Monday, January 30, 2012

Guns of Spain

Museum of the Civil Guard / Museo de la Guardia Civil
01/30/12 - Calle Guzmán el Bueno, 110

This obscure but diverting museum nestles within the headquarters of Spain's military-status police force. Be prepared to show a passport at the entrance. Once inside the compound's courtyard, you'll walk past a construction site, as well as live examples of military brass, to the museum entrance. Upstairs, hundreds of guns fill the first room of the collection (Sala de Armas): old revolvers, pistols, carbines, rocket-launchers, guns in the form of pens, pearl-handled guns, stiletto-guns, guns confiscated from terrorist groups, and tiny guns from the 1950s that might hide in a satin evening clutch. Not to mention hand grenades, machetes, swords and wavy-bladed daggers.  Looking ahead, the final room has a bicycle from 1914, built to suspend a German Mauser along its frame.

The Civil Guard was created in 1844 to protect travelers from bandits along Spain's wild mountain passes, especially in the southern parts of the country. 

Goya, "Assault of a Coach," 1786-87
The Civil Guard also broke up demonstrations, monitored poaching, and patrolled the borders and the coast. Its role grew in modern times to include foreign peace-keeping missions, anti-terrorism, intelligence, and many other duties. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Guard split its loyalties down the middle, when almost half supported the rebel forces under general Francisco Franco.

The tricorne hat of the Spanish Civil Guard

The second room presents the history of Civil Guard uniforms, with the help of life-size mannequins. 

Early uniforms.  The striped version was worn in Africa.

Finally, the third room contains miscellaneous objects.  Lining the walls, dozens of miniature dioramas dramatize historical scenes from the lives and deaths--in the line of duty--of the Civil Guard in Spain and the Spanish colonies.  An engraved brass plate describes each scene. For example: a group of Guards in "Equatorial Guinea" (Cameroon) encounters a huge snake; two officers are killed and mutilated in 19th c. Granada by a family of criminals; four officers are killed in Castilblanco when they try to break up an illegal demonstration (31 December 1931); officers are killed by E.T.A. terrorists at a traffic stop (7 June 1968).  The displays are meticulously crafted, down to the smallest fallen branch or piece of broken chair.  In this museum, amidst the weaponry and violence, children will have a field day.

Hours: M-F, 9:00 - 14:00.  Metro: Guzman el Bueno.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Hermitage at the Prado Museum: Scythian Bling v. Malevich's Black Square

The Prado Museum / Museo del Prado
1/24/12 - Paseo del Prado

Prado Museum ticket entrance
Ancient gold ornaments, dug up from burial mounds in Siberia and the Black Sea coast, form the glittering  center of an exhibit on loan to the Prado from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The Scythians, a nomadic Eurasian people from the fifth to third centuries BCE, wore exquisite belt buckles the size of iPads.  Their posture must have been exemplary.  Another dazzler, created in the 4th century BCE and described as an "earring with pendant element in the form of a boat," might just blow your mind.

The Hermitage has loaned over 170 objects, including sculpture, royal jewels, paintings, decorative art, and clothing from the Russian imperial court.  Caravaggio, Matisse, Rembrandt, Rubens, Fabergé, Bernini, Monet, and Kandinsky all make an appearance.  If you don't look closely, you might miss the foppish shoes on Henry Danver, Earl of Danby, as painted by Van Dyck in the late 1630s: kitten heels, with a burst of ruffle at the instep. One of Kazimir Malevich's four Black Square paintings from the early 20th century hangs here as well, small and mute in the presence of so many riches.

Matisse at the Prado until 25 March 2012
I'm halfway through Robert K. Massie's new biography of Catherine the Great, the obscure German princess who came to rule Russia from 1762 to 1796.  Catherine collected many of the artworks now housed in the Hermitage.  (She also collected Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Crimea). I enjoyed seeing the full-length portrait of the aging Empress by Giovanni Battisti Lampi (1793), as well as the filigree Chinese boxes from her dressing-table set. One of them takes the form of a crab on a leaf.

Cafe Prado
After a stop in the museum cafe...

I viewed a small exhibit about the re-discovery of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting, The Wine of Saint Martin's Day.  During restoration work in 2010-11, the painting was attributed to Bruegel when his signature and the date (1566 or 1567) appeared in the lower left corner.  A brief slide-show documents the restoration and identification process.  The subject of the painting is curious.  Did the 16th-century Dutch feed wine to babies?  Bruegel takes his subjects to task. Then, as now, human foibles gave rise to spectacular works art.

