Construction of El Prado Museum Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On the orders of King Charles III, the renowned neoclassical architect Juan de Villanueva began construction of a building for a museum of natural history. After years of intervening war, the structure was rehabilitated and inaugurated as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, popularly known as El Prado, in 1819. It became the repository of much of the artistic wealth gathered by the Spanish monarchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Summary of Event

November 19, 1819, marks the inauguration of the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture, better known as El Prado El Prado Museum, Madrid Prado, El, Museum, Madrid (the meadow) because of the meadow surrounding the building. With one of the world’s most renowned collections of European Renaissance and neoclassical art, the museum building Architecture;Spain itself also was hailed as a masterpiece, impressively echoing the architecture of classical antiquity. [kw]Construction of El Prado Museum Begins (1785) [kw]Begins, Construction of El Prado Museum (1785) [kw]Museum Begins, Construction of El Prado (1785) [kw]Prado Museum Begins, Construction of El (1785) [kw]El Prado Museum Begins, Construction of (1785) El Prado Museum, Madrid Museums;Spain [g]Spain;1785: Construction of El Prado Museum Begins[2580] [c]Organizations and institutions;1785: Construction of El Prado Museum Begins[2580] [c]Art;1785: Construction of El Prado Museum Begins[2580] [c]Architecture;1785: Construction of El Prado Museum Begins[2580] Charles III (1716-1788) Villanueva, Juan de Bragança, Maria Isabel de Mengs, Anton Raphael

The inauguration of the museum came after many years of tumult in Spain. Construction began at the end of 1785 by order of King Charles III. However, numerous crises intervened to delay the eventual opening. In 1808, Napoleon I invaded Spain and installed his brother as king. The rightful Spanish monarch, Ferdinand