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Sunday, 28 October 2012

Meandering About Madrid - Page 2

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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Promenading Paseo del Prado and Proximity


      After a few hours in the Thyssen-Bornemisza, we enjoyed some time in the open air. Right next to the museum is Paseo del Prado, a long park that connects Plaza de Cibeles and Plaza de Canovas del Castillo. The latter of these features a sculpted fountain of Neptune. Just beyond Neptune you can see Madrid’s greatest Museum, the Prado. We would visit the museum more than once during our time in Madrid. But for now, a leisurely stroll along the tree-lined park brought us back to the goddess who had welcomed us into the city the night before.

      

      We entered the Palacio de Comunicaciones or Palace of Communications where we were able to take a look at the beautiful building from the inside. We climbed to the top for a bird’s eye view of the area.

      

      After admiring the Palace of Communications and City Hall, we took a look at the Plaza de Espana, where the most recognizable feature is the huge stone obelisk. The Spanish author Cervantes is seated in front of the obelisk, looking as though he is dreaming an impossible dream. In front of Cervantes, just below him, are his most beloved characters: Don Quixote on Rocinante and Sancho Panza on his donkey. 

      

      Another impressive building was the Metropolis. Glinting in the sunlight, the bronze designs on the huge dome atop the ornate building is a sight not to miss.  And if you’re walking in the city for any amount of time, chances are you won’t miss it.

Metropolis      


      For lunch, we had tapas at a cervicera, or a bar-restaurant, where we enjoyed some jamon (ham) sliced right off the pig’s leg, on display atop the bar. This seemed to be common at a number of bars, cafes, and restaurants—ham hocks, hoof and all, decorating bars and tabletops. Along with baguettes and soft goat cheese, we drank house wine and beer. 


Eight Thousand Paintings, Give or Take a Few


      We ended the day in the same mode that opened it: with time well spent in a museum. Museo del Prado is one of Europe’s (and the world’s) largest art museums, with the world’s biggest collection of Spanish paintings. Dominating the museum are the works of Velazquez, Rubens, El Greco, and Goya. (We met two of them before even entering the palace, Goya and Velazques immortalized in statuary.)

      

      There are said to be more than 8,000 paintings at the Prado. Only about a fifth of them are on display. But that fifth could take days to properly take in.  Unfortunately, we only had hours. 

      

      El Greco is well represented at the museum. One of the most notable paintings: the Adoration of the Shepherds, a dramatic work with somewhat surreal figures in vivid colors that pop within the dark framework of the picture. The painting was intended for his own funerary chapel. In this painting and most of El Greco’s work, one can see why he is held apart as a unique artist; unlike most of his contemporaries, he uses elongated, somehow ghostly figures who make up with vibrant color contrasts what they lack in proper dimension.  

      

      There are a great number of paintings by Rubens at the Prado including The Three Graces, one of the last great masterworks by the Flemish painter—originally from his own personal collection. Another interesting depiction is The Birth of the Milky Way in which our galaxy is created with breast milk. Of special interest is the El Bosco (Bosch) painting, The Garden of Delights. The enormous painting shows people falling into their desires, illustrated on three panels.  One panel seems to be heaven, the other hell—and in between, people in a Garden of Eden-esque setting having fun. What many viewers may not realize is that the work has yet another panel: the two side panels close over the middle garden to show the garden encircled in a sphere, seeming to be closed for the night.

      

      The Velazquez collection is perhaps the most impressive of the Prado. His contemporaries like Manet and Giordano called him the “painter of all painters” and his work “the theology of painting.” My favorite Velazquez at the Prado is Las Meninas or The Maids of Honor. This work is an experimentation of perspective: a portrait of the king and queen of Spain in which the subjects are barely noticeable—unless you know where to look for them. They are in the mirror on the wall behind the painter (in self-portrait) as though the viewer of the painting is in the position of the king and queen. But it is not a vanity project: the painting centers on the five-year old Infanta Margarita, who looks out at her parents (or the viewer of the painting) as her ladies in waiting tend to her. It is an interesting examination of perspective.

      

      And then there are the works of Goya. Of note is the set The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, each showing the painting’s subject in the exact same pose, one clothed, the other nude. The latter Maja is regarded as one of the most famous nudes in European painting. Maja seems a content character; in fact, a number of Goya’s works are happier ones: The Parasol, and The Pottery Vendor, for example. But most of his best-known works are of a darker nature.

      

      The Third of May 1808 is one of his most well-known paintings, depicting the shootings on Principe Pio Hill. It is displayed next to The Second of May 1808, depicting the charge of the Mamelukes. These less delightful paintings are located just outside a room that houses Goya’s Black Paintings.


      Goya’s “black paintings” depict the dark mood he was in during his later years of life. Totaling 14 paintings, they were originally frescos he painted on the walls his own house, Quinta del Sordo, or Deaf Man’s Residence. The home was named after a previous resident who was deaf, but Goya himself was nearly deaf as well. Although the black paintings were not exactly intended as a series, they share some of the same unique qualities: the large paintings are somber, irreverent, and bitter, dealing with, misery, sickness, corruption, and death. At the time of their creation, from 1819 to 1823, Goya was in a dark mood himself, fearing death or lunacy. The paintings were for his own use, not intended for public display. He did not even title them himself; the titles were attributed by art historians after Goya’s death.

      

      To stand inside the room, surrounded by the dark paintings, is depressing, the weight of them on your eyes. It is hard to imagine that this is what the artist decided to surround himself with day in and day out at his home. One of the brighter of the black paintings is a Dog Drowning. Some of the darker ones include a horde of witches in the night huddled before a he-goat, and child with similar, monstrous features before them; Two Men Eating Soup shows two crazily smiling men at a table with bowls, one of them looking like nothing more than a skull in the shadows. 

