- Spain will soon open a new gallery which is considered to be the largest museum project in all of Europe for decades.
- The Royal Collections Gallery will feature objects collected by Spanish monarchs over five centuries.
- The Madrid museum will include tapestries, sculptures, master paintings, royal artworks and furniture.
It’s not like Madrid was short of world-class galleries like the Prado Museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofía, among others.
But next month, Spain will unveil what is touted as one of the year’s cultural highlights in Europe with the opening in the Spanish capital of the Royal Collections Gallery. The elegant new museum will feature masterpieces of paintings, tapestries, sculptures, decorative artwork, armory and sumptuous royal furniture collected by Spanish monarchs over five centuries, spanning the empire’s Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties.
“This is the largest museum project in Spain for decades, and also in Europe,” says Ana de la Cueva, president of Patrimonio Nacional, a government agency that manages the Gallery.
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Unlike many other monarchies, Spain’s royal collections belong not to the crown but to the public, thanks to a historic breakthrough almost a century ago. Now, the Patrimonio Nacional oversees royal palaces, monasteries, convents and gardens throughout the country.
For gallery director Leticia Ruiz, bringing together such a variety of extraordinary pieces makes it a kind of “museum of museums”.
The inaugural exhibition will feature 650 of the more than 150,000 pieces managed by the Patrimonio Nacional, including works by Velázquez, Goya, Caravaggio, Titian and Tintoretto. There will also be some pieces from the best collection of tapestries in the world, as well as antique carriages and royal furniture. Each year one third of the works will be replaced with new exhibits.
Ruiz says the Gallery will offer visitors a unique vantage point of the “history of the Royal Palaces which are fundamental to the history of Spain and the world”.
A striking piece is Velázquez’s ‘White Horse’, rearing and riderless, suggesting that the court painter was just waiting to be told which king to put in the saddle.
Nearby, the light and facial expressions in Caravaggio’s 1607 “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” are equally captivating. The painting is one of only four by Caravaggio in Spain.
Then there’s the multicolored cedar sculpture of St. Michael slaying the devil, a 1692 work by Spain’s first court sculptor Luisa Roldán. It is known that she sculpted the devil in her husband’s likeness and that she herself may have been the model for Michael.
On the same floor is the first edition of Cervantes’ “Don Quijote”.
“For many centuries, Spanish monarchs have been the best collectors of history,” said De la Cueva. Being able to buy and order from the best artists in the world “was a way to showcase their power.”
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Built on the steep hill opposite the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Almudena Cathedral, the Gallery building is an impressive work of art in itself.
Designed by Luis Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón, its impressive linear vertical structure won 10 architecture awards, including the 2017 American Architecture Prize.
Not visible from street level, it descends seven stories. In the Habsburg halls, one is greeted by four gigantic Baroque Solomonic columns in faux wooden marble with gilded vines that once belonged to a Madrid church.
What makes the Gallery especially special is its incorporation of Madrid’s Islamic foundation from the 9th century after archaeologists came across part of the city’s Moorish walls during construction.
Madrid was originally called Mayrit in Arabic and its Islamic rulers built a fortress to protect the nearby power center, Toledo. Following the reconquest of Spain by the Catholic Monarchs, Madrid was made the royal court and capital of Spain in 1561 by Felipe II.
Álvaro Soler Del Campo, archaeologist and chief curator of the Royal Armory, says that Madrid “is the only current capital of the European Union that retains a fragment of its first (foundation) walls” as well as being the only European capital that has an Islamic culture origins.
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The initial idea of building a museum to house the Crown collections arose during Spain’s anti-monarchist Second Republic between 1931 and 1939. The leftist government seized the royal properties but protected them under a new agency which preceded the National heritage.
The republic was razed to the ground during a rebellion by the late dictator General Francisco Franco and other Catholic nationalist officers that started the three-year Spanish Civil War and heralded nearly four decades of dictatorship upon its demise in 1939.
Two decades after Franco’s death and the return to democracy, the initiative for a museum was revived in 1998. But it took another 25 years, $186 million and several changes of government before the ambitious project could be completed.
Ruiz says the novelty of seeing such artistic beauty in such a modernist building will appeal to visitors.
“What we want to do is catch them as soon as they come in, and I think we will,” he said.
King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia will inaugurate the Gallery on 28 June, after which it will be open to the public free of charge for the first few days.