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Dams in the Renaissance Gardens of the Iberian Peninsula

Part of the Trends in the History of Science book series (TRENDSHISTORYSCIENCE)


Dams constitute an important dimension of many of the hydraulic systems developed by different cultures down through history. Not only relevant for their practical benefits, the scale of the territorial intervention entails deep impacts on the surrounding landscape. Great dams store large volumes of water and create perfectly horizontal surfaces within organic perimeters, which fluctuate according to the topography and the amount of water stored at each moment. In addition, they produce radical changes in their ecosystems, with important environmental consequences. Usually linked to agricultural developments, during the reign of Philip II in Spain, these structures undertook symbolic values as key facets of the territorial reorganization undertaken in that period to affirm the king’s power. Generally attributed to Flemish and Dutch constructors (called “diqueros” in Spain), they also reflect the survival of the Roman techniques that were profusely employed on the Iberian Peninsula. Although these extraordinary examples have been subject to well-grounded prior research, the importance and originality of their widespread use in garden ensembles during the reign of Philip II represents an unusual fact that deserves highlighting. The exceptional example of El Bosque de Béjar, where a dam features as the main element of an axial terraced garden, complements the varied royal initiatives (Aranjuez, Casa de Campo, Valsaín, El Escorial and La Fresneda; all with irrigation structures that also served playful or compositional purposes). Based on documentation and field work, this chapter focuses on the general arrangement of these structures, their relationships with garden layouts and, especially, the hydraulic system of La Fresneda, one of the least known and best preserved.

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  1. 1.

    Its origins interlink with the disputes triggered by the irrigation of the orchard lands of Alicante since ancient times and that ended with the initiative of two neighbours from Muchamiel to build a large water tank. Fernández Ordóñez provides details of the history of its construction and its technical characteristics (1984, 224–231). Juanelo Turriano, born in Lombardy and a watchmaker to King Charles V, was well known in Spain for the hydraulic machine that he built to raise the water from the river, located almost 100 m below, to the Alcázar of Toledo. The system ranks as one of the best hydraulic works of the European Renaissance.

  2. 2.

    The activities of Antonelli in Spain at first focused on the construction of fortifications and defences on the Levantine coasts and ports of North Africa. From 1580 to 1588, the year of his death, he undertook complex hydraulic works, such as the Tibi dam, and produced navigation proposals for the rivers of Spain, characteristic of this period. Some of Antonelli’s drawings are conserved, among them, a general plan of the location of the Tibi dam, closer to a pictorial representation of the territory than to any engineering description for a hydraulic project.

  3. 3.

    With a height of 22 m, its thickness at the base is 12 m and only 9 m at the crest (Aguiló 2002, s/n).

  4. 4.

    The hydraulic wheels of the rodezno mills had a vertical axis, of the so-called Scandinavian type, an evolution of the Vitruvian wheels of horizontal axis. Aceñas were much more rudimentary and less efficient: they were built directly over the river course, without an attached dam, relying solely on the force of the current to move vertical hydraulic wheels (Plasencia 2007: 19–22).

  5. 5.

    For further information about Valsaín, the Phd thesis by Pablo Gárate (2012) represents a key reference work.

  6. 6.

    Built in the mid-sixteenth century for the Zuñiga family, the Dukes of Plasencia, El Bosque is a suburban Renaissance villa that today preserves a great proportion of its features. For information on this topic, see the proceedings of the different seminars that took place between 1994 and 2004 (coordinated by Urbano Domínguez Garrido and José Muñoz Domínguez). The dam is addressed in detail in Muñoz Domínguez et al. (2009). The axial organization of the ensemble and its relationship with Italian models is discussed in Muñoz Domínguez (2015).

  7. 7.

    45 km south of Madrid and the same distance from Toledo, Aranjuez has been a favoured territory ever since the distant past. During Philip II’s reign, it served as the site for veritable experimental hydraulics fieldwork. A classic account on the history of the site comes from Álvarez de Quindós (1804). More recently, Merlos Romero (1998) and Sanz Hernando (2009) have made interesting contributions.

  8. 8.

    Quindós refers to usage of the word ‘sea’ in the naming of this structure, a word that became very common in Spanish gardens (Quindós 1982 (1804), 336). In the same Aranjuez, the “Mar Tonta” was installed in the same period as the Huerta de los Estanques, with Father Sigüenza also comparing the largest pond of the Fresneda with a sea; the extensive reservoir at La Granja was later to receive the same name.

