The foundation stone for the monastery of the Escorial was laid in 1563 on a site chosen by King Philip II (b. 1527, r. 1556–98) 50 km north-west of Madrid, to commemorate the Spanish victory at the Battle of St Quentin in 1557. From the outset, it was clear that Philip did not want a traditional monastery. The complex conceived as a whole had to incorporate a dynastic mausoleum for Philip II, his parents (Charles V and Isabella) and his own family, a seminary for the education of priests, a hospital, a royal library and the basilica. Never before in Europe had such a blend of functions been attempted. Construction of the complex began according to the plans of the architect Juan Bautista de Toledo (c.1515–67), who had worked as an assistant to Michelangelo on St Peter’s in Rome. When Toledo died, work continued under his own assistant Juan de Herrera who, modifying some of his plans, saw two thirds of the monastery built (Kubler 1982, pp. 2–28; Wilkinson-Zerner 1993, pp. 84–107; Blas et al. 2011, pp. 94–5). Perret’s twelve engravings of the Escorial on eleven plates after designs by Juan de Herrera were the first large-scale engravings made in Spain. The idea of producing them originated in 1583 with Philip II, who had a strong interest in architectural representations, but the publication of the engravings was a private business venture for Herrera, who applied for a privilege in 1585 (Cervera Vera 1954, p. 177). The contract between Herrera and Pedro (Pieter) Perret, a printmaker from Antwerp whom Herrera summoned from Rome to Madrid in 1583, documents that Perret received the considerable sum of six hundred ducats for cutting the plates. The prints, and the accompanying booklet describing them, the Sumario y breve declaración de los diseños y estampas de la Fabrica de San Lorencio el Real del Escurial, were published together in 1589, six years after their conception. Francesco Testa and Geronimo Gaeta were called from Italy to Madrid to print the engravings, presumably because there were no adequately skilled printers or facilities in the Spanish capital (McDonald 2012, p. 77).
The ambition of the magnificent Escorial series is striking and surpasses all other contemporary prints. It includes plans, detailed renderings of all
the façades as well as individual features (the basilica was the monastery’s spiritual centre and thus its decoration was very important), and a bird’s-eye view (Mulcahy 1994).
In Cassiano dal Pozzo’s album, the prints are arranged in the order in which they were published. These impressions were no doubt bought by Cassiano in 1626 when he was in Madrid and visited the monastery of the Escorial. They are superb, rich impressions.
This print shows the interior of the basilica and part of the convent and royal apartments. In the Sumario Herrera describes the frescos of the basilica (the Gloria in the apse, the Virtues and the story of St Lawrence), its furnishings and musical apparatus.
This information has been transcribed from The Print Collection of Cassiano dal Pozzo: Architecture, Topography and Military Maps by Mark McDonald, Part C.II of The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo: A Catalogue Raisonné (3 vols, Royal Collection Trust 2017), Part 2, pp. 79-148.