago its interior was decorated with very glossy furniture and paintings with Renaissance motifs, emulating the princely houses.
In the surroundings of all these monuments that we have mentioned up to now there were two more caprices, sadly disappeared. One of them was the Rustic or Persian House, a curious building that tried to reproduce the oriental style. It consisted of three bodies: a rectangular body with wooden façade, followed by the central body decorated with Chinese fabrics and objects crowned by a dome of glass, wood and zinc, and another rectangular body connected to the central through a corridor. The epithet for “rustic” comes from the appearance given to it by the trunks of unbarked trees that protected its outer cover. The other caprice, which disappeared recently in 1964, is the House of the Poor and the Rich. It was a two-storey building with a rustic appearance: the ground floor was decorated in a very humble way and the upper floor in a much more luxurious way, much more furnished. Nobody lived inside, but it was a space destined to house automatons: on the ground floor were the automatons representing a poor family, protected by wealthy Indians from Cuba, whose automatons lived on the upper floor. Both caprices, like their contemporaries, acquired other more mundane functions with the establishment of the recreation area. For example, the Persian House became a cafe-restaurant. The loss of interest and care ruined both caprices.
12. The Artificial Mountain
Would you believe us if we said that at El Retiro there was a castle? You should because, in fact, there was… It was built on the top of that hill that has been fenced for many years in the northeast corner of El Retiro, in front of the O’Donnell’s Gate, constituting an excellent watchtower of the town. It was known as the “Inkwell” because of its curious shape, similar to the inkwell of scribes. It consisted of circular cylindrical towers and a central body. It functioned as the reserved house of the royal family. This is the other caprice that could be related to this hidden symbol of El Retiro, because from its balconies the king could contemplate the wheel formed by the chrismon and who knows if he would receive any message from these inventive creatures. Be that as it may, the Inkwell was the definitive caprice of Ferdinand VII and the most admired by the people of Madrid. Today we can only imagine how it was like from the base painted with graffiti and covered with a concrete cap.
The irregularly stepped hill on which the Inkwell used to be is known as the Artificial Mountain, Cat Mountain, Roller Coaster or Bear Mountain. If you don’t completely turn the elevation around or don’t read the informative sign, you may not know why it’s called that. On one of its sides there is an access door to the interior of the Mountain, which already gives us details of how it is. On one side it is hollow inside, in fact the sign at the entrance indicates that it was used as an exhibition hall. On the other hand, the whole hill is artificial, erected on brick and masonry vaults. The water that once ran through the different waterfalls managed to ascend thanks to the waterwheel built inside the grotto. Originally, one of the waterfalls was guarded by lioness statues, like the ones we see today.
The alternative denominations that have received are due to the fact that, on the one hand, the cats have made of the hill their domains and they frequent it in great number. It resembles a roller coaster in that the step is irregular. Finally, it should be noted that this part of El Retiro served as a temporary refuge for some of the animals coming from the animal park inaugurated by Charles III near the Botanical Garden during the War of Independence. Later, the four-footed refugees would be taken to their final destination: the House of Beasts. The reader will have imagined already why it is also called Bear Mountain. The Lion’s Cage was also installed here.
The function of the Inkwell is already specified, but what about the cave? Why would the royal family want a grotto under its castle? We don’t know what was its former function before had served as an exhibition hall. Perhaps could it work as a place of recollection and meditation in which to attract creativity after having contemplated the chrismon? Who knows… In any case, it is possible that its closure will come to an end very soon, since the Town Hall is interested in reopening and restoring the mythical Artificial Mountain.
13. The Cow House
In front of the northern shore of the Great Pond we find a humble building that does not attract much attention. It is the last of the caprices that we will see in this small route. Since 1985 it has served as a cultural centre for exhibitions and various activities. It is probably one of the buildings of El Retiro that has suffered the most destruction and reconstruction.
Its origin goes back to the 19th century. At first it served as a sort of recreational estate for the king’s daughters, where freshly milked milk was served in an annexed restaurant, a service that attracted a large number of visitors. This was the case until 1886, when a powerful cyclone devastated it. In the twentieth century it was restored to become a restaurant and leisure area, with skating rinks and dance halls. After the Civil War it became the Pavillón party hall and would later be demolished and rebuilt. For a while it was in disuse until it became the pasture of flames in 1983. The cause of the fire was a homeless man who tried to warm himself with a bonfire inside. The rest is history.
