The northern Ionic gallery of the Prado is filled with sculptures


Good connoisseurs of the history of the Prado Museum know that sculpture has been part of its collections since its very beginning, no matter how much we used to call it gallery: Founded as the Royal Museum of Paintings in 1819, only seven years elapsed until the Chamber sculptor José Álvarez Cubero was commissioned to select pieces to incorporate into his collections in the Royal Palaces. Valeriano Salvatierra would continue that task, adding works from different remittances, and in 1838 the first denomination of the center would include sculpture, officially opening some rooms focused on that discipline.

The Prado collections in three dimensions continued to be enriched in the second half of the 19th century, fundamentally from the award-winning works at the National Fine Arts Exhibitions; The catalog of his classical sculpture published by Emil Hübner dates back to 1862 and between 1878 and 1881 Alejandro Sureda would refurbish, to show it, two galleries that opened onto the façade of the first floor towards the Paseo del Prado, with large Ionic columns on the outside. Those spaces were added to various rooms on the ground floor of the Villanueva building, also used for these purposes, and in them the sculptures on pedestals and plaster corbels were shown, the material that was also used for the cartouches that we can still see over there.

Both galleries remained open until 1919 and now, a little over a century later, the Prado has recovered one of them, the one located on the north side, with bright natural light and whose architecture has been adapted for the occasion. We will access it from the Central Gallery and there we will find 56 pieces that stand out for their diversity and material richness and that in turn underline the relevance that Greco-Latin compositions acquired in the royal collections or those that, in the Renaissance and Baroque, evoked them .

Image from the Ionian Gallery. Photography: © Prado National Museum

Initially, these works belonged to four collections: that of the poet and diplomat Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (he was considered as a possible author of the Lazarillo de Tormes); that of Gaspar de Haro and Fernández de Córdoba, seventh Marquis of Carpio; that of Queen Cristina of Sweden, which would be acquired by Felipe V, and that of José Nicolás de Azara, who would grant Carlos IV his antiquities and finance the excavation of the Villa de los Pisoni, close to Villa Adriana. An excellent portrait of the latter, by Mengs, can also be seen in the Prado.

Most of the works now on display have been restored for the occasion and are dated between Egyptian antiquity and the late Baroque, although they are not shown chronologically, but instead focus on their technical or expressive relationships and also on the passionate and heterogeneous nature of royal collecting , as Manuel Arias, Head of the Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, underlined today (in addition, the three doors of the gallery have conditioned the discourse).

The set begins with an Egyptian group: two small heads and idols that were acquired by the Marquis del Carpio and that were made from archaeological fragments (pieces like these used to have long and uneven lives). Faced with their hieratic and frontal nature, the Greco-Latin works offer us faces that are often individualized, seeking their identification, or were sometimes presented as reliquaries.

Image from the Ionian Gallery.  Photography: © Prado National Museum
Image from the Ionian Gallery. Photography: © Prado National Museum

At the time they were placed at crossroads or gardens and later they went on to enrich libraries, they offer us a crude or idealized realism and also a stupendous representation of feminine hairstyles and masculine beards. We will find philosophers and writers like Homer, Xenophon or Sophocles; to the Empress Julia Domna, several portraits of ladies, Roman interpretations of Egyptian iconography and some animal, such as a bull from a Roman workshop, surely polychrome, which belonged to the Swedish monarch and which is extraordinary in its verismo; it was said in an inventory that it was so likely that some dogs, at first glance, barked at it. The replica is given by a white marble boar from the 17th century.

Roman workshop;  Italian anonymous.  Thoughtful Muse, 17th century.  Prado National Museum
Roman workshop; Italian anonymous. pensive muse, XVII century. Prado National Museum

From the Renaissance period, we will appreciate here medallions inspired by numismatics and intended for architectural ornamentation, large marble reliefs, such as that of Lucio Vero; round-shaped portraits of Julius Caesar or Cicero and the idealized one of Hermes-Antinous and, among the most recent pieces, will draw many glances The Grotto of Posilipo in Naplesmade of hard stones (this is a place of pilgrimage because Virgil is buried nearby), or a jellyfish of anonymous author that reproduces the one of Rondanini, of the Glyptoteca of Munich, praised this last one by Goethe. Extraordinary powers were attributed to his decapitated head, you know.

Italian anonymous.  Medusa, around 1770-1800.  Prado National Museum
Italian anonymous. jellyfish, around 1770-1800. Prado National Museum


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