Friday, September 30, 2011

Royal Armor and the View of Kings

The Royal Palace / Palacio Real
09/30/11 – Calle Bailén
1561 view of Madrid
When you emerge from the obligatory route through the gift shop into the vast, sun-drenched courtyard of the Royal Palace, you begin to realize the role of geography in the making of Madrid.  The eye is drawn to a wall of arches across the way, framing a landscape of distant trees.  At closer inspection, you can see how steeply the gardens descend down the slope, the perfect vantage for a fortress and walled city.  Remnants of the Moor’s ancient wall can be seen in various places around Madrid, but the fortress they built in the ninth century is long gone, as is the Spanish fortress that arose around it (pictured, in a 1561 drawing by Anton Van der Wyngaerde).  

The Palacio Real
The Spanish Royal Palace stands on the same overlook, in its 1755 incarnation of cool marble.  An earlier palace built with wood burned to the ground in 1734.  A King no longer lives in the Palace, and its richly-decorated rooms are open to visitors.  I’ve seen so much faux Rococo (Real Housewives of New Jersey?) that when faced with the original, it still feels fake.  But even the blasé will go bug-eyed in the dressing-room of King Carlos III (reigned 1759-88).  Decorated by the Italian Matteo Gasparini, the ceiling is three-dimensional, and fairly drips with Chinoiserie.  The walls are embroidered! Another Italian, the architect Francesco Sabatini, tried to bring a modicum of restraint to his neoclassical rooms.  You decide which pleases more. 

In addition to the royal chambers, there is the chapel, royal pharmacy, and a room that displays not one but five musical instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari: violín chico, violÍn grande, two violinchelos, and a violo contralto

Though not known for my love of weaponry, the highlight of this visit was the Royal Armory.  Housed in a separate building at the west end of the courtyard, the Armory fills two floors.  The collection of medieval armor for horses, men, and even small children, is superb.  It is beautifully displayed.  See the set of armor with the stylish bell skirt—designed to deflect lance-blows below the belt, but intriguingly feminine to a modern viewer.  A nearby set of torso armor, shown from the back, is custom fitted to some knight-errant’s taut buttocks. A sensation of claustrophobia and pain accompanies the Armory experience, but it’s not unpleasant.  The 10 Euro price of admission to the Royal Palace feels like a bargain.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Spanish Galleons and Nautical Treasures

The Naval Museum / Museo Naval
09/27/11 – Paseo del Prado, 5
Madrid bookstores do brisk business in adventure novels by an American author named Clive Cussler.  According to the blurb, Cussler lives in the Arizona desert but spends his spare time, when not writing international bestsellers, searching for lost ships of historic significance.  After Son 1 read his first Clive Cussler novel (Spartan Gold), he experienced what I would call a literary epiphany: he started to recognize verbal missteps that signal the difference between junk novels and good storytelling.  This is an example of why—with a few exceptions—I don’t mind what my children read, as long as they are reading. 

Cussler has given our family some laughs over his dialogue and character development, but he uses nautical terminology like a pro.  Clearly the author’s done his research—though as S1 points out, how would we landlubbers know if he got it wrong?  For anyone itching to write a historical maritime novel of their own, the Naval Museum of Madrid is a perfect place to start.

Main entrance to Naval Museum
The museum is located within the majestic, marble-lined headquarters of the Ministry of the Navy (pictured); for this reason all visitors must show a passport to gain entry.  Rooms are arranged chronologically from the early Spanish expeditions in the fifteenth century to the present day.  The polished plank floors add to the overall feeling that one is walking through a grand ship; and with every step, through 25 rooms, there is something fascinating to behold.  A map from the year 1500 (Carta de Juan de la Cosa) is the first known European representation of the Americas.  Aside from the predictable but beautiful objects of sea travel and war—astrolabes, maritime chronometers, sixteenth c. “sun watches,” piles of ancient cannonballs, weaponry, uniforms and medals, a cocked hat that witnessed the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), captain’s portraits, paintings of ships at sea, anchors, captured banners, twisted bits of rope, maps and globes—the incredible scale models of ships (many at least 8 feet long and just as tall) could keep visitors entertained for hours.  For example, the 1766 ship Real Carlos boasted three bridges and a terrifying 114 canons, each poking out from its own hinged door.  Some of the models are shown in cross-section so that the interior is visible, from storage at the bottom to the captain’s quarters at the top.  For another view, Room 11 in the museum consists of a life-size reproduction of a commander’s wood-paneled cabin in a nineteenth-century warship. 