14. The Statues Walk
Our next destination is the southwest. However, before arriving we can pass by the Music Temple, adjacent to the Cow House, in Maestro Villa Square, an important element as it is one of the few remains that have survived from the recreation area and is still in use. A curious detail is its octagonal base. It seems that the number 8 is a constant within El Retiro, as if it were a sort of talisman. It won’t be the last time we see it.
The place we are going to visit has a curious and little known history. It is the Statues Walk (currently known as Argentina Walk), which connects the Gate of Spain with the Great Pond. Along the center of this corridor there are several ornamental gardens, but what concerns us are the statues that delimit the promenade. We only have to see the sign on the pedestal of a few of them to put us in context: all represent kings and queens of Spain from the Visigoth period to the Bourbon dynasty. Quickly, something catches our attention: the statues are placed without rhyme or reason. The Bourbons, the Austrians and the Visigoths mix in an unreal chronology, as if there had been a rush to place the statues. However, this was not going to be the final destination of the statues.
Some of these statues were to land on the balustrades of the Royal Palace in Madrid, and yet ended up scattered throughout other parts of Madrid and Spanish geography. And all because of several recurring nightmares that had the superstitious Queen Consort Elisabeth Farnese, mother of Charles III and second wife of Philip V. These nightmares would be prophetic unless some decision was made according to Elisabeth, who believed that an earthquake would throw the statues on top of her, crushing her. As a result, the 108 statues of stone were relegated to oblivion in the basements of the Royal Palace. Finally, it would be another Elisabeth (Queen Elisabeth II) who would order the distribution of the statues in Madrid and other provinces. On the other hand, other more skeptical authors believe that this is rather an apocryphal story and that the reason for not finally installing the statues on the Royal Palace is either because of changes in the artistic tastes of the kings or because they weighed too much.
15. The eldest tree
A short walk along El Retiro is enough to realize that the vast majority of the gardens consist of lush forests formed by multiple plant species. However, there is a place that breaks with this rule: the Parterre gardens, an open space with hardly any trees that overcomes the visitor. However, the few trees are immense and very beautiful, like the pruned cypresses.
The Parterre is one of the most important gardens in El Retiro, as it has been there since the beginning of the park, being one of the few original elements. Obviously, a lot has changed with the passing of time and the dynasties. Each monarch has applied the style that seemed most convenient to him. The Parterre garden as such dates from the 18th century. It was built in the French style, following the tastes of the new king, Philip V, the first Bourbon of Spain. The garden that preceded it, this one from the 17th century, was known as the Octogonal Garden, so called because eight alleys full of vegetation crossed to form a central square. Once again the number eight is present. And again there are secrets that can only be observed from the air. Specifically, we refer to the shape of the Parterre, which clearly reproduces the plan of a basilica, even with its apse facing east, towards the exit of the Sun.
The Parterre has the honour of housing the oldest inhabitant of El Retiro, and it is said that of all Madrid: the ahuehuete (Taxodium mucronatum). Surely it is also one of the largest trees with its 25 meters high 5.5 meters in diameter of its trunk. This is a conifer from Mexico, where this species can reach a whopping 6000 years. In its native habitat it does not throw its leaves (it is perennial), on the other hand here in Madrid it does in the winter season (deciduous). Its scientific name mentions its resemblance to the yew in terms of foliar disposition, although it is popularly known as bald cypress because of that trait of losing leaves in winter. When it has disposed of its foliar clothing can be seen with more clarity the shape of candelabra that give it its powerful branches.
There are many stories that have carved out its biography. Starting from the moment it was planted, that can determine whether it is the oldest tree in the Community of Madrid or not. Some say that it was planted in the 19th century, when Elisabeth II rescued the Parterre from oblivion. If so, then it would not be the oldest inhabitant of Madrid (although it would be of El Retiro), as there are two ahuehuetes in Aranjuez planted in the 18th century. The other version (this is included in the Catalogue of Singular Trees of the Community of Madrid) states that it is approximately 360 years old, that is to say, it would have been planted around 1632-1633, at the same time as El Retiro was born and, therefore, it would be the oldest tree in Madrid.
