October 07, 2012

Three Days in Madrid - Day One

¡Hola! from sunny Madrid - home of tapas, flamenco dancing, bullfighting and for the next three days, yours truly!  Founded in the Middle Ages by Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba as a Muslim stronghold, the city was taken over by Christians in 1085 and absorbed into the Kingdom of Castile.  Modern history is best defined by the Spanish Civil War in which the city earned the dubious distinction of being the first European city to be bombed by airplanes in 1936 but also benefited from the economic boom during the Franco years.  Today Madrid is the capitol city of Spain, the seat of the Royal Family headed by King Juan Carlos I and a treasure trove of art and culture.

For me, the obvious place to start a tour of Madrid was at the Museo Nacional del Prado, one of the world's great art museums and a "must-see" for any visitor to the city.  Not surprisingly, the main strength of the collection is Spanish painting from the middle ages to the beginning of the 20th Century, but Italian and Flemish art is well represented also.  Although The Prado's curators actively add to the holdings, the foundation comes from the Spanish Royal Collection dating back to King Carlos V.  The museum was opened in 1819 with an inventory of 1,510 paintings from various Royal Residences.  Today it owns over 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, of which only a very small fraction are on display.

I had visited The Prado about seven years ago on my first and, up until now, only visit to Madrid.  It was June and very hot outside but quite pleasant in the museum.  I started on the ground floor with my audio guide and by the time I made it upstairs to the rest of the collection I had seen so many fantastic works that my eyes were glazing over.  This time I decided to begin on the second floor and see what I had missed the first time around.  Wow!  What an experience!  The first four hours just flew by - steadily paced but viewing every work and playing the recorded descriptions when available.  We all know the highlights - Velázquez's "Las Meninas" (left), Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights" (above), Breughel's "The Triumph of Death", Goya's "The Naked Maja", Rembrandt's "Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes" (below), El Greco's "The Holy Trinity" and Ruben's "The Three Graces".  These are the "greatest hits" of any history of art survey and they are magnificent to see in person.  It was the less well known pieces that truly capture the imagination.

For example, the 17th century oil, one of only six surviving works, by Juan Sanchez Cotán "Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit" is about as 20th century Modern a composition as you can imagine.  And the small but exquisite "Agnes Dei" by Francisco de Zuberán (below) is so realistic you could rub the lamb's ears.  Juan Carreño's "Eugenia Martinez Vallejo Naked" is a remarkable nude portrait of an aristocrat's child who weighed nearly 150lbs on her sixth birthday and José de Ribera's depiction of Magdalena Ventura plight as "The Bearded Woman" are fascinating in their strangeness.  A collaboration between Jan Breughel (the Younger) and Peter Paul Rubens produced a series of paintings on "The Five Senses" with Venus and Cupid as the central characters while "sight" is an art gallery, "sound" is a music studio, "smell" a flower garden, "taste" a banquet and "touch" features the contrast between metal armour and soft kisses.

Finally, even I had had enough.  My feet were tired and my eyes were out of focus.  I was on "art overload" and it was time to do something else.  The perfect diversion was right next door to The Prado in the Royal Botanical Garden or Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid, a beautiful place to sit and relax and enjoy the incredible variety of flowers and trees.  Founded in 1755 by King Ferdinand VI, the garden has been expanded and improved to include 30,000 plants and 1,500 trees divided into three major gardens and four greenhouses.  I loved the greenhouses - the original one from 1900 with mature and exotic trees planted in the decorative cast iron and glass conservatory, and the new high tech version that was divided into three sections simulating desert, semi-desert and tropical climates.

It was a lovely day and my mind was spinning with all the beautiful things I had seen, both natural and man made.  But I knew what to do!  As Madrileños do not dine before quite late in the evening, the traditional snack is tapas or "small plate", usually consumed with a beer or an aperitif, around our usual suppertime.  I took myself to a very nice outdoor café, settled under the linden trees with a red Spanish vermouth and a nice plate of goodies and slowly came back to the 21st century!  It was a glorious day.

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