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In Madrid, an essential museum for art lovers. (Not the Prado.)

2 weeks ago 150

Madrid is full of essential museums: the Prado, of course, and the Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza, all within a short walk of each other. Add to that a relative newcomer, the Royal Collections Gallery, which opened this past summer on the plaza next to the Royal Palace. Three sprawling exhibition halls have been deftly integrated into the commanding overlook between the Royal Palace and the gardens below, a new, sleek, modernist structure disguised as a retaining wall with a discreet entrance that doesn’t distract from the more classical architecture of the 18th-century royal residence.

With more than 650 objects on display, drawn from the vast Patrimonio Nacional collection, the museum tells a coherent story in a remarkably clear and vivid way. It charts the history of Spain from the waning of the Middle Ages through the discovery of America, the age of the Habsburgs and then the Bourbons, to the present day. Art plays a key role in this narrative, and while the new museum can’t compete with the riches of the Prado, it includes significant works by Caravaggio, Velázquez, El Greco, Durer and Goya. These are integrated with books and manuscripts, jewelry, religious artifacts, furniture, and other luxury goods.

It could all be a hodgepodge, a warehouse of wealth and excess. But the curators have edited the story smartly, such that the treasures don’t simply say the same thing over and over: Yes, the rulers of Spain were fabulously wealthy. Among the oldest works on display, and the first that visitors encounter, are a small votive cross and crown, both made of gold sometime in the 7th century. They seem relatively modest, even frail, typical of an age when Spain was divided into smaller kingdoms and royal life was itinerant. Before these works were recorded as part of the royal treasury in a 1504 document signed by Queen Isabella, they were easily portable markers of royal and religious authority.

Tapestry was also a portable art form, and the museum has a magnificent collection. The quality and state of preservation is exceptional. The gold woven into an image of the Nativity, made around 1492, still gleams. The colors and detail of a huge, hagiographic depiction of Charles V reviewing his troops in Barcelona made around 1534 are still wonderfully vivid. And both works point beyond themselves to larger moments in history, the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, and the display of the Charles V tapestry in Westminster Cathedral to honor the marriage of Philip II to the English Mary Tudor in 1554, a union that might have changed history had it lasted longer and produced an heir.

The discovery of America is seen both directly and indirectly, through the magnificent wealth accumulated by the Habsburg rulers, wealth that furthered their power, ambition and self-glorification. Among the manuscripts on display is a 16th-century version of Bernardino de Sahagun’s “Universal History of the Things in New Spain.” This isn’t the famous Florentine Codex at the Laurentian Library in Florence, but another edition of perhaps the most important work of ethnography since Tacitus’s “Germania” some 14 centuries earlier. A deeply problematic book, it compiled Sahagun’s decades of study of what remained of the Aztec people after Spain’s brutal conquest of their empire.

It is also a reminder that the symbiotic relationship between wealth, art and royalty also extended to knowledge. And while Sahagun’s survey of the Aztecs is invaluable, it served his larger mission — which was evangelization, also known as the destruction of culture.

The museum is smartly divided between the Habsburg dynasty, on the first level below the plaza entrance, and the Bourbon dynasty, one floor below that. Connecting them are wide ramps and atrium spaces with fine views over the sprawling gardens of the Campo del Moro.

The change from the Habsburgs to the Bourbons is as shocking to the contemporary visitor as it must have been to the people of Spain in 1700. The last of the Habsburgs, Charles II, died without an heir and stipulated that the crown be passed to a grandson of Louis XIV. That sparked more than a decade of war, and the arrival of French style: grandiloquent, refined and vulgar, all at the same time. The destruction by fire of the old royal palace in Madrid also gave Philip and his successors a blank slate. The result was the current structure, which is the largest still-functioning royal palace in Europe.

The Bourbon floor may disappoint art lovers, as the focus shifts from some of the greatest figures of the 16th and 17th centuries to names like Louis-Michel van Loo and Anton Rafael Mengs, who served the court with a virtuosity entirely at the service of their patron’s pretensions. The grandeur of the art seems inversely proportional to Spain’s declining fortunes as a world power. But there are delights among the myriad high-end home goods, including splendid still lifes by Luis Meléndez and a Goya portrait of Charles IV that pleased the monarch despite the look of placid, good-natured stupidity on his face.

The story shifts from the splendor of art to other narratives, including the invention of Spain as an exotic other — perfumed, languorous, erotically charged — within the European imagination. Spain’s defeat by the United States in the Spanish-American War in 1898 followed decades of political upheaval, and there was worse to come. Black-and-white films document the dreadful descent into a hard-line, Catholic totalitarianism under Francisco Franco in the 1930s.

The royal collections had devolved to the Spanish people only a few years earlier, in 1931, and the idea for a museum dates to the end of the Spanish Republic in 1936. It took decades before that ambition became a reality, and even then, there were delays. The building, an exceptionally tasteful piece of contemporary design by architects Emilio Tuñón Álvarez and Luis Moreno García-Mansilla, was actually finished in 2015. Creating the interior displays began in 2018 and, in the process, the number of objects was reduced from 900 to the current 650, a smart choice that in no way diminishes the sense that a complicated story has been told fully and with nuance.

It isn’t an easy story to tell, especially given the lingering, vestigial fascination with royalty that afflicts even the most democratically minded people. This is a toxic disease with glorious symptoms, an efflorescence of beauty on the muck of geopolitics. Perhaps because this material belongs to the Spanish people, perhaps because Spain has largely and lately been a success story, perhaps because it is Spain and not England (whose monarchy Americans fetishize for inexplicable reasons), the narrative feels appropriately dispassionate and objective. One can also buy a ticket for the royal palace across the plaza, but visitors will likely find the longer arc of Spanish history laid out here more cogently and coherently.

The Royal Collections Gallery in Madrid is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays and public holidays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. patrimonionacional.es/en/actualidad/galeria-de-las-colecciones-reales

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