Madrid & environs, December 2009

Madrid has been high on the list of places I have enjoyed visiting and when I read that the Palladio quincentenary show was going to be in Madrid from October into January 2010, I figured that would be a nice excuse to go back to Madrid. And, besides, the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch had been in the conservation lab when I was there in 1998. When I mentioned the idea to Bill Connor last summer, he asked if I wanted company. Bill and I have done lots of gallery and museum visiting together and he joined me in 1998 when I did some NACO training in Rome. As 2009 progressed, the retirement finances were still being figured out and I didn't really think I should go to Europe this year but .... British Airways had an advertisement in the early fall for a good fare and hotel deal. That led me to investigate the deal and though we ended up flying with Iberia and getting our own hotel, I thank British Airways for ungluing the dam of concern.

After Thanksgiving at the farmhouse near Keuka Lake in Branchport where my sister Carol lives with her partner Barb, I went on to Boston to spend the weekend with Bill before we took off for Madrid on Monday. We met Rachel Stuhlman and her friend Bob Buckwalter for supper before we went to hear Brahms and Stravinsky at Symphony Hall and Rachel and Bob went to the opera. It was a good concert, my first at the hall. We also did our obligatory visit to the Border Cafe, a Mexican place not far from Bill's apartment.

The flight to Madrid was easy and we landed at about 7 in the morning. Our hotel was right on the Puerta del Sol, in the middle of Madrid. It's the zero point for figuring mileage in Spain. The plaza was busy but we found our hotel. Of course the room wasn't available for checkin. We left the bags and went for a bit of jetlaggy meandering.

We walked along the Calle de Alcalá to the Plaza de Cibeles and the Palacio de Comunicaciones. The sibyl in her carriage, the fountain, and the wedding-cake building were resplendent in the sunshine. Then down the Paseo del Prado toward the Museo del Prado. We didn't go into the museum, partly because our addled brains were thinking it was Monday. But we later discovered that the museum was open every night from 6-8 for free so we did get in plenty of Prado time but not that first day.

We walked on to the Parque del Buen Retiro with its gracious spaces, amusing topiary, and light requirements for aesthetic concentration. We left the park and figured we could check out the Museo Reina Sofia but ran into the CaixaForum a few blocks before the Reina Sofia. That's where the Palladio show was being held. The building is a redo of an 1899 power station and designed by Herzog + de Meuron. They lifted the building off the plaza and added some metal sheds on top. It's pretty wonderful and the inside works well for the exhibits and supporting functions. The truly knock-your-socks-off feature, however, is the vertical garden done by the architects in conjunction with botanist Patrick Blanc. The pictures do give you a sense of the garden but it's so extraordinary in person. We did go in to the Palladio show which is quite small but with some great models, drawings, photos, and what not. Paul Goldberger had praised the Royal Academy version of the show at great length; the Madrid show was good enough but it didn't knock my socks off. (I'll try to quit the socks stuff at this point.) We didn't go upstairs then to see the Hannah Collins show but I did go back a few days later and it was a good show. I also went up to the top public floor where the cafe is. From the windows up there, you look through grills in the metal sheds out on the city. Very nice. (By the way, Bill's and my pictures are on Flickr if you want some visual evidence. Link at bottom.)

The morning expedition just kind of grew and we finally went back to the hotel to check in. The room was small but quiet. The host recommended a family restaurant around the corner for a late lunch. Meal times in Spain are different from those in the U.S. If you have a big midday meal, it's likely to be mid-afternoon. Supper hour usually doesn't start until after 9 p.m. We did pretty well adjusting: didn't rise at dawn, ate a good-sized breakfast at the hotel, had a snack of some sort in the early-mid afternoon, and then had supper at 9 or 10. And the late supper hour almost guaranteed we wouldn't rise at dawn. Some days, we ended up in museums through the afternoon and our "lunch" was at about 5 p.m.

After lunch, we did some more meandering, over toward the Cathedral and the Royal Palace. The crypt of the cathedral is neo-Romanesque and is quite amazing: huge capitals in a Romanesque style, blocks that are so freshly mortared that they look more like concrete blocks than good old medieval stones. Quite magnificent altogether. The Plaza de Oriente between the palace and the opera house has a splendid monument of Philip IV, erected by Isabel II. I need to do a bunch of studying of Spanish history to keep track of the Felipes and Carloses. On the walk back to the hotel, we passed the garish and amusing Christmas decorations on one of the El Corte Inglés department stores.

