Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Face of a Castrato, the Bite of Fiery Serpents

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando / Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

10/25/11 - Alcalá, 13
The face on the wall of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts tells a story.  That much is evident at first glance.  Red lips, beauty mark à la Cindy Crawford, dark eyes gazing with feminine allure directly at the viewer.  The c.1750-52 portrait by Italian artist Jacopo Amigoni depicts “Carlo Broschi, called Farinelli”—rock-star castrato of eighteenth century Europe.  The celebrated voice of Farinelli was credited with curing the melancholia of Spain’s King Phillip V.  The singer came to Madrid for a gig and spent over two decades here as a royal favorite (1737-1759), organizing operas and court spectacles, and singing duets with music-crazed members of the royal family.  Elsewhere in the museum, two paintings capture the elaborate stage sets of Farinelli’s operatic productions.  

Portrait of Farinelli, c. 1750-52

The Royal Academy houses three floors of paintings and sculpture, mostly Spanish, Italian and Flemish from the XV to the XX centuries.  Among them one finds a stunning “Last Supper” (Tintoretto); several canvases by a master of human flesh (Peter Paul Rubens); a portrait of King Carlos III (Andres de la Calleja) that is the spitting image of Rubalcaba, candidate for President of Spain in next month’s election; a portrait of Barbara de Braganza (M. Van Loo), whose diamond-studded hair-do can’t hide her double chin; an exciting view of Mount Vesuvius erupting (Antonio Carnicero) while a lone artist calmly sketches in the foreground and others look on in wonder; and a small, creepy painting by Alessandro Magnasco, showing “A Community of Capucin Friars” as they participate in a public act of self-punishment, or capitulo de culpas.

Excellent descriptive labels in both Spanish and English accompany the majority of works.  I would have been most grateful, though, for a label on Jose Leonardo’s shudder-worthy scenario of my nightmares: “The Metal Serpent” (NOT pictured), in which writhing snakes bite half-naked people with tenacious glee.*

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, "The Spring"
Numerous works by Goya in the collection prove why it’s not a good idea to start with his Black Paintings and work backwards from there (see my earlier visit to the Prado Museum).  I especially enjoyed the self-portrait, the only image of Goya wearing his notorious hat with candles, allowing him to paint into the dusky twilight hours.  

Finally, a visit to the Royal Academy is not complete without a careful look at Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s “The Spring,” c. 1563.  The only Arcimboldo painting in Spain, it’s a gorgeous riot of flowers and vegetables, forming the profile of a smiling man.  Lettuce leaves for shoulders, rose cheeks, and petal skin.  His eye’s a violet, sweet of Madrid. 
*It’s a scene from the Old Testament, Numbers 21, I later learned.  The Israelites, frustrated by their long march in the desert, started to “murmur” amongst themselves.  God punished this act of murmuring with flying fiery serpents.  Then Moses revived the victims with a metal serpent.  Yes, it all makes sense in the end.


  1. "The Spring" seems so modern for 450 years ago. You certainly know how to make a what-I-thought-to-be moldy, oldie seem very alluring. I am not referring to the art but to the museum itself. You usually mention that, but in this blog you make the art the star. Farinelli looks very fetching indeed...and even prettier than Joan Crawford ever was. I will definitely put this on my list for an update!

    October 27, 2011 1:04 PM

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  2. "The Spring" is wonderful. I love the fact that most museums have a free day, too. I tend to rush past the St-John's-head-on-a-platter pictures, and I don't feel guilty!