Imposing figureheads (among them the goddess Diana, a lion, a saint) hang near the rafters of Room 21, which also contains exhibits of XIX and XX c. naval construction.  These sculptural elements once adorned the prows of sailing ships, but disappeared in the late nineteenth century, when steel became a key material in ship-building. 

Spain discovered the Philippines in the sixteenth century. Room 18 contains an impressive collection of Philippine metal weapons: armor, spears, swords, every kind of cudgel and basher imaginable, though none powerful enough to stop Spanish colonization of the islands.

Toward the end of the exhibits lies a scale model of an American battleship, the USS Maine.  An unexplained explosion in 1898 sank the battleship and killed 266, sparking the Spanish-American War and Spain’s subsequent loss of its last colonial possessions in America and the Pacific.  A theory put forth in 1975 posits that inadequate ventilation, not a mine, caused an internal explosion on the USS Maine.  The plot thickens.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

When the Librarian was a Dandy

Museum of the Book, National Library of Spain / Museo del Libro, Biblioteca Nacional de España
09/24/11 - Paseo de Recoletos, 20-22
Early edition of Don Quixote
On this first Saturday of fall, we arrived at the Archaeology Museum to find it closed for renovation.  Son 2 had tagged along, eager to see replicas of the Altamira cave paintings he’d heard about this week in social studies class.  Since the National Library is right next door, we instead entered the Museum of the Book. 

I won’t recommend this museum to the casual foreign tourist—there are too many other treasures in town.  The descriptive text is a key component, and translations are not providedAs a drop-out of library schools in two states, with a profound respect for the field of librarianship and the printed word (and a functional reading knowledge of Spanish), I struggled to attend to the collection of manuscripts and incunabula on display.  I understand the need for dim lighting to protect precious materials, but museum objects should transcend their surroundings, whether through clever staging or the ineffable, innate glow of their being.  I do think it would help if I were better-versed in Spanish history and letters; a sample of materials from the museum’s archive of the romantic writer Carolina Coronado Romero (1820-1911) made me want to learn more about her. In one exhibit of library technology, the presence of a Macintosh SE (c. 1989) and a microfilm reader—clunky and sad-looking both—made me feel ancient as the hills.  On the other hand, I was thrilled by the official uniform of a head librarian from 1830, with its gold-embroidered blue frock-coat, red vest, and white shirt (ruffled at neck and cuffs). 

1830 head librarian uniform
The printing presses created a fine opportunity to discuss with Son 2 what it means to dramatically increase and control the flow of information.  In the age of Facebook, he must learn to fathom such things. The book and typewriter are still beloved.  For that microfilm machine, I won’t shed a single tear. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Train Spotting through Time

The Railroad Museum / Museo del Ferrocarril
09/18/11 - Paseo Delicias, 61
After three days of public school in Madrid, things are going well, according to Sons 1 and 2 (neither of whom has more than rudimentary Spanish).  Most teachers are nice, and at least one is both “loud and funny”—the hallmarks of good pedagogy, according to S1.  It’s the art teacher who has the makings of an ogre, with his unexpected shriek at students whose parents had not yet purchased the textbook.  (The next day I stood in line at the bookstore for over two hours; it felt like all the parents of Madrid had seen their children similarly terrorized).  S2, who’s twelve, delights in newly-learned Spanish vulgarities.  S1 (fifteen) observes the thoughtfully-placed ash-can at the gate for students who light up before or after class.  Not that he has any use for such a convenience.

Suddenly aware that childhood is ebbing, and nostalgic for more innocent pleasures of yester-year, I rounded up my ducklings and prodded them into the Museum of the Railroad.  Who does not love a train?  
Platform antics at the Railroad Museum

The Railroad Museum is located in the old Delicias Station.  When it opened in 1880, Delicias was the largest station in Madrid.  Rooms opposite the platform contain pallid collections of railway clocks, model trains, and other hunks of metal that might appeal to rail buffs (one adult visitor wore engineer overalls!), but the trains themselves exert a magnetism that is impossible to resist.  Engines that once traveled the rails of Spain wait at the platforms, ranging from an 1864 English steam locomotive (John Jones Company) to diesel trains of the 1960s.  U.S.-made machines include a 1923 steam engine (American Locomotive & Co), a 1949 Talgo II (American Car Foundry) and a 1954 diesel train (American Locomotive & Co).  

