In a part of the world where most major cities trace their roots back at least a couple of millennia, Madrid, the capital of Spain is somewhat of a latecomer. But it did catch up on grandeur since its recorded history began in the 9th century when Cordobese Emir Muhammad I established it as a defensive outpost on the escarpment above the Manzanares River.
From Habsburgs to Bourbons
The majestic facades of the Plaza Mayor are lined on all sides by 327 uniform balconies.
Plaza Mayor — Fast-forward to 1561 when Phillip II decided to turn this backwater town in the geographical center of the country into the imperial capital city of the recently unified Spain. A descendent of the Habsburg dynasty, Philip was a son of Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria Charles V. This Hapsburg period ushered in a European influence that acquired the moniker of Austrian Style, although it also included Italian and Dutch elements — a nod to the international preeminence of the ruling dynasty. The Plaza Mayor, an imposing 129 m by 93 m (423 ft by 309 ft) rectangle lined on all sides by three story residential buildings opening onto the square, remains a masterpiece of uniformity and an outstanding example of the Austrian Style.
The colossal Italianate Neo-classical palace remains the official residence of the Spanish royal family.
Palacio Real — When the Bourbons replaced the Habsburgs at the start of the 18th century, they introduced the French Style to he capital, with Felipe V (1683- 1746) ordering the construction of a Royal Palace to “out-Versailles” the home of his French monarch grandfather (Louis XIV). The official residence of the Spanish royal family, the colossal Italianate Neo-classical Palacio Real, with a grand total of 3418 rooms and over 135,000 square meters (1,450,000 square feet) of floor space, remains the largest functioning palace in Europe. These days, it is used only for official ceremonies, and open to visitors the remainder of the time. Step inside and be dazzled by the sublime royal collections featuring works by Goya, Caravaggio and Velázquez among others, as well as stunning displays of watches, tapestries, porcelain and silverware. And don’t miss the Throne Room with its ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo.
The Golden Triangle
It was his son Carlos III (1716-1788), who undertook the task of transforming the city into a capital worthy of the monarchy, ordering among other things the creation of the Museo del Prado complex.
The Prado Museum was first opened to the public in in 1819.
Museo del Prado — To art lovers the world over the Prado is virtually synonymous with Madrid. Based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, the museum is widely considered as housing one of the world’s finest collections of European art from the 12th to the early 20th century, and the single most significant collection of Spanish art. The numerous works by Francisco Goya, the single most represented artist, as well as Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco, Rubens, Titian, and Velásquez, are merely highlights of the collection, which also boasts the largest holding of Italian masters outside Italy. In recent decades the artistic prestige of Madrid has further been enhanced by the opening of two additional world-class museums. All three are located within a 20-minute walk of each within an area that has acquired the moniker of The Golden Triangle.
At The Thyssen, in addition to the rich collection of paintings, several galleries also showcase marble works by August Rodin.
Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza — Commonly known as The Thyssen, the museum opened in 1990 to showcase the private collection started in the 1920’s by Heinrich, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon. With over 1,600 paintings, it was once the second largest private art collection in the world after the British Royal Collection. Here, in a relaxing, airy environment, you can feast your eyes on an eclectic selection of treasures ranging from Italian primitives, works of the English, Dutch and German Schools to French Impressionist and Post-expressionist pieces, and an exceptional collection of American works ranging from 19th century landscapes to Abstract Expressionists.
The historic building repurposed as the Reina Sofia Museum was originally constructed as Madrid’s General Hospital in 1805.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía — or simply the Reina Sofía is the third major landmark of the Golden Triangle. Inaugurated in 1990, it is dedicated to the great modern and contemporary Spanish masters such as Pablo Picasso, Salvator Dali, Joan Miró and Juan Gris and their international counterparts: Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, et al. Since I have never felt a particular connection to this artistic period, I considered giving the Reina Sofía a miss. However, the museum is now the permanent home of Picasso’s most revered work: his monumental Guernica (3.49 m by 7.76 m or 11.45 ft by × 25.45 ft). I couldn’t resist the opportunity to view this iconic piece.
Unflinchingly brutal in its representation of the horrors of war, Guernica has become a powerful universal anti-war symbol.
