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History and Architecture

The Ionic Sculpture Gallery

Villanueva Building

The Museo Nacional del Prado has architecturally refurbished the space of the north Ionic gallery, located next to the Central Gallery on the first floor, to increase the visibility of sculpture and decorative arts in its permanent collection. The resulting display gallery includes 56 outstanding works spanning from Ancient Egypt and the Roman world to the Renaissance and Baroque.

The intervention recovers the essence of the proposal of Alejandro Sureda who in 1881 conceived this space for sculpture exhibition.

The new exhibit proposal of a selection of sculpture and decorative arts, offers the visitor a more panoramic, complete and suggestive approach to this artistic discipline and an overview spanning from Ancient Egypt to the Baroque. The refurbishment of the north Ionic gallery is supported by American Friends of the Prado Museum thanks to the sponsorship of The Engh Foundation.

The 56 works selected provide an eloquent recreation inspired in the style and manner that they formed part of important historical collections and span a chronology of over 2,000 years. Portraiture is one of the main themes in the gallery.

The role of galleries

Private galleries date back hundreds of years, first emerging as spaces intended for discovering and appreciating different types of valuable collections through two principal concepts: the display of wealth and erudition of the highest level. This conceptual duality survived from Antiquity to the 19th century and encompassed the Renaissance and Baroque periods as a reflection of the western interest in collecting.

The same duality is also present in this gallery in the Prado. The gilt bronze bust of Hermes-Antinous establishes a dialogue with Roman sculptures of Egyptian figures from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli in an example of the taste for eastern modes which survived into the Baroque. Shown alongside them are portraits of universal figures of Greco-Roman culture from Homer to Cicero, some formerly in the collection of the diplomat José Nicolás de Azara, a key figure of the Enlightenment in Spain.

All these objects are sculpted in precious, imperishable materials, including the hardstone inlays depicting evocative landscapes such as the Grotto at Posillipo typically acquired by individuals establishing an almost initiatory contact with the classical world through the Grand Tour.

This context of luxury is evident in exquisite works such as the porphyry vases of the type that decorated the galleries in the old Habsburg Alcázar in Madrid, made in a material closely associated with the idea of empire.

The fascination with portraiture

The sculptures displayed here are notably characteristic of those to be found in private galleries of all periods. They encompass a lengthy chronological span and portraiture provides one of their guiding threads as an expression of the validity of a timeless formula.

Standardised images characteristic of ancient cultures such as Egypt thus establish a dialogue with individualised ones from the Greco-Roman world; depictions that range from the most idealised to the most human. Gods and men coexist through recognisable features which lived on in their faces and continue to act as a mirror in which western culture is faithfully reflected.

The intention in this display is to create contrasts: the delicacy of a Muse’s face versus the severity of an elderly man’s features; the Medusa’s petrifying gaze contrasted with the dignity of a Dacian prisoner; the detail in the rendering of female hairstyles with the lifelikeness in the depictions of animals.

The Renaissance revival in the form of medallions used as architectural ornamentation represents the optimum connection between that living, ongoing tradition associated with ancient coins and medals which aimed to immortalise illustrious men and endow them with a recognisable face.

This was also the case with galleries of painted portraits and reliquary chapels in which busts of saints were displayed for veneration.

The origins of this gallery

In the design for the museum by Juan de Villanueva (1739-1811), this space was conceived as a large, luminous gallery open onto the Paseo del Prado and matched by an identical one in the south flank of the same west façade of the building.

In 1838 the museum changed its name to the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, following which the number of galleries solely devoted to sculpture was increased, opening in 1839. They displayed some of the works selected and brought from the royal palaces and residences from 1826 by the sculptors José Álvarez Cubero (1768-1827) and Valeriano Salvatierra (1789-1836).

In 1860 it was decided to also use the west façade galleries for the display of busts, reliefs and statues stored in the basement as it was thought that airing them in spaces opening onto the exterior would help to preserve them better. In 1862 the German art historian Emil Hübner published the catalogue of the museum’s classical sculpture, classifying the collection according to academic criteria and thus locating it on the map of international scholarship.

A space for sculpture

These galleries were modified between 1878 and 1881 by the architect Alejandro Sureda (1815-1889) in order to allow for the display of a greater number of sculptures. Reflecting his personal taste for the French style, some of the busts were installed on brackets and the names of celebrated sculptors were added to the upper walls within large cartouches. This was not a list of artists represented in the Prado but rather of great names in the history of sculpture; from Antiquity and the Renaissance in this north gallery, and Spain and other European countries from the Early Modern Age in the south gallery. These spaces remained open to the public until around 1919.

That spirit has been revived in this newly installed north “Ionic Gallery”, which displays works from Ancient Egypt, the Greco-Roman period, the Renaissance and the Baroque: precious objects that evoke the relevance of the classical language and its interpretation over the centuries, the accessibility of three-dimensional art and also the rich variety of the Museo del Prado’s collection.

