Madrid Villanueva Astronomical Observatory

Madrid Villanueva Astronomical Observatory
Madrid Villanueva Astronomical Observatory

Juan de Villanueva (1739 – 1811) is the paradigmatic Spanish architect of the Neoclassical style with works like this one Astronomical Observatory in the Retiro Park in Madrid or the nearby Natural History Cabinet that would be the seed of what is now the great Prado Museum.


Villanueva Astronomical Observatory

This Observatory, very typical of this era influenced by the Illustration was built in 1790 and certain influences are very clear in its construction, especially those that come from the Villa Rotonda that during the Renaissance designed by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio.

For example, it is inspired by it for its hexastyle portico or for the symmetrical composition of a Greek cross plan, whose central space has an octagonal shape. And also that central space has a roof that somehow reminds us of the domes of palladian architecture.

Although with respect to this dome, another clear reference closer in time can be seen. It would be the Pantheon of Illustrious Men built by Soufflot in Paris. A dome that in its lower part has a drum in the form of a circular peristyle of the Ionic order, as in the Madrid observatory of Villanueva.

As for the side wings of the building can also be consideredmade of Italian leather, and with their rectangular shape they serve to break the planimetric scheme inspired by Palladio's Villa.

And regarding the portico, we are talking about a quite functional space, which includes a terrace at the top, which is walkable and which replaces the typical triangular-shaped pediment of other classical and neoclassical buildings. An interesting detail is that if in the dome he uses the Ionic order, in the six columns of the porch he resorts to the Corinthian.

When looking at the building as a whole, four small turrets arranged around the dome and peristyle are striking. Well, as for those turrets that serve as stairwells, the truth is that there are no known antecedents in the most classicist architecture.

That is to say, Villanueva is anacademic architect, which does not prevent him from having his own capacity for invention, and that is probably what caused his success. The truth is that Juan de Villanueva moved in the enlightened intellectual circles of the time, and there he met, above all, Ponz, an architectural theorist, a great connoisseur of baroque art of Vignola, author of several villas and especially of the church of Il Gesú in Rome.

Well, his friendship with Ponz was decisive in introducing him to municipal politics, so that Villanueva would end up becoming the “Municipal Architect of Madrid” and later the “King's Senior Architect”.

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