This article was originally published in December 2012 (a year ago to the day, actually) on Kunstpedia.
Madrid’s status as one of the great art capitals of Europe’s stems from the big three – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. While these museums are undoubtedly spectacular and have rightly earned their status as some of the world’s best, no art lover should bypass the smaller and lesser-known galleries Madrid has on offer.
The Museo Lázaro Galdiano is one of the most underrated art museums in the Spanish capital. Located in the beautiful neo-renaissance palace on Serrano Street, it houses the former private collection that had once belonged to José Lázaro Galdiano, a well-known collector and respected bibliophile.
Lázaro earned his title as “one of the greatest patrons of culture in 19th century Spain,” and by the end of his life, he not only owned one of the most prestigious art collections in Spain, but had also founded the magazine “La España Moderna” and established a publishing company under the same name. His reputation as a bibliophile developed from his other collecting passion of rare and beautiful antique books.
Lázaro’s legacy includes an astounding library filled with works by Goya, masterpieces like the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” by Francesco Colonna, “The Polyglot Bible” by Cisneros and some extraordinary examples of Medieval Codices.
While access to the library is limited, the Lázaro's renowned art collection is on public display at his former home on Calle Serrano. This palatial residence catches your eye from across the street, and calls you into its garden: Parque Florido, which was named after Lázaro’s Argentinean wife, Paula Florido.
The art collection itself is divided amongst the numerous rooms and floors of the palace. The ground floor offers an eclectic mix, covering art from a wide range of eras and countries, and is a preliminary taster for the Lázaro collection. Paintings are hung alongside rare artifacts, like the “Julius Caesar Tazza” dating from the latter half of the 16th century, which had belonged to Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini. This dish, adorned with the standing figure of the Roman Caesar, was once part of a series, where each Tazza represented the 12 Caesars from Suetonius.
Numerous, quality works of iconographical and symbolic content are found in Lázaro’s collection of Spanish painting, and it is here on the ground floor that we see his love for portraiture emerge. Portraits of Lope de Vega and Góngora adorn the walls, located only a few metres away from Renaissance panels and archaeological artifacts, such as the bronze ewer dating back to the 6th century BC from the ancient port city of Tartassos, now located in Andalucía.
The “Treasure Chamber” is a stunning display of precious gold and jewelled items that are housed in the collection, where the Ceremonial Sword, presented to the second Count of Tendilla by the Pope Innocent VIII in the 15th century, is the highlight. These treasures are displayed chronologically: from the gold of the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans, through to Visigoth and Byzantine, and concludes with the jewels of Paula Florido, Lázaro’s wife.
The ground floor offers a glimpse into the collection of European art brought to Spain by Lázaro, showcasing extraordinary and rare pieces that are seldom seen in private Spanish collections.
Turning a corner, the 15th century stained glass window depicting St. Michael Weighing Souls, by Antonio da Pandino, grabs your attention. Hung besides it, you can find interesting works sampled from Lázaro’s collection of English paintings, a school rarely found in Spain, such as “The Portrait of Lady Sondes” by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
One of the highlights, at least for me, is the moving marble statue of “Christ at the Column” by the Neapolitan sculptor, Michelangelo Naccerino. This life-sized baroque sculpture carved out of white marble contours the delicate details of Christ’s body and draws your eye to his emotive expression.
After an introduction to the museum and the collection, the tour continues upstairs. Here the collection is no longer displayed in chronological order, but is instead categorised into schools. The first floor focusses on Spanish art.
Chronicling this history of Spanish art was one of Lázaro’s passions. He wanted to preserve a collection which could be used as a reference for the study of Spanish art history.
The first floor of the museum is located in the former ceremonial rooms of Lázaro’s family. Here guests would be greeted, and would have even dined and danced. These rooms retain their former splendour, decorated with frescoed ceilings, marbled panels and gold leaf details on the borders.
One of Lázaro’s great artistic loves was 15th and 16th century panel painting. From the excellent Gothic and early Renaissance examples on display, it’s easy to see why. The paintings from the traditional Aragonese School follow the traditional Gothic style: where figures are hierarchically positioned and the faces of the saints are idealised. Perspective, as seen from the Renaissance onwards, is missing in these early paintings; instead plain, golden backgrounds dominate, centralising the figures in the painting. The 15th century panel painting by Blasco de Grañen, “Virgin of Mosén Esperandeu de Santa Fe” is an excellent example.
The Golden Age of Spanish art, from the 16th and 17th centuries, is well represented— here we see some impressive canvasses by Ribera, El Greco and even early Velázquez.
“Saint Francis of Assisi” by Domenicos Theotocopulos, more commonly known as El Greco, is an intimate depiction of the saint. The perfection of his face, hands and skull are painted in his trademark proto-expressionist style combined with loose brush strokes, but it’s the emotional overpowering of the saint's expressive eyes that hook us into this painting.
The undisputed stars of Lázaro's Spanish collection are the paintings and cartoons by Francisco de Goya. There are six small canvases, universally acclaimed by critics, but in addition to these, two paintings which have been recently re-attributed to the painter.
The most notable Goyas from the collection are “The Witches” and the “Witches Sabbath,” while these canvases are small in size; they capture the sinister atmosphere of their subject matter with the artist’s dark palette and attention to gritty detail. On first glance, the loose brush strokes lull us into a false sense of security before we see in line of baby corpses haunting the background or the emaciated children offered as sacrifice. In their masterful and extravagant execution, these paintings capture conflicting elements of both fear and irony, whose quality put them on par with the Goyas displayed in the Prado.
The second floor catalogues the European schools found in the collection. It spans over five centuries and covers not only painting, but also sculpture and the decorative arts. Lázaro’s inclusion of the Flemish and Italian schools complement the collection, as their influence can be directly attributed in the history of Spanish art.
One of the most notable pieces is a small portrait, dating back to the late 15th century of “The Young Christ.” Once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci by Spanish critics; art experts eventually concluded that the painting originated from the Lombard School, whose authorship is now attributed to one of da Vinci’s best students, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. This panel is believed to be based on one of da Vinci’s designs, and was held in great esteem evidenced by the gilding on the reverse side of the panel.
Another gem found in Lázaro’s collection is displayed among the early Flemish panels. “Saint John the Baptist in the Desert,” by Hieronymus Bosch is the highlight of the museum. Here we see St. John reclining in a surreal landscape, where trees are set far into the distance. In the foreground, the saint points to a lamb, which symbolises the road to salvation. What is interesting about this painting is the strange plant set beside St. John. It resembles a deformed pomegranate, interpreted as a symbol for earthly pleasures, but upon closer inspection the pomegranate hides a face. Originally, the patron of the painting was to appear here, however after a dispute with Bosch the artist painted him out and distorted him into a strange looking shrubbery.
The collection continues on the third floor; where we can explore the armoury, antique bronzes and stonework, and most notably, Lázaro’s exquisite collection of textiles.
In conclusion, while this small-scale museum dwarfs in quantity when compared to Madrid’s big three, it definitely has the right to stand by them in quality, since it houses pieces that are not only of great aesthetic value, but are significant both for history and art history. If you love art then I can highly recommend a visit to this museum.
I would like to give special thanks to Carlos Saguar Quer, for giving me a personal tour round the museum and for teaching me not only about the collection, but also about José Lázaro Galdiano as well, and for all his help and cooperation with this article.
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.