Museo del Prado
Lonely Planet review for Museo del Prado
Welcome to one of the premier art galleries anywhere in the world. The more than 7000 paintings held in the Museo del Prado’s collection (although only around 1500 are currently on display) are like a window onto the historical vagaries of the Spanish soul, at once grand and imperious in the royal paintings of Velázquez, darkly tumultuous in Las Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings) of Goya and outward-looking with sophisticated works of art from all across Europe. Spend as long as you can at the Prado or, better still, plan to make a couple of visits because it can be a little overwhelming if you try to absorb it all at once. Either way, it’s an artistic feast of rare power.
Entrance to the Prado is via the western Puerta de Velázquez or northern Puerta de Goya. Either way tickets must first be purchased from the ticket office at the northern end of the building, opposite the Hotel Ritz and beneath the Puerta de Goya. Once inside, pick up the free ‘Plan’ from the ticket office or information desk just inside the entrance – it lists the location of 50 of the Prado’s most famous works and gives room numbers for all major artists; pdf versions are available on the website to help you plan your visit.
The masterpieces by Goya and Velázquez are the Prado’s standout highlights and, although there’s so much else to enjoy in this extraordinarily rich collection, these two artists are a good place to start.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Goya) is found on all three floors of the Prado, but we recommend starting at the southern end of the ground or lower level. In rooms 64 and 65, Goya’s El Dos de Mayo and El Tres de Mayo rank among Madrid’s most emblematic paintings; they bring to life the 1808 anti-French revolt and subsequent execution of insurgents in Madrid. Alongside, in rooms 66 and 67, are some of his darkest and most disturbing works, Las Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings); they are so called in part because of the dark browns and black that dominate, but more for the distorted animalesque appearance of their characters. The Saturno Devorando a Su Hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son) captures the essence of Goya’s genius. La Romería de San Isidro and El Akelarre (El Gran Cabrón) are profoundly unsettling. The former evokes a writhing mass of tortured humanity, while the latter is dominated by the compelling individual faces of the condemned souls of Goya’s creation. An interesting footnote to Las Pinturas Negras is El Coloso, a Goyaesque work that was long considered part of the master’s portfolio until the Prado’s experts decided otherwise in 2008. The painting and its story are found adjacent to the Black Paintings.
On the 1st floor, there are more Goyas in rooms 32 and 34 to 38. Among them, in room 36, two more of Goya’s best-known and most intriguing oils: La Maja Vestida (The Young Lady Dressed) and La Maja Desnuda (The Young Lady Undressed). These portraits of an unknown woman, commonly believed to be the Duquesa de Alba (who may have been Goya’s lover), are identical save for the lack of clothing in the latter. There are further Goyas, including The Parasol in room 85, on the top floor.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (Velázquez) is another of the grand masters of Spanish art who brings so much distinction to the Prado. Of all his works, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour; Room 12) is what most people come to see. Completed in 1656, it is more properly known as La Família de Felipe IV (The Family of Felipe IV). It depicts Velázquez himself on the left and, in the centre, the infant Margarita. There’s more to it than that: the artist in fact portrays himself painting the king and queen, whose images appear, according to some experts, in mirrors behind Velázquez. His mastery of light and colour is never more apparent than here. An interesting detail of the painting, aside from the extraordinary cheek of painting himself in royal company, is the presence of the cross of the Order of Santiago on his vest. The artist was apparently obsessed with being given a noble title. He got it shortly before his death, but in this oil painting he has awarded himself the order years before it would in fact be his!
The rooms surrounding Las Meninas (rooms 14 and 15) contain more fine works by Velázquez. Watch in particular for his paintings of various members of royalty who seem to spring off the canvas – Felipe II, Felipe IV, Margarita de Austria (a younger version of whom features in Las Meninas), El Príncipe Baltasar Carlos and Isabel de Francia – on horseback. But you could pick any work of Velázquez and not be disappointed.
Having experienced the essence of the Prado, you’re now free to select from the astonishingly diverse works that remain. If Spanish painters have piqued your curiosity, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, José de Ribera and the stark figures of Francisco de Zurbarán should be on your itinerary. The vivid, almost surreal works by the 16th- century master and adopted Spaniard El Greco, whose figures are characteristically slender and tortured, are also perfectly executed.
Another alternative is the Prado’s outstanding collection of Flemish art. The fulsome figures and bulbous cherubs of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) provide a playful antidote to the darkness of many of the other Flemish artists. His signature works are Las Tres Gracias (The Three Graces)and Adoración de los Reyes Magos. Other fine works in the vicinity include The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel, Rembrandt’s Artemisa, and those by Anton Van Dyck.
And on no account miss the weird-and-wonderful The Garden of Earthly Delights (Room 56A) by Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450-1516). No one has yet been able to provide a definitive explanation for this hallucinatory work, although many have tried. While it is, without doubt, the star attraction of this fantastical painter’s collection, all his work rewards inspection, especially the Table of the Seven Deadly Sins. The closer you look, the harder it is to escape the feeling that he must have been doing some extraordinary drugs.
And then there are the paintings by Dürer, Rafael, Tiziano (Titian), Tintoretto, Sorolla, Gainsborough, Fra Angelico, Tiepolo…
As you wander from room to room, it’s worth pausing to admire the architectural masterpiece that is the building in which the Prado resides. The western wing (Edificio Villanueva) was completed in 1785, as the neoclassical Palacio de Villanueva. Originally conceived as a house of science, it later served, somewhat ignominiously, as a cavalry barracks for Napoleon’s troops during their occupation of Madrid between 1808 and 1813. In 1814 King Fernando VII decided to use the palace as a museum, although his purpose was more about finding a way of storing the hundreds of royal paintings gathering dust than any high-minded civic ideals – his was an era where art was a royal preserve. Five years later the Museo del Prado opened with 311 Spanish paintings on display.
In contrast, the eastern wing (Edificio Jerónimos) is part of the Prado’s stunning modern extension, which opened in 2007. Dedicated to temporary exhibitions (usually to display Prado masterpieces held in storage for decades for lack of wall space), and home to the excellent book shop and cafe, its main attraction is the 2nd-floor cloisters. Built in 1672 with local granite, the cloisters were until recently attached to the adjacent Iglesia de San Jerónimo El Real, but were in a parlous state. As part of their controversial incorporation into the Prado, they were painstakingly dismantled, restored and reassembled. They’re a stunning way to end your Prado visit – look in particular for the royal coats of arms on the four compass points, while the Italianate bronze and marble sculptures date back to the 16th century.