Having read about the Prado free evening hours somewhere in the jetlag haze, we headed off for the museum. I started racing madly to find the galleries with known treasures and then decided it was better to appreciate what I found. I did see the Bosches and Rogier's Deposition but fell in love with lots of other paintings too. I've certainly seen Ribera paintings before but found his realism and beautiful painterliness and light especially thrilling. There were lots of Parmigianino and other Italian renaissance and mannerist paintings but I especially stopped at the portraits of the Count of San Secondo and his wife. Christie Stephenson and I had spent some time at the Palazzo ducale in San Secondo, near Parma, when we were in Emilia-Romagna in 2001. Beautiful paintings by Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco, as expected. I had Goya's family of Carl III (or whoever) almost to myself, for a while.

But it was the Bosch gallery that I went back to repeatedly, that visit and later ones. The Garden of Earthly Delights is joined in that room by The Haywain, The Prado Epiphany (about which I wrote a grad school paper), The Cure of Folly, the tabletop with the seven deadly sins, The Pilgrim, and The Temptation of Saint Anthony. There was often a crowd in front of the Garden or another but with such a rich collection, why be selfish?

The Rogier Deposition is hung opposite a lovely little Virgin and Child, also by Rogier. Gorgeous. And the tiny Rogier Virgin and Child at the Thyssen-Bornemisza is absolutely fabulous and now hangs right next to Petrus Christus's Virgin of the Dry Tree. A pair of lovely paintings!

After that rich diet of paintings, we just had a sandwich and beer at the Museo del Jamón near the hotel. "Jamón" (ham) became the ubiquitous and delicious snack. For a euro, you could get a thin but tasty slice of smoky ham in a roll of good bread, and the beer only cost a euro as well. You had to fight your way up to the counter and then ate at the counter. Yummy. Just what fast food should be: easy, cheap, tasty.

On Wednesday, Bill and I walked up to the Museo Lazaro Galdiano, housed in the former home of the donors and reminding me of the Gardner or the Frick. They also have a Bosch (Meditation of Saint John the Baptist) along with other good paintings. This Bosch diet of at least one a day was not hard to take. The rooms at the Lazaro Galdiano are highly decorated, including one dedicated to Goya. On the way to the museum, we passed the highly decorated Palacio Longoria, now the home of the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores (built 1902; architect: José Grases Riera). There was also a lovely arts-and-crafts house at the corner of the Calle Fortuny and the Paseo de Eduardo Dato. I don't know anything about the house yet but I dream that it was the home of Mariano Fortuny, Spanish painter and father of the fashion designer. His painting of a naked old man in the sun at the Prado especially struck me, partly for the beauty of the painting but also for the old man and sun theme. On the way back, we passed a good modernist building, a residence for young women done in the years between the two world wars. The porches had great round edges, but I'm quite a sucker for that. There are pictures of these buildings in my Flickr photostream.

It wasn't all art of course so we went to a couple bear bars and had supper at a rather too trendy place. Just a light supper actually and interesting folks around us: the younger set. Mad.Bear 2009 was happening while we were there so the traffic at the bear bars was pretty high. Since one of the symbols of Madrid is the bear, it was an interesting iconographic mix.

By Thursday, we were ready for a little out-of-town adventure so we took the bus to Segovia. It's less than two hours out of Madrid and it was fun to watch the urban landscape shift to suburban, as the mountains came into view. Segovia has several Romanesque churches, a Roman aqueduct, a late Gothic cathedral, the Alcázar, and much else to attract the eye. The Romanesque churches were splendid. We were lucky to arrive at San Justo just as the custodian was leading an art or architecural historian about; the guide turned on the apse lights that made viewing the murals much easier. The day was a volatile mix of sunniness and clouds so the shadows thrown by the aqueduct were magnificent. It's probably the first full aqueduct I've seen and it is thrilling. An old postcard had folks on the top of it but you can't walk across it anymore. You can climb a staircase along the side and the bulk of the city center is up at that level. The narrow streets and stone buildings are so picturesque. You have to remember to use your eyes for some of those pictures and not just the camera. Más batteries, please.

