Madrid’s Desperate Romantics

At the turn of the 21st century, Madrid’s Museo Romantico closed for restoration. I don’t think many people noticed, to be honest. Like in most cities, the big three or four museums are always crowded, mostly with people who wouldn’t dream of going to an exhibition of anything in their home towns, while the smaller institutions get about three visitors a week. Renamed, more accurately, the Museo del Romanticismo, it reopened in 2009 after a bit of a revamp. They’d jiggled things around a bit, given everything a polish, added lots of new stuff and opened a great café too. Altogether it’s a much livelier place now and attracts a lot more visitors.

I was thrilled because two of my favourite paintings are on display there, and have been moved to the Larra room. This is a space devoted to the satirist Mariano Jose de Larra, who shot himself on February 13, 1837 at the age of 28 in a fit of pique after being dumped by his lover. Desperate indeed. In an article published in 1833, Larra wrote about the mañana mentality that the Spanish are now trying to shake off, also rather desperately. Titled “Come Back Tomorrow”, the story tells of a foreigner who arrives in Madrid to sort out some family business and see the sights, which he reckons will take about a fortnight. After a year and a half, he gives up.

The Larra room displays two duelling pistols, one of which he used to kill himself, and also two small paintings by Leonardo Alenza, both called Satire of the Romantic Suicide. One shows a deranged straggly-haired man in a nightshirt either about to stab himself or jump off a cliff, or quite possibly both. In the background, a man hangs from a tree, before whom a distraught figure kneels in a pool of blood. The other shows a man with a skeletal face, pressing a pistol to his chin. Above him, a glassy-eyed woman looks up to the sky.

The Romantic movement got underway in Spain in the 1820s, and lasted for about 50 years, flourishing during the reign of fun-loving Isabel II and dying out after the queen was ousted in the 1868 revolution. Artists and writers took advantage of the Liberal political situation to escape the constraints of academicism and do their own thing creatively.

One of the  leading Romantics was the Marquis of Vega-Inclan, whose house this was. Quite a lot of the exhibits come from his somewhat bonkers collections.  A maverick aristocrat, he was an early pioneer of Spanish tourism, and was responsible for the reconstruction of the Santa Cruz quarter in Seville, the El Greco house in Toledo and the Cervantes house in Valladolid. Later in his life, he came up with idea of turning dilapidated historic buildings into hotels, which was the seedbed for the Paradors now found throughout Spain.

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