Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Madrid, El Prado, Velazquez, Titian, and the Duke of Ferrara

Visiting Madrid recently, my host asked if there were anything in particular I would like to see. Knowing fully the size and the scope of my request, I asked to see only one tourist site in a four day visit: El Prado.

El Prado is a museum of monumental importance. Like the Louvre, the National Gallery, London, the Metropolitan and the Hermitage, its collections were amassed over centuries, with nearly constant acquisition of only the best artworks. Marriages, inheritances, wars, treaties and alliances brought gifts of extraordinary value to the Spanish crown, and I was mesmerized by two of these, as people have been for almost 600 years.

It will come as no surprise to my friends and readers that the highlight of my trip to Madrid was seeing Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians and Offering to the Goddess of Love. Though I haven’t written my great treatise on Titian yet, many already know that I find him to be one of the best, most innovative and influential painters in history, and to see these two masterpieces side by side, in the flesh as it were, took my breath away, prepared as I was. But I didn’t get to them right away.

The evening I arrived in Madrid, El Prado happened to be open for free from 5 to 8, so we headed downtown for three hours of fun in the galleries. Of course on my list were the Titians, Velazquezes and Goyas… and anything else we happened to pass and want to see. We dutifully started with the Spanish Master of all masters, Velazquez.

First, among many masterpieces, we visited The Weavers, about which I will say little here, except that with its dramatic red curtain, forced, stage-like perspective, and asymmetry within a symmetrical framework, it epitomizes the Spanish Baroque. But there, in the background, what should appear, but Velazquez’s tribute to his hero Titian.


Dead center in the background, in the strong light from the left of the canvas, is a tapestry of Titian’s Rape of Europa. Now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and thus never to be loaned or removed, the Rape of Europa will never join a retrospective of Titian’s work unless held at the Gardner, though it was one of Titian’s greatest masterpieces and most influential paintings. It singlehandedly opened the door to the Baroque, and influenced such artists as Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt and Manet.

But I do digress.

Las Meninas
is also amazing and deserves the tomes which have been written about it. Its subtlety and complexity are just not there in photographs. The king and queen in the mirror are barely ghosts, and yet you expect to see their reflections moving any second. The confidence of Velazquez’s self portrait does not come across in a smaller print. And make no mistake, the painting is huge, so the portrait is nearly life size. Las Meninas is dark the way a John Singer Sargent painting is dark – layers upon layers of dark, yet somehow with fully disclosed details. It tells a story the way Giorgione tells a story – leaving as many questions as answers. It is real and living, yet frozen in time. It is one of history’s most intriguing works of art, but is not the subject of this post.



After this head-spinning trip through the Velazquezes, including those faves of camp humor and drag queens, the Infanta portraits of the over-groomed, pale, uncomfortable looking Austrian girls, who through luck or treachery were there to rule Spain…or marry a cousin and rule somewhere else…we arrived at a hallway full of large Raphaels and some of the Titians I hoped to find.



We found Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor and also as Charles I, King of Spain) and his brood, all Titians, including the very first equestrian portrait ever, Charles V at Mühlberg, celebrating the Emperor’s victory over the Protestants in Germany. Just fantastic, but I do have to note that above the brilliantly armored and richest man who ever lived, riding his victorious steed over the hills of Germany, tassels and velvet saddle flying, is a clearly Italian sky, with all the stripes, yellows and blues and horizontal cloud formations you would expect in a painting from Venice, the Veneto or Tuscany areas of Italy. I spent too much time admiring the royal portraits, especially those of Charles V and his son, Philip II.

Charles is the only person who owned everything. As heir to Phillip I and Juana of Spain, he was the King of the newly united Spain (Ferdinand and Isabella were his grandparents) and thus the newly discovered and unfathomably rich colonies in the New World, and as Phillip’s Hapsburg heir, he inherited the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, it all proved too much, what with the reformation and inquisition and gout and overdeveloped mandible and all, and he eventually abdicated and gave his nephew Austria and the Empire and his son Phillip II Spain and the New World, and went off to eat porridge in a monastery, but he was the one on whose empire the sun never set – that in itself is amazing.

Though we had seen so much, eight o’clock arrived and I felt like I had not seen what I came to see, and yet I couldn’t feel disappointed. Another trip was in order.

Saturday involved an exhibition at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Fundacion Caja Madrid on Architectural Paintings (on view through January 2012), impressing me more than ever with the vibrancy of Belloto’s landscapes and how he uses light to animate the buildings, making them characters in his scenes.

Lunch was at the Museo de Jamon, where we enjoyed a plate of what? Ham. And a separate plate of cheese with a basket of fresh bread and a good Spanish Red. Excellent.

Then, we continued on to a Delacroix exhibition where I was surprised to find Horses Coming out of the Sea from The Phillips Collection, where I worked for several years and came to know this painting as a friend.
Delacroix is of that family of “painterly” painters, for whom perspective and physics were laws to be manipulated for the sake of an image, and for whom brushstrokes are not sins. In that respect, though French and of a very different school, my visit to this retrospective at the Caixa Forum Madrid (through 15 January 2012) was more complimentary to my intended itinerary than I might have thought, as his “painterly” style is a 19th century evolution of the work of Titian, Velazquez and Goya, and therefore quite relevant to the primary art quest of this trip: the Titians.