Visitors may enter the Talgo and test the comfort of its passenger seats; we may also climb onto a coal car, or peer through the windows of a furnished carriage from the early XX c.: silver tea service, thick drapes, plush bedding, private washrooms, and perhaps the ghost of Hercule Poirot.  

Cafeteria in an elegant rail car
A 1920s train car contains a final pleasure—the Railroad Museum cafeteria (pictured).  A barista serves up cafe con leche, soft drinks, and snacks. The walls are inlaid with motifs of exotic birds. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Spanish in Clothes

The Museum of Costume / Museo del Traje
09/10/11 - Avenida de Juan de Herrera, 12
Fashion has been on my mind.  Stores have laid out their fall collections of rust-colored sweaters and gray wool topcoats, but summer lingers on. I have been surprised to see Madrileñas carrying traditional wooden fans to wave off the stifling afternoon heat—I thought fans went out of use in the nineteenth century.  It’s a modern-day incarnation of “casticismo”—fidelity to Spanish tradition in the face of foreign influences, as described in an exhibit at the Museum of Costume: In 1766, during the reign of Carlos III, a popular revolt (Motín de Esquilache) was sparked when the government banned men’s traditional Spanish capes and broad-brimmed hats.*

Another exhibit describes a tradition that started in the same decade, when the fashionable people of Madrid began to parade along the newly-created, broad avenue facing the Prado, displaying their fine carriages and clothes. (Today this street is called Paseo del Prado).  My family and I live near a large sports park encircled by a wide, brick path and a track for joggers.  While it’s safe to say that the good people of Madrid dress well, they dress their toddlers even better.  Every evening, entire families from my barrio turn out to enact their own version of the Paseo, accompanied by visions of cuteness in pastel booties and flower-sprigged cotton dresses, or light-blue oxford shirts and miniature khaki shorts. 

Goya's other Maja (with clothes)
The approach to the award-winning building of the Museum of Costume (constructed 1973) is unsettling—the central tower looms over the entry like a huge plinth that might topple forward at any moment.  The museum has examples of Spanish regional dress, as well as early toreador costumes, and the Spanish popular costume called majo (maja for women).  The original wooden interior of an 1847 Chocolate Bar called El Indio provides an authentic backdrop; the coffee mill is decorated with the figure of a South American Indian.

Fashion magazines first became popular in the nineteenth century, during the Romantic age (see previous post on the Museum of Romanticism).  When the same fashion drawings appeared in Paris, New York and Madrid, elegant dress became a standardized, international phenomenon.  Most of the clothing here comes from the 18th-20th centuries, including colorful men’s jackets, ridiculous hoops skirts, awkward bustles, torturous corsets, voluminous undergarments, and some shimmering, beaded dresses from the Años Locos (Roaring Twenties). The exhibit ends with samples of the most famous Spanish designers: Balenciaga, Fortuny, and Pedro Rodríguez. 

Accessories also feature: shoes, gloves, bags, jewels, hats, parasols. Apparently, a new parasol was needed to match or complement each outfit, and harmonize with the hat.  As with fans, women gestured with parasols to convey coded language no longer taught in modern schools of courtship—but ripe for revival as the ozone layer shrinks.  Of special interest is a delicate silk stocking from the eighteenth century, striped all the way up the leg with staves and musical notes that might actually create a melody.  One can only imagine the seduction in which it must have played a role.
*The locals in 1766 were already restless due to the high price of food and other woes. Authorities said it was too easy to hide weapons under the voluminous capes. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Rock Sparkles, and So Does the Setting

The Museum of Geology / Museo de Geominero
09/07/11 - Calle Ríos Rosas, 23
Gallery of the Geology Museum
The free Museum of Geology inhabits a breath-taking gallery within the Institute of Geology and Mining of Spain, and is filled with fossils, gems, and mineral specimens from all over the world.  The 1926 building was declared a protected Monument of the Community of Madrid in 1998.  Due to the museum’s location in a government building, visitors must show passports to enter—a requirement, I point out with some indignation, not indicated on the museum website. I went home with S1 and S2 in order to retrieve our documents; by the time we returned, S1 was as stony as the mineral deposits, minus the sparkle. 

