The gardens of Buen Retiro (El Retiro, as the people of Madrid call it), is the green heart of the capital, its great open-air hall –of 118 hectares– where musicians, mimes, fortune tellers, caricaturists, vendors come together… A playful and popular place, open to all.
The beginnings of the Gardens
It was the enlightened King Charles III who first opened part of the gardens of El Buen Retiro to the public in 1767, provided that they followed a certain protocol in terms of clothing: “Entrance will not be given except in uncovered body, so that men must present themselves with their hairstyles, without a hat, net, or cap, or anything that detracts from the decent dress that is worn; consequently in a jacket, without a cape or overcoat”, as the ‘Notice to the public for the walk in the Gardens of the Royal Palace’ reported.
In the 17th century, people had sometimes been allowed access to the royal gardens to watch shows. The opening on a regular basis during the reign of Charles III was undoubtedly a first step towards the democratisation of the Spanish gardens. This would come with the creation of the first truly public gardens. They were epecifically created as such and emerged in the 19th century as a necessity brought about by the industrial revolution with the demographic pressure on large cities and the need for green lungs.
The history of the Gardens
Going back to the royal origins of the Buen Retiro, named after the Cuarto Real, an annex to the San Jerónimo monastery; where Spanish monarchs sometimes retreated. These rooms were the nucleus of the Buen Retiro recreational palace complex. It was built during the reign of Philip IV, between 1630 and 1640. Located on the outskirts of Madrid at the time, it occupied an area comparable to half of the capital. Austere in appearance, built in brick, with granite moldings and slate roofs, the only thing left of the colossal palace of the King Philip today is the Hall of the Kingdoms and the Buen Retiro mansion, both parts of the Prado Museum.
As the historian Consuelo Durán points out, the greatest interest of the Buen Retiro was in its gardens. However, these presented the same lack of planning and unity as the architectural conglomerate. So many times in Spain we find this lack of structure and symmetry in the conception of space!
It was then a set of different garden areas, which included more formal parts based on geometric hedges; others more wooded, walks covered by lattices, vegetable gardens and a series of chapels, inhabited by hermits. Water also played an important role, with ponds, canals and fountains. The most important was the large pond, which was used for spectacular naval battles and theatrical festivals. In there, plays by Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega were performed. It is difficult to imagine a better setting than the garden on a summer night with its greenery, aromas, sounds, freshness… As a courtly playground, the Gardens of Buen Retiro were also a place for tournaments, bullfights, hunting, banquets…
With the death of Philip IV in 1665 this splendour period of the Retiro ended, and what we know today has little to do with it; the only vestiges are the large pond and the octagonal pond. Political events and different landscape trends have been transforming the complex for more than three centuries.
The arrival of the Bourbons on the Spanish throne at the beginning of the 18th century with Philip V also left its mark on the Retiro. From this period is the Parterre, designed by the great Gallic architect Robert de Cotte, which despite later modifications in the 19th century still maintains the original layout with its central axis and the parterres on both sides, a faithful reflection of the French garden, with its predilection for open spaces and symmetry. It was originally part of a big project to convert the sober Habsburg Palace into a grand baroque château.
Modern history of the Gardens
The War of Independence (1808-1814) was a catastrophe for the Gardens of Buen Retiro. For four years it became the headquarters of the invading French army. Both the buildings and the gardens were razed to the ground, and thousands of trees were felled. With Ferdinand VII the gardens were restored with a massive repopulation of trees and opened to the public; except for an area called El Reservado, to which only the royal family had access. In this private area a romantic garden was created, with small picturesque buildings.
From this period are the Casita del Pescador and the Montaña Artificial. Following the tradition of exhibiting exotic animals in the royal gardens, the monarch also had the Casa de Fieras built, which later became the zoo of Madrid.
In 1868 the Buen Retiro Gardens became municipal property and the first public park in Madrid. Paseo de Carruajes, a meeting point for Madrid’s high society of the time, was opened in this phase. In addition, the beautiful Palacio de Cristal was built to house the exotic vegetation of the 1887 Philippine Islands Exhibition. Among the many transformations and additions of the park; the anachronistic monument to Alfonso XII (1922) in the large pond stands out. Cecilio Rodriguez’s creations: La Rosaleda (1915) and the formal gardens that bear his name (1941) are remarkable too.
Today, El Retiro is undoubtedly the most emblematic and vibrant park in Madrid. It keeps evolving with the recent creation of the Bosque de los Ausentes; a monument commemorating the victims of the terrorist attack of March 11, 2004 in Madrid.
For the people of Madrid, the Retiro is a breath of fresh green air; a refuge from the Castilian wilderness that can be seen in the distance.