      

      The painting of Men Reading seems somehow tuned into death. An old, bearded man sits with a printed page and other men gather closely around him, looking at the paper. One of them looks pleadingly to the sky, as though praying desperately.  Certainly it could not have been the artist’s intention at the time, but in today’s age of the ailing printed page it almost seems to predict the demise of the printed book in an age preoccupied with screens and electronics. As a companion to Men Reading, Ladies Laughing depicts a group of old women mocking a subject. Who are they mocking? Undoubtedly the men who are reading. 

      

      It was in this pit of darkness that we met up with the husband of Cybel, the goddess who welcomed us to Madrid on her lion-drawn chariot. Saturn’s painting is probably one of Goya’s most well-known. Saturn Devouring his Son depicts just that: the beastly god devouring his own son, his hands brutally digging into the man’s back as though into crust of a blood-red cherry pie. It is a troubling painting, but Saturn, for his terrible deed, actually looks pathetic, crazed, and you almost feel as sorry for the monster as the victim. Saturn is, after all, only eating his son because he fears his own loss of power, because he is plagued by the universal fear of growing old. A person could age just examining the troubling paintings in the room. But that is what makes them fascinating, and well worth examination. 

      

      It was getting dark when we left the Prado. It was time for some red wine and tapas before heading back home to Puerta del Sol.


Europe’s Largest Palace


      Our tour the next morning was a little cheerier. Our breakfast consisted of hot chocolate and churros. Churros are much like the bines of New Orleans only without the messy powdered sugar—deep fried dough, crispy on the outside and still a little wet and gooey on the inside. The hot chocolate was hardly a drink, being so thick it was like pudding. We actually ate it with a spoon, and followed this sweet treat with a cup of coffee.

      

      Palacio Real, Madrid’s marvelous Royal Palace, was designed and built with the purpose to outdo the Louvre in Paris. It stands as one of Europe’s most impressive works of architecture. About half of the state apartments are open for public viewing, which makes it a popular place to visit. That’s why we got there early, about half an hour before the palace opened. Waiting in the short but growing line was actually fun. We were graced with the impressive views of both the palace and, across the courtyard, the Almudena Cathedral. A group of Spanish nuns collected at the top of the cathedral’s stairs, admiring the decorated doors. They broke into song, singing Spanish hymns for us. Their voices carried across the courtyard and provided a nice, ten minute concert. Then, a few minutes after they ceased, another entertainment began. Street musicians and entertainers are clever to set up next to long lines, and today’s act made me wonder why they don’t do so more often, given the captive audience. Our street entertainment for the next fifteen minutes of our wait consisted of a master accordion player and a flamenco dancer. They broke into song and dance, perhaps their best number being the bullfighting song, the accordion player even marching in step with the dancing “bull.” Many of us tossed Euro coins into the open container before them. It was one of the only times we were actually a little disappointed to see the line begin to move. 

      

      But we were leaving a peasant’s realm for a nobleperson’s. The impressive location has been the site of a royal fortress for centuries, but in 1734, after the previous fortress burned, Felipe V ordered the extravagant palace that stands now. It is still used today by the present king and queen for state functions, although Juan Carlos I prefers to live in a slightly less showy residence outside Madrid.

      

      Upon entering the palace through a visitors’ center and gift shop, we exited into the inner courtyard before stepping into the royal pharmacy. The first few rooms of the pharmacy alone were impressive, each lined with gilded shelves of Talavera pottery and ornate drawers, filled with every imaginable ingredient for a home remedy. But room after room continued, making this what must be the most complete royal pharmacy on the face of the earth. The idea was to have everything and anything that might be needed for any ailment on hand. It seems they succeeded, and the results are still showcased today.

      

      After a tour of the royal pharmacy, we entered the front door of the main palace. In the entrance hall it’s easy to trip on the marble staircase because you can’t help but stare up at the Giaquinto frescos and decorations all around. In fact, even Napoleon, after setting up his brother in the palace said, “your lodgings will be better than mine.” Circular windows brighten the large entry with natural sunlight. 

      

      The throne room is another marvel, and one can imagine the king and queen seated on their scarlet and gold thrones, guarded by the Roman lions of bronze next to each.  Just as stately is the enormous dining room decorated with ceiling frescos, wall tapestries, Chinese vases, and a vast table for large parties. The hall of columns is another beautiful room, not to mention the billiard room and smoking room. The walls and ceiling of one room are covered entirely with royal porcelain, wreaths and cherubs decorating the walls. One of the most impressive rooms to behold was the Gasparini Room, named after its designer. Used as Charles III’s robing room, the elaborately decorated salon bursts with lavish rococo chinoiserie. Fruit, flowers, and vines encrust the ceiling. The Royal Chapel in the palace is absolutely stunning with its blue and gold hues giving it a cool, reverend look and feel. 

      

      After some time in the residence, we exited back to the inner courtyard and then took a tour of the royal armory—showcasing the actual armor worn by Spanish royalty of days gone by, along with weapons and a display of armor that had been damaged in battle. The armory features more than 2,000 pieces and has been open to the public for more than 400 years.

      

      Impressive as the armory was, it seemed less so than the palace itself. So, while we were still within the walls, we decided to end our visit to the royal residence with one last stroll through the palace. By this time, a couple hours had passed, so the crowds were thickening. In some rooms we had to swim through a crowd of people or dodge the loud lecturing of a tour guide. Our first walk through the palace was the better, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of some of the impressive rooms once more before leaving.


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