It’s often said that we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. In the early 19th century, Spain’s royal family had time to ruminate on that axiom when they lost not only their throne to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, but also hundreds of priceless paintings and other treasures, which had been stripped from Spanish palaces, monasteries and churches, and carted off to Paris by the French army.
With Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, both the throne and the artworks were returned to the restored Spanish monarch, Ferdinand VII, who had used his time off as ruler to hatch a plan for safeguarding his collection for future generations. Spurred by his culturally enlightened second wife, Maria Isabel de Braganza, Ferdinand created the Royal Museum of Paintings in Madrid in 1819. Beginning with about 300 masterpieces from the so-called Golden Age of Spanish painting in the 16th and 17th centuries, the museum grew to include art from across Europe. Today, vastly expanded and known as the Prado, the museum is one of the world’s great repositories of Western art.
To honor its bicentennial, the museum has organized a yearlong celebration, starting last November with three days of “puertas abiertas” (free admission) that drew nearly 30,000 people. There are special exhibitions in the museum galleries, in parks and plazas around Madrid, and in museums across Spain. The Prado is even recreating the painting and furniture arrangement of “their Majesties’ retiring room,” complete with Ferdinand’s personal toilet.
Most apparent to visitors is that the museum’s largest masterpiece — its stately neoclassical building designed by the architect Juan de Villanueva and begun in 1785 — has been almost completely enveloped in a crazy-quilt shroud composed of details from paintings inside. Later this year, the monumental birthday present will be unwrapped to reveal a pristinely restored facade.
But for me, the Prado experience is personal. I moved to Spain from New York City in 2002, and the Prado was absolutely part of the reason I chose to live in Madrid over Barcelona or Seville. My first assignment as a journalist was a story on the Prado’s expansion, designed by Rafael Moneo, though I would have to wait five years to write it as legal battles and construction delays pushed the opening to 2007. Later, I followed Gabriele Finaldi, currently the director of London’s National Gallery, but then deputy director of the Prado, on the whirlwind 45-minute highlights tour he often gave to visiting heads of state. And whether they want it or not, visiting family and friends are subjected to my own highlights tour of the Prado.
But this year, amid the hoopla surrounding the anniversary, I found myself wondering if, after 17 years and more than 200 visits to the museum, was I — like the pre-Napoleon Ferdinand VII — so accustomed to the highlights that I took everything else for granted? I decided to celebrate the bicentennial by renewing my knowledge of the entire museum — every gallery, vestibule and passageway in which art is displayed.
An evolving strategy
Fast forward to 10 a.m. on a chilly Tuesday in January. Even as I stood amid the morning rush at the Prado’s entrance, scanning a floor plan with the nearly 120 galleries I would navigate, I never expected I’d be in the museum for seven hours. In fact, I envisioned myself home by 2 p.m., enjoying some leftover albondigas (meatballs) and a siesta before making the school run to fetch my kids at 4 p.m.
But once inside, circumstances quickly intervened — and by circumstances I mean lingering in galleries I typically breezed through; resting on a bench while surreptitiously listening to elementary school children decide which baby is Jesus (he’s the one with the halo in “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Rubens); getting to know a slew of sexy Greek and Roman mythological figures, some of whose names and heroic attributes were a revelation to me; and discovering some new (again, to me) Spanish artists of astonishing talent. So, albondigas be damned, there I was at 3 p.m. in the museum cafe, scarfing down a wedge of tortilla española and frantically arranging for someone else to pick up my children, before wandering back to the galleries where I’d remain — thirsty, hungry and exhausted, at times, but blissfully happy — until 5 p.m.
Where to start
There is no one designated route to follow through the Prado and the numerical order given to the galleries doesn’t help much as Gallery 1 connects to Galleries 4, 24 and 42, but not to Gallery 2, so visitors can expect to occasionally double back to move on.
I began my tour in Gallery 75 on the ground level in the 19th-century galleries. In the art world, there is not much love for Spanish 19th-century painting after the great Francisco de Goya, who died in 1828. But the galleries handily illustrate the period of the museum’s founding, starting with a regal portrait by Goya of a distrustful-looking King Ferdinand VII.
Known as “el Rey Felón” (the Felon King), he was something of a retrograde despot who, as crown prince, conspired against his father, and as king, abolished Spain’s first constitution. If the Prado was his great gift to Spain, then perhaps Goya’s great gift to posterity was the ability to convey Ferdinand’s devious character in a portrait that the king himself would approve. Though she died a year before the museum opened, Ferdinand’s wife and pro-museum influencer, Maria Isabel de Braganza, is here as well, sculpted in marble in the style of a Roman empress by José Álvarez Cubero. And there’s a marvelously large 1787 wooden architectural model of the Prado itself that looks like an elaborate royal toy.
