Matthew Westwood visits Spain’s Prado museum ahead of a groundbreaking touring exhibition in Melbourne
THE modern-day visitor to the Prado Museum in Madrid will very likely have a list of must-sees. You will head to Goya’s “black paintings”, with their nightmarish vision of giants and witches. You will certainly stand in front of Las Meninas, where Velazquez — through mind-bending composition and the sheer glamour of painting — puts you at the centre of the royal court.
These are among the high points of Spanish painting, and the venerable Prado is the place to see them. Yet Spanish painting was not always the tourist magnet of Spain’s national collection.
From the museum’s foundation in 1819 to about Velazquez’s tercentenary in 1899, it was Raphael who was the main event. The gallery where Las Meninas now has pride of place was originally devoted to Raphael, an Italian.
Earlier still, when Spanish kings were busy buying and commissioning paintings that eventually would become the Prado collection, Titian was the artist no self-respecting emperor or pope would be without. Imperial Spain bought dozens of paintings by the celebrated Venetian. In later years, Titian would be described as the father of the Prado — the museum has the world’s single largest collection of paintings by Titian, about 50 of them — although he never set foot in Spain.
So Italian art belongs at the heart of the Spanish Prado, and this is the focus of the second exhibition from the museum to come to Australia. The National Gallery of Victoria next month opens its exhibition Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, a show of 70 paintings and 30 drawings including important works by Raphael, Correggio, Tiepolo and, of course, Titian. The Prado’s director, Miguel Zugaza Miranda, tells Review it is the first time the Prado’s Italian paintings have travelled as a collection.
“I think it’s important that the public knows that the Prado is more than just a collection of Spanish painting,” the debonair director says. “We are actually a very international collection. Without the great tradition of the Venetian school of painting, one couldn’t understand Velazquez, El Greco or even Goya.
“I’ve always thought of the Prado as a small Italian island that broke away from Italy.”
The NGV show follows an earlier exhibition from the Prado at Queensland Art Gallery in 2012. That exhibition, Portrait of Spain, brought a selection of Spanish works to Brisbane, among them paintings by those masters the director just mentioned.
Zugaza was confident in sending a second exhibition to Australia because of connections made the first time. Tony Ellwood, now director at the NGV, was heading the QAG at the time of the Brisbane show, and Zugaza says he
‘I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF THE PRADO AS A SMALL ITALIAN ISLAND THAT BROKE AWAY’
MIGUEL ZUGAZA MIRANDA, DIRECTOR
was particularly impressed with the education program built around that exhibition.
Portrait of Spain attracted 110,000 visitors: a middling figure for a high-profile international show, but Zugaza declares it a positive outcome.
“The public in Brisbane is a much younger public, they are much more used to contemporary art and they have not had so much contact with old master paintings,” Zugaza says in his office at the Prado.
“In Melbourne, we find ourselves in the context of an institution that has a very important collection of old master paintings. We find our-
selves with a public that is more familiar with those kinds of works in their own collection.”
The Museo del Prado sits on a busy treelined avenue in central Madrid, in a neoclassical building by Juan de Villanueva that was originally intended to be a natural-history museum. Behind it are the formal gardens of the Buen Retiro parklands, and the remaining buildings of the Buen Retiro palace; one of them, the Cason, is now occupied by the Prado’s research wing.
The Prado is not a large gallery — as encyclopedic museums, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan in New York are much bigger — but it has one of the best collections of old masters anywhere. The visitor promenades along its dove-grey galleries and encounters one sensational painting after another.
We are about to take a tour of the Prado — and of the paintings coming to Melbourne — with the museum’s head of Italian painting, Miguel Falomir Faus. But by way of preliminaries, we sit down for a cortado — Spanish coffee similar to macchiato — at the cafe in the Prado’s new extension and entrance hall.
“What makes this collection unique in the world is that most of these paintings were done for the king of Spain,” Falomir says.
“They went from the painter’s workshop to the collection, and they have been here since then. This is not a collection done in the 19th and 20th century by bourgeois collectors.”
The collection’s emphasis has changed with the tides of art history and connoisseurship: Titian and the Venetian colourists, Flemish and Netherlandish painting, Raphael and central Italian artists, and then Spanish masters such as Velazquez.
“When the museum opened in 1819,” Falomir continues, “Raphael was the main attraction: not Velazquez, not Goya, not any other painter. When you read accounts of journalists about the opening of the museum, they say you have to go to the museum because Raphael is there.” When the Academic style associated with Raphael started to fall out of fashion in the 19th century, the taste for Spanish painting took hold: “That was the moment when Velazquez became king of the Prado.”
