Spanish royal collection

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A posthumous portrait of Maria Isabel in front of the Prado

The Spanish royal collection of art was almost entirely built up by the monarchs of the Habsburg family who ruled Spain from 1516 to 1700, and then the Bourbons (1700–1868, with a brief interruption). They included a number of kings with a serious interest in the arts, who were patrons of a series of major artists: Charles V and Philip II were patrons of Titian, Philip IV appointed Velázquez as court painter, and Goya had a similar role at the court of Charles IV.

The royal family were the most important patrons of Spanish art throughout this period, although some important artists including El Greco, Jusepe de Ribera, and Zurbaran were little patronised. Foreign artists were often imported, although even in the 16th century the most successful were often reluctant to go to Spain, partly because they feared they would never be allowed to leave.[1] In addition, at various periods, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, the monarchs bought paintings abroad on a significant scale, especially in Italy, but also the Spanish Netherlands and France. In early periods the scattered Spanish possessions included the important artistic centres of Milan, Naples and the Low Countries.

With the loss of the Low Countries as a result of the Peace of Utrecht, the Spanish crown developed tapestry manufacture in Madrid to avoid the need for imports of these luxury items. As a young man, Goya executed a number of tapestry designs for use in the royal palaces. Royal patronage was also used to develop other arts and crafts in Spain in the 18th century, for example the Real Fábrica de Cristales de La Granja produced luxury glass products.

The enormous collections have been significantly reduced by a series of fires, losses in the Napoleonic Wars and to a lesser extent the Spanish Civil War, and diplomatic gifts. The collections have passed to public ownership,[2] and a large number are on display at various locations. Although the collection is rightly most famous for its paintings, with the Prado in Madrid holding the main collection,[3] there are large holdings of sculpture, and most forms of the decorative arts. What is probably the world's finest collection of Renaissance Flemish tapestries is mostly displayed at the Palace of La Granja, and the collection of plate armour in the Armoury in the Royal Palace, Madrid is only rivalled by its equivalent in Vienna.[4]


Charles V[edit]

Few Spanish paintings are recorded in the collection that were owned before the Habsburg reigns. The c. 300 paintings owned by Isabella I of Castile (d. 1504) were dispersed in an auction after her death, with the paintings fetching very low prices compared to the many tapestries or her jewels and even clothes. For example, a painting by Hieronymous Bosch was valued at 170 maravedis, but a tapestry of Lazarus at 150,000. Some pieces were bought by the family, but her husband Ferdinand was mainly interested in the tapestries, paying 524,072 for two sets of four each, and buying the Lazarus piece at a lower price. Isabella's son-in-law Philip the Handsome (Charles V's father) bought the Polytych of Isabella of Castille a set of small religious paintings by Juan de Flandes that have mostly remained in the royal collection (now Royal Palace).[5] Juan was court painter for Isabella I of Castile from 1496, but all of his paintings in the Prado collection were acquired in the 20th century,[6]

The collection includes those parts taken to Spain in the 16th century of the collection of the Valois Dukes of Bugundy, whose heir was Charles V. The Early Netherlandish paintings were further reinforced in 1558 on the death of Charles V's sister, Mary of Hungary, shortly after her retirement as governor of the Netherlands. She was a keen collector whose heir was Philip II. Her legacy included the Deposition of Christ by Rogier van der Weyden (Prado), by then over a century old. She also had two dozen Titians.[7] Charles V was also the heir of his great-aunt Margaret of Austria (d. 1530), also governor of the Netherlands and a keen collector, though mostly of contemporary Netherlandish paintings. Her collection included the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, which left the collection in the Napoleonic Wars and is now in the National Gallery, London.

All of these additions from the Low Countries were probably valued more for their tapestries than their paintings. Charles V spent more on tapestries than paintings (like his contemporary Henry VIII), and commissioned them throughout his life, continuing the family tradition, and reflecting common royal preferences at the time.[8]

The largely German collections of Charles' grandfather Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor and the earlier Habsburgs mostly remained in Austria and Germany when in 1556 Charles V abdicated and divided his enormous realms between his brother, who became Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, and his son Philip, who received Spain, the Netherlands and the Habsburg possessions in Italy. They are now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and elsewhere.