Neighboring galleries display pastoral landscapes, portraits of bourgeois matrons, and melodramatic history paintings that may not appeal to everyone, but certainly reveal the exquisitely descriptive manner of 19th-century Spanish painting. On my visit, a group of high school students sat on the floor in front of Goya’s “The Second of May, 1808,” discussing the swirling street battle depicted, while others tried to decipher his enigmatic “black paintings”: images of witchcraft and raw human brutality painted in the turbulent aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.
After those unsettling works, Galleries 71 through 74 provide a welcome intermezzo of gleaming Greek and Roman sculptures. Though it’s little known, the Prado displays more than 250 sculptures, including several purchased in Rome by Velázquez on behalf of King Philip IV in the 17th century.
The royal core
Heading back toward the center of the museum, the tour takes on more chronological coherence, starting with the Italian Renaissance. With wealth pouring in from the American colonies from the 16th century onward, Spain’s rulers had deep pockets for buying art. The first Hapsburg emperor, Charles V, and his son Philip II had the taste to match their resources, and acquired the best of the best.
Exploring Gallery 49 and 56B is like stepping into a textbook of Italian Renaissance and Mannerist art with no fewer than seven glorious Raphaels, as well as works by Mantegna, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Correggio, Andrea del Sarto, Bronzino and Parmigianino. There’s even an anonymous version of the “Mona Lisa,” likely painted by one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils, in the same room at the same time as the Louvre’s most famous painting. With so many beloved masterpieces, it’s easy to just ricochet from painting to painting.
Under Charles V, the Flanders region also became linked to the Spanish crown as cities like Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp were important financial centers and the heart of a thriving art market.
One work not to be missed is Rogier van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross.” Instead of revealing a window into another realm, the artist’s shallow pictorial space pushes the nearly life-size figures taking Christ’s body off the cross into our world, making the pathos — translucent tears stream down several faces — all the more powerful. It’s so moving that people often drift away from it without noticing that hanging nearby are paintings by artists like Robert Campin and Hans Memling that would be stars in any other museum.
While the school groups slipped off for lunch, the throngs of grown-ups in the Flemish galleries were thickening. Since I love art but hate crowds, I didn’t get into the melee in front of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a cinematic and fantastically freakish portrayal of the fall from paradise to hell, but went instead to his other works, such as “The Haywain,” and those by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer and Joachim Patinir, the latter a painter of luminous landscapes with scarcely a penitent saint or writhing sinner in sight.
My personal Spanish Revival
It was 1 p.m., my iPhone had already clocked 7,600 steps and I still had two floors to go. At this point, I would typically have headed to the main level where the art shifts gear to the dramatic Baroque of which Spanish masters were among the standard bearers. On this day, however, I had promised to first reacquaint myself with the Renaissance in Spain at the building’s far northern end.
Recent Prado exhibitions have successfully “resurrected” some 15th- and 16th-century Spanish artists, including Luis de Morales and Bartolomé Bermejo. New to me was the artist Juan de Juanes, whose six exquisite panels created for the altar of Valencia’s Church of St. Stephen are now given pride of place in recently reinstalled galleries. Considered the finest painter in Valencia of the 16th century, his “Portrait of a Knight of the Order of Santiago” reveals how subtly and skillfully he blended Italian concepts of courtly portraiture with sumptuous surface detail.
One flight up from the Spanish Renaissance galleries is Gallery 1, displaying a single work: Leone Leoni’s imposing 1551 bronze sculpture, “Emperor Charles V and the Fury.” The emperor’s exquisitely made suit of armor comes off to reveal a heroic nude beneath. Leoni was a favorite of the Hapsburgs, and sculptures of other family members (though none that bare it all) are displayed in the cloister gallery of the Jeronimos wing.
From Gallery 1, the masterpieces come fast and furious. Galleries 40 to 44 reveal, in sometimes overwhelming abundance, the sensuality and lush colors of Giovanni Bellini, Lorenzo Lotto, Veronese and other masters of the Venetian School of painting. The Prado has more paintings by Titian, the godfather of Venetian painting, than any other museum — most of them emblematic works like “The Andrians,” “Venus and Adonis” and “Virgin Dolorosa,” which influenced generations of artists.