If it is as old as it is said, then a great merit must be recognized: it survived the passage of the French during the War of Independence, who were in charge of destroying El Retiro, not only destroying its monuments but also cutting down at will an enormous amount of trees… except the ahuehuete. It is said that they did not do it because it would have served to parapet a cannon in the central fork formed by its thick branches. On the other hand, a romantic legend affirms that this specimen is a descendant of the ahuehuete under which the conqueror Hernán Cortés wept over the defeat against the Mexicas outside Tenochtitlan in 1520.
16. The remains of the old palace
We are going to momentarily leave the fenced enclosure of the park. Our goal now is to visit the old grounds up to where El Retiro really extended in a not too remote past. We left through the Philip’s IV Gate and crossing the Alfonso XII Street we’ll see a building. Both this one and the one we will see later were inside El Retiro enclosure, but let’s remember that Queen Elisabeth II had to sell this area due to economic problems. Curiously, this area corresponded to one of the most abandoned after the French invasion.
As we were saying, this building is the Casón del Buen Retiro, and it was one more end of the old palace built for Philip IV. It was inaugurated in 1637, a little later than the rest of the palace, due to the insufficient space dedicated to ballrooms and other social activities. For this purpose the Casón was built, then attached to the east wing of the Main Square: to have another ballroom. In the time of Charles II it became a reception hall, for which beautiful frescoes were commissioned, some of them still existing, such as the Origin and Triumph of the Order of the Golden Fleece of Lucas Jordán, located on the roof of the hall. Since the 70s of the 20th century it has served as an exhibition hall of the Prado Museum, even hosting works as significant as Guernica. Naturally, the current appearance of the Casón varies from the original due to all the reconstructions and enlargements it has undergone, but it still maintains its “Austrian” essence.
However, the same essence of Spanish Austrian architecture is best perceived in the other part of the palace that has survived to the present day: the Hall of Kingdoms. In its external architecture the style that Philip II made fashionable in Spain is perfectly manifested and can be perfectly compared with the external aspect that has for example the Royal Site of San Lorenzo del Escorial: the exposed brick, the black slate ceilings and chapitels, the austerity and architectural simplicity manifested in the poverty of columns, reliefs and sculptural friezes.
The Hall of Kingdoms separated the Major Square from the Main Square, constituting the latter’s north wing. It was the throne room of Philip IV, therefore, the reader can already imagine the sumptuousness that must reign in this room, full of frescoes, canvases (many of them now exhibited in the Prado Museum), opulent furniture, sculptures, all contrasting with the simplicity of the external architecture. From their balconies, the royal family enjoyed the shows offered in the Main Square. It also served as an ardent chapel for King Philip V and his son Louis I.
Unfortunately, this is the only side of the palace that the French left standing after demolishing and burning the rest of the palace. Even so, the Hall of Kingdoms has not been left in disuse, as between 1884 and 2010 it housed the Army Museum, the same that is now in the Alcazar of Toledo. However, in the period between 1997 and 2010, something wandered between their stays; several strange phenomena made an appearance very frequently and multiple workers (security guards, cleaners, military guards) have been terrified witnesses of them. We are talking about objects that changed places on their own, shutters that opened and closed on their own, noises generated by a mob of children in rooms in which there was no one, voices of inexplicable origin, harassing presences, the appearance of a lady dressed in red with clothes from another era, of a small black dog and of a bearded man, or even of Félix Gazzola himself, a soldier and aristocrat of the court of Charles III, whom a guard had to ask to leave the museum because they were going to close, to which the presumed apparition nodded and then disappeared. It should be noted that much of this phenomenology occurred at night or in the early hours of the morning, where the museum was closed to the public. Many parapsychologists defend the thesis of impregnation, according to which negative and mournful emotions and events leave a kind of patina on objects and in the surrounding area. The numerous pieces of war that saw blood and pain in equal parts (and also helped to spill it) may have something to do… In the case of the Count of Gazzola, the tombstone of his tomb and a portrait of him were exhibited in the museum.
Like the Casón, the Hall of Kingdoms currently belongs to the Prado Museum and is in the process of restoration, as since 2010 has been closed and in a deplorable state of abandonment. It would be very enriching for the building to once again exhibit the paintings it once housed. We return on our steps and enter again in El Retiro to finish our particular excursion
17. The Octogonal Pond
In the northeast corner of the Parterre is the Octogonal Pond or Pond of the Small Bells, connected in the past with the old Octogonal Garden through one of the eight paths. It is another of those original elements of the 17th century that is still standing, although modified.
