As a general thing it is well to distrust a Spaniard’s superlatives. He will tell you that his people are the most amiable in the world, but you will do well to carry your revolver into the interior. He will say there are no wines worth drinking but the Spanish, but you will scarcely forswear Clicquot and Yquem on the mere faith of his assertion.
But when a Spaniard assures you that the picture-gallery of Madrid is the finest in the world, you may believe him without reserve. He probably does not know what he is talking about. He may never have crossed the Pyrenees. He has no dream of the glories of Dresden, or Florence, or the Louvre. It is even possible that he has not seen the matchless collection he is boasting of. He crowns it with a sweeping superlative simply because it is Spanish. But the statement is nevertheless true.
The reason of this is found in that gigantic and overshadowing fact which seems to be an explanation of everything in Spainthe power and the tyranny of the House of Austria. The period of the vast increase of Spanish dominion coincided with that of the meridian glory of Italian art. The conquest of Granada was finished as the di-vine child Raphael began to meddle with his father’s brushes and pallets, and before his short life ended Charles, Burgess of Ghent, was emperor and king. The dominions he governed and transmitted to his son embraced Spain, the Nether-lands, Franche-Comte, the Milanese, Naples, and Sicily; that is to say, those regions where art in that age and the next attained its supreme development. He was also lord of the New World, whose inexhaustible mines poured into the lap of Europe a constant stream of gold. Hence came the riches and the leisure necessary to art.
Charles V., as well as his great contemporary and rival, Francis I., was a munificent protector of art. He brought from Italy and Antwerp some of the most perfect products of their immortal masters. He was the friend and patron of Titian, and when, weary of the world and its vanities, he retired to the lonely monastery of Yuste to spend in devout contemplation the evening of his days, the most precious solace of his solitude was that noble canvas of the great Venetian, where Charles and Philip are borne, in penitential guise and garb, on luminous clouds into the visible glory of the Most High.
It now needs but one word to show how the Museum of Madrid became so rich in master-pieces. During the long and brilliant reigns of Charles V. and Philip II., when art had arrived at its apogee in Italy, and was just beginning its splendid career in Spain, these powerful monarchs had the lion’s share of all the best work that was done in the world. There was no artist so great but he was honored by the commands of these lords of the two worlds. They thus formed in their various palaces, pleasure-houses, and cloisters a priceless collection of pictures produced in the dawn of the Spanish and the triumphant hey-day of Italian genius. Their frivolous successors lost provinces and kingdoms, honor and prestige, but they never lost their royal prerogative nor their taste for the arts. They consoled them-selves for the slings and arrows of outrageous for-tune by the delights of sensual life, and imagined they preserved some distant likeness to their great forerunners by encouraging and protecting Velazquez and Lope de Vega and other intellectual giants of that decaying age. So while, as the result of a vicious system of kingly and spiritual thraldom, the intellect of Spain was forced away from its legitimate channels of thought and action, under the shadow of the royal prerogative, which survived the genuine power of the older kings, art flourished and bloomed, unsuspected and unpersecuted by the coward jealousy of courtier and monk.
The palace and the convent divided the product of those marvelous days. Amid all the poverty of the failing state, it was still the king and clergy who were best able to appropriate the works of genius. This may have contributed to the decay of art. The immortal canvases passed into oblivion in the salons of palaces and the cells of monasteries. Had they been scattered over the land and seen by the people, they might have kept alive the spark that kindled their creators. But exclusiveness is inevitably followed by barrenness. When the great race of Spanish artists ended, these matchless works were kept in the safe obscurity of palaces and religious establishments. History was working in the interests of this Museum. The pictures were held by the clenched dead hand of the Church and the throne. They could not be sold or distributed. They made the dark places luminous, patiently biding their time.
It was long enough coming, and it was a despicable hand that brought them into the light. Ferdinand VII. thought his palace would look fresher if the walls were covered with French paper, and so packed all the pictures off to the empty building on the Prado, which his grand-father had built for a museum. As soon as the glorious collection was exposed to the gaze of the world, its incontestable merit was at once recognized. Especially were the works of Velazquez, hitherto almost an unknown name in Europe, admired and appreciated. Ferdinand, finding he had done a clever thing unawares, began to put on airs and pose for a patron of art. The gallery was still further immensely enriched on the exclaustration of the monasteries, by the hidden treasures of the Escurial, and other spoils of mortmain. And now, as a collection of master-pieces, it has no equal in the world.
A few figures will prove this. It contains more than two thousand pictures already catalogedall of them worth a place on the walls. Among these there are ten by Raphael, forty-three by Titian, thirty-four by Tintoret, twenty-five by Paul Veronese. Rubens has the enormous contingent of sixty-four. Of Teniers, whose works are sold for fabulous sums for the square inch, this extraordinary museum possesses no less than sixty finished picturesthe Louvre considers itself rich with fourteen. So much for a few of the foreigners. Among the Spaniards the three greatest names could alone fill a gallery. There are sixty-five Velazquez, forty-six Murillos, and fifty-eight Riberas. Compare these figures with those of any other gallery in existence, and you will at once recognize the hopeless superiority of this collection. It is not only the greatest Collection in the world, but the greatest that can ever be made until this is broken up.
But with all this mass of wealth it is not a complete, nor, properly speaking, a representative museum. You can not trace upon its walls the slow, groping process of art toward perfection. It contains few of what the book-lovers call “incunabula.” Spanish art sprang out fullarmed from the mature brain of Rome. Juan de Juanes came back from Italy a great artist. The schools of Spain were budded on a full-bearing tree. Charles and Philip bought masterpieces, and cared little for the crude efforts of the awkward pencils of the necessary men who came before Raphael.
But recognizing all this, there is, in this glorious temple, enough to fill the least enthusiastic lover of art with delight and adoration for weeks and months together. If one knew he was to be blind in a year, like the young musician in Auerbach’s exquisite romance, I know of no place in the world where he could garner up so precious a store of memories for the days of darkness, memories that would haunt the soul with so divine a light of consolation, as in that graceful Palace of the Prado.