Days and nights at the museum
The magnificent Museo Nacional del Prado is the artistic heart of Madrid
AS I sip sangria on the Hotel Ritz Madrid terrace overlooking Museo Nacional del Prado, the chants of protesters drown out the pianist. Helicopters hover over demonstrations against rising unemployment and financial cutbacks. Sirens sound and guests get nervous. A couple, curious to see what is happening, put down their champagne and peer through the arboretum. I try to imagine how Francisco Goya, whose statue graces the entrance to the famous museum, would have painted this scene. His ironic wit is legendary.
The Prado holds pride of place among Madrid’s museums and galleries. It houses not only the largest collection of Spanish art in the world but works collected by the Hapsburg and Bourbon dynasties from across their extensive empires. There are more Titians than in Venice; Brueghel, Bosch and Rubens represent northern Europe, while Raphael and Fra Angelico provide a taste of central Italy.
The Prado was opened in an elegant neoclassical building in 1819. Under some controversy, a new wing, built on the restored cloisters of San Jeronimo, was opened in 2007. This modern extension, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, is a clever integration of old and new. The cafe, shop, information points, restaurant and exhibition spaces are a welcome addition to this manageable museum with a world-class collection.
Moneo also renovated a nearby early 19th-century palace to house the world’s second-largest private art collection. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which opened its doors in 2004, showcases work from every major Western artist. Within easy walking distance of both museums is the third member of the Golden Triangle of Art, the Museo Reina Sofia, home to Picasso’s harrowing Guernica. No wonder Madrid is said to be the richest artistic city in the world.
Central to the Prado’s Spanish collections are works by the renowned court painters Diego Velazquez and Goya. Pointing to the infanta Margarita in the former’s Las Meninas (Maids of Honour), a father explains to his daughter how the princess would have moved in her cumbersome dress. ‘‘You lift up the hooped skirt and walk a few steps.’’
The girl picks up her imaginary skirt and waltzes out of the gallery, leaving me to gaze uninterrupted at Velazquez’s masterpiece. And then I see why it is called the greatest painting ever, with its clever interplay of perspectives. We, the audience, are the mirror through which the princess, her maids of honour, dwarfs and others see their reflection. It is as if I am looking through a one-way pane of glass.
Then my eye is drawn to Velazquez at his easel. It was a radical, even vain, move at the time to include the artist in the frame.
But Bernardo, a gallery assistant at the museum, believes Velazquez has a rival.
‘‘Goya is the personality of the Prado,’’ he tells me. ‘‘Look how cleverly he disguises his dislike of Charles IV’s queen.’’
Two of Goya’s most famous paintings, The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, show the terror of the Napoleonic occupation and the Peninsular War.
On May 2, in Puerta del Sol, where today political demonstrators vie with street performers and salsa dancers, the Madrilenos made a stand. Flinging knives into the horses’ flanks, they tried to rescue the king’s son from Bonaparte’s troops. On the following day in Plaza de Espana — a short walk from Palacio Real, where Goya’s portraits of royalty still hang — the French shot the insurgents dead. These paintings were used by Goya to protest his antiFrench sentiments when Ferdinand VII returned to the throne. Napoleon continued to employ Goya during the occupation.
Goya had not always painted such tragic scenes. In his early career he drew cartoons of happy, loyal subjects as tapestry designs for the domestic royal quarters. Peasants collect the harvest, children climb trees and a blind man plays a guitar in the bustling market of El Rastro, still a popular destination today.
In another painting in the same series, young women in tight bodices and full skirts toss a lifesized male figure in a blanket. His head lolls and his limbs hang limp. Is he human?
‘‘It is a rag doll,’’ says Bernardo. ‘‘The women are taking their revenge on men.’’
Goya an early feminist? My appreciation of him increases at every turn. One of Goya’s paintings shows the festival of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid. Every year on May 15, Madrilenos sing, dance, eat and drink on the banks of the River Manzanares.
‘‘We still celebrate there today,’’ says Bernardo, ‘‘but now there are more buildings.’’
There is a later, more sinister painting by Goya titled Pilgrimage to San Isidro, one of his series of ‘‘dark paintings’’. Old women with tortured faces peer out of shadowy cloaks on their way to collect healing water from the fountain of San Isidro.
The Napoleonic occupation and the Peninsular War had affected Goya’s earlier optimism.
A huge painting of classical buildings and arches, surrounding a large rectangular space, catches my eye. It is of the Plaza Mayor where today black-suited waiters serve tapas to alfresco diners. I read the label, Auto da Fe 1680.
‘‘Where are the prisoners condemned for religious crimes?’’ I ask a fellow tourist, an American woman who points them out amid the milling crowd of priests and soldiers in this scene from the Spanish Inquisition. The prisoners can be recognised by their tall, conical hats and wooden plaques around their necks inscribed with their crimes.
Some stand in the dock under the watchful eye of Charles II and his mother, Mariana of Austria. Others are being forced to convert before the cross.
‘ ‘ But where is the fire?’’ American wants to know.
It is only later, when visiting the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in search of other works by Goya, that I learn public burnings had been banned by this time. The 21 prisoners who were convicted that day must have been taken outside the city.
The Real Academia de Bellas Artes was converted into a
the museum in 1975, although it inspired young artists such as Goya, Dali and Picasso long before this.
‘‘Do many people from Madrid visit the Prado?’’ I ask Bernardo.
‘‘They came in droves to see the exhibition of Sorolla,’’ he says, ‘ ‘ even though there is another museum of his work in the city.’’
Joaquin Sorolla grew up in Valencia during the late 19th century and achieved international fame. Perhaps his sensuous paintings of sun-drenched beaches have more popular appeal than Velazquez’s royal masterpieces or Goya’s ghostly images of war.
‘‘The Prado is Madrid’s calling card,’’ says Emma, a writer for Spanish television. She once accompanied a celebrity (name undisclosed) so famous that the museum was closed for a day for their visit.
‘ ‘ It was fantastic to have all those treasures to ourselves, although I prefer to see El Greco’s work in Toledo.’’
I return again and again to the Prado during my stay in Madrid. Goya, the personality of this great museum, stands erect and watchful before it. He can be assured his legacy is very much intact.
Museo Nacional del Prado, housed in this neoclassical building since the early 19th century, holds one of the world’s richest collections of art
The Prado’s Velazquez gallery, with Las Meninas (Maids of Honour) dominating the wall
A view of Museo Nacional del Prado’s interior