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Bibliotheca Artis. Treasures from the Library of the Museo del Prado Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This October, the Museo del Prado will be presenting the most outstanding items from the holdings of its Library, to be shown to the public for the first time. Following its relocation last year to the Casón del Buen Retiro, the Library now forms part of the new Study Centre of the Museum, with a spacious reading room beneath Luca Giordano’s magnificent painted ceiling. The Library houses an important collection of early books that has been significantly increased in recent years with the acquisition of the libraries of José María Cervelló and the Madrazo family. The present exhibition aims to reveal the importance of this unknown part of the Museum’s collection through a selection of forty volumes dating from between approximately 1500 and 1750. They are accompanied by eight paintings from the Museum by Titian, Velázquez and El Greco that have been included in order to reveal the close links between the bibliographic holdings and the Prado’s paintings collection.

Bibliotheca Artis. Treasures from the Library of the Museo del Prado

The exhibition is organized into three sections. The first, Bibliotheca artis (Library of Art), is the most important, featuring major works from the European literature on art, starting with the great treatises of the Italian Renaissance. On display are first editions of the key texts on painting by Leon Battista Alberti (1547) and Leonardo da Vinci (1651), as well as the first systematic treatise on perspective by Daniele Barbaro, who is the subject of a portrait by Titian in the Museum’s collection. The dissemination of Renaissance ideas in northern Europe is best represented by Dürer’s theoretical writings, of which an example here is the first Latin edition of his treatise On Measurement (1532). Also included in this section is a copy of the founding text of art history, Vasari’s Lives, a work that exercised a notable influence in Italy and the rest of Europe.

Art theory during the Spanish Golden Age represents is another important section within the exhibition, with copies of several groundbreaking texts on display. Among 16th-century treatises, for example, is Felipe de Guevara’s Comentario de la pintura, recently rediscovered among the holdings of the Madrazo library and exhibited to the public for the first time. Velázquez’s teacher and father-in-law Francisco Pacheco is represented here by a short section from the first edition of his Arte de la pintura (1649), accompanied by an extremely rare leaflet (the only example in a Spanish library) with manuscript annotations by the author and a reproduction of Velázquez’s portrait of him. Other outstanding items, also on show for the first time, are the manuscript copy of the Discursos by Jusepe Martínez (ca.1673-1675) and one of the copperplates used for the illustrations of Palomino’s El museo pictórico (1715).

The second section, Bibliotheca architecturae (Library of Architecture) brings together a carefully selected group of architectural treatises. Once again the key theme is the Italian Renaissance, with important editions of works by Vitruvius, Vignola, Serlio and Palladio. In addition to emphasising the significance and beauty of some of these texts, such as the edition of Vitruvius published by Cesare Cesariano in 1521 (the oldest book in the exhibition), this section also focuses on the way in which Renaissance painters such as El Greco used their illustrations to create the architectural backgrounds in their own compositions. This section also includes French, German and Spanish books on architecture and concludes with an area devoted to a small selection of books on public celebrations, which are unique witnesses to the spectacular temporary architectural structures designed for royal entries, canonisations, funerals, etc, by artists of the stature of Rubens and Valdés Leal.

The third section, Bibliotheca imaginis (Library of the Image) focuses on the important role that book illustrations played in European art in the early modern age. It includes drawing manuals, which were an essential element in artists’ training as they offered models for learning to draw the human figure step by step. Among them are the Principios by García Hidalgo (ca.1700), the most important and rarest of the Spanish manuals, produced in the final years of the Golden Age.

Books were of fundamental importance to painters as they constituted essential formal and iconographic sources for the creation of their own works. In this regard the exhibition offers a brief reflection on the genre of the portrait through three types of printed repertoires that were fundamental to the dissemination of formal models. Also on display are a number of books that are crucial to an understanding of the meaning of Renaissance and Baroque art, namely illustrated editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1595), Ripa’s Iconology (1603), and various important emblem books, whose contents inspired the iconography of numerous paintings in the Museo del Prado.

Books lie at the origins of numerous paintings and also function as unique witnesses to their subsequent critical fortunes. The most important cycles of European paintings were reproduced in print form and disseminated through sumptuous albums, while the first collections of paintings (firstly private, aristocratic and royal ones and later public collections) became known throughout Europe through books such as the Prodromus (1735), a copy of which brings the exhibition to a close. Having opened with the first great theoretical text that codified the principles of Renaissance painting – Alberti’s Pittura – the exhibition closes with the birth of the institution that marked the evolution of the visual arts in the modern age: the Museum.

The Prado Library

The Library of the Museo del Prado has grown considerably over the past first years, culminating in March 2009 with its move to a new location in the Casón del Buen Retiro. The reading room, beneath Luca Giordano’s painted ceiling, is the most visible manifestation of the higher profile that the Museum has given its library, archive and documentation services.

The Library has an important holding of around 4,500 early books on Art History, including some items of outstanding rarity and importance. They primarily entered the collection through the acquisition of private libraries, notably that of the lawyer and art historian José María Cervelló, in 2003, and that of the Madrazo family in 2006.

The Catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, which is the first publication on the holdings of the Museum’s Library. With 103 pages and 82 illustrations, it includes three introductory texts: “Early publications in the Library of the Museo del Prado: the formation of a collection”, by Javier Docampo, Head of the Library, Archive and Documentation Department of the Museum and curator of the exhibition; “The wide Horizons of Art Literature in the Golden Age” by Javier Portús, Head of Spanish Painting up to 1700 at the Museo del Prado; and “A brief Apology for Anecdote, or Vasari and literary Tradition” by José Riello, a member of the Museum’s Publication Department. In addition it has individual entries on the 40 items on display, written by the above-mentioned authors and by José Manuel Matilla, Head of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Museum, Javier de Blas, a member of that department, Ascensión Hernández, librarian at the UNED, and Elena Vázquez, a researcher at the Universidad Complutense.