The Hermitage in the Prado and Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Wine of Saint Martin's Day run until 25 March 2012.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Saint Isidro and the Woolly Mammoths

Museum of Origins. House of Saint Isidro / Museo de los Orígenes. Casa de San Isidro
1/10/12 – Plaza de San Andr
és, 2
Museum of Origins
The 12th-century farmer and Patron Saint of Madrid, San Isidro, accidentally dropped his baby down a well.  When Isidro prayed for a miracle, the water in the well rose up, delivering the infant unharmed.  The legendary well, or Pozo de San Isidro, is show-cased in a small room of the House of San Isidro.  The connection of this well to Saint Isidro is unclear, since the house at this site actually belonged to Isidro’s master, Juan de Vargas.  The house was rebuilt in the 16th century as a palace, and later served as offices for the Catholic Church.  There are paintings, sculptures and a chapel dedicated to the popular Isidro and his sainted wife, Maria de la Cabeza.* 

Is it or isn't it?

The same building houses the Museum of Origins, which debunks biblical timelines through scientific excavation and study of Madrid’s prehistory.  Numerous archeological sites have been explored along the banks of Madrid’s river, the Manzanares.  The main exhibit begins 500,000 to 120,000 years ago, when aurochs, giant horses and woolly mammoths roamed the area. 

Interactive display, with bones

The first human inhabitants, Homo Heidelbergensis, arrived from Africa about 400,000 years ago, followed by Neaderthals and Homo Sapiens.  They left few bodily remains, but many tools.  The museum interior has been renovated.  A lovely Renaissance style patio and a separate garden area complete the ground-level space.

Courtyard and fountain, Museum of Origins

Upstairs, a temporary exhibit contains a sampling of man-made objects from various periods of Madrid’s development, including a bedroom recreated from the excavation of a 4th c. Roman villa, with the original mosaic floor.  The Museum of Origins is still a work in progress. A second phase of construction promises more exhibits on the history of Madrid, from the first productive societies (9000 – 2100 years ago), Romans and Barbarians (2100-1300 years ago), Islamic Madrid (711-1085 C.E.), and Christian Madrid through the 17th century.
*According to the story, after this miracle, Isidro and Maria vowed sexual abstinence and lived in separate houses.  (Might this be punishment for the egregious mistake of dropping their baby down a well?)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Heaven & Earth on Sunday: Goya, Roast Chicken, River

Goya Pantheon, The Church of San Antonio de la Florida
1/8/12 – Glorieta de San Antonio de la Florida, 5

One of Goya's angels
The artist Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), or simply Goya, is growing on me.  He painted the lovely ceiling in the Church of San Antonio de la Florida at the height of his creative powers, in 1798.

According to a pamphlet for sale (1 Euro, 60 pp., available in English), this riverside neighborhood of Madrid has a long history of devotion to St. Anthony of Padova, the Patron Saint of unmarried girls.  On his feast day June 13, maidens arrived at St. Anthony’s shrine to ask for a husband.  They dropped thirteen pins into the holy water and dipped their hand to see how many pins would stick to it.  The number foretold their suitors for the year.  One can see the holy water font where this activity once took place, in the vestibule of the Church of San Antonio.  The neoclassical-style building was a royal chapel until 1881, when it became a parish church.  To protect Goya’s frescoes, the church turned into a museum in 1929.  An identical church—for worship and yearly romantic divination—was built next door.  

Goya's tomb and his frescoes lie within this neoclassical church
Goya died in France, but his remains were transferred to San Antonio de la Florida in 1919 (mysteriously, his skull was missing).  Thus, in one visit, homage can be paid to both artist and his creation.  

The frescoes are remarkable for several reasons.  Some elements of Goya’s style prefigure Impressionism, not to mention Goya’s creepy series of Black Paintings in the Prado.  The highest point, the cupola, contains an earthly instead of a heavenly scene.  Goya depicts a story from St. Anthony’s life, when the Saint’s own father was wrongly accused of murder.  St. Anthony brings the corpse to life—a miracle—for questioning, and the dead man proclaims the father’s innocence.  Onlookers in the scene are dressed as Goya’s contemporaries, from beggars to gossiping ladies.  The luminous angels that decorate the vaults have been excoriated for their secular appearance—they might be beauties of Madrid high society, in sashes and diaphanous dresses. 

After admiring Goya, we stepped across the street to the venerable cider-and-chicken house, Casa Mingo, a fixture of the neighborhood since 1888.*  

Casa Mingo, side view
Casa Mingo serves its own fermented cider, along with spit-roasted chicken, in a bustling restaurant.  On a Sunday, try to arrive before 2 p.m., when the line for tables can spill out the door.  Son 1 was intrigued by the sparse occupational duties of the chicken guy—impale, stack, roast in flames, remove. Three chickens served the 5 of us. 

Casa Mingo dining room

Afterwards, a stroll back to the train station, along Madrid's Manzanares River, was just the ticket.   

Manzanares River

In winter, the banks are almost empty. A lone fisherman cast his line.
*This expedition to Goya’s pantheon and Casa Mingo was first suggested to me by Kay, a long-time Madrid aficionada and Madison, Wisconsin resident.