The day the Spanish government announced a two-week closure of all schools and colleges in Madrid due to coronavirus, I was in Berkana, the city’s oldest gay bookstore, considering whether to buy a copy of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. I’ve been living in Madrid since last October, when I moved here from Venezuela to study in a Master’s program organized by El País, Spain’s top newspaper. Since then, I have gotten in the habit of going to a bookstore to browse around for an hour or two whenever I feel anguished or agitated.
In Venezuela, I was a professor, but as the economy fell apart I found work as a freelance journalist, covering my country’s current events despite dealing with blackouts and failing communications. Since October, whenever I haven’t been working on a news story in Madrid, I’ve either been taking a small rest from my previous beat or thinking up my next one. My life has been my job, and I love my job; otherwise, I wouldn’t be a journalist.
On the day of the announcement, I didn’t buy Death in Venice. Still, the image of Aschenbach, Mann’s novelist protagonist wandering a Mediterranean city abandoned by cholera remained with me as Madrid changed suddenly from a vivacious European capital into a state of solitude and uncertainty. Restaurants and bars in the trendy districts of Malasaña, Chueca, and the main venue of Gran Vía emptied. Like Mann’s early 20th-century Venice stricken by cholera, the once-gentle streets and squares soon acquired a more menacing appearance.
By evening people had gathered at their local supermarkets in long lines to buy canned goods and toilet paper. Many left the city, with more than a few probably carrying the virus themselves.
The day after, instead of doing any of the necessary things like shopping and laundry, I went to the Prado Museum.
The visit offered me a rare moment to think. In my case, focusing on my work helps to keep other concerns at bay. There’s a time and place to think and worry about Venezuela and my family there, but that’s usually late in the evening or during the weekend. For me and many of my classmates, having a virus suddenly open up so much free time to think is unnerving.
Those of us who are non-Spaniards and, like the protagonist of Death in Venice, foreigners, marveled at the opportunity of being part of a beautiful, historical metropolitan city, only to find ourselves stranded and isolated in a moment of crisis. Many of us had come to Spain to find new opportunities, to discover our own new worlds. Now we were in a lockdown, desperately trying to make the most out of the limitations.
And so, perhaps in the spirit of Aschenbach, I went to the Prado seeking something that felt beautiful and eternal before the viral outbreak put a stop to life as we know it.
The Prado is an excellent place to visit in a crisis because it has had such a convoluted life itself. When the museum opened its doors in 1819, the then-recent Napoleonic invasion had destabilized the country. Long decades of war between liberals, conservatives, absolutists, and opposing royal bloodlines were soon to come.
I entered the museum through an atrium with a triumphant statue of Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire by Leone Leoni. It stands over a chained figure, called The Fury, which has been interpreted either as the Ottoman Empire or Protestantism.
It’s a proper introduction to the Spanish Hapsburgs and the Siglo de Oro, the zenith of imperial grandiosity and cultural influence, the era of Miguel de Cervantes and Diego Velázquez. However, knowing what lies behind all the splendor, you discover a strong warning about the false reassurances of opulence and power in front of disease and social strife.
As a result of the priorities of its rich patrons such as the Hapsburgs, countless portraits of aristocrats and saints fill a great part of the main floor of the Prado. It’s interesting how these paintings, in most cases meant to exalt the figures they portray, are celebrated, while their subjects have drifted off into oblivion. A few paintings by El Greco, for instance, feature distinguishing-looking men—Portrait of a Nobleman, Portrait of a Doctor, and most famously The Nobleman with His Hand on his Chest. Whoever these gentlemen were has become irrelevant in comparison to the great El Greco himself.
In a room filled by royal portraits painted by Diego Velázquez, the work that stands out is his subversive masterpiece, Las Meninas. There, Charles V’s great-grandson Philip IV is reduced into a small, blurry figure in the background while granting the foreground to the painter and other members of the household staff—all the people who made this royal opulence possible.
Despite the Hapsburgs’ wealth and power, the art that they financed ultimately outlived them, but only by surviving a fire that destroyed the royal residence in Madrid in 1734. Hundreds of invaluable works of Da Vinci, El Greco and Raphael turned into ashes. Las Meninas was among the few paintings that were saved, but it could have easily turned into dust.
During my visit, the museum appeared to be half empty. Most of the visitors were tourists who probably wanted to make the most of their time in the city before it shut down. An elderly couple, both in wheelchairs, stopped and contemplated Renaissance art. A school group moved along quickly. Young art students commented on this or that piece. Despite the fear and the tension in the world outside, here there was a sense of routine and calmness. Maybe it was a temporary distraction, but for a moment there was the illusion of disconnection from the rest of the world.
Maintaining the illusion of being a distant witness, unaffected by your surroundings, is also part of being a journalist. Some of my professors in the Master’s program have covered train accidents, plane crashes, and terrorist attacks. When they talk about these things, their usual cool, professional, generally friendly manner sometimes changes, taking on a more distressed tone when a particular nerve is touched.