Charles V was also a keen and discriminating collector, and his relentless travelling made him aware of the diversity of Renaissance art, above all that of Italy.[9] He was greatly impressed by a Titian portrait of the Duke of Mantua and his dog (c. 1529, Prado), and arranged for Titian to paint him, in Bologna in 1532, full-length and also with a hound (Prado). This was a repetition of a recent portrait (Vienna) by his brother's court painter Jakob Seisenegger, intended as a demonstration piece. This fully won Charles over, and from then on he never posed for any other portrait painter, as Vasari says, despite the difficulties in meeting Titian to pose.[10] His Equestrian Portrait of Charles V (Prado) set the standard for the genre, influencing later artists such as Anthony Van Dyck, Rubens, and Goya. But the Milan-based sculptor Leone Leoni, assisted by his son Pompeo, occupied from 1546 an equivalent position in sculpture;[11] there are full and half-length bronze portrait sculptures of Charles in the Prado, as well as medals and engraved gems. The Dutch painter Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen was mostly used to record Charles's military victories, especially in designs for large tapestries, and Charles took him on his campaign to Tunis.[12]

Philip II[edit]

Charles's son Philip II of Spain was devoted to his father's memory,[13] and probably more interested in art than his father; certainly he commissioned and bought much more, and by the end of his life the collection included some 1,500 paintings,[14] and about 700 tapestries.[15] He took over Charles's key artists, Titian and the Leonis, and commissioned the famous and now dispersed series of mythological paintings known as the poesie, which represent some of his finest late works. Of these six or seven paintings, only one at most of the prime versions remained in the collection until transfer to the Prado; five are now in the United Kingdom, and one in the United States.[16]

In 1561 Philip established Madrid as the capital of Spain, something his father had planned but never implemented. He also began to construct a massive monument to his father and the other Spanish Habsburgs at El Escorial, whose building and decoration was to be the major artistic project of his reign.


Vincente Poleró y Toledo, 1881, The chamber of Philip IV in the Buen Retiro Royal Palace. An imagined recreation of a scene of c. 1670, showing paintings now mostly in the Prado, presumably based on early catalogues. There are many by Velázquez, including Las Meninas.[17]

In June 1561 Philip II set his court in Madrid, installing it in the Alcázar, which became home to a huge art collection. The monarchy continued to use other palaces. A new palace was begun in 1563 when the corner-stone was laid of El Escorial, a combined monastery and palace in the mountains to the north of the capital.

In 1734 the Alcázar was destroyed by fire along with many works of art.

The Prado[edit]

Many of the finest paintings from the former Spanish royal collection are housed in the Museo del Prado, Spain's national art museum. This institution was opened to the public as an art gallery in 1819 in an initiative associated with Queen Maria Isabel. Having been a royal museum (Museo real de pinturas),[18] the Prado was nationalised in 1868 as a consequence of the deposition of Queen Isabel II.

To mark the 200th anniversary of the Prado, the Hall of Realms, a surviving 17th-century wing of the Buen Retiro Palace, is being redeveloped as part of the campus of the museum. Originally, the Hall housed large paintings from the royal collection. Some of these, such as equestrian portraits of the family of Philip IV, are now in the Prado.[19] While in theory these paintings could be restored to their original location, this would disrupt the layout of key galleries of the Prado,[20] and other uses are currently envisaged for the Hall of Realms.

Royal sites[edit]

The Royal Collections Museum

The heritage agency Patrimonio Nacional looks after a number of royal sites in Spain and the art works in them.[21] A new museum in Madrid, the Royal Collections Museum, has been built in the 21st century on a site near the Palacio Real and the Royal Armoury in order to display material from the royal collections which is in the care of Patrimonio Nacional. The Palacio Real contains numerous artworks including frescoes by Tiepolo and a unique set of Stradivarius instruments known as the Stradivarius Palatinos. Once the new museum is open, the three buildings will be complementary in a way arguably comparable to the triangle of art of the Paseo del Prado. The chronological framework of the new museum is from the Middle Ages to the reign of Juan Carlos I.

Patrimonio Nacional has a tradition of organising temporary exhibitions, for example in 2019 it mounted an exhibition about Alfonso XIII's humanitarian intervention in the First World War.[22] It expects to change regularly the exhibits in the new museum.


In 1604 much of the secondary royal palace of El Pardo, then just outside Madrid, was destroyed in a fire. Many paintings were rescued, but the group of important royal portraits by Titian and others in the "Hall of Kings" were mounted on the walls by stucco frames, and could not be taken out in time. Philip III ordered the room to be reconstituted, with Juan Pantoja de la Cruz set to producing new versions of the paintings from the sources available to him.[23]

The Torre de la Parada, then just north of Madrid, was a large hunting lodge started by Charles V and greatly expanded by Philip IV. As such the extreme formality of the main royal palaces was relaxed there. The relatively informal Velázquez royal portraits in hunting clothes, and mock-heroic portraits of court dwarves and jesters, were painted for it, and also a huge series of 60 mythological subjects by Rubens and his workshop, from which 40 of the paintings and over 50 of Rubens' oil sketches survive (Prado).[24] The palace was mostly destroyed by fire when taken in 1714 by Austrian troops in the War of Spanish Succession, remaining only as ruins.[25] But much of the portable art had already been removed to other palaces.

