The position of Juan Bautista de Toledo as Maestro Mayor at El Escorial and the architectural organisation of the building itself reflect this background and the series of events which occurred during the first half of the XVI century.
The type of design drawn up by the traditional master builders (Hoag 1985, p. 45) generally corresponded not to an overall concept reflecting the whole of the work to be built but rather to small-scale designs – basic and individual plans – serving as a kind of guide for aparejadores and officials, and providing rather too general an idea of dimension and form.
This was a far cry from the approach to design adopted by XV and XVI century Italian architects (Rosenthal 1988, p. 26) who, when drawing up a project, began by tracing a general outline of the building “in order to determine geometric features and scale for the ground plan, prior to subsequently adding rooms or specific functional areas”. The question of whether to adopt one approach or another was addressed in 1528, when Hurtado and Pedro Machuca were designing the Palace of Charles V at La Alhambra in Granada where the pragmatism of the Emperor was applied more to distribution and arrangement of the building, in the location and specific placement of various chambers – utilitas -, rather than any approach to an overall plan – dispositio.
The same debate was to emerge years later in the building of El Escorial, although involving different protagonists. The general, overall ground plan conceived by Juan Bautista de Toledo in 1562 – a basic four-sided design dived into three parts using an axial approach (Sigüenza, 1963, pp. 30-31); Checa, 1992, p. 205 and Bustamante, 1994, p. 31), the middle section given over to the church and main entrance, the south divided into five cloisters, one large and four small, the north split up into patios – reflects a Renaissance design, which is Italian in origin and which no doubt evidences the predominance of the dispositio, of proportion, order and symmetry of the various parts of the ensemble, over the utilitas or practical arrangement of the building in its various chambers, for which Philip II, the Prior, Curate and Congregation were responsible.
Numerous authors (Checa, 1992; Cano de Gardoqui, 1994; Bustamante, 1994) have analysed in detail how on the one hand the ground plan or cuadro designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo for El Escorial was to remain unaltered to the end, whereas the montea or drawing of the work, was modified for various reasons, such as the decision in 1564 to double from fifty to one hundred the number of monks or the distribution and final use of the rooms as new needs emerged.
These changes evidence how far removed the master builder Toledo was from the actual execution of the work, a distancing which, it must be said, was very often due to the unusual situation of Juan Bautista, wholly dependent on the Monarch, but clashing with an organisation in which the Prior, Curate and Accountant played a key role in the running of the Monastery, reflected in the ceaseless confrontations between the two parts.
A significant example of this is the criticism levelled by Prior Fray Juan de Huete at Juan Bautista’s plan for the Lower Cloisters in 1564: “a lo que yo entiendo ella (la obra) va tan falta de aposentos que muchas casas de nuestra orden, y aun de las que no son muy principales, le harán ventaja porque ver ahora los claustricos que ya como van subiendo las paredes se va mostrando la forma de ellos, son tan pequeña cosa que no son nada, ni tienen autoridad ninguna consigo”. (Bustamante 1994, p.69).
More documents of this nature exist, which we will not dwell on here, but which serve to highlight that Juan Bautista’s approach to design, following the Renaissance principles of stressing dispositio, in practice not only aid rearrangement of the building but also emerge as one of the factors behind the creation of the modern figure of the Architect, as distinct from the craftsman, and of the concept of new Architecture based on a rational and objective approach to design.
There are, however, many factors and details which may have escaped our notice. The position of Philip II himself, for instance, a perfectionist concerned with the finer points, proves somewhat ambiguous vis-à-vis the question of the Maestro and the Architect. On certain occasions he adhered to the idea that Juan Bautista should free himself from any executive concerns, releasing him from any obligation to contract the work and reserving him as designer; yet on other occasions he engaged his Maestro in the execution of the monteas (drawings), in determining the use of materials, and so on. (Portabales 1945, p. XXII. AGS CySR. 259 f. 155 and 260 fs. 494 and 503). This wavering on the part of the Monarch often responded to pressures from the Architectural Advisory Committee, the Prior and the Accountant.
It is impossible to specify here the basic reasons why Juan de Herrera was never employed as Maestro Mayor on the work at El Escorial. Was it perhaps, as Wilkinson points out, as a result of his practical training in the building aspects and involvement in actual construction work as opposed to theoretical knowledge and application of architectural techniques? (Wilkinson, 1984, p. 134). Herrera was, however, thoroughly familiar with design and models for monasteries, having assisted Juan Bautista de Toledo in this area in cooperation with Juan de Valencia. Herrera was also endowed with tremendous organisational and administrative skills, as evidenced by his annotations to the sections in the General Regulations of 1572 (Cervera 1985, pp. 46-49) or his handling of the building of the main church at El Escorial (Cano de Gardoqui, 1993, pp. 38-39).
Juan de Herrera’s involvement as a designer at El Escorial remains unclear. In his well-known Memorial of 1584 (Llaguno, 1829, vol. II, pp. 332 and ss. Rivera, 1986, p. 74) the architect himself makes no reference to any specific prolonged contribution to the design work at the Monastery, apart from the plans for the roofs. Sigüenza mentions the alterations made by Herrera and the Obrero Mayor (head builder) Fray Antonio de Villacastín at the Work, although no specific mention is made of the nature of the alterations (Bury, 1986, p. 332). Portabales completely dismisses Herrera’s involvement in the Work, while Rubio points to how on the death of Juan Bautista most of the designs for the Monastery (Church) had not been completed or at least how various chambers had not been finalised (Rubio, 1964, pp. 11-70).
Whatever the case may be, and upholding Bury’s opinion based on the information provided by Wilkinson (Wilkinson 1976) concerning Sigüenza’s acceptance of the work attributed to Juan de Herrera and the need to adopt a cautious approach to any possible analysis of Herrera’s involvement at El Escorial, what does seem to be clear is Herrera’s contribution to the management and execution of the Monastery until its completion. Based on and respecting the general design laid down by Juan Bautista de Toledo (Rubio, 1949, pp. 157-215), Herrera introduces the idea of utilitas, in other words the specific organisation of the building into its various rooms, an element of planning which was absent in the designs and models of Juan Bautista de Toledo.
By way of a conclusion we may cite an extremely enlightening comment made by the contemporary builder Juan de Arfe: “Murió Juan Bautista, con el tiempo que se comenzaban a subir las monteas de este famoso edificio, y causó su muerte mucha tristeza y confusión, por la desconfianza que se tenía de hallar otro hombre tal, más luego sucedió en su lugar Juan de Herrera… en quien se halló un ingenio tan pronto que, tomando el modelo que Juan Bautista había quedado, comenzó a proseguir, y levantar toda esta fábrica con gran prosperidad, añadiendo cosas al servicio de los moradores necesarias que no pueden concebirse hasta que la necesidad las enseña”. (Iñiguez 1965, pp.48-49).