It was not until Sunday evening, when it was again open for free, that we ventured back to El Prado, a distinct mission in mind. I was determined to find the Titians first off and hope we would have time for Goya too, but was happy to have this second chance to find Gallery 42.

There was a line. It seemed long at first, but once they opened the doors, it moved very quickly and we were inside in moments.

How could we have missed them the first visit?

There they were – right up the main hall and on the left. Oh, it was hard passing all those giant Raphaels and El Grecos so quickly, but I was on a mission. And then, there: on the left, framed by the huge arch…there they were. The sheer size of the canvases overwhelms you as you see them side by side, framed by the archway, a riot of color and activity, bodies and landscapes and life.

As if to make the Renaissance argument that painting is a better art form than sculpture (a competition which notoriously ran among intellectuals and artists of the time), Titian has painted the infants in the Offering to the Goddess of Love and the celebrants in the Bacchanal in every conceivable position: sleeping, standing, flying, swirling, dancing, cavorting, as well as actually painting statuary, and thus has completed the process begun by his predecessor and teacher, Bellini, of softening the human form from the old Byzantine and Middle Age painting from which the Renaissance was a “rebirth.” The bodies here are entirely three dimensional and lifelike, even plastic, only idealized enough to have you believe they are gods. Many of the poses are based on classical sculptures, but interpreted in the language of color, flesh and blood. No one had ever painted the gods so human and alive before
My absolute favorite detail is the perfect glass jug of wine exactly in the center of the Bacchanal. It is virtuoso painting, as perfect as any glass ewer in any 17th century Dutch still life – and placed in the exact center of the canvas to show off its virtuosity. It’s sheer bravado and it’s fantastic.

But the real reason I love these paintings, wanted to see them again live, and think they are among the most important pieces of art of all time is that they were commissioned for a certain room, a certain documented, real, historical room, the importance of which, because of the artwork in it, eclipses that of any other room, including the great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles or the Amber or Malachite rooms of the Russian palaces, or any of the great Scuoli of Venice, and which sadly is alas no longer extant. Though Titian was court painter to the Spanish kings and was knighted by Charles V, these paintings came into the Spanish royal collection as a gift to Phillip IV over a hundred years later from Niccolo Ludovisi, Count of Monterrey and Viceroy of Naples (and nephew of Pope Gregory XV!), but they were intended originally for a very different room.

Duke Alfonzo I of Ferrara started it all. Maybe it was it was his wife who inspired it – she was the notorious Lucrezia Borgia: illegitimate daughter of the Pope whose reputation still inspires questions. The deaths of her first two husbands were questionable. She allegedly had many affairs, including with her brother and/or father, and she inspired a fashion for rings with poison compartments. Clearly the Duke needed a nice place to get away. He was a little cocky about building his study, but then one might expect that from Lucrezia Borgia’s third husband.

In those days, most palaces were fortresses as well as grand palaces, like the Medici palace in Florence, which appears very much like a fortress, as opposed to the later and more refined Barberini palace in Rome, and those of that ilk.



Alfonzo, however, had a luxury palace for living the grand life and a fortress for the many times when his lands were under siege. Imagine such a life.

Anyway, he built a structure to connect the two so he wouldn’t have to mix with the rabble while beating his retreat from the palace to the fortress or vice versa. And he could be safe hanging out between the two, always on the alert. With the commanding view that this “bridge” location offered, it was the perfect, if vulnerable and therefore somewhat cocky, place to build his luxury “camerino d’alabastro’ (alabaster cabinet). Wildly popular among the aristocracy of the time, and a precursor to the “collectors cabinets” which came later, an aristocrat’s camerino was his private library where he could host his erudite and important guests in a suitably impressive setting and dazzle them with his collection of marvels and antiquities.

Alfonzo’s sister, Isabella d’Este had another very famously decorated camerino in which she entertained one of the most illustrious courts in the world, not far away in Mantua, perhaps inspiring her brother to want bigger and better.


