Madrid: Art and Soul
Written by Brian Johnston
There’s no doubt that Madrid is one of the great art capitals of the world, with museums to rival any in New York, Paris, or London. It has not one, but three world-class art galleries that should be on anyone’s list, but there are dozens more smaller museums highlighting everything from the staggering pre-Columbian artefacts of the Museum of the Americas to the wonderful tapestries and sculptures of the Fine Arts Museum.
Many people travel to Madrid for just one reason: the Museo Nacional del Prado, which first opened in 1819 as a showcase for centuries of artworks collected by Spanish royalty.
If you’re serious about art, set aside a day and perhaps more for the Prado, since every one of the 4,000 works it displays is top quality. Although you’ll find masterpieces by German, French, Italian, Dutch, and Flemish artists, the highlight is the collection from three Spanish greats, unrivalled in any other museum: El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez. The latter painted a great many Spanish kings and queens; his most famous canvas, and one of the most sought-out in the museum, is The Maids of Honour, revolutionary in its day for its use of space and perspective. Many believe this to be Spain’s greatest masterpiece.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has a thousand or so canvasses in a collection that relocated from Switzerland in 1992. This is the place to go to trace the history of European and American art through the ages, with just about every important art movement on display, arranged in chronological order from the Middle Ages to the present day. Among the artists represented are Rembrandt, Caravaggio, the Spanish masters, Picasso and Kandinsky. When you tire of the paintings, you can sit on the rooftop terrace and enjoy some good tapas.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofíafocuses on modern art in a collection that was completely reorganised recently to highlight not just painting but photography and cinema as well. Sponsored by Queen Sofia of Spain, the gallery is housed in a futuristically updated 18th century building that has generated controversy, but no one questions the quality of the works on display. Unlike most museums, the canvasses are not grouped by artist but by theme in order to show how modern Spanish art emerged over time. Most visitors will want to see works by Picasso and the surrealists Miró and Dalí, but many other important modern Spanish artists are also represented, such as the colourful cubist master Juan Gris.
While these three museums are easily the jewels in the crown of Madrid’s art life, many other fine museums are worth a visit. There are more Spanish, English, and Flemish paintings in the Museo Lázaro Galdiano but, for a change of pace, you might want to concentrate on its fabulous displays of medieval and Renaissance gold and silver work, swords and bejewelled daggers, bronzes and armour, as well as ivory and enamel works spanning a millennium. The delightfully eclectic collection is housed in a 19th century mansion that is usually uncrowded, and small enough for any visitor to enjoy the entire collection without feeling overwhelmed.
A ten-minute walk away, the Museo Sorolla is named for the early 20th century Impressionist artist Joaquín Sorolla, who once lived there and is particularly known after his Mediterranean coastal scenes. What’s particularly charming about this museum is that it gives you a feel for the artist’s life as well as his works: you can see his studio, his paintbrushes still stained with paint, and even the Turkish divan on which he took his afternoon siestas.
A final nod must be given to the Museo Cerralbo, which, like the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, is an eccentric personal collection, this time by Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa. Housed in the luxurious mansion of this well-travelled and well-educated 19th century marquis, some 50,000 items range from superb canvasses by the likes of El Greco, Tintoretto, and Titian, to European and Japanese armour and weapons, sculpture, porcelains and even early English watches.
Palacio Real de Aranjuez
The vast bulk of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez or Royal Palace of Aranjuez dominates the old centre of Madrid. Although the site of a fortress since the ninth century, the current building dates from the early 18th century when Spain was flush with the spoils of the Americas.
Many will find the opulence a bit much for modern tastes, but you can visit some of the 2,800 rooms on a guided tour. Be prepared to walk a considerable distance through royal apartments, throne rooms, and banqueting halls groaning with chandeliers, inlay, stucco, and gilt.
The art of shopping
If you would rather own some works of art than just look at them, there are well over a hundred private galleries in Madrid, devoted mostly to modern artists. Many are strung along Calle Claudio Coello in the Salamanca district.
For something more modest, on Sundays, try your luck at El Rastro, Madrid’s 500-year-old, open-air flea market along Calle Ribera de Curtidores. You’ll find everything here from recycled clothing to spare parts for motorcycles, including antiques, books and paintings.
If you’re visiting several museums, consider using the Madrid Card, which combines entry to over 50 museums and art centres with public transport over one, two, or three days.