The Stendhal Syndrome

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, June 8, 2006

This was the day I had been looking forward to since I got to Madrid. I didn't want to plan this any regular day; I wanted it to be perfect so I waited for the right day. We woke up today and decided to finally visit the Prado Museum.

We waited for Sophie to come home from the art course she's taking so she'd accompany us. When she got back at around noon, we quickly took off toward the Metro. The day wasn't particularly hot, but it was very humid. You could almost taste the rain in the air. No one was complaining though: a nice spring shower wouldn't hurt anyone after the high temperatures the Madrilenians were suffering.

When we got out of the Metro, we asked around and found out we had to walk about 10 blocks to the Prado. It wasn't so bad though as we had been suggested to take a walk through the boulevard which was a nice stroll. The boulevard was decorated with fountains and modern art work and witty banners promoting the anniversary of Picasso's "Guernica" in the Prado.

When we got to one of the side entrances there was a long line of people waiting to enter the Picasso: Tradition and Vanguard. I quickly made a mental note to remember to go to that exhibition. We paid our entrance fee which our Student Cards were useless, as we were told, because we were older than 26 years of age. So we paid €6 which we later found out was good for the Picasso exhibition too.

A quick note on the Prado employees: they could really use a quick course on how to be polite. I got barked at and rolled my eyes at just for asking for my backpack to retrieve my wallet from the (compulsory) baggage check before entering. I had mistakenly given them my entire backpack to check in without getting my stuff first. This apparently is a no-no in the Prado. When I was waiting for the same person to put my backpack back in, another woman came up and barked: "Do you have a problem? What do you need?" Not a very hospitable impression from one of the most important art museums in the world.

So after I had dedicated quite a lot of energy biting my tongue in not sending the wardrobe ladies to burn in Hell, we each took a map and started with the small but pleasant Medieval Painting gallery. It really was a small gallery, with only a handful of murals and paintings from anonymous painters, as is common from artwork from that period. I particularly liked the murals passed unto canvas circa 1000, of hunters and animals. The drawing was astonishingly summarized and the palette was very earthy and natural with terra cotta shades worn out by the centuries.

We moved on to the Upper Level where all the important art works were. As we climbed the stairs I could sense the buzz of the people and my anticipation grew. I didn't know how I was going to react standing in front of paintings I had studied with so much dedication and passion. But what happened next still baffles me:

The flight of stairs ended in the lobby to which tour groups met, students were waited on, audio guides were bought and where all the galleries came together. We looked around the circular salon not knowing which gallery to start off with. I randomly picked an entrance that was to my left, where less people seemed to have accumulated. But as soon as we entered it, I stopped dead in my tracks and the first thing I saw made tears start tickling down my face. I also became really hot so I started fanning myself with the Prado map, without taking my eyes off this painting. Hippomenes and Atlanta by Guido Reni. My all time favourite painting, the one that makes me heart tremble, the one that has made me sigh repeatedly, the only one that has submerged me in observation for hours, and the one that now was making me succumb to Stendhal's Syndrome.

Ed and Sophie quickly understood my state and left me with my beauty to admire it in person, alone. She was much richer and fuller in person. The colors seemed to jump out of the canvas, the mauve and lilac transparent cloths covering Hippomenes's and Atlanta's intimate parts in soft movement, the dark melancholic background which appeared to be timeless contrasting with the fierce instant movements of the two characters. This artistic culmination explains Ovid's Metamorphosis myth in which Atlanta, a skilled huntress, challenged her suitors to outrace her and win her hand. The penalty for the loser was death. Hippomenes faced up to the challenge but invoked Venus before the race. Venus listened to his plea and gave him three golden apples. Hippomenes put into practice the goddess's advice and threw the apples one by one during the race. Atalanta, filled with curiosity, stopped to pick them, losing time; her rival took advantage of it, reached the goal first and won the race.  Clever, clever.

After feeling completely replenished and complete, Ed took pictures from every angle possible under the close scrutiny of the museum guard, and we moved on to the rest of the gallery, dedicated to 16th to 19th Century Painting.

We glided in a sea of creations by Caravaggio, Claude de Lorraine, Poussin, Tiziano, Carracci, Georges LaTour, El Greco. Ed and Sophie came to me for explanations to which I cheerfully replied, maybe a bit too much. I tend to get carried away when I talk about art, and being in the Prado only magnified that.

We finally reached the gallery dedicated to Peter Paul Rubens. I was completely unaware that Rubens had so much work exhibited in the Prado. At one point I cursed myself for not researching a bit more on the Prado before actually going, but quickly changed my mind, since the constant surprise factor would never have been the same.

We walked alongside Ruben's work such as The Duke of Lerma, Democritus, St George and the Dragon, Philomenes recognized by the Old Woman, The Death of Seneca, The Judgement of Paris, A Peasant Dance, The Garden of Love, The Abduction of Ganymede, and finally, the Three Graces. I didn't cry in front of Rubens, but I did feel my heart flutter.

Next came the grand salon dedicated to Velazquez, the Spanish Baroque master. It was filled with people in tour groups, and I passed form one to the next listening to the simple explanations of The Meninas, looking at people's faces and listening to their remarks. I must say, even though I do recognize The Meninas as a superb work of art, I did not feel that elation as I did with Rubens or Caravaggio or my Hippomenes and Atlanta. I was however gleeful of being in its presence.

After Velazquez, our growling stomachs could bear it no longer so we sped down to the museum's cafeteria. After taking one look at the completely overpriced food for tourists, we decided to take a walk to a nearby supermarket and buy quick sandwiches and beer. We spent €8 on the entire meal for the 3 of us and sat at a park bench for our lunch. After our sugar donuts for desert and after our feet weren't hurting as much, we crossed the street and went back to the Prado to finish it off.

The next floor level was dedicated to painting from 1100 to 1600 and Sculpture. Here we strolled and admired works from Rafael, Van der Weyden with the amazing "Deposition from the Cross", El Bosco, Albrecht Durer, Jan Van Eyck. We also came across Fra Angelico's "The Annunciation" which is far more beautiful than any picture I've ever seen of it. The beautiful pastel colors of blue and pink with orange and the golden details didn't even come close to any photograph in any book. It's a painting that definitely has to be seen live, in situ.

We wanted to check out the sculpture wing but yet suddenly the three warning bells went off and all security guards started inviting people to leave.

Was it 8pm already? Had 8 hours already passed since we'd gotten there? It certainly did not feel that long; the day went by too quickly. We went for a Starbucks coffee to finish off the day and give our poor feet some rest. And as I sat finishing my Mocca I thought about the art works I had encountered. I thought about my emotional rollercoaster in the museum and I realized this was the reason why I had dedicated my time in the study of Art History. That moment in the Prado when I could not move my sight from that painting, was the moment I had been yearning for. And the single moment I would probably remember most dearly.

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