Postcards from Valencia, Spain: Wrapping up a few more museums

The façade of a Gothic palace disguised by numerous layers of ostentatious additions of Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and maybe even Oriental decorations through the centuries houses the National Museum of Ceramics and Decorative Arts in Valencia. A prominent location and the sheer audacity of its exterior ornamentation attract crowds to the museum. Aside from a set of china with fanciful animals that I loved, the museum overall resembles a beautifully iced flavorless cake. This sounds harsh, but, if time is limited, we would recommend a trip to the under-visited House Museum José Benlliure instead.

The palace of Saint Pius V above the Turia River provides huge galleries for displaying several centuries of Spanish art, beginning with a collection of huge Gothic retablos. El Museo de Bellas Artes includes works by Velazquez, Goya, Sorolla and Valencian hometown favorites, the Ribaltas.

Sixty days after Easter, the doors of the Corpus Christi Museum swing open so the rocas, massive wooden floats about 500 years old, can be rolled out for the annual parades celebrating the feast day. Horses haul the floats over the cobblestones, the faithful bear heavy statues atop their shoulders and gigantes, 16-foot figures representing Catholics from around the world, are part of the religious fanfare. As our timing was off for the event, we visited the carriage house, Casa de las Rocas, built in the 1400s specifically to house the floats. The parade-in-a-box leaves no spare space, but the jammed together festival props provide a sense of the ancient enduring traditions.

We also left three days before the opening of PhotOn Festival, the International Festival of Photojournalism spread mounted in several venues in Valencia. When we entered the cloisters of Centro Cultural La Nau, workers were installing large prints by Joseph Eid and Natalia Sancha for “Those Who Stay.”

While the original founding bank might have floundered when the real estate bubble burst, a palace of art remains. The spacious galleries of the Centro Cultural Bancaja are operated by a nonprofit foundation. Portraits by British artist Julian Opie were featured. We found them somewhat hypnotic despite their pared down, cartoonish lines and a peculiar flatness. Several of the large illuminated portraits of individuals featured subtle movements. The hands of a watch might move once a minute, or dot-like eyes might blink about as often as you do.

Opie’s video below made me feel as though I was relaxing at a café watching a parade of people passing by on their way to work – a kind of boulevardier spirit we cultivate while traveling.

Postcard from Modena, Italy: How Modena ended up with the Estense family art

A short train ride to Modena helped us tidy up a few of the loose ends lingering from the Machiavellian soap opera of long ago we began unraveling in Ferrara. For us, the main mystery was the art missing from the walls of Ferrara’s castle and palaces.

Surely you remember all the details and intrigue surrounding the Este family of Ferrara from an earlier post, so we’ll just pick up with the ducal reign of Alfonso I (1476-1534), the one who was the final husband of Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519). Alfonso I continued to remodel the castle in Ferrara, adding expansive wings to reflect his ducal power and building up the family’s art collection.

Following his death, the dukedom passed down to his son Ercole II (1508-1559). Still smarting from the trio of pesky Italian Wars in the first decade or so of the 1500s during which King Louis XII of France wrenched control of parts of Italy, some of the powerful were miffed when Ercole II had married Louis XII’s daughter Renee (1510-1574) in the year 1528. Renee assembled an artistic court around her that the same people regarded as too French-centric.

But Ercole II patched things up with Rome, if not his wife, when he inherited the title of duke from his father in 1534. He expelled the French coterie and pledged his allegiance to the pope. Maintaining the guests had been expensive, and Ercole II preferred to continue to enhance the castle in Ferrara and to accumulate artwork.

Among those to whom Renee turned for comfort was John Calvin (1509-1564), who was quickly assembling a major coalition of enemies in Rome. But Ercole II was so loyal to the papacy, in 1554 he turned his own wife into the Inquisitor for her Protestant tendencies.

(Sorry, we’re still not in Modena yet. But this is complicated.)

When Ercole II died in 1559, their son Alfonso II (1533-1597) assumed the title of Duke of Ferrara. The pope immediately required him to banish his mother Renee to France, where she was able to resume her Protestant friendships. Alfonso II tried and tried through three marriages to produce an Este heir without luck. At the time of his death not even an illegitimate child could be rounded up to follow him.

While the Roman Emperor recognized his cousin Cesare (1561-1628) as his successor, the Vatican did not. In the meantime, Alfonso II’s sister, Lucrezia d’Este (1535-1598) was conspiring with papal powers. Lucrezia had never forgiven her brother for having her lover assassinated to end her scandalous behavior. Cesare d’Este was forced to pack up his court and flee Ferrara. The now pious Lucrezia turned the castle keys over to papal powers.

Instead, Cesare assumed the title of Duke of Modena and Reggio. Most of the Este treasures were spirited away by Cesare and moved with a large contingent of Este family members and hangers-on to Modena. Which solves the mystery of the missing artwork. As you can imagine, some of the Modenese were not pleased with the Ferrarese invasion, but Cesare masterfully managed to consolidate his power.

Construction of the Palazzo Ducale of Modena was begun in 1630, with an older medieval building at its core. While I’m not sure of the square footage, the new Este compound appears both larger and grander than the one left behind in Ferrara.

After Italy finally attained unity in 1861, the ducal art collections were moved to Palazzo dei Musei, formerly a hospice for the poor. The Estense Gallery was opened to the public in 1894.

Artists represented in the collection include Correggio, Tintoretto and Velazquez. Several amazingly ornate instruments indicate the Este family patronized the musical arts as well.

This collage shows the Ducal Palace (featured photo), some items from the museum and random sites in the historic center of Modena, the home of flavorful aged balsamic vinegar.

Postcard from Madrid, Spain: Mentioning a few more museums

A month in Madrid, and we never ran out of museums. Doing a round-up of a few remaining ones so you can see how inexhaustible the supply.

El Museo del Romanticismo is one of several house museums positioning art and collections as though the owners still were present. A glimpse into gender expectations was provided in the toy room: a display case of toy soldiers for boys, a dollhouse full of nuns for girls.

The ballroom of Museo Cerralbo is over the top even for extravagant residences of the 19th century.

A glimpse into an artist’s life and work is provided in the Museo Sorolla. Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) preferred to paint his subjects en plein air, trying to capture sunlight instead of artificial light.

Oh, and then there are Goya’s ceiling frescoes and his tomb in San Antonio de la Florida….

And a large collection of art resides in the Museum of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, or Bellas Artes, because one reason Spain has produced such great artists is the country offered them support. Velazquez painted the royals; Picasso and Dali studied at the academy; and Goya was a director of the Bellas Artes. No photographs were allowed here, but the museum’s labels clearly indicate the politics of art. A Napoleonic tradition of systematically looting art was in play. Many of the pieces hanging on the walls of Bellas Artes are listed as having been retrieved from France after the final eviction of Joseph Bonaparte and the restoration of Ferdinand VII’s rule in the early 1800s.