As with many expensive and/or public art commissions of the time, Alfonzo’s camerino was from its very inception intended to be a competition. Originally, he intended to collect five huge canvases from the best artists of the day to hang together in the same room so that the viewer could openly compare them. Each painting was to tell a story from Roman poets Ovid and Philostratus and highlight the artist’s skill. Fra Bartolomeo was commissioned, and Raphael submitted a drawing, but both died before completing their commissions. In the end, Fra Bartolomeo’s sketch was influential in the Offering to the Goddess of Love, as this was the theme he had submitted, and the first Titian finished for the room. However, Titian’s teacher, Bellini, completed the first panel for the room, The Feast of the Gods (now at the National Gallery, Washington), just before his death in 1514. Imagine Lucrezia Borgia sitting by the fire in her husband’s study looking at that painting, next time you’re in DC. I used to when I worked at the National Gallery and visited it daily.
Dosso Dossi completed another of the large mythological scenes, but he was not of the caliber of the others. He was a good local painter, but not in league with Raphael, Fra B and Titian. His panel may be one now at the National Gallery, London; in fact it was once thought to be, but is now considered a later work with improvements in Dossi’s style based on his knowledge of the Titians painted for this room. The Dossi from the Duke’s Alabaster Chamber now considered lost. Even if it was better than this Bacchanal of Men at the National Gallery, it pales compared to the Duke’s Bellini and Titians.
Dossi also painted the mythological scenes in the medallions around the golden ceiling of the camerino, but this time with the characters in modern (early 16th century) dress. One of these is in the National Gallery, Washington as well.
Imagining the room from the few remaining fragments, and from the known floor plan and location, all available at “Investigating Bellini’s Feast of the Gods,” it all seems so coherently planned and beautiful.

Drawn together with a golden ceiling and walls of marble described in a contemporary account as luminous as alabaster, hence its nickname, with gilding and columns and pilasters in the newest renaissance style, with relief carvings on the walls based on the classical ruins being unearthed throughout Italy, and with the richest fabrics covering the windows and furniture, the room must have been lavish beyond what a modern imagination can conjure.


With Bellini’s demise just after completing The Feast of the Gods, and with Dossi’s contribution limited to one major painting and the ceiling decoration, Raphael’s famous refusal to complete the project, and his and Fra Bartolomeo’s deaths, Titian was suddenly in quite a powerful position with the powerful duke. He finished the room. For a wonderful timeline of the development of the paintings in the duke’s camerino, and a very detailed explanation of Dossi’s and then Titian’s retouching Bellini’s painting to make it more harmonious with the landscapes they finished later, please visit the website “Investigating Bellini’s Feast of the Gods.”




Completed, the paintings create a unified whole. The undulations of the landscapes and the placement of the trees blend the scenes together as if they are one panorama. Imagine them all bracketed with marble and gold pilasters and reliefs. They would appear as windows, huge panels of these giant landscapes with dancing, active figures. But even in these, the Renaissance competition cannot be far removed. Look at Bellini’s figures, and note how wooden they seem compared to Titian’s, though they were the vary model of plasticity and realism when they were painted only a few years before. The reclining nudes in the lower right corner of both the Feast of the Gods and the Bacchanal of the Arians begs comparison, and by far, Titian has created the more realistic, sensuous, desirable goddess. The sleeping figure of Father Time rests on a hillside in the Bacchanal, which across the divide of pilaster and sculpture continues into the looming hill of the Feast, the trees on the right of which are separated from the grove on the left of the Adoration by more architectural ornamentation and upholstery. While each is a masterful composition alone, the overall composition of so many pictures specifically designed as a suite in a perfectly proportioned chamber, must have been an impressive statement of the Duke’s power and wealth.


Sadly, Lucrezia died before the room was complete, though it’s fun to imagine her there, devising entertainments. The Duke did eventually finish the room, which passed to their son, Duke Ercole and then to his son, Duke Alfonzo II. Despite marrying women from three of the most powerful families in Europe, the Medici, the Hapsburgs, and the Gonzagas, Alfonzo II died without an heir. His possessions were first claimed by his cousin, with permission of the Holy Roman Emperor, but were eventually taken by the Papal States and the room dismantled and the treasures dispersed. Bellini’s Feast of the Gods eventually ended up at the National Gallery, Washington, these two masterpieces at El Prado, and the Bacchus and Ariadne at the National Gallery, London.

You can get the stories of the myths represented in the paintings from other sources, and can explore the paintings at your leisure at El Prado’s website, the National Gallery London’s website and the National Gallery Washington’s website. “Investigating Bellini’s Feast of the Gods” is a fascinating, interactive website which explains the placement, development, commissioning and installation of the paintings, and the architectural layout of the room, all based on the latest art historical research tools, but offers little insight into the other components of the décor, which must have been splendid as well.

To see the paintings in the flesh was my goal, and I had achieved it.

So for the rest of the Sunday evening, I spent nearly all my time loving these Titians, among many others of his mythological scenes collected by Phillip IV when he was collecting early Titians in an effort to round out the collection of his ancestors’ court painter. Painted long before Titian become involved with the Spaniards, these giant mythological scenes had already lived quite a life before moving to Madrid, and the only way to completely imagine their history is to see them.

Mission complete, we headed for Goya, where everything we saw was a bonus, and which I will write about another time. Exiting, I had one last chance to say goodbye to Charles V and the family.

If you have never visited El Prado, it is a life destination, and I would rate it with The Met, The Louvre, The Uffizi, The Hermitage, The National Gallery, London – among the finest museum collections in the world. Having spent these few hours exploring its treasures, I left Madrid on Monday morning, feeling as though I had accomplished much, and grateful to a very indulgent and patient host.

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