Formerly, where the rock grotto is located today, there was a small tower with bells that rang when the wind blew them, and hence its name. Undoubtedly, we must imagine it as a place of relaxation while practicing fishing. After the War of Independence it would be replaced by a beautiful chinese-style temple, which would also end up being removed.
The profile of the pond is poly-lobed, similar to that of the pond in the centre of which was the hermitage of Saitn Anthony of the Portugueses. However, the number of lobes in the Octogonal Pond is not the same. Once again we come across the number 8. Let us speculate on the possible meaning of this number, if any. 8 is an important number for both the Eastern and Western world. For the Eastern world, 8 is cosmic harmony, the order of the universe and perfection. In Christianity the 8 is the day after the creation of the world, indicating the beginning of a new cycle and, by extension, making reference to the resurrection. It is not uncommon to find temples with an octagonal base, such as the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Here, the sacred number 8 would unite heaven and earth. And if this symbol is placed horizontally we get the symbol of the infinite, of the everlasting. We do not have the solution to this possible enigma, but we can ask ourselves a few questions: is the 8 repeated so many times with a sacred motif to link El Retiro with the heavenly kingdom? Or perhaps to symbolize the harmony and stillness that one breathes in its gardens? Or is it possible that it makes an allegorical mention to all the times that El Retiro has risen from among the ruins and neglect throughout history? What if it simply had an ornamental purpose without further transcendence? We encourage you to discuss this matter and to put forward other hypotheses that you are thinking of.
18. A tribute to the victims of 11-M in Madrid’s Aokigahara
We end our journey through the mysteries of El Retiro at our eighteenth stop (what a coincidence…), a place to enter with all the respect and humility of the world. We end up in this place because it is possibly the most special of the park. Few people know that in this place there is a monument to those who fell in the terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004 in Madrid. It was the year after the attacks that this memorial was erected. It is called the Forest of Remembrance or Forest of the Absent. It occupies 115 hectares and its nerve centre is the artificial hill surrounded by a small stream. You can climb to its top through its irregular terraces arranged in a spiral. It has a very special detail: there are 192 trees planted, 170 cypresses and 22 olive trees, one for each victim of the attacks, so that each and every one of those whose lives were cut are represented by two tree species: the cypress, being a perennial plant and reaching such advanced ages, was known in the ancient world as the “tree of life” and, like many other conifers, is considered a symbol of immortality and resurrection, while the olive tree is a symbol of peace in the Judeo-Christian religion and of victory in Japan. In the end, what seems to come out of this monument is that the victims of March 11 and all those of any terrorist attack are immortal, as they live permanently in the memory of thousands of people, and that peace continues to rise with victory over the terror that the miserable want to sow in the world.
Surely you’ve heard of the “Suicide Forest” and you will unfailingly relate it to Japan’s Aokigahara, a forest located at the foot of Mount Fuji and sadly famous for the tragic number of suicides that occur there. Well, thanks to the invaluable contribution of researcher Juan Ignacio Cuesta Millán, whom we thank from these lines, we learned of a story told by the Madrid chronicler Pedro de Répide. He says that in addition to the Madrid Viaduct of Segovia, the former Madrid suicides went into the grove now occupied by the Forest of Remembrance of El Retiro (although it would extend to the hermitage of Saint Anthony of the Portugueses) to voluntarily sign his death sentence, so that Madrid also had its own Aokigahara…
As will have been proven at this point, the Buen Retiro Park constitutes a singular and special space in Madrid. We have told dozens of stories that have occurred in the enclosure or in its vicinity. Dozens more remain outside, such as those that tell us how El Retiro has been used several times to perform secret rituals framed in Cuban Santeria, or the one that says that Dr. Pedro González Velasco, founder of the National Museum of Anthropology, walked with his daughter’s mummy through the gardens of the park, or when a hot air balloon test was carried out in 1792. And what to say about all the statues of illustrious Spaniards that we have not mentioned.
In the end, El Retiro is a multipurpose knife. It is presented to us as a place in which to walk, lie down to read, practice a multitude of sports, get educated, have fun, drink something, feed the spirit, contemplate, get excited, investigate, study, learn, socialize, respect and get lost between its history and infinite mysteries. We hope that we have fulfilled our objective and that the reader has fallen in love with the Buen Retiro Park, the place where magic, spirituality and history intermingle until they become one.
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