We got a bit confused on the way back (which is the Madrid bus?) but got back in time for supper at Vegviana. It was our most gracious meal and ended with a glass of patxaran (pacharán, sloe berry liqueur).

When we went down to breakfast the next morning, I had a message from my brother to check my email because the bank had called about an irregularity in my account. It ended up being a legitimate charge ( and they didn't shut off my credit card but I guess I should take their advice and let them know when I'm going to be out of town. Next time.

I had read something in the airline magazine about a show at the Museo del Traje (costume museum) and the waiter at Vegviana gave us some directional aid as well as mentioning the Templo de Debod which was in the same neighborhood. The Museo del Traje was OK but I felt a little like I was wasting my time there. The Templo was given to Spain by Egypt in appreciation of Spanish aid at Abu Simbel, parallel to the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Templo in Madrid is however outside and has a commanding view across a valley to the cathedral and royal palace.

After a bit of food, we took off for the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, what a treasure trove. We started out in the "Tears of Eros" special show. I was feeling a bit snarky but the first two objects were tears by Kiki Smith and Man Ray, and aesthetics won out and I was off. There were a lot of great works in the show including perhaps the most Franz von Stuck I'd ever seen in one place. The room of Sebastians and the next of Andromedas were really splendid; not all Sebastian or Andromeda with some works that played iconographically or compositionally off the others.

From that to "Jan van Eyck: grisallas." From the overt to the sublime and quiet. The small grisaille show was really amazing; not only are the Thyssen Van Eyck panels stupendous, they had the Jan van Eyck Saint Barbara drawing from Antwerp, several manuscripts, some ivories, and a great catalog. I was the only person in the gallery for quite a while. Wow, what a treat. And then on to the permanent collection. It is mostly paintings but what a collection: fine old masters, American paintings, impressionism. I had forgotten that the Expulsion from the Garden by Thomas Cole was in the collection; it had been on view with its pendant Creation at the Amon Carter when I worked there in the 1990s. The Carpaccio and Caravaggio, El Greco and Van Dyck, William Trost Richards and John Singer Sargent, Degas and Gauguin. Just an incredible collection.

Saturday brought another adventure, this time to the Escorial, about an hour in the same direction as Segovia but on the eastern side of the mountains. It was another day of volatile skies with some sun but also interesting clouds. The Escorial is pretty amazing, a large monastery/palace/church complex with a fine collection of paintings and a nice museum of architectural documentation about the construction. There's a pretty amazing Pantheon of Kings, the burial place of a couple dozen kings and queens of Spain. Here and elsewhere, we got quite used to Carlos III's angular facial features. I just must read that Spanish history while that image is still fresh in mind. There is also an incredible stairhall with paintings by Luca Giordano. The church also has Giordano paintings as well as lots of saint chapels, displaying its most active construction and decoration period as the Counter-Reformation. The library was the last room we visited and the books were shelved with the spines inward. The information panel said it was so that the books could breathe; still, I hadn't seen that. We had a bit more confusion here with the ticket process and finding the bus home but we got home fine and had a lovely dinner at El Rincón de Pelayo.

Sunday was Constitution Day so the Puerta del Sol was even more crowded than whatever normal is. We went to the Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, just a few doors down the Calle Alcalá from our hotel. There, we found a whole show devoted to Carlos III, 250 years after his coronation. The academy collection includes a lot of Goya as well as a wonderful Saint Jerome by Marinus van Reymerswaele. Trying to avoid the crowds, we ended having a good lunch at an Indian restaurant not too far from the Puerta.

After lunch, Bill took off for the Prado and I went back to the CaixaForum for another round of Palladio and the rest of the exhibition space and building. Walking back to the Prado to meet Bill, I passed a young man with dark black eyes that somehow evoked the searching eyes of El Greco.

