The new wing of Madrid's Prado museum is humming with activity as curators prepare for its Oct. 31 opening. Above ground, in galleries built around architect Rafael Moneo's translucent, lantern-shaped patio, epic-sized historical paintings from the museum's rarely displayed 19th century collection rest against the walls, waiting to be fitted into their frames. Below ground, white-gloved workers are laboriously transferring the 3,000 works currently in storage to a new, climate-controlled archive system. And in the Room of Muses, a lone conservator painstakingly cleans a sculpture of Erato, the Greek muse of lyric poetry, one of eight statues that give the museum's new receiving hall its name. These figures date from 2nd century Greece, but set against the hall's watermelon-red stucco walls, they take on a decidedly postmodern feel. They make a fitting welcome committee for a museum that is updating itself while getting, if anything, more serious about its past.
As the Prado approaches its 188th birthday, its $215 million expansion one element of a plan that has seen the renovation of Madrid's three major art museums reaffirms the city's importance as a European arts capital. And, not incidentally, it makes the museum friendlier to the more than 2 million tourists who pass through its doors each year. "The relationship between museums and society has changed," says Miguel Zugaza, the Prado's director. "Before, museums were the preserve of the few, but now they're massively attended. We had to change to match that." By adding a new entrance for groups and permitting the museum's main doors on the Paseo del Prado to re-open for everyone else, the extension does away with the awkward side entries. The new wing also provides a suitable home for the necessary appurtenances of the modern museum (café, auditorium and gift shop), leaving the original 18th century building by Juan de Villanueva free of everything but art.
Yet this expansion is much more than just an excuse to sell more tickets and Goya posters. Moneo's design serves the museum's collections rather than overwhelming them. "We chose him because, in addition to being a great Spanish architect, he is humble," says Zugaza. "He knew how to work harmoniously with the neoclassical architecture of the original." The new wing was never intended to bear the bold signature of a Pei pyramid or a Gehry curve; it manages instead to be quietly beautiful. An exquisitely crafted foyer of cedar, textured granite and brushed bronze is lined on one side with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the brick rear of the original museum. Galleries start underground and work their way up around the broad shaft of natural light that streams through Moneo's glass lantern. At the top comes the delicious surprise: a gorgeously restored Baroque cloister dismantled from the neighboring San Jerónimo church and carefully reassembled in the new wing that functions as a sculpture gallery. "The Prado has never been known for its sculpture collections," says Zugaza. "Now we have an ideal place to show them off."
The four new painting galleries will be used solely for temporary exhibits. The first of these, "The Prado's 19th Century Masters," which opens to the public on Oct. 31 and runs through April 2008, gives the museum a good opportunity to reveal another of its closely kept secrets: it holds important paintings created after 1828, the year of Goya's death, which has until now marked the chronological endpoint of its permanent collection. This exhibition of over 100 works opens with portraits from Goya's age including one by him of a voluptuous Marquesa de Santa Cruz, and another of him, by contemporary Vicente López, depicting the artist in dyspeptic old age. Francisco Pradilla's tempestuous 1877 painting of a grieving Queen Juana la Loca is perhaps the most striking of the exhibition's vast historical works. Their general heaviness is relieved in the last two galleries by the delightful impressionistic works of Mariano Fortuny and Joaquín Sorolla, including the latter's sun-dappled Young Boys on the Beach. The show also boasts a dozen drawings by Goya, including the phantasmagoric Winged Bull, which the museum bought at auction last year for $2.6 million.
Once this temporary exhibition closes, many of its works will find their way onto the walls of the Prado's original Villanueva building; now that the main galleries no longer have to house traveling shows, there's more room to show works that have tended to languish in storage. "In 1819, the museum had a gallery of contemporary drawings where Goya's work was on display," says Zugaza. "The museum's founders thought that the collection would keep extending, but our chronic problem with insufficient space prevented that. Now, we have the opportunity to stretch to our full range." The new Prado has realized that opportunity in a way that lets the art provide the grandeur.