Prior to the “View of Toledo” by El Greco (ca. 1587), stricto sensu landscape painting was a rarity in sixteenth century Spain. Neither any landscape painter was known in Toledo, nor any acceptable picture representing that city is to be found.
Actually, landscapes were rather discouraged by the Counter-Reformation, whose rigid doctrine interpretation was against both Classicism and Humanism. Certainly, the Spanish Church of the sixteenth centuty was prone to consider human nature and Nature in general as rather corrupt and deceptive. Therefore, it can be taken for granted that with that striking canvas, El Greco initiated the Spanish landscape painting school.
Several landscapes of Toledo are mentioned in the two inventories which were made after the death of Theotokopoulos. However, among the paintings remaining so far, only two of them are real landscapes: that “View of Toledo“, and the unfinished “View and Plan of Toledo“. Along with those two canvases, Harold E. Wethey mentions another picture as a possible fragment of a landscape by that artist. But that is an incomplete canvas, repainted and in such poor state that it does not deserve much interest.
Nevertheless, El Greco also painted cityscapes and landscapes as a background of several works. Although in his Cretan and Italian stages he produced interesting landscapes, it was in his Spanish stage where he reached his peculiar style.
Perhaps the “borderline” between the Italian and the Spanish landscapes, is found in the “Penitent Magdalene” (ca.1577), a canvas started either in Italy or in his very first Spanish stage. Certainly, at the left side of that picture there is a beautiful sunrise in what seems to be a Venetian lagoon, probably an evocation of his late stay in Venice.
At the “St. Sebastian”, painted almost immediately after his arrival in Spain, there is a landscape that can be described as if were Italian. Actually, in that picture El Greco depicted with unusual “Venetian” and naturalistic precision the branches and leaves of the fig tree to which the martyr is attached, and that was never repeated in his posterior works.
On the contrary, in the “Martyrdom of St. Maurice“, a work that is close in time to that “St. Sebastian“, Doménikos avoids almost completely any landscape, because the multitude of characters, both in the foreground and in the background, practically hide a strange scenery of barren hills.
The cityscapes and landscapes which El Greco painted as a background of several works nearly always represent Toledo and its “cigarrales”, as if observed from the road that leads to Madrid. Sometimes, these cityscapes are similar to the above mentioned “View of Toledo” (ca.1587)
Title: ” View of Toledo ”
Date: 1597-99 ca.
Technique and Support: Oil on Canvas.
Dimensions: 121,3 x 108,6 cm.
Location: Metropolitan Museum, New York.
Certainly, the terrain and the mountainscape are unreal, and the “remontada” to the castle of San Servando is exaggerated. Some edifices show their façades whereas some others show their profiles. Some other buildings are either imagined or their relative importance is manipulated, whereas the positions of the Cathedral and the Alcazar are reversed.
Moreover, it is not possible to be sure either of the moment of the day or the season of the year, since the banks of the river Tajo look with an strange, unusual greenery. It seems as though an electric thunderstorm is gathering, or perhaps with that dreamy light El Greco wanted to depict a twilight or night-time scene.
In spite of those unconventional, amazing features and their intellectual significance, there are hints of some everyday aspects of Toledo as well. In the sixteenth century Toledo had a clothmaking industry that was important to its economy. El Greco depicted a group of people on the banks of the Tajo, perhaps involved with the fulling of the cloth when it was washed, beaten and dried before being dyed, what was done in small mills around the river. Another group of people at the Tajo seems to be fishing, an activity that was probably important to the economy of the city as well.
In the sixteenth century, a “plein air”painting was unthinkable, and far from it a nocturnal cityscape painted directly on the stony and possibly dangerous outskirts of Toledo, not even in full moon. Surely, the artist painted that canvas in his studio, based on his recollections and perhaps on some sketches.
Altogether, there an unreal, suggestive Toledo of legend, which seems to reflect the inner world of the artist, rather than the objective reality of that city. For that matter, that picture may be regarded as an “expressionistic” landscape avant la lettre. The hypothesis that that landscape had been the lower part of a trimmed work (maybe a “Christ on the Cross“) has been strongly denied by authors such Wethey.
Jerusalem, Tours, Tuscany or Troy became Toledo, because the emblematic buildings of that city were the background in front of which El Greco depicted subjects as “The Laocoön”, “St. Bernardino of Siena”, “St. Martin of Tours”, “St. Joseph and the Child Jesus” and several other characters, who obviously never set foot on the outskirts of that city.