The next day brought our visit to the other big museum of the Madrid triumvirate: the Museo Reina Sofia. Since Monday was a religious holiday, the line to get in was pretty long but it moved quickly and the people spread out around the huge museum. I really liked the redoing of the older building and the new wing by Jean Nouvel. Glass elevators have been added on the front and, from the elevator, you get an incredible view of the city as you do from the terrace on the fourth floor. There was much to like in the museum. It took a while to get acclimated to the floor plan but it was wonderful to get lost in a gallery area and then come out to the circulation path and find your way. We started in a León Ferrari and Mira Schindel show that I think was at MoMA in New York. Really good stuff. I liked a quote from Ferrari: "It isn't anti-religious art but art that is against repression, torture and power. It isn't a problem with religion, but rather a problem with intolerance and violence against others." As I go through modern art collections in Europe, it's always interesting and exciting to see works that look like someone you're accustomed to seeing but done by someone else. I wasn't familiar with Grupo 57 but found their work exciting. There were wonderful simple Mirós. The model of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris exposition was wonderful to see again; it had been at a show in New York City a year or two ago. The model was not displayed in the center of the gallery as it was in NYC so it felt a bit crowded. The pavilion is where Picasso's "Guernica" was first shown. And of course that painting is now at the Museo Reina Sofia. They have a nice gallery of supporting works next to the Guernica gallery. One of the special shows featured Rodchenko and Popova, and I am very fond of Russian constructivism. But my time was running out and I rather rushed through that show.

Though we would have liked to go to Toledo for some El Greco, we decided that we shouldn't do an out-of-town trip on our last day in Madrid. I really wanted to see the Salon de Exposiciones Canal de Isabel II which is in a converted water tower. The conversion is magnificent and worked pretty well for an exhibition of historical photographs of Madriders, mostly vernacular photos. It was fun to go up into the inside of the water container at the top of the tower. The Canal de Isabel II is part of the water system for Madrid though the tower is clearly no longer part of the water containment system. You have to go through light government security (show your ID, get a ticket, enter) to get into the "park" in which the water tower is located. After finishing at the tower, we walked over to the nearby Museo Sorolla. It is located in the former home of Joaquín Sorolla, a Spanish painter rather in the style of John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini (late 19th century-early 20th). His house is a lovely city villa with a nice garden with tilework. There was a good little "dialogue with Velázquez" show at the museum. In Sorolla's studio, there were a bunch of paintings along with the apparatus of an artist's studio. The former studio has rich terracotta-colored walls and his paint pots were a bunch of blue-and-white ceramics. Lovely.

We meandered back to the hotel and did some pre-packing. Then we went back to the Prado for another visit and said goodbye to our friends Bosch, Rogier van der Weyden, Goya, Velázquez, Ribera, Raphael, Parmigianino, Fortuny, et al.!! Supper that evening was consumed at a Mexican restaurant. Quite fun and good margaritas. Then back to the hotel to finish packing and go to bed at a reasonable hour.

Our flight wasn't too early and we had done enough Metro riding that we pretty easily transferred twice even with our bags. The Metro is all color-coded and it was only a couple euros to get to the airport. The new terminal was designed by Antonio Lamela and Richard Rogers and features a rainbow of columns. Quite a splendid space and we did have a couple hours to spend there before the flight.

Back to Boston by just about dark, Eastern Standard Time. We arrived back at Bill's apartment to find Barbara there feeding the cat. Much excitement but it probably enabled us to stay up later and recover easily from the jetlag. Since there was a winter storm working its way East through New York State, I stayed an extra day with Bill. That allowed me to find a history of imperial Spain by J.H. Elliott at the Harvard Book Store. We kept seeing Carlos III's visage and I must admit those Habsburgs are not as well known to me as they could be. Thank heavens they liked to marry Flemings and Burgundians who also liked collecting the art of the Low Countries.

I took advantage of being in Cambridge and visited the small but great selection from the Fogg which is on view at the Sackler during the Fogg renovation. We stopped to talk with Bill's boss, Spruill Harder, for a while and I was amused to discover that she spent childhood summers with her grandparents for whom one of the Ceramics College buildings at Alfred University is named. These connections are just everywhere.

On home to Alfred the next day and a return to "real" life, with wonderful memories of paintings seen and streets walked.

Below are some links to our pictures and some sites you might want to check out. Of course I found the sites by googling and you can do that yourself.

Flickr photostream (both Bill's and my pictures) = and

CaixaForum =

Museo del Prado (English version) =

Jan van Eyck: grisallas exhibition =

Museo Reina Sofia (English version) =

Madrid-Barajas Airport =

Mad.Bear =

... go to Sherman's miscellany page ...