Juan Fernandez de Navarrete (c. 1538–1572)


Juan Fernandez de Navarrete was born in 1538, in Navarre, a town of the ancient pilgrimage route in northern Spain. He is believed to have come from a family of wealth and class, perhaps nobility, which would have allowed opportunities in education and travel. According to early biographies, he was taught by the Hieronymite friars at La Estrella, a monastery in Logroño, where he received his artistic training from Fray Vicente de Santo Domingo, who was believed to have been his first teacher in art. His talents were discovered early due to his skills in rapid and vigorous black and white sketches. It has also been suggested that he received further artistic instruction from Gaspar Becerra (1520–1570). Upon discovering his talent, Vicente sent him to Italy, where he visited Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and Naples to further his artistic career.

Under the guidance of Titian in Venice, Navarrete acquired the technique and understanding of colour which earned him the nickname of the “Spanish Titian”. Over the following years, his work became increasingly involved with Venetian practices. Lighter and more fluid brushstrokes imbued his background landscapes with an admirable atmosphere and golden skies. In 1568 he was recalled to Spain where he was appointed the official court painter to King Philip II of Spain who employed him to work on altarpieces for the Escorial, for which he received a salary of two hundred ducats. His major works were The Nativity, Abraham and the Three Angels and the Baptism of Christ. His fame spread throughout Spain, and his talent was celebrated by Lope de Vega (1562–1635), one of the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age. He said of the artist, “Heaven denied me speech,/that by my understanding/I might give greater feeling to the things I painted;/and such great life did I give them/with my skillful brush/that, as I could not speak,/I made them speak for me.” In drawing attention to the artist’s muteness, Lope suggests that Navarrete cultivates a unique artistic experience which is all the more visceral through a rare connection he has with the brush. Lope’s lines assume that the highest prestige of a painting is its ability to speak; and Navarrete, he suggests, was peculiarly inclined by his disability to achieve it.

When Titian’s picture of the Last Supper (1557–64) arrived at the Escorial, it was quickly evident that the work was too large for its intended position in the refectory. The King ordered it to be cut down to the required size, to which Navarrete was indignant, insisting through sign that he would make an exact copy of it in six months, and if he could complete in six months what took Titian seven years, he deserved the order of knighthood, and if he failed to fulfil his promise, he would forfeit his head. But Philip was resolute and did not have enough patience to wait for the copy, and to Navarrete’s disappointment the noble work was cut down to the size needed.

According to Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez (1749–1829), Navarrete was a man of unusual talent and well versed in sacred and profane history and mythology. He read and wrote, and played cards, speaking always by signs but with a clear and concise expression that it roused the admiration of all those who talked with him. Susan Plann further explains how he was well known for his intelligence and his skills at the gaming table and how he meticulously tracked his wins and losses. In a petition to the king requesting that he be allowed to leave a will, Navarrete described himself as “different from other mutes, because although he lacks speech and hearing, God chose to give him a shrewd and able intelligence”. 

Navarrete died in Toledo in 1572, having finished only eight of the twenty two saints and evangelists he had agreed to paint for the Escorial. On his deathbed Navarrete wrote his own testament; and according to the priest who attended him, his last confession was delivered by way of signs; for “what he lacked in speech, he compensated for easily with signs and gestures”. After his death Lope de Vega wrote: “Ningun rostro pinto que fuse mudo—”, meaning “No face he painted was dumb”, suggesting the artist’s unusual ability to animate his figures with expression that transcends the visual and figuratively makes the sound that the artist could never hear. 


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Torres, Diana Maria Espada. “‘Miguel Ángel Navarro Pérez, Entre El Mito y La Realidad De La Arquitectura Aragonesa’, En Carretero, R., Castán, A. y Lomba, C. (Coords.), El Artista, Mito y Realidad Mito y Realidad. Reflexiones Sobre El Gusto, V.” V. Simposio Internacional del Grupo Vestigium, 2021, pp. 421–430.

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