May has brought optimism to Spain. The end of the State of Alarm, and a continued increase in vaccinations should have people travelling more freely across the country – and also returning here to Madrid to enjoy cultural offerings that have been off-limits to many for over a year.
We may go from the pandemic scarcity back to the usual overwhelming choice of activities, so to help navigate I met with Alejandro Vergara, Curator of Flemish and Northern European Paintings at the Prado Museum, to see if he would offer some insider tips by sharing his five favourite things to see and do in Madrid.
Vergara’s position at the Prado covers a lot of ground, since, as he points out, ‘We have the biggest collection in the world of Rubens paintings, and a major collection of Flemish art as well.’
Though Vergara’s English sounds fluently American, and he has Texan roots, he is truly bilingual.
‘I’m basically madrileño,’ he insists. ‘I was born in 1960 in Washington, moved to Madrid 3 or 4 years later, grew up here in a family that was mixed, but when my parents got divorced I mainly lived with my American mother. Even so, my life here was not very American. My brother and I went to a Spanish school. Our friends were local and our life was very normal, though we spent long summers in Houston in the 1960s and 1970s when other Spaniards didn’t travel much. But Madrid is my base: I lived through the 1970s nightlife, la movida, military service, studying at the Universidad Complutense with over 100,000 students, and a campus where the biggest space is the bar. But I also had an American outlook and the ambition to study in the States at some point, so I went there for graduate school.’
Vergara completed his PhD at the Institute for Fine Arts in New York and after teaching in the States for close to 15 years, he came back to Madrid in 1998, so he’s been back for 23 years. He enjoys the international facets of his job at the Prado, and how it keeps him in touch with the States and with countries that are active in his world, including the UK, Germany, Holland, and Belgium.
I can’t get to his five picks without asking about how Covid-19 has affected his life and work at the Prado. Pre-Covid the museum was packing in 3 million visitors a year. How was the shift from that staggering figure to zero? How did the museum handle the lockdown?
He says that embracing the virtual world quickly was key to their success. ‘One thing that happened when we closed is that we did a live Instagram, on 14 March 2020, and that was seen by over 400,000 people. It was huge in terms of letting us know that we should devote a lot of attention to online stuff,’ he says.
He continues to explain that each of the curators gave a short speech, ‘and we all did them in different languages. One person spoke in Japanese, one person in Italian, I did it in English’.
‘We had a kind of hello to the world from the Prado. We were closed until June. The museum remained very active online, on Instagram, and we did a very funny Tik Tok. We do all sorts of events, and we now have a virtual reality tour. So the museum has done a lot,’ he says.
Vergara also started his own You Tube channel, ‘Historias de Cuadros’ (Stories of Paintings) and also started ‘doing Instagrams’, which he says he had never previously done in his life, ‘in order to promote my channel’.
‘I did this because at first, I was, like most people, frustrated by not understanding what was happening to the world, or to me, and I couldn’t do anything to help,’ he says. ‘Many of my friends are doctors and they could do something that I couldn’t. And I’ve ended up loving it. I have my own voice, and it is not an institutional project.’ By the way, the talks are fantastic but, for the moment, are available in Spanish without subtitles.
Alejandro Vergara’s Top Five Recommendations:
1. One activity I would highly recommend is not related to art but to the outdoors. Call this my tourist guide vocation. People know how to visit Avila, Toledo and Segovia, of course, but I would go to Peñalara, to Cotos, which is a 50 minute drive from Madrid. Park at Cotos, and take the hike to Peñalara, which is the highest part, 2,300 metres, about a two-hour hike up which is fairly strenuous, and pretty steep. About 1 hour and 45 minute hike down. Beautiful mountain, with a gorgeous view of Segovia and Madrid.
2. Back to paintings, I would go to the Chapel of San Antonio de la Florida to see the Goya frescos, which are exceptional. Goya is incredible and this is really stunning, it’s old fashioned in the sense of Baroque, fresco painting, but it is also modern and down to earth in the way that Goya is.
3. Another plan is to go to the Reina Sofía Museum and look at ‘Number Three’ by Esteban Vicente. He is a lesser known Spanish artist with an interesting story. He went to NY, was part of the early stages of the New York School with Rothko and Pollock. He then kind of fell out of that, and is not as well known. He hangs at the Met, in the section of the New York School, and he has a few paintings at the Reina Sofía. Thanks to his wife’s enocuragement, he had a second career in his old age when they moved back to Spain.
4. In the Prado, I especially like the series of paintings ‘The Five Senses’ by Rubens and Breughel the Elder. This is part of the collection that is still closed now, and will open in September. These are gorgeous paintings, and you have to get really close and immerse yourself in them. Also, the rooms in the second story of the Prado are ususally empty and are great places to spend time. So hopefully in September.
5. Also at the Prado, I would go for two Titians that hang together, ‘The Feast of Venus’ and ‘Bacchanal at Andrians’. They are on view in the current show, ‘Mythological Passions’ but they are usually in the collection, and the Dionysian feast is really fun and beautiful. It may be my favorite.
Soledad Maura is a Professor at Williams College (USA) and a former Senior Fulbright Research Scholar. Her biography of Jorge Semprún was published by Penguin Random House in Spain and by Flammarion in France. Her first novel, Madrid Again, was recently published by Arcade (New York). More at soledadfoxmaura.com. ALSO READ: El Corazón Partío: an interview with author Soledad Maura
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