The Story behind Guernica — Created for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair, the monumental canvas immortalizes Picasso’s outrage over the April 27, 1937, bombing of the village of Guernica in northern Spain. By all accounts, the Guernica attack was the first deliberate bombing of civilians in world history. It was conducted by the German air force to help General Franco win the Spanish civil war. The military dictatorship that followed didn’t end until the death of Franco in 1975. Meanwhile, Picasso entrusted the safekeeping of the work to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, stipulating that it couldn’t be delivered to Spain until “public liberties and democratic institutions had been established in the country”, which finally occurred in 1981.
A Hidden Gem
Male figures, Nayarit Style painted ceramic., Western Mexico.
As an antidote to impending European art overload, and to take cover on a sizzling hot June afternoon, I made my way to the Museo de América. Located at the edge of the universities neighborhood in the northwestern part of the city, it is an impressive, custom-built edifice, with high arches and a towering steeple that hint of the 18th century Spanish cathedrals of Latin America. It is also delightfully air-conditioned — and virtually empty of visitors. Yet the museum houses an impressive collection of over 25,000 artefacts exploring the varied cultures of the Americas from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle, from the various Pre-Columbian civilizations to the 19th century, and their long, convoluted history with colonial Spain. Unsurprisingly, the highlights are those pieces sent from the Americas to Spanish rulers from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Detail of the Post Classic Maya Troano Codex.
Among the most notable artefacts is the Madrid Stele, a 46.5 cm by 29.5 cm ( (18.3 in by 11.6 in) limestone bas-relief with red and black paint seams from Palenque (Mexico). This Mayan work from the Late Classic Period (600 to 800 A.D. is one of the pieces that held the Palenque’s throne in one of the rooms of the palace’s central courtyard. Another Mayan treasure is the Madrid Codex (a.k.a.Trocortesiano or Troano Codex), one of only four surviving Maya books dating to the Postclassic Era (900–1521 A.D.). Originally from the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, the 22,6 cm by 416,5 cm ((8.9 in by 164 in) codex, painted on Amate paper, illuminates sacred rituals like sacrifice and the invocation of rain, while simultaneously depicting everyday activities like weaving, hunting, and beekeeping.
The the facade of the museum is reminiscent of the Neo-gothic style of many Latin American cathedrals.
Although I didn’t get to view it, the museum also holds the so-called Treasure of Quimbaya: 122 mainly gold artifacts including figurines, crowns, pendants, necklace beads, bells, nose and ear ornaments as well as ceremonial vessels and musical instruments. The treasure is currently the object of an ownership controversy with the Columbian government. Regardless, the Museum of the Americas is a joy to visit for anyone interested in the arts, archaeology and ethnography of the Americas.
Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza – Jan Van Kessel III (attribution). View of the Carrera san Jerònimo and Paseo del Prado with a procession of carriages (circa 1686).
Good to Know
- Getting there — By plane: Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is the largest international airport in Spain, and the homebase for Iberia Airlines. The airport is located 13 km from the city center and includes 4 terminals. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are serviced by the same metro station, while Terminal 4 has its own metro and commuter train stations. By train: RENFE, the Spanish national railroad company operates frequent daily service between Madrid and all major cities in Spain as well as, in association with neighboring European Union countries rail companies to Lisbon, Milan, the French coast and Paris, with continuing journeys to most of Europe.
- Getting around — The center of Madrid is easily walkable. However, the city is also blessed with Metro de Madrid, one of the better and least expensive subway systems in Europe. This underground network covers practically the entire metropolitan area and airport. There are easy-to-use ticket dispensers in all the stations with multilingual with instructions in Spanish, English, French, and German.
- Palacio Real Calle de Bailén, 28071 Madrid, Spain, is open October through March from Monday to Saturday: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Sunday: 10:00 – 4:00 pm and and April through September from Monday to Saturday: 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Sunday: 10:00 – 4:00. It is closed on major national ho holidays. Contract: tel. +34 914 548 800.
- Museo del Prado, Calle de Ruiz de Alarcón, 23, 28014 Madrid, is open year-round Monday to Saturday 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and Monday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: e-mail , tel. +34 913 302 800.
- Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado, 8, 28014 Madrid, is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm and Monday from 12.00 noon to 4.00 PM. Contact: tel. +34 917 911 370.
- Museo de América, Avenida Reyes Católicos, 6, 28040 Madrid, is open Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am to 3:00pm, and Sunday 10am to 3pm. Closed on Monday and major national holidays. Contact: tel. +34 915 492 641.