The first main home of the collection, the Alcázar of Madrid, was completely destroyed by fire in 1734, with great losses. Some paintings, such as Las Meninas were rescued, in that case by cutting it from its frame and dropping it out of a window. Some paintings had already been installed in the Buen Retiro Palace on the other side of the city centre.

The Spanish Habsburgs ruled Portugal from 1581 to 1640 (under Philips II to IV), and Philip II in particular gave the main Lisbon residence the Ribeira Palace much art, including a large ceiling by Titian. This and most of its other art was lost in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which largely destroyed the palace.

Wellington Collection[edit]

Some 80 paintings from the former Spanish royal collection are in the Wellington Collection in London. These were being taken from Spain by the French when they were captured by the British army at the Battle of Vitoria. They were subsequently gifted to the British general Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Fernando VII, and are kept at Apsley House, the London home of the Dukes of Wellington, where they are mainly on public display.[26]


  1. ^ Trevor-Roper, 45
  2. ^ Vanderhoof, Erin (August 2020). "Spain's former king Juan Carlos was never supposed to leave the country". Vanity Fair.
  3. ^ Prado; collection overview
  4. ^ Philippe de Montebello, "Introduction", p. 8, in Resplendence of the Spanish Monarchy: Renaissance Tapestries and Armor from the Patrimonio Nacional, by Antonio Domínguez Ortiz, Concha Herrero Carretero, José-A. Godoy, 1991, Metropolitan Museum of Art, ISBN 0870996215, 9780870996214, fully online
  5. ^ Chemades, 41–42
  6. ^ Catalogo, 113–114
  7. ^ Trevor-Roper, 41, 73–74
  8. ^ Chemades, 42–44
  9. ^ Trevor-Roper, 12–15
  10. ^ Trevor-Roper, 25–26, 31–32
  11. ^ Trevor-Roper, 28–30
  12. ^ Trevor-Roper, 28
  13. ^ Trevor-Roper, 49
  14. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of Art, 3rd edn, 2004, p. 323, OUP, ISBN 0198604769, 9780198604761, google books
  15. ^ Chemades, 44
  16. ^ Trevor-Roper, 52
  17. ^ The chamber of Philip IV in the Buen Retiro Royal Palace, Prado
  18. ^ Marks (April 2019). "The Prado at 200". Apollo.
  19. ^ Sánchez, Alfonso E. Pérez (January 1, 2003)."Velázquez, Diego". Grove Art Online (subscription required)
  20. ^ "The Prado presents the newly re-hung Velázquez rooms". 2010. Retrieved 2020-08-25.
  21. ^ "Patrimonio Nacional". Retrieved 2020-08-15.
  22. ^ Olaya, Vicente G. (2018-11-09). "A king with a mission: the humanitarian deeds of Alfonso XIII during the Great War". El País. ISSN 1134-6582. Retrieved 2020-08-15.
  23. ^ Prado, "The Emperor Charles V"
  24. ^ "Rubens y la Torre de la Parada", by Alejandro Vergara, Prado. See also Svetlana Alpers, The Decoration of the Torre de la Parada, Phaidon Press, 1971, summary
  25. ^ Aerial photo from El Pardo site
  26. ^ "The story of the collection". Wellington Collection. Retrieved 2020-08-19.


  • "Catalogo": Museo del Prado, Catálogo de las pinturas, 1996, Ministerio de Educación y Cultura, Madrid, ISBN 8487317537
  • Cremades, Fernando Checa; Fernández–González, Laura (eds), Festival Culture in the World of the Spanish Habsburgs, 2016, Routledge, ISBN 131713561X, 9781317135616, google books
  • The Prado Guide, 2012, Museo Nacional del Prado, ISBN 9788484801665
  • Trevor-Roper, Hugh; Princes and Artists, Patronage and Ideology at Four Habsburg Courts 1517–1633, Thames & Hudson, London, 1976, ISBN 0500232326

Further reading[edit]

  • Ortiz, Antonio Domínguez; Carretero, Concha Herrero; Godoy, José-A., Resplendence of the Spanish Monarchy: Renaissance Tapestries and Armor from the Patrimonio Nacional, 1991, Metropolitan Museum of Art, ISBN 0870996215, 9780870996214, google books