Seeing Madrid through Goya's art

Tracking down the painter in a city he embraced is a fine way to escape the crowds and see Madrid.

Sensual delight or transfixed terror - it doesn't really matter which vision of Francisco de Goya you favor. The master's master paintings have never seemed so vivid and, well, masterly, as they do in the recent reinstallation at the Prado Museum.

If you're at the Puerta de Murillo entrance when the Prado opens at 9 a.m. and head straight up one flight of stairs to galleries 32 to 39, you might get 10 glorious minutes alone with Goya before the guided tours arrive. Casual tourists, scholars, and art students mob the galleries throughout the day.

Goya was born in 1746 in a small village in Aragon, Spain, but moved to Madrid by the time he was a young man. His impassioned paintings evoke the regal glory - and grim squalor - of the capital during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It's easy to see why three Spanish kings made Goya their court painter. His shrewdly revealing aristocratic portraits alone would have won him lasting acclaim. But his outraged depictions of Napoleon's invasion of Spain and his late, phantasmagoric "dark paintings" established Goya as a genius for all times.

Goya's tapestries

It's hard to believe that the same artist painted the cheery, pastoral images exhibited on the museum's third floor. But having to make a living is nothing new in the art world. Twice rejected as a prospective student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the newlywed Goya took to painting Rococo idylls that served as cartoons for the Royal Tapestry Factory. Over 17 years he produced more than 50 designs to decorate the Bourbon monarchy's palaces in the French style.

The Royal Tapestry Factory is one of several sites where Goya's presence is still palpable. And tracking down the painter in a city he embraced is a fine way to escape the crowds and see Madrid.

There's little doubt who topped the tapestry factory's roster of artists: Goya cartoons cover the lobby where visitors wait for tours. Founded in 1721 and relocated in 1889 to the neighborhood south of the Atocha train station, the factory is such an anachronism that were it not for the modern electric lights, you might think that Goya had just stepped out.

The 40 artisans are far too intent on threading their shuttles or plucking just the right warp strings of their 18th-century looms to notice the small groups passing through.

The carpet weavers have it easy: outlines of their cartoons are stenciled onto the warp. The tapestry weavers must peek around their vertical looms to study the colors and shadings, then choose the precise yarns from dozens of skeins.

The factory seems as busy as in Goya's day, creating fine carpets and tapestries for upscale residences, luxury hotels, and even King Juan Carlos. To see modern examples of this work, check out the lobby of the Ritz Hotel.

To see original 18th-century tapestries designed by Goya, hop the No. 601 bus from Moncloa subway station to the royal palace of El Pardo.

As a museum, El Pardo is a study in contrasts. Generalissimo Francisco Franco resided here, and his presence lingers. Security is very tight, as if by habit. An armed guard follows each guided tour group, carefully checking each room as they leave, then turning off the lights. Franco's own suite displays the functional simplicity of modern bathrooms and austere bedrooms.

But the rest of the palace is a tour de force of decorative arts. Formal portraits of the Bourbon kings from the Age of Reason to the Spanish Civil War peer down. Carved and gilded furniture fills voluminous rooms. Goya and his contemporaries created the designs for about 200 tapestries - mostly sweet country landscapes or stylized hunt scenes, which were woven to cover the walls like wallpaper.

Royal Academy of Fine Arts

Goya's tapestry designs and his skill at portraiture finally won him acclaim and royal favor. In 1795, Charles IV named him director of the same Royal Academy of Fine Arts that had twice rejected him as a student. The neoclassical palace housing the Academy stands just outside busy Puerta del Sol, the nerve center of old Madrid and one of the city's major shopping districts. But the Academy's halls and spacious rooms seem far from the madding crowd.

Goya's classrooms are gone, but his personal stamp marks the institution's substantial art collection, which he arrayed to reflect his theories of the development of Spanish painting. A final gallery contains an unflinchingly homely self-portrait of the painter relaxed at his easel. His final palette rests in the center of the room.

The artist is interred across town at the church of San Antonio de la Florida, a short walk up lively Paseo de la Florida from the gardens of the Royal Palace.

In just 120 days between August and December 1798, Goya covered the steeply domed ceiling of its chapel with a monumental fresco. In the dramatic painting, St. Anthony of Lisbon raises a man from the dead as more than 50 of Goya's fellow Madrilenos bear witness. They are rendered with loving detail, and when Goya died in exile in 1828, his body was returned here, site of his greatest homage to the people of Madrid. Playful scene: This painting, 'El Pelele,' which was painted by Francisco de Goya in 1791-92, hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Lazaro Galdiano Museum An art collector with vast resources and outstanding taste, Galdiano accreted more than 9,000 works of art, which he bequeathed to Spain in 1947, along with a 35-room mansion at Serrano 122 in which to mount them. The late paintings by Goya in Gallery 30 are among the highlights of the collection.

Romantic Museum This 18th-century palace at San Mateo 13 is a window on upper-middle-class 19th-century society. Its most famous painting is Goya's radiant portrait of San Gregorio Magno, located in the chapel.

Madrid Town Hall (Ayuntamiento) Located on Plaza de la Villa a few blocks west of Plaza Mayor, the Town Hall contains a substantial collection of tapestries and Goya's painting "Allegory of Madrid."

El Rastro Like many artists and writers of his time, Goya frequented the working-class El Rastro district for inspiration. You'll have an easier time getting there than he did, as La Latina subway stop exits into Plaza de la Cebada, where many of Goya's street scenes were set. The area is still great for people-watching, but also watch your wallet during the crowded Sunday flea market.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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