Goya's Madrid

Miguel Flores Vianna

Spain’s capital seen through the eyes of its greatest painter.

The fight in the Puerta del Sol, as Goya pictured it, recalls recent news footage from Hong Kong, Cairo, and Ferguson, Missouri. On one side are Madrid’s civilians in their street suits and work clothes; on the other, the Mamluks in their exotic turbans and loose pants, clutching scimitars. History tells us that the event sparked Spain’s War of Independence against Napoleon. But Goya’s painting The Second of May 1808 tells us much more. As opposed to the chiseled, neoclassical heroes and aristocrats painted by his French contemporary Jacques-Louis David, Goya here portrays Madrid in crisis being rescued by el pueblo—the little people. Indeed, Madrid’s municipal archives list the fallen during the incident as shoemakers, gardeners, bakers, locksmiths, carpenters, coachmen, and students.

Painters have long been identified with the cities in which they work and live; Picasso had Paris and Hopper New York. But there is a special case to be made for Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828). The Spanish master was a career flatterer of the era’s rich and famous, but he was also a passionate painter of everyday folks. As is visible today from the street signs and the metro station that bear his name, few other artists in history are as synonymous with their city as Goya is with Madrid.

Madrid has never taken Goya for granted. Although a painter like Vermeer toiled in Delft’s placid burgherdom all his life, 8 of his 36 known paintings can be found in Manhattan’s Upper East Side today. Goya, on the other hand, was fortunate enough to have most of his works remain in Madrid for nearly two centuries, making Spain’s vibrant 400-year-old capital a virtual open-air monument to the genius of its greatest painter (alongside Velázquez). This stroke of good luck—and protective curation—does not mean that all of Goya’s iconic pictures are easily found in one place. One of the finest adventures a traveler can have in this age of Oneworld alliances is to comb the bustling precincts of Madrid on a scavenger hunt for Goya’s masterpieces.

Goya was born to a middle-class family in Fuendetodos, a small Aragonese town near Zaragoza, northeast of Madrid on the A2 highway. When he was in his late 20s, his unconventional ambition took him to the capital, where he first served the Spanish monarch as a cartoonist—in the lingo of the time, a maker of preparatory pictures on cardboard, or cartón, for tapestries that insulated the chilly walls of royal palaces like El Escorial and El Pardo. (Both sites can easily be reached from Madrid by car or public transport.) Goya’s professional ascent, when it came, was accompanied by political upheaval, illness, and war. The painter represented these with the same brio he devoted to his youthful cartoons of brassy, lower-class majos and majas (the era’s hip-hop rebels) in open-air scenes that depict sport, shopping, and flirtation—the capital’s main pastimes then as now.

As the late critic Robert Hughes observed, the breadth of Goya’s career can be conveyed in two canvases, created 30 turbulent years apart. The paintings, The San Isidro Meadow and The San Isidro Pilgrimage, are both superstars of the Prado, the Madrid institution that boasts the world’s largest holdings of Goya artworks. While both capture the popular May 15 feast day of San Isidro, they couldn’t be more different in spirit. The first, painted in 1788, in the first flush of the artist’s success, shows Goya’s courtly fellow citizens partying atop a hill above the Manzanares River. The other, which hangs in the spotlit galleries the Prado reserves for Goya’s Pinturas Negras, or Black Paintings, presents a rough rendering of humanity as a mob—el pueblo turned rabble—led by a cockeyed guitarist into a dark horizon.

Appointed painter to King Carlos III in 1786, Goya became strangely ill in 1792 and lost his hearing permanently. Whatever the cause of his malady—scholars suspect syphilis or lead poisoning—it led the painter to leave Madrid for Cadiz to convalesce, according to Manuela Mena, the Prado’s curator of 18th-century painting and Spain’s foremost Goya scholar. By the time the painter returned to Madrid nearly a year later, he was a changed man—thanks in part to his prolonged exposure to several local collections of prints. Goya’s mysterious illness turned his interest in human nature into something even “deeper and more profound,” Mena says.

Nowhere is the profoundly introspective Goya more in evidence than on a single wall of the Prado. That’s where The Second of May 1808 and its companion canvas, The Third of May 1808, hang together, attracting scholars and tourist hordes alike. Depicting, respectively, the uprising in the Puerta del Sol and the retaliatory massacre of patriots on Madrid’s Príncipe Pío hill—an area now dominated by a shopping mall that contains a Foot Locker store within musket range of a Zara—these paintings honor the victims of Madrid’s initial skirmishes for independence from Napoleon’s yoke. Just as important, these pitiless scenes also reject the contemporary notion of war as a noble pursuit.

Goya’s modern take on 18th-century life in Madrid runs deep at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Spain’s royal academy of painting, which Goya joined in 1780 and led from 1795 to 1797. The Academia displays a dazzling parade of masterworks that include paintings and drawings by Titian, Raphael, Rubens, and Zurbarán, and a number of remarkable Goya treasures, like the artist’s letters, his actual gold-leafed painter’s palette, and several canvases—including a hilariously rubicund portrait of Prime Minister Manuel Godoy, Spain’s wannabe Thomas Cromwell. Like many of Goya’s portraits, this likeness flatters his subject while capturing a crucial flaw. Fast-forward 215 years and Godoy is a dead ringer for Donald Trump.