Falomir, whose speciality is Venetian painting, is the curator with Andres Ubeda of Italian
Masterpieces from Spain. So let’s start our tour of the Prado with Titian, five of whose paintings are coming to Melbourne.
We are standing in a central gallery before Titian’s monumental portraits of his royal patrons, the Habsburg monarchs Charles V (Charles I of Spain) and his son Philip II. As Holy Roman Emperor, Charles appointed Titian as court painter and commissioned religious pictures and portraits: the most impressive and innovative — in terms of the art of royal portraiture — is the large-format
Equestrian Portrait of Charles V at Muhlberg, showing the diminutive and block-jawed emperor in armour and plumed helmet.
Next to this picture is the most important royal portrait, of Philip II, to come to Melbourne. Titian mastered the full-length format for depictions of this type, bestowing dignity and stature on the royal personage. Again, Titian has painted the monarch in armour, stun- ningly executed, set against a brilliant crimson velvet covering.
“It became the model for European court portraiture for 200 years,” Falomir says. “He was the most powerful ruler of his time” — this is the king who launched the Spanish Armada, and after whom The Philippines is named — “and his portrait is by the most important portrait-painter of the Renaissance. The alliance between ruler and painter made this painting, (and it) was imitated by court painters throughout Europe.”
Let’s move on to an incredibly beautiful religious picture, Correggio’s Noli me tangere (“Do not touch me”). The painting depicts the risen Christ in a garden, who instructs Mary Magdalene not to touch him because he has not yet ascended to heaven. One of the Prado’s
masterpieces, the painting is in superb condition: its colours are so fresh it could have been painted yesterday. Falomir says X-rays have revealed how Correggio rethought the composition and changed Mary’s pose, so that she and Christ avoid physical contact but are locked in each other’s gaze.
Nearby is a picture by Raphael: a Holy Family with the infant John the Baptist, a painting also known as the Madonna of the Rose, because at Christ’s feet is a rose blossom whose pink matches the colour of the Virgin’s sleeve. A rose is not necessarily a rose, however: the bloom was added by a later artist, Falomir says, possibly in the 19th century.
Other religious pictures are intended for the appreciation of human form, rather than strictly devotional use. St Sebastian was one of the more popular subjects for studies of male physique: the Roman soldier turned Christian martyr, here depicted by Guido Reni, has been pierced by an arrow and turns his gaze heavenward. In art history terms, we are now in the early 17th century and the era of Caravaggio. Reni uses the chiaroscuro effects to bathe the young man’s body in moonlight. Paintings by Guercino, of Susannah and the Elders, and by Furini of Lot and his Daughters, make similarly sensuous play with female figures.
Not all of the paintings are of religious themes: the Prado is also sending a selection of still-life flowers and bodegon kitchen scenes, mythological and history pictures, portraits and landscapes. The exhibition will also cover various schools of Italian arts, so that Venetian, Tuscan, Roman, Neapolitan, Lombard and Genoese styles are represented (as well as French painters who worked in Italy, Poussin and Claude Lorrain).
At the NGV, the paintings will hang in roughly chronological order, says the gallery’s curator of international art, Laurie Benson. Visitors will begin with Raphael and Correggio, then Titian and the royal portrait of Philip II, and proceed through a sequence of rooms that explore still life, baroque and rococo styles, and paintings commissioned for the Buen Retiro palace.
Two paintings from the NGV’s own collection are included: the group portrait with the celebrated castrato Farinelli, by Amigoni, and the Martyrdom of St Lawrence by Ribera. (Visitors may also make a detour to see the NGV’s new acquisition, a portrait of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon, by Mengs, court painter to Spain’s Charles III. It can be seen in the NGV’s splendidly re-hung “Cleopatra” room.)
The Prado artworks range in size from drawings and small decorative pieces to the monumental. One of the largest to come from Madrid is of a parade of elephants entering an amphitheatre, by the Neapolitan Andrea di Lione. At the smaller scale and incredibly fragile are about 30 works on paper, including a drawing by Michelangelo. The pencil sketch depicts a fragment of shoulder and upper arm, probably a study for one of the devils in The Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel.
The exhibition continues through to the mid-18th century and the luminous rococo style of Gianbattista Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico. Tiepolo Sr is represented by The Immaculate Conception in which the Virgin and attendant angels ascend amid lustrous clouds.
Tiepolo and son mark the end-point of Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court: Gianbattista had been brought to Madrid in 1762 by Charles III (who commissioned Tiepolo’s vast decorative ceiling for the throne room at the new Royal Palace), and Giandomenico was among the last of the Italian artists to be commissioned by the Spanish court. By the early 19th century, Spain was no longer the powerful centre of art and royal patronage.
