There is so much beauty contained within the permanent collection of Madrid’s iconic Prado Museum that it would be impossible to be display it in its entirety. The public has barely seen many of the works: some are held in storage while others are scattered in churches and museums around Spain. A large number of these pieces are now on view, alongside the permanent collection in the exhibition Captive Beauty. From Fra Angelico to Fortuny.
Manuela Mena, the most experienced curator at the museum, also in charge of the exhibition, explains that one of the axes of the display is its intimate format.“These are paintings and sculptures that could be inside a house, very visible and very close to the eye,” says the expert.
The exhibition features small pieces, also known as “cabinet paintings,” which incite conversation and exploration.“Our large format works do not allow for a playful interaction since everything is on plain view. Our aim is to force visitors to use their imagination in front of what they have before their eyes,” concludes Mena.
This exhibit introduces 281 artworks in small format (including drawings, sculptures and paintings), a compact synthesis, which tells an intimate story of what is hidden in storage. The montage is divided into 17 galleries, organized by subject matter in almost chronological order.
Visitors are encouraged to take advantage of the smart displays: the sloping ceilings and arches bring the paintings closer to the eye; there are also small openings through which we can view, in high detail, pieces that seem to play with each other, and with the viewer. The newly acquired 15th century copper panel Sleeping Girl, by Luis Paret y Alcázar can be seen through a peephole, placed in a dark chamber that take us back to the 18th century.
The playful displays make us feel as if we were glancing at the Prado within the Prado, it is a museum inside a museum. Also on view, an architectural model of the original structure as it was envisioned in the 18th century by its architect, Juan de Villanueva.
In a nod to history, the model comes with a peephole through which we can see Francisco de Goya’s cabinet painting Un garrochista, the first piece to enter the Museum collection.“The element of surprise is very important,” says Mena. “With these visual games we uncover connections between the artists and their works.”
Some of the highlights are well known works such as Velázquez’s 1630’s Garden View of Villa Medici, in Rome, Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation, hung at eye level to draw attention to the lower details, a magnificent Self Portrait by Dürer and Hieronymus Bosch’s Capital Sins, installed on top of a table.
Furthermore, the exhibit includes works by Rubens, Tanniers and Paret along with other lesser-known authors. The Prado is also showing off its most recent acquisitions, including an anonymous 15th century French piece titled The Agony in the Garden with the donor Louis I of Orleans.
“We have sifted out masterpieces from the Prado collection, just like gold diggers,” said Miguel de Zuloaga, director of the Museum’s board. The opening of this successful show had to wait two years since the original idea emerged. During that time, some of the pieces underwent impressive renovations. As Mena said,“Beauty is also buried under the varnish,” and once unearthed the only thing left is to enjoy it. ■