To my mind the gallery itself is the star exhibit: three stories high and covered by a vast, stained-glass skylight that is decorated at its edges with the names and shields of major Spanish cities.  Wrought-iron balconies wrap around the periphery on each tier.  In the main space, carved wood and glass display cases alternate with rocks and fossils set out for tactile exploration.  This 39-second video provides a glimpse of the impressive room.

Small children will love climbing the narrow, spiral staircases that connect the peripheral galleries.  I loved the geode that was big enough to climb into, and contained a spectacular cristal at its center, like the surprise inside a Fabergé egg. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Velvet Toilet: Romanticism in High Gear

Museum of Romanticism
The Museum of Romanticism / 
Museo del Romanticismo
09/03/11 - Calle de San Mateo, 13
While the Professor and progeny quietly slumbered (compensating for a 2 a.m. computer-screen kick-off of the TCU Horned Frogs v. the Baylor University Bears), I slipped out into the drizzling morning and headed south, to the grand, 18th-century mansion that houses the Museum of Romanticism. 

In my earlier life I was intimate with the English, Polish and Russian literary outcroppings of the Romantic Movement, and the prospect of a foray into Spanish Romanticism made me giddy with excitement.  Along the way I once again marveled at the ubiquity of contemporary fashion.  The young Spanish men ambling up Fuencarral Street in plaid Bermudas and graphic t-shirts easily could have been mistaken for undergraduates back home at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The phenomenon of “Romanticism”—a cultural, literary, and intellectual movement of the nineteenth century—seems to have undergone a similar march across the continents. 

I highly recommend the booklet that visitors can borrow (with the 3 Euro price of admission).  It provides a competent summary of the main tenets of Romanticism, as well as a description of the paintings and objects in each room of the museum. According to the summary, Spanish Romanticism coincided with the reign of Queen Isabel II, 1833-68.  This places the Spanish movement a bit later on the continuum than its counterparts in other European countries (the roots of literary romanticism go back to the eighteenth century, in reaction to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution; even Russian writers were dabbling in romantic poetry and prose by the early 1820s).  Such ruminations are beside the point. A walk through the museum is enough to evoke a sensibility of romanticism, an approach to museum-going that true romantics can applaud.

A King's toilet
The gorgeous rooms (ante, drawing, ball, dining, smoking, billiards, children’s, study, music, bed and chapel) contain period furniture and decorative objects, including ceramics, jewelry, fans, toys, clocks, musical instruments, and the pièce de résistance: King Fernando VII’s lavatory—a huge toilet made of mahogany and velvet (pictured).  Among the children’s toys are tiny ivory miniatures no child today would be allowed to touch, with a chess table and game pieces smaller than black ants.  In the smoking room I could picture Lord Byron wearing his oriental turban, reclining on the divan against the paisley wallpaper, recounting his conquests of the married ladies of Seville.*   Indeed, the final exhibit, a scale model of the mansion, has tiny windows through which one can see virtual images of people dining, dancing, and preparing to leave in a coach. (You can see the entire museum in 5 minutes by visiting this page).

Paintings include Goya’s “Saint Gregory the Great;” formal portraits of Isabel II (only three years old when she ascended the throne) and other dignitaries; landscapes; miniatures; and examples of the Andalusian “Costumbrista” school of painting.  These paintings are often set in taverns, inns, or mountain passes, and idealize smugglers, stage coach robbers, and folk in regional Spanish dress.  Two interesting paintings by Leonardo Alenza mock the romantic penchant to idealize suicide: “Satire of the Romantic Suicide,” and “Satire of the Romantic Lover’s Suicide,” both c. 1839.

The Great Ballroom is awash in pink damask.  At a glance, I confirmed that the set of chairs we inherited from the Professor’s grandmother demonstrated this exact sensibility, as filtered through American post-WWII enthusiasm for Old Europe.  Without their ballroom, those chairs in our house never reached the sublime.  Resisting translation, they went to Goodwill, to die or be reborn.

*Byron bragged to his own mother about his encounters with Spanish ladies in a letter sent from Gibraltar dated August 11, 1809.  “I beg leave to observe that Intrigue here is the business of life, when a woman marries she throws off all restraint, but I believe their conduct is chaste enough before.”  In Spain in Mind: An Anthology, ed. Alice Leccese Powers, NY: Vintage, 2007, 28.