Days and nights at the mu­seum

The mag­nif­i­cent Museo Na­cional del Prado is the artis­tic heart of Madrid

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Special Report Madrid - EITHNE NIGHTIN­GALE

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

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