The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens came to Madrid in the 17th century as both a diplomat and an artist, frequently copying works in the royal collection by Titian and others. He also painted works of his own for the Spanish kings. Many of them line the 367-foot-long central gallery that forms the spine of the Prado and creates a visual nexus, revealing the links between the great masters of Spanish painting — El Greco, Ribera, Zurbarán, Maíno, Velázquez and Murillo — and their Italian and Flemish forebears.
A break and a bite
Strolling the gallery, one feels the tug of creativity across a golden century. But halfway through it I felt pangs of hunger. It was 3 p.m. and I needed a break, a bite and someone to collect my kids from school.
I ran to the museum’s cafe, though on another day I would have headed to one of several worthwhile restaurants nearby, such as Café Murillo, a local joint that is popular with both stylish madrileños and Michelle Obama (who’s been twice), or Trattoria Sant’Arcangelo, a cozy Italian spot that often serves as the cantina for senior Prado staff. In warm weather the museum has a lovely outdoor cafe with yummy sandwiches and yummier sangria that might have kept me from going back inside to finish my mission.
When I did venture back in, I was lucid enough to focus on my quest for surprises. Several presented themselves in the form of a gallery with more than a dozen paintings by the French painters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain that I never knew existed here. Ditto for another gallery of paintings by Anthony Van Dyck that I had somehow walked past for 17 years.
A painters’ painter
“Velázquez alone is worth the whole trip,” wrote the French painter Édouard Manet of his Prado visit in 1865. Velázquez, he noted, is the “painters’ painter,” so little wonder that the likes of John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon would make similar pilgrimages to study the works displayed in Galleries 7 through 18. Artists of the Spanish “golden age” in the 17th century seemed to delight in manipulating paint on the canvas to create dazzlingly realistic effects, such as the light shimmering on silk gowns in Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” or the churning clouds in the apricot-and-lavender skies of El Greco. Spanish ‘naturalism’ — painting objects and people as they actually appear — can have a deeper emotional impact, as seen in the candor and humanity of Velázquez’s portraits of buffoons or the austerity of Zurbarán’s nearly all black-and-white paintings, like “Agnus Dei,” which conveys the solemnity of Catholic Spain.
These galleries are the heart of my own Prado highlights tour, and even with my legs begging for rest, I spent more than an hour there.
By the dawn of the 18th-century, Spain had a new ruling dynasty, the Bourbons, but the pace of royal collecting and commissioning remained apace. The Prado’s large collection of Goya’s portraits — including one of King Charles IV and his family that features his already devious-looking son Fernando — remind me that the artist’s canny ability to reveal a subject’s hapless or sinister character speaks across the centuries.
Before heading to the third floor to delight in the frolic of Goya’s tapestry cartoons, I got a whiff of fresh coffee and, sensing I’d cut myself calorically short with that wee omelet for lunch, I followed my nose into the tiny new Café Jonicos and cookie shop tucked behind the central gallery. Sipping and chewing in surprising proximity to Rubens’s “Three Graces,” I mused on how much had changed since I had arrived in Madrid, when the Prado was among the most old-school of the world’s big-name museums, with surprisingly limited weekend and holiday hours, endless lines and a lackluster shop and cafe. Today, it’s a model of accessibility, open a minimum of nine hours a day (two of them with free admission), online ticket sales, hands-on exhibitions for the vision-impaired, a guide for the L.G.B.T. community, free online courses available to anyone, and now a coffee and cookie bar.
More impressive still is what’s grown up around it — not just in my time, but in the 200 years since it was founded. Once on the edge of the city, the Prado, which means ‘meadow,’ is now the heart of one of the world’s most vibrant and diverse art districts — with the Reina Sofia Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the Royal Botanical Garden, National Museum of Decorative Arts and the CaixaForum Madrid art space, not to mention the extraordinary Naval Museum, literally steps away. And at least 100 galleries, design and antiques shops line the surrounding streets. While no one needs to spend seven hours in one building, it would be easy to spend several days indulging in art appreciation in the neighborhood.
After nearly 12,000 steps (about six miles), my final stop was a new, almost vault-like gallery tucked under the eaves in the North Tower, showcasing one final surprise: a collection of nearly 150 exquisite hardstone-and-rock-crystal goblets, platters and other objects adorned with gold and silver and known as the Dauphin’s Treasure.
Maybe I was delirious at this point, but these stunning and delicate objects displayed next to the extraordinary padded leather cases that perfectly mimic the shape of the objects they carry — and are also centuries old — provide a fitting metaphor for the Prado itself: artistic perfection inside and out.
Andrew Ferren, a Madrid-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.
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