  9. 9.

    García Tapia and Rivera Blanco (1985) provide a detailed explanation of all of the avatars of a technically complex work that, despite not being a real buttress dam (it resists by gravity), is nevertheless considered the precedent of modern structures of this type.

  10. 10.

    Before his death, Juan Bautista de Toledo gave instructions for the construction of a new pond, located above the others, which was later built under the direction of Gaspar de Vega (Rivera 1984: 249).

  11. 11.

    In the eighteenth century, the names of the Grande and Norte were still in use, with the remaining names replaced by the Niño, Mujer, Puerco and Chico, respectively (Gimeno Pascual 1981. 73). An interesting representation, although from a later date, is the topographic map of the town of Madrid drafted in 1808 featuring the positions of the French forces that surrounded the city, in addition to a circular island of considerable dimensions, with its own bridge, drawn in the highest pond.

  12. 12.

    The choice of the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo site in El Escorial also determined the future of La Fresneda, which was, at first, inspected as a possible place for the main building, but was soon discarded due to the excess of waters and the difficulties of eliminating them, given the valley’s location, thus contradicting Vitruvius’s recommendations. On the other hand, the choice of the Jerónimos order for El Escorial was determinant: its rules obliged them to retire twice a year to rest, as San Jerónimo had done, which was called “hacer granja”. Hence, the construction of La Fresneda and its later name: La Granjilla. Today, there are still significant remains of the impressive ensemble, even if it is now in private hands and in urgent need of protection. A classic research work on this subject is by Cervera Vera (1985).

  13. 13.

    The four dams are fed from the waters of the Aulencia River, by means of a diversion weir that leads the water into the higher pool. All of them are rockfill dams covered with earth, with upstream masonry walls. For its constructive details, consult Fernández Ordóñez 1984.

  14. 14.

    The bridge that nowadays leads to the island is clearly a later construction; its entrance door, although representing the same classical language as the rest of the constructions, is more monumental. Its trace is related to the gate and bridge (the so-called Puente del Rodeo) in the current access to the estate, built, like other constructions in El Escorial, in the period of Charles III. The gazebo can be seen in an etching by Rotondo (1863).

  15. 15.

    Janson may feasibly have been of Dutch origin, as his nickname seems to indicate, although he arrived in Spain from Flanders, sent by Cardinal Granvela at the king’s request. Together with Adrián de Bruyn, Pierre de Brun van Moerbehe and Jehan Barek, he was one of the “diqueros” named in a royal cedula of June 1561, and soon began to stand out from the rest (Barbeito and Ortega 1998: 263). These professional types were much more than simple builders; because of their training and knowledge, they were close to today’s engineer profile. Their tasks also included selecting the type of fish for the ponds.

  16. 16.

    In the Netherlands, the dykes were usually earth embankments. This was also the constructive solution used by the diqueros in Spain, as some documents record. It would seem that Janson preferred earth dams of just two feet, as they were better for fish breeding (according to a 1565 document about a pond in the Casa de Campo, collected by Modino de Lucas 1985 vol. 1: 258–259). Merlos Romero qualifies Janson as an expert in the construction of ponds without stone, using only earthen supports (Merlos Romero 1998: 88–89).

  17. 17.

    In Aranjuez, Janson was blamed for the collapse of the first dam after making a mockery of the downstream buttresses proposed by master builder Francisco Sánchez (García Tapia; Rivera Blanco 1985, 482). Adrián Van der Müller also considered Spanish dams to be too thick and tall (García Tapia 1990: 418).

  18. 18.

    This was signed by Francisco Contreras, and is today conserved in the Simancas Archive (Navascués, Ariza, Tejero Villareal 1998: 429).

  19. 19.

    Jason provided the king with an invention so that he could choose the fish that he wanted without nets and without touching them (Navascués, Ariza, Tejero Villareal 1998, 427). Barbeito and Ortega give an account of his 1564 trip to France to buy brujetes, carp and other fish for ponds (1998: 264).

  20. 20.

    The current arrangement of the fountains results from the reform carried out by José de Villareal during Philip IV’s reign (previously attributed to Sebastián Herrera Barnuevo) with some subsequent changes (Sanz 2009: 157).


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Toribio Marín, C. (2020). Dams in the Renaissance Gardens of the Iberian Peninsula. In: Duarte Rodrigues, A., Toribio Marín, C. (eds) The History of Water Management in the Iberian Peninsula. Trends in the History of Science. Birkhäuser, Cham.

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