A courtly prelate
This building began to be erected in 1541 on the instructions of Cardinal Juan Tavera, in a unique and fleeting ideological and artistic environment. This makes it particularly important to distinguish between the project as conceived by the founder and the final building and hospital institution, since, as the works dragged on for over seventy-five years, they are the result of decisions made not by the cardinal but by the different executors of his estate and his memory in varying intellectual and artistic contexts.
Tradition has it that Cardinal Tavera sought to emulate the patronage of some of his predecessors as archbishop of Toledo and as rulers of the Kingdom of Castile, particularly that of the great Cardinal Mendoza and his Hospital de la Santa Cruz. Although Cardinal Tavera evidently intended the hospital to be a monument to his memory, it is equally true that he wished to link it to an institution organised in accordance with the new Erasmist social ideas that were circulating at the court of Emperor Charles V and aimed, on the basis of a novel concept of health, mendicancy and charity, to devote hospitals exclusively to caring for the sick, relieving them of their medieval function as shelters for the poor.
When the cardinal hit upon the idea of founding a general hospital, he was by then a sixty-year old who had recently been appointed Inquisitor General and had stepped down from the presidency of the Council of Castile, an institution that Charles V called "the pillar of my kingdoms", with the illusory intention of devoting himself to his Toledan diocese. After ascending all the rungs of the civilian and ecclesiastical cursus honorum, he had reached the peak of his power. Following the death of Empress Isabella in May 1539, when the emperor announced he was leaving Castile to crush the Ghent rebellion, he appointed his son Philip, a boy of twelve, as regent in name, and entrusted the actual task of government to the most important person in the monarchy after the king: the Inquisitor General, who received similar instructions and powers to those previously held by the empress as regent.
A new "social policy"
Since then, nobody in Castile was more knowledgeable and powerful than he in addressing a longstanding problem which had grown to new proportions since the beginning of the 16th century: the capacity of towns and cities to take in the flows of people expelled from the country by the cyclical agrarian crises. In the 16th century, the problem of poverty was above all an urban matter that particularly concerned the aristocracy of the major cities. As president of the Cortes, Cardinal Tavera had often had occasion to listen to the recurrent request of the representatives of the various regions for measures to be established to stem begging and vagrancy.
The poor harvests of 1539 had worsened the problem. In March 1540 the cardinal wrote to the emperor, "there is little bread in the entire country and none in some provinces" and the following summer sent him a memorial on the measures that needed to be taken in Madrid to remedy the problem of poverty. Charles V replied by approving his proposals and encouraging him to overcome the "difficulties" that would arise from introducing into the kingdom a set of new social welfare measures that had spread across European cities over the past twenty years, from Nuremberg (1522) to Genoa (1539). Some of them, such as that of Ypres, had been described by the theologists of the Sorbonne as "pious and healthy" and had served as a model for the Imperial Edict of 1531 which extended these measures to all the cities of the Low Countries.
The emperor's encouragement spurred him, on the one hand as governor, to enact a poor law, referred to by historians as the Tavera Law, that did not ban begging, but restricted it and set out above all to protect marginalised children and to abolish "mendicancy through the upright administration of the incomes of charitable institutions"; and, on the other, as archbishop of Toledo, to put into practice the new social welfare ideas in his archdiocese and more specifically in the imperial capital, Toledo. According to his accounts, in 1540 alone he invested 45,000 ducats and 33,000 fanegas of corn in this project, of which his idea of a general hospital was part.
A general hospital for "those afflicted by different illnesses"
Professor Santolaria sums up the social reforms introduced in European cities in four points, three of which apply to Cardinal Tavera's hospital project:
- Centralisation of all welfare resources of the charitable institutions, whether public, private or ecclesiastical, in a general institution. Such a plan may be deduced from the letter of 5 February 1541 whereby the emperor grants permission for the implementation of his measures and congratulates the cardinal on his idea of merging the small charitable institutions of Toledo into a single "very spacious and capable hospital to house those afflicted by different illnesses".
- Secularisation of the administration of charitable institutions. In his will, the cardinal left the trusteeship of the San Juan Bautista foundation that governed the hospital to his nephew, the Marshal of Castile, Ares Pardo de Saavedra and not to an ecclesiastical institution.
- Classification or distinction between the poor and the sick, and, within the latter category, "a special infirmary for those with wounds and sores; and another for those with contagious diseases; another for common and ordinary illnesses; and another for the dozen poor patients with incurable illnesses; and another infirmary for convalescents", as stated in the draft of the first rules established before the cardinal's death.
In order to implement the project, a request was made to the council for a site located outside the city walls to prevent the spread of disease among the population, which was "to have clean air and water, be dry and stony, cleansed by abundant wind and not parched by the sun".
The architecture of the new Antiquity
After the site was chosen, the design was entrusted to Alonso de Covarrubias, maestro de obras (chief architect) of the primary cathedral and architect of the Reales Alcázares, who faced his great work. This was his first project for a large site with no other conditioning factors than his knowledge and imagination. There was no pre-existing construction, not even a preconceived architectural model since, as we have seen, the social concepts that had given rise to the cruciform ground plan introduced by the Catholic Monarchs in their general hospitals had changed, albeit only fleetingly.
As his first known ground plan shows, Covarrubias believed that the model that was best adapted to the cardinal's aims was the large, private Roman house laid out around a double courtyard described by Vitruvius, with which Covarrubias was familiar through an engraving by Fra Giocondo da Verona. In consonance with this return to classical models, he discarded the highly decorative Plateresque style and based the whole design on proportion and symmetry, thus paving the way for an architectural style devoid of ornamentation that culminated in the sobriety of El Escorial and led this monument to be hailed as the first Renaissance building in Castile.
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This timeline is designed as an educational instrument which, in the manner of a virtual voyage through time, provides a quick glimpse of the history of the building from its construction to the present day.
It is arranged in four contextual levels, which are, from bottom to top: the history of the House of Malagón, that of the building itself, that of Toledo and general history.
Each moment in the history of the monument is illustrated by photographs located in the foreground which, when clicked on, provide access to a brief explanation of a specific aspect.
In the background, as a spatial-temporal backdrop, you will see pictures of other Toledan buildings built around the same time and indicating the timespan they occupy.
Use the arrows in the bottom corners to move towards the present or the past.