View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici, RomeCa. 1630. Oil on canvas, 48.5 x 43 cm.
A masterpiece in the history of Western landscape painting, in which Velázquez set out his idea of landscape without any narrative excuse to justify it, this Roman scene and its companion work (P01211) are two of his most singular works. Both combine architecture, plant life and sculpture with living figures and integrate them into a landscaped setting in a very natural way. Critics have repeated tirelessly that light and air are also the protagonists of these canvases, and for several centuries, they have also insisted on how these works seem to reflect an effort to capture a specific moment, that is, to describe particular atmospheric circumstances. This has led to the theory that these two works represent "evening" and "midday", thus anticipating Monet’s famous series on Rouen Cathedral by over two centuries. In both works, Velázquez uses a Palladian window -an architectural structure consisting of a central opening ending in a semicircular arch flanked by two lintelled openings- but one is open and the other, closed to form a wall.
These are faithful depictions of two places in the Villa Medicis, one of the most important palaces in Rome, and they have no identifiable narrative content, as the figures they contain seem to be moving around the gardens without participating in any particular event. In one case, what some consider a washerwoman seems to be hanging a sheet over a balustrade, while below, two men converse, possibly about the architecture before them. Beside them, a classical bust (possibly of Hermes) is visible amidst the hedge, and on the wall, a niche with a sculpture reminds us that this location’s prestige is partially due to its splendid collection of ancient statuary.
Besides their extremely high quality, two factors make these works singular among painting from their period. The first is the absence of a subject. In the 17th century, landscape became a relatively important genre, but the representation of nature on canvas was very rarely enough by itself, so there was generally an accompanying mythological or religious "story" to justify the work. Landscape alone was not considered worthy of depiction unless it was supplied with a narrative excuse, or presented an urban or monumental view. Yet here, Velázquez transmits a more direct view of nature, and this is reinforced by the second of the two factors that make these paintings so singular: while artists such as Claude Lorrain are know to have made summary notebook sketches from nature for their canvases, it was extremely rare for a painter to set up his canvas and painting tools in front of the subject of his work and paint it on the spot, as Velázquez did in both of the present works.
Also singular in these works is the type of impression of nature that they seek to transmit: this is not an unchanging, timeless view of part of a garden; instead, there seems to be a will to reflect the experience of a moment. Very little is known about these works. The first problem they pose is that of their very nature or function as painting. They were once thought to be a pair of sketches that the painter had made with the idea of using them in larger compositions. Now, however, the predominant idea is that they are finished, self-sufficient works.
There are discrepancies with regard to when these landscapes were painted. Clearly, they were made during one of Velázquez’s two visits to Rome, and that has been the basis for considering various possibilities. The information supporting an early date seems most consistent and is based on stylistic and documentary considerations. From a technical standpoint, we should mention that these works are painted over a brown primer similar to what Velázquez used during his first visit to Italy but abandoned upon returning to Madrid in 1631. Stylistically, these works are congruent with the landscape appearing in Joseph’s Tunic, which he painted during that trip (Monastery of El Escorial), or with the background of The Temptation of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Orihuela, Museo Diocesano). And as Milicua demonstrated, they are also related to landscapes similar to those by Agostino Tassi. The technical arguments that support dating these works from Velázquez’s first visit to Italy are based on the fact that he lived at the Villa Medici for two months at that time. They also draw on a document from 1634 in which proto-notary Jerónimo de Villanueva acquired four little landscapes from Velázquez for Philip IV. Proponents of the idea that they were painted during his second visit are based on the stylistic characteristics of these canvases, specifically their advanced style and the fact that during that period, the grotto to which the arch led was being repaired.
Whatever the case may be, these are two masterpieces in the history of Western landscape painting. They foreshadow some pictorial formulae from the 19th century, but their true value lies not in their role as precursors, but rather in their quality as artworks in which the artist expresses an original and highly personal concept of landscape (Text from Portús, J.: Velázquez. Guía, Museo del Prado, 1999, pp. 78-82; Portús, J.: Roma naturaleza e ideal. Paisajes de 1600-1650, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011, p. 170).