One artist who thoroughly shatters the illusion of disconnection is Francisco Goya. I remember growing up and being intrigued by his Disasters of War illustrations, which used to decorate the walls of an elderly uncle who lived in Caracas. Penitents wearing conic hats standing trial, tormented figures haunted by demonic-looking birds. I didn’t expect art from so long ago to be so nightmarish.
Goya pretty much has his own wing. His earlier paintings are mostly picturesque scenes of gentry life, with young aristocrats playing the blind man’s bluff, allegories of the seasons, lots of hunting. But the special attention he gives to the poor, the old, and the disabled in the margins is noticeable.
On the upper floor of the wing, its walls painted in dark gray under dim light, is where you can see some of Goya’s most famous and haunting creations. The soft, placid art meant to decorate drawing rooms and hunting lodges would hardly recognize the faceless Napoleonic soldiers and the blood-stained corpses of The Third of May 1808.
But even this painting is overshadowed by Goya’s Black Paintings—surrealistic and esoteric images he painted directly on the inner walls of his house, named later Saturn Devouring His Son, The Witches’ Sabbath. By then, Goya was in his 70s and was traumatized by war, embittered with politics, and alienated from a Spanish society that rejected the constitution and embraced the absolutism of Ferdinand VII and the Catholic Church. His favorite subjects became witches, madmen, half-human beasts.
The faces are darkened and distorted, the brush seems quick and choleric—though it’s impossible to know how much those effects are Goya’s and how much are from the transference to canvas and the modifications done by the museum staff decades later when they brought it to the Prado. The New York Times once described it as “at best a crude facsimile” of Goya’s original artwork. We are fortunate to admire it, as we are fortunate to see Velázquez’s Las Meninas.
Art is a reflection of the artist’s mind—and the time and place they lived. In this sense, walking around an art gallery is roughly similar to the pleasure I get from browsing books in a bookstore. I can lose myself inside the minds of others without focusing too much on my own.
Being a journalist, I’ve learned that you either try to divide your professional and your personal mindset or your job will encompass the entirety of your life. Coming so recently from Venezuela, I find the adjustment to being in Spain now similar: I have to define a headspace for the country I come from and another for the country I am in—and making these two headspaces is a slow, painful process. When I look at Goya’s Black Paintings I see what happens when all those hatches collapse and you’re flooded with anger, sadness, and outrage.
I continued to the lower main area of a lower floor and joined the little crowd of tense onlookers in front of Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death. Looking at an army of skeletons rounding up and massacring the living—kings, beggars, maidens, and gamblers—it is hard not to think that our fears of worldwide epidemics aren’t new. We visitors eyed each other uneasily and then moved on.
But one piece in this section that captured everyone’s attention, and had the museum staff yelling at us to stop taking pictures, was The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, a large triptych of connected wooden panels filled with strange, dreamlike imagery.
On the left panel, Adam and Eve are with Christ in the Garden of Eden surrounding a strange pink structure that could be the Tree of Wisdom. On the right panel, a twisted and somewhat playful vision of hell is filled with puzzling demons and musical instruments and other objects of pleasure turned into torture devices, with a burning city in the background.
The middle and largest panel has been variously described as the world, a perfect utopia free of sin or a false, terrestrial paradise filled with mundane pleasures. Naked, sensuous figures frolic in a pasture filled with wondrous animals and strange, colorful edifices that imitate the pink “tree” seen in the Garden of Eden.
I suppose that Bosch’s painting could be interpreted as an indictment of the frivolities of ephemeral, empty joy in contrast to the eternal salvation offered by God and the Christian faith. However, under that logic, then those of us who came to the Prado to admire the painting for its masterful craft and imaginative design instead of its religious message would be falling into the false, terrestrial paradise that Bosch warns us about.
Maybe those of us who aren’t particularly religious obtain the same comfort in paintings, architecture, books, and movies in our modern, secular era that others get from religion. The sensation that art, skill, and imagination are something majestic: bigger and more lasting than our short, common lives.
I left the Prado with a poster of The Garden of Earthly Delights. That night, I met up with my fellow journalism students and had a few drinks at a terrace near Gran Vía. Later, I went down to a 24-hour supermarket in Plaza de Tirso de Molina to get provisions for the quarantine.
In the 10 days since, I have been self-isolating due to the coronavirus, only going out of my apartment to do shopping and laundry. The Spanish government has established fines of up to 600,000 euros for going out without a motive, so it’s not like I have much of a choice in the matter.
The first official cases of coronavirus have just been reported in Venezuela a few days ago, so I’m more concerned for my family over there than for myself in Madrid, since I know that my country’s decayed healthcare system isn’t properly prepared for an outbreak of this scope.
I don’t know what will happen in the following months. I hope things don’t end as tragically as they did for Aschenbach in Death in Venice, who was consumed by cholera while looking at the unattainable beauty of the young man who had become his obsession. But in these times of uncertainty, I have the satisfaction of having stood in the building that for over two centuries has been a sanctuary for Velázquez, Goya, Bosch, and other beautiful things that still endure, despite the chaos that has sometimes surrounded them.