The Buen Retiro (Good Retreat) Palace was built in Madrid, not far from where the Museo del Prado is today. It was intended to be a suburban villa where the Royal Family could relax and entertain visitors. Begun somewhat modestly in the early 1630s, over the next ten years the palace was dramatically enlarged under the direction of the Count-Duke of Olivares, the powerful favourite and mentor of King Philip IV.
The Retiro grew to become an intricate network of approximately forty buildings set amidst lavish gardens, and was one of the more extensive architectural projects undertaken in Europe to that time. The palace interiors necessitated a decoration scheme that included the commissioning of more than 800 paintings by artists working mostly in Spain and Italy. This constituted the single most ambitious programme of artistic patronage ever seen in Europe. Spanish diplomats in Italy and the Viceroys of Naples were tasked with sourcing paintings that would fulfil Philip IV’s and Olivares’ desire to acquire paintings by the most renowned contemporary artists. Many Italian pupils of the Carracci, the Caravaggisti and foreign artists working in Italy were engaged to contribute paintings.
Many of the rooms in the Retiro had specific themes. The History of Ancient Rome cycle for instance was commissioned around 1633 and created solely by artists based in Italy; most of them from Naples, and others from Rome. The series was completed by 1641, when seventeen crates of paintings were shipped from Rome to Spain, destined for the Buen Retiro. The number and size of these paintings plus the high status of the artists involved made this the most impressive series of all those undertaken to decorate the palace. There are more than a dozen paintings in this exhibition that once graced the walls of the Retiro Palace.