It is a well-known fact that in his youth, before ascending to the throne of Spain, King Philip IV of Spain (1605-1665) had studied painting and drawing under the guidance of an exceptional master: the Dominican Friar Juan Bautista Maíno (1578-1649).(1)
Diego Velàzquez – Philip IV (c. 1623-1628), Madrid, Museo del Prado
Direct but generic references to an artistic production of drawings and paintings by the then still infante Philip are frequent, but specific information on the artistic production of the young prince of Spain is in effect very scarce.(2) Direct reference is made by Francisco Pacheco to a drawing in which don Felipe had portrayed “San Juan Batista mancebo en el desierto, abrazado con el cordero de mui graciosa i diestra pluma”,(3) and that in 1619 the prince had presented as a gift to the man who would one day become his vàlido, and that at that time was still just his gentilhombre de cámara, the young Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel, Count of Olivares (1587-1645). While as far as paintings are concerned, Vicente Carducho explicitly mentions only a painting made by Philip which was kept in the Guarda Ropa of the Royal Palace, but does not give information with regards to its subject.(4)
This is not surprising, because in spite of its popularity, painting was not one of the canonic Liberal Arts, and given its philosophically ‘weak’ position it could be practiced by a good Catholic prince (and in particular by the heir to the Spanish crown) only provided that took place in a very private and discreet manner. The exalted status of the author ensured that the enjoyment and knowledge of the artistic endeavors of the future king’s production remained the prerogative of a restricted and discreet group of people. So restricted and so discreet that it did not take much time for the connection between the early works of the infante Felipe and the name of their author was first weakened and then broken.
Information can resurface only through indirect and occasional references, as it was the case with the letter that Bernardo Maschi (?-1626), ambassador of the duke of Urbino at the Spanish court, wrote to his master Francesco Maria II della Rovere (1549-1631) on March 29, 1620.
That of Bernardo Maschi is one of the most interesting figures of Italian diplomats active at the court of Madrid in that period. Not only Maschi worked as diplomatic representative of the small Duchy of Urbino at the court of the Austrias, but in the course of almost sixty years of active service (his correspondence goes from 1565 to his death in February 1626) messer Bernardo developed a vast network of personal contacts that included, among the others, Baltasar de Zúñiga y Velasco (1561-1622), at that stage ayo of the crown prince.
Baltasar de Zúñiga y Velasco, ayo and first vàlido of Philip IV
Thanks to his acquaintance with don Baltasar, Maschi was able to give to his master first-hand information with regards to a topic that the slowly declining health of King Philip III (r. 1578-1621) made particularly interesting: the personality and the attitude of the crown-prince don Felipe – at that time barely fifteen year-old.
The picture of the prince of Spain painted by the ambassador in the letter he wrote on March 29, 1620, to Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere (1549-1631) is, to say the least, flattering: “Il Serenissimo Signor Principe va guadagnando ogni dì più nella prosperità del corpo et nelle virtù dell’animo: devoto, studioso, gioca d’armi […] et hora vogliono porlo ad altri essercizii cavalereschi, et già tornea la sua parte.” However, Maschi’s description goes beyond the constatazione of the moral and intellectual qualities of the infante, and his skill in the martial arts and other physical activities suited to a Christian prince, giving us a rare glimpse of the ‘artistic’ side of don Felipe’s education. Prince Philip, “danza, impara musica e nel disegno e pitura è tanto innanzi che il signor Don Baltasar m’ha mostrata una Santa Maria Maddalena dippinta et illuminata da Sua Altezza che m’ha fatto stupire”.
Juan Bautista Maino (attr.) – La Magdalena penitente (ca. 1615), Private Collection
Unfortunately, apart from its subject, Maschi gives us very little information on the painting itself. The adjective “illuminato” [“highlighted”] may allude to some visual effect that characterized the painting. However, the fact that one of the prince’s first successful attempts in the field of painting was a Magdalena Penitente is entirely consistent with the production of a young artist taking inspiration (or copying) the works of his master. Like the St. John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene was one of Maino’s favorite subjects, and the friar painted a Magdalena Penitente in the period in which he was teaching his craft to the crown-prince.
Finally, albeit Maschi’s positive impression on the quality of the prince’s early work with caution, it is worth pointing out that for don Balthasar to show the work of the infante to a connoisseur like the Urbino ambassador, the painting had to be of good quality. And so, even though we still lack any evidence that Philip continued his artistic production after his ascent to the throne in 1621, this document may help give some depth on the relationship between the Philip IV and the art of panting.
(1) F. Marias, M. C. de Carlos Varona, ‘El arte de las “acciones que la figura mueven”: Maino, un pintor dominico entre Toledo y Madrid’, in L. Ruiz Gómez (ed.), Juan Bautista Maíno, Madrid 2009, pp. 57-75
(2) J. Gallego, ‘Felipe IV – Pintor’, in A. Gallego-Morell (ed.), Estudios en las Bellas Artes dedicados al Professor Emilio Orozco Diaz, Granada 1979, vol. I, pp. 533-540
(3) F. Pacheco, Arte de la Pintura, Sevilla 1649, p. 113
(4) V. Carducho, Dialogos de la Pintura, Madrid 1633, fol. 160r