“Tiepolo is the end point, because there’s really no more Italian painting in the Prado collection after that,” says Gabriel e Finaldi, the Prado’s associate director of curatorship and research. “It’s also the case that the Prado opens in 1819, so a new chapter begins. But by the 19th century, Spain is no longer the great protagonist of the art scene that it had been before.”
The Prado has not been immune from the
April 26-27, 2014
BY THE EARLY 19TH CENTURY, SPAIN WAS NO LONGER THE POWERFUL CENTRE OF ART
economic strife that has beset Spain in recent years: since the global financial crisis the country has endured a combination of debt, inflation and high unemployment. Cultural organisations have had budgets slashed: the Prado lost half of its annual grant from the Spanish Ministry of Culture.
Zugaza, the Prado’s director since 2002, is credited with modernising the museum and for steering it through financial difficulties, in part by building partnerships with sponsors and donors. One measure, to help raise revenue through admission fees, was to open the museum seven days a week.
The Prado has rarely allowed its treasures to travel, but in recent years has sent loans to the Metropolitan, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and to Brisbane. The Melbourne exhibition will earn the Prado a fee, but it also represents a kind of soft diplomacy, letting the world know that Spain, and Madrid, are open for business.
One aspect of the Prado’s activities where the director won’t compromise is its conservation and research projects.
“We would be willing to let go of other things, anything, before ever taking away funding that is allocated to the technical expertise and research of our technicians and curators,” Zugaza says.
Two years ago, the Prado’s research work became international news, when it unveiled a restored copy of the Mona Lisa. The painting had been at the Prado since its foundation, but cleaning revealed previously unseen details in the background landscape. The similarity with Leonardo’s famous picture in the Louvre was enough for the Prado to conclude that its version was painted at the same time as the original, possibly by one of the master’s apprentices.
This fascinating conservation work happens in a light-filled studio, part of the Prado’s new wing designed by Rafael Moneo. Before we leave Madrid, Finaldi takes us on a tour of the workshop, where great masterpieces are examined and spruced up, before going back on display or on tour.
On entering the studio we are confronted with something truly jaw-dropping. El Greco’s painting El Espolio, The Disrobing of Christ, with the unforgettably intense red of Christ’s raiment. It’s here at eye-level, without a frame and mounted on an easel, being prepared to go back on display in Toledo for the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death this year.
Elsewhere in the workshop, a canvas stained with bat piss is being cleaned, new supports are being fitted (with hi-tech springs designed by NASA) to panels by Rubens, and many other pictures are being given a gentle wipe-down with ethanol and white spirit. Arrayed on little trolleys are the conservators’ tools: brushes and swabs, chemical bottles, magnifying goggles and lots of cotton wool.
One of the conservators, Alfonso Castrillo Carpintero, is working on a painting before its voyage to Melbourne. A picture by Guercino of Cupid emptying a swag of gold coins is being repaired: the paint has cracked in places where the canvas has buckled, possibly due to earlier restoration. Cleaning has already revealed details that had been obscured: the scattered coins — indicating that Cupid, or love, doesn’t care for wealth — are shown to be papal coins from the reign of Urban VIII. Guercino’s painting will be paired in Melbourne with a similar Cupid by Reni, just as they were seen in the royal collection.
A painting by Titian was also due to undergo a pre-tour clean, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. Salome, a beautiful young woman — the model may have been Titian’s daughter, Lavinia — is shown holding aloft the silver platter with John’s decapitated head.
The NGV’s Laurie Benson, anticipating the arrival of this and other Italian treasures, has seen images of the cleaned Salome. We can imagine the pink, pliant flesh of the wicked princess, and the Baptist’s hair sexily brushing against her own. “It’s a typically radiant Titian,” Benson says, “exactly what you would want.” Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado is at the National Gallery of Victoria, May 16-August 31. Matthew Westwood travelled to Madrid as a guest of Art Exhibitions Australia.
Clockwise from opposite page: Titian’s Filippo II, (1551); Orazio Gentileschi’s San Francesco sorretto da un angelo (Saint Francis supported by an angel, 1605); Noli me tangere (1525) by Antonio Correggio; La chimera (1590) attributed to Jacopo Ligozzi
From top to bottom, Andrea di Lione’s Gli Elefanti in un circo (Elephants in a circus, c.1640); Viviano Codazzi/Domenico Gargiulo, Vista prospettica di un anfiteatro romano (Perspectival view of a Roman amphitheatre, 1638); Raphael’s Sacra Famiglia con san Giovannino o Madonna della Rosa (Holy Family with Saint John or Madonna of the Rose, 1517); Bartolomeo Passarotti’s Testa di una figura (Head of a Figure, c.1560–70)