I am in my mid-40’s and have been to a lot of art museums, so I didn’t really expect to walk into another one and think, “Oh my god, this is head and shoulders above any place I’ve been to” (the Met, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Barnes, etc.). But then I had never been to Madrid and the Prado until this week. Here are three reasons why it really is the best:
1. The great stuff is so, so great. Within minutes of walking in, I had wandered into someplace called room 49, which might be the best single collection of Italian Renaissance art you’ll ever see in a single room. With a bunch of glorious large and mid-sized Raphaels, like this one:
I mean, can you imagine seeing something like this just a couple minutes after you walk in? When I came across it, I didn’t know yet that they don’t let you take photos, so I snapped this one before the guards gently told me the rules.
And oh yeah, the Prado has a really interesting copy of the Mona Lisa too.
2. It’s not gigantic, but the quality is very high throughout. There’s something astonishing, often many things, in practically every room. Some highlights: likely the deepest Goya collection anywhere, from all across his career, including a bunch of large, airy, light-colored early paintings called tapestry cartoons up on the top floor. A magnificent set of El Grecos. And don’t get me started on Velazquez, Zurbaran, Ribera, Bosch (again, the deepest set of his works I’ve seen in one place), Fra Angelico’s Annunication, and Tintoretto. The main hall is anchored by a fantastic collection of Titian and Rubens, which… is absolutely great, but many of the other rooms are even better.
3. The way it just teems with life. So check out this graceful bit of Asian calligraphy, from a scroll I found in an out-of-the way, empty room, with no guards to tell me not to take pictures:
I mean, those hands!
OK, the reason why you haven’t heard about the Asian calligraphy scrolls in the Prado is that there aren’t any. Our angel with the graceful hands is actually part of a Spanish altarpiece, circa 1200:
Or maybe it didn’t look like an Asian scroll to you. But the magic of the Prado is that when you see so many amazing pictures together in one place, they amplify and animate each other, they transform each other, they dance with each other and with you, and before you know it, all the distinctions you’ve ever learned between different genres and periods and schools melt away. Then only the art is left, direct, pure, and alive, and it fills you with life, and keeps dancing with you long after you leave the building. The Prado is the most joyful art museum in the world.