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.

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