Saturday, January 29, 2011

A walk in old Madrid

AOG, Madrid

I have this friend. I've not seen him for ages. Not since 2004. The 1st of October 2004 to be exact. The last time I saw him, I was in London. It is now 2011. And I am in Madrid, a city I am still learning about daily.

Today, for instance, I went for a walk around the Prado and Retiro Park area with my camera. 

It was a cloudy day, so the light was good on some shots, less so on others. I had gone to see, a couple of weeks ago, an exhibition at the Royal Palace which showed colonial and Spanish paintings from the XVI to the XVIII centuries.

The purpose of it is to show how the artists of the time spoke to each other in a way which transcended borders and geographical distances. Some of the paintings are amazing. And they are very interesting too in many ways. 

For example, the manner in which a print made in Holland was being reinterpreted in Lima, Peru, 150 years later by a local artist, who, in turn, was drawing on a Spanish master who also used the print as inspiration.

It is interesting to see how the European Renaissance and Reformation conception of the Christian God as understood by the artists of the time was being reinterpreted and redefined in the Americas and Asia. 

Of course, most of the paintings are religious. Virgins, saints, Jesus on the cross, miracles, cherubs, angels and archangels from all over the Christian pantheon.

The exhibition at the Royal Palace was very large, and the one at the Prado, less so. Maybe 3 rooms. It was held at the Moneo extension to the Prado. And, well, I think that they did not get their money's worth. The building is boring, staid. Not exactly interesting. 

At the top of the extension (a brick cube with some windows), there live the remains of the ancient Jeronimo's cloister and it is placed right next to the church of Los Jerónimos, which stands proudly behind and above the Prado Museum. 

 The problem with the cloister, in my view, is that it is now a dead space, condemned to remain so eternally -or at least for as long as the Prado's extension exists-. 

It is in a room, under a roof, and protected from the elements by windows. The thing is, it stands at the top of the cube, as if suspended in midair. This is not how it was originally. But it is how it exists now. 

A museum piece which is being preserved because of the beauty of the architectural ensemble, but which is actually designed to be used, like any cloister anywhere else in Europe.

On my way home, I, as I normally do, took some photographs of the buildings surrounding me, and I began my internal dialogue with the usual thought: "How would he like this?" "Would he like this building? That one?" and I begin to imagine my telling him the story of this square, that palace, this museum, that street, all the time wondering what an American would make of an old city such as Madrid. 

Of its curving, uphill streets, of churches built on 70º slopes which face only buildings in front, and which have hardly any visual perspective. 

Of Renaissance palaces turned into hotels, and convents stuck in the middle of a commercial street, with all their treasures inside. 

Of those buildings in Madrid which are Art Deco, or mimick the best that 1920s new York and 1880s Paris had to offer because for a while, being modern meant being French, and then it meant being American.  

And  at the time, unfortunately, no one in Spain knew how to be modern by just being Spanish. I sometimes wonder if this has changed.

I ask myself these questions because I sometime see American tourists wandering in Madrid, looking strangely at the architecture, at the life that goes on inside bars, cafes, galleries, stores, boutiques, and at how it hardly resembles life back in the US. 

Yes, Madrid has malls and shopping centers, but they tend to be located on the periphery, not the center of town. 

And, Spain being Spain, one has to allow for local flavor. But (not my friend's case), most Americans know little of local flavor. 

Unfortunately, they think the world is a version of the US. And it isn't. So when I see them, I'm wondering about what they might make of it all. 

Of the old façades, the tree lined boulevards, which house tacky post war buildings and XIX aristocratic homes side by side, the massive structures built in a space too small to hold them, but which obviously was all they could do 200 years ago. 

And I imagine me acting as tour guide and historian. 

As I left Moneo's cube, I saw a couple of Korean tourists taking a photograph of the Los Jerónimo's church from below. It stood majestically against a cloudy winter sky. 

I wanted to say something. I wanted them to know that this was no ordinary church. 

That before Madrid's cathedral was finished only 6 years ago, this Gothic church had been where most of Spain's Royal weddings of the XIX century took place. 

That next to it stood the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, itself part of the long lost Palace of El Buen Retiro. 

As I crossed the Prado Boulevard, across Neptune's Fountain, and with the Ritz behind me, I could make out the Spanish Parliament. 

Also built on a hill. I mused on the fact that it, and the Prado, are but a stone throw away from each other. And I wondered if the different sizes of the buildings meant something within the Spanish psyche. 

Did it mean that people in Spain value art over politics?

I would love to think so. But I am not convinced that any one country on Earth does this.

And these are the things I thought about today, when I went for a walk in old Madrid.

1 comment:

xochimiqui1 said...

Oh how I wish I were there to walk with you! I miss you so much. If only you two would talk and be heart is so heavy.