Large plaster cartouches

In 1881 these galleries were decorated with large plaster cartouches around the upper walls. Inscribed on them were the names of some of the great masters of sculpture of all periods.

  • PHIDIAS: sculptor, Athens, c. 490–c. 430 BC
  • POLYKLEITOS: sculptor, Sikyon, c. 480/475–c. 420 BC
  • POLYGNOTUS: painter, Thasos, c. 500–Athens, c. 440 BC
  • PRAXITELES: sculptor, Athens, c. 395–c. 330 BC
  • SCOPAS: sculptor, Paros, c. 380–c. 330 BC
  • ZENODORUS: sculptor, Greece, act. c. 50–68
  • VOLVINIUS: sculptor and goldsmith, Milan, act. c. 850
  • NICOLA PISANO: sculptor, Apulia, c. 1220–Pisa, c. 1278/1287
  • ANDREA ORCAGNA: sculptor and painter, Florence, c. 1308–1368
  • JACOPO DELLA QUERCIA: sculptor, Quercia Grossa (Siena), c. 1375–Siena, 1438
  • LORENZO GHIBERTI: sculptor and goldsmith, Florence, 1378–1455
  • DONATELLO: sculptor, Florence, 1386–1466

Orígenes de esta galería

Este espacio se concibió en el proyecto de Juan de Villanueva (1739-1811) como una galería abierta, amplia y luminosa hacia el Paseo del Prado, al igual que su gemela en el flanco sur de la misma fachada oeste del edificio. Una vez que el museo pasó a denominarse Real Museo de Pintura y Escultura en 1838, se amplió el número de salas dedicadas exclusivamente a la escultura, que se inauguraron en 1839. En ellas se mostró una parte de las obras seleccionadas y traídas de los palacios y sitios reales desde 1826 por los escultores José Álvarez Cubero (1768-1827) y Valeriano Salvatierra (1789-1836). En 1860 se determinó destinar también las galerías de la fachada occidental a la exhibición de bustos, relieves y estatuas almacenadas en los sótanos, pues se pensó que su aireación en estancias abiertas al exterior contribuiría a su mejor conservación. El historiador alemán Emil Hübner publicó en 1862 el catálogo de la escultura clásica del museo, en el que ofrecía una clasificación según criterios científicos de la colección, que de este modo quedaba situada en el mapa de los estudios internacionales.

Un ámbito para la escultura

El arquitecto Alejandro Sureda (1815-1889) intervino en estas galerías entre 1878 y 1881 para instalar en ellas un mayor número de esculturas. Siguiendo su particular gusto por lo francés, algunos de los bustos se colocaron sobre ménsulas y se añadieron en la parte superior, en grandes cartelas, nombres de escultores célebres. No se trataba de una lista de artífices representados en el Prado, sino de grandes figuras de la historia de la escultura: de la Antigüedad y el Renacimiento en esta galería norte, y de España y otros países europeos de la Edad Moderna en la galería sur. Estos espacios se mantuvieron abiertos al público aproximadamente hasta 1919.

Retomando ese espíritu se recupera esta “Galería Jónica” norte, donde se dan cita obras del Antiguo Egipto, del periodo greco-romano, del Renacimiento y el Barroco; objetos preciosos que hablan de la validez del lenguaje clásico y de su interpretación a través de los siglos, de la cercanía tangible de lo tridimensional y también de la rica variedad de la colección del Museo del Prado.

Cartelas en yeso

En 1881 se decoraron estas galerías con cartelas en yeso en la parte superior. En ellas se inscribieron los nombres de algunos grandes maestros de la escultura de todos los tiempos.

  • FIDIAS: escultor, Atenas, h. 490-h. 430 a. C.
  • POLYCLETO (Policleto): escultor, Sicione, h. 480/475-h. 420 a. C.
  • POLYGNOTO (Polignoto): pintor, Tasos, h. 500-Atenas, h. 440 a. C.
  • PRAXÍTELES: escultor, Atenas, h. 395-h. 330 a. C.
  • SCOPAS: escultor, Paros, h. 380-h. 330 a. C.
  • ZENODORO: escultor, Grecia, act. h. 50-68
  • VOLVINUS (Vuolvino): escultor y orfebre, Milán, act. h. 850
  • NICOLA PISANO: escultor, Apulia, h. 1220-Pisa, h. 1278/1287
  • ANDREA ORCAGNA: escultor y pintor, Florencia, h. 1308-1368
  • JACOPO DELLA QUERCIA: escultor, Quercia Grossa (Siena), h. 1375-Siena, 1438
  • LORENZO GHIBERTI: escultor y orfebre, Florencia, 1378-1455
  • DONATELLO: escultor, Florencia, 1386-1466

Supported by

American Friends of the Museo del Prado

Thanks to the sponsorship of

The Engh Foundation
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