Urban Eyes, Peasant Hands

Issue 02/15

Commissioned by his sovereign, Francisco de Goya restored country life to its rightful position, which had been—and should continue to be, the king’s residence.

In 1776, Charles III of Spain commissioned Goya a series of tapestry cartoons for the decoration of the Prince’s Dining Room at the Palacio del Pardo. Those of them dedicated to peasant life as a metaphor of the four seasons are some of the most rural scenes in the history of art. The enlightened monarch devoted much of his reign to recovering Spanish crafts and became the main promoter of the country’s agricultural development during the second half of the eighteenth century.


Francisco de Goya: The Threshing Ground or Summer, 1786–87. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Aware of the importance of the city as a vehicle for promoting modernity, at a time when Spain already had over ten million inhabitants, Charles III understood the need to act by interconnecting the new urban model with its surrounding rural context, that was also in need of reform. The management of water was one of the exemplifying elements that became indispensable in the redesigning of cities and a key feature of the allotments and gardens that would supply cities with fresh produce, as proved by Madrid’s sewage system and the irrigable land of the fertile gardens of Aranjuez.

Campomanes, one of the king’s enlightened ministers, liberalised trade and supported industry and crafts. Through the Friends of the Country Economic Societies he financed hundreds of projects so that different territorial areas could be self-sufficient, promoting the development of agriculture towards new frontiers, previously unimaginable in Spain. In 1787 a project designed to repopulate the Andalusian lands of Sierra Morena and the Guadalquivir Valley managed to draw immigrants from Central European countries, many of them from Germany, an example that many European rulers today should learn from.


Francisco de Goya: The Grape Harvest or Autumn, 1786–87. Museo del Prado, Madrid

In the late eighteenth century, Spanish society flourished as a result of a profound educational reform based on the pillars of the Enlightenment: the fight against ignorance, superstition and tyranny to create a better world. The first royal academies were also created at this time: the Royal Academy of Medicine, the Royal Academy of Language, the Royal Academy of History, the Royal Cabinet of Natural History and the Royal Botanical Garden. With the money of the richest—offered voluntarily at times, extracted by force at other times thanks to the controversial general confiscation—agriculture became one of the greatest exponents of the new civilisation that left the former regime behind. The king’s gaze, seen through the eyes of Goya and the skilled hands of craftsmen at the Royal Tapestry Factory, was also that of the royal guests in the palatial dining room.


Francisco de Goya: The Snowstorm or Winter, 1786. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Today more than ever we need leaders who understand that we need a second Enlightenment, a renewed transformative impulse directed by those who are truly able to change the world; politicians who are able to tackle the problem from the root, through education, lighting the shadows of today that so resemble those of yesterday. As usual, it is a question of making human beings freer, of recovering the dignity of labouring the land in order to stop the flight from the countryside to the city and, with luck, perhaps of filling our urban eyes with peasant hands.