Few places blend art and nature as thoroughly as this romantic garden in the Monasterio de Piedras, in Nuévalos, designed for the contemplation of the dramatic cascades, caves and natural lakes of its majestic landscape. In spite of its natural appearance, the garden, like any other, is artificial – that is to say, man-made – and uses nature as a raw material. But the art of gardening is to reproduce not simply the outward forms of nature – what philosophers called natura naturata – but also its inner workings, natura naturans. Dating from 1860, this garden in the Monasterio de Piedras follows the landscape tradition in attempting to blur the boundary between it and its surroundings, by adapating itself to them. The English Fraser’s Magazine wrote at the time: ‘In regard to its scenery, the proprietor found that nature had left him little to do but to wonder and adore. Happily he had the good sense to be contented with this; merely bringing into view and making accessible curiosities and points of interest without attempting to improve what in its wild simplicity and grandeur is already perfect.’ The proprietor in question was Juan Federico Muntadas, whose superb marriage of garden and natural landscape is imbued with his taste for the romantic and picturesque, like a scene from a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, where man stands diminished by nature’s grandeur.
The magnificent grounds of the Monasterio de Piedras are quite simply an extraordinary union of man and his environment, a paradigm of the Romantic sensibility. Hidden among the folds of the Iberian massif, its location in one of Aragon’s driest regions makes it all the more precious; watered by the river Piedra from which the monastery takes its name, this mass of greenery appears like a vision.
Muntadas’s interventions were as much to make this extraordinary landscape in ‘Monasterio de Piedras’ accessible – opening up roads and passes, building bridges and flights of steps – as to lay out a landscape garden, with inviting paths between ash, walnut and plane trees. His father, Pablo Muntadas, acquired the twelfth-century Cistercian monastery at auction in 1840 in a sale of church lands instigated by Mendizábal. Pablo’s plan had been to develop the estate as farmland, but his son Juan Federico’s discovery of the astonishing Gruta Iris, or Iris Cave, led him to open the park to the public, and by the 1860s it was a tourist attraction. The enterprising Juan Federico, a writer and member of the Spanish Parliament, also founded the first fish farm in Spain, a neat combination of the useful andthe beautiful.
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