In those views the light is as unreal as in the aforesaid “View of Toledo“. Often they are night scenes, illuminated by the silver light of the Moon, which lights up almost like the Sun. On other occasions, it is imposible to say at what time of day the scene takes place, because El Greco depicted his paintings subjectively, creating atmospheres which are both unrealistic and full of vitality.
Although several theories try to explain the logic behind such incongruous cityscapes, no definitive explanation can be found. Maybe the commissioners of those works were from Toledo, and they requested the inclusion of the familiar landscape as a sign of identity. Perhaps Doménikos, rather than imitating the stories he represented, reworked them in order to produce intellectual versions of them. Or maybe he tried to introduce the viewer into the picture by replicating his everyday.
The backgrounds in “St. Joseph and the Child Jesus” and in “St. Martin and the Beggar“, painted for the chapel of San José (Toledo) remind very much that “View of Toledo“. In “St. Joseph and the Child Jesus” the cityscape is divided into two by the imposing figures of St. Joseph and the Child, looming over a landscape with a distant view of Toledo.
In “St. Martin and the Beggar” the clouds ands the light convey a rather “Venetian” and fairy tale” atmosfere to the view of that city. Almost the same cityscape appears in the lower part of the “St. Sebastian” at the Prado Museum (Madrid). Both in that canvas, and in “St. Martin and the Beggar“, as in “St. Joseph and the Child Jesus“, El Greco painted -at the right side- a waterwheel, a sort of hydraulic mill as they must have been common in the seventeenth century in the river Tajo.
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In contrast with the pictures so far seen, “View and Plan of Toledo” is surely inspired by the “vedute” of Venice, and offers a multiple viewpoint. Certainly, in addition to its perspectival appearance, it contains a plan of the city, held up by a young man (maybe a younger Jorge Manuel).
That complex composition was painted with the sketchy handling of the last stage of that painter, and includes an allegory of the Tajo river, seen as a golden sculpture of a young boy, holding a pitcher that pours water as a symbol of richness.
Title: ” View and Plan of Toledo ”
Date: 1600-1614 ca.
Technique and Support: Oil on Canvas.
Dimension: 132 x 228 cm.
Location: Museo del Greco, Toledo.
In that complex painting, there may be clearly identified some of the most emblematic buildings in Toledo: the fortress of San Servando, the Alcántara bridge, the Alcázar, the monastery of San Bartolomé, and the majestic gates of Bisagra, Cambrón and Alfonso VI.
In addition, great prominence is given to the Hospital of Tavera, depicted on a cloud, transferring it from its actual setting, so that its façade could be clearly shown at the foreground.
Maybe this curious relocation is a clear allusion to the administrator of that building, Pedro Salazar de Mendoza. He was a friend of El Greco and the probable commissioner of that canvas. However, that artist himself explained this strange displacement:
“Ha sido forzoso poner el Hospital de Juan Tavera en forma de modelo porqué no solo venia a cubrir la puerta de Visagra mas subía el cimborrio o cúpula de manera que sobrepujaba la ciudad y así una vez puesto como modelo y movido de su lugar me ha parecido mostrar la haz antes que otra parte, y en lo demás de cómo viene con la ciudad se verá en la planta”.
Despite the fact that the Sun is not visible, that canvas is one of the sunniest landscapes ever depicted by that master. Besides, on the sky there is the iconic image of the Virgin placing the chasuble on Saint Ildefonso (the patron Saint of Toledo), which conveys a magic carachter to that painting,
Whereas the aforementioned “View of Toledo“(ca.1587) has a much more hypnotic quality, and may be regarded as an “expressionistic” lansdcape, that other “View and Plan of Toledo”(1608-14 ca.) seems to anticipate Paul Cézanne, and even the cubist landcapes of Picasso. Hence, I personally think that that complex, enigmatic and fascinating cityscape should at least be appreciated as much as the more renowned “View of Toledo“.
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Frati, Tiziana; La Obra pictórica completa de El Greco; Editorial Noguer-Rizzoli; Milán-1969.
Wethey, Harold E.; El Greco y su Escuela; Ediciones Guadarrama; Madrid-1967.
Álvarez Lopera, José; El Greco, la Obra esencial; Editorial Sílex; Madrid-2014.
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