Sharing the same 18th-century building on Calle de Alcalá is the Calcografía Nacional, which houses Goya’s copper etching plates. Designs from his pessimistic print series, Los Caprichos and La Tauromaquia, cover tourist kiosks, traditional bars, and his namesake metro station, a testament to Madrid’s identification with Goya’s empathetically austere vision. Further down Calle de Alcalá, off the Plaza Mayor, is Sobrino de Botín, Spain’s oldest restaurant, which has been roasting a mean suckling pig since 1725. A possibly apocryphal story has a down-at-the-heels young Francisco washing dishes here before becoming the world-famous Goya. It’s an unlikely scenario, but there is a good chance that the painter ate at the restaurant, since he lived nearby at No. 6 Calle Santiago.

Moving north, toward the posh shopping district of Salamanca, is the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, a turn-of-the-20th-century Italianate mansion built by a prominent businessman and filled to bursting with robber baron loot. The museum’s vast wares include prehistoric Iberian objects, manuscripts, jewelry, and some of Goya’s eeriest takes on Spanish Gothic—the style the painter adopted to render both his irreligiosity and his distrust of Enlightenment reason. Among the most famous is El Aquelarre, or Witches’ Sabbath: The tablet-sized painting depicts a coven of hags offering newborns and fetuses to a giant he-goat.

Goya’s grislier small oils—which compete with Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia’s goriest movie horrors—predate the Victorians’ fascination with golems and ghouls. They were commissioned by the fashionable Duke and Duchess of Osuna, whose former country house, El Capricho de la Alameda de Osuna, today finds itself near Madrid’s Barajas airport. Once a retreat worthy of the cream of Spain’s hereditary and intellectual aristocracy, the palace has been turned into one of the city’s least-known public parks. It’s possible to see immigrant families and their children enjoying its landscaped gardens today. Two centuries ago, the duchess ferried Goya and other genteel guests in miniature boats around the compound’s artificial lake on the way to elegant luncheons in her twin pavilions.

Not far from Atocha, Madrid’s main train station, is a cluster of institutions intimately connected to Goya. There’s the Palacio Real, where Queen Maria Luisa’s homely portrait hangs. There’s the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande, where Goya cockily painted himself in the altarpiece depicting a stumping San Bernardino. And there’s the Royal Tapestry Factory, where Goya’s career began in earnest. In his youth, he worked as a salaried painter for the factory, Madrid’s version of Les Gobelins, the Paris tapestry works.

On the surface, little seems to have changed at the Real Fábrica, as it’s known here, since the time of its founder, Phillip V. It’s still possible to walk among the teams of lady weavers spinning on 300-year-old looms—but perhaps not for long. According to Antonio Sama, the factory’s lead curator, Goya’s tapestry designs are still available for around $13,600 to $17,000 a square meter. Despite the tapestries’ popularity among private collectors and museums, the factory came close to folding last year. Run as a nonprofit foundation but supported by an overburdened Spanish state that currently faces sluggish growth and 45 percent youth unemployment, the institution nearly fell victim to the country’s prolonged economic crisis.

Goya “speaks like no other artist to difficult periods in history,” says Manuel Borja-Villel, the director of Spain’s leading contemporary-art museum, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Goya’s appeal, he suggests, has always been broad— a court painter of undeniable genius who was also a populist at heart.

“There are a lot of Goyas,” says Borja-Villel. “There’s the fun-loving Goya, the Goya of the royal portraits, the Enlightenment Goya, and the scourge-of-reason Goya. But throughout there is also something uniquely democratic about him. He is among the first artists in the world to break the barrier between high and low culture, which makes him perfect for this city.”

Of all the popular encounters to have with Goya in Madrid, the most intimate by far is to be had at the Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida, near what was once the vast sloping meadow of San Isidro. The hermitage’s tiny chapel, which receives just a trickle of visitors, contains one of the high points of Spanish art and an enduring mystery. The painter is buried here; his remains were removed from Bordeaux, France (where he was exiled late in his life), and reinterred here in 1929—minus his skull, which was lost.

Above the artist’s tomb is one of the greatest works to be seen on the hunt for the salt- of-the-earth Goya that so vividly defines Madrid: a fresco cycle that depicts the miracle of Saint Anthony of Padua and features grooms, laborers, children, maids, swells, and shady characters, among other urban fauna. Every one of these figures is identifiable today on a Madrid street, a café terrace, or in the bleachers of a soccer stadium. Goya’s love letter to his city, the painting doesn’t depict kings, queens, or popes. Instead, it’s about what he saw flourishing all around him: the extraordinary character of Madrid’s ordinary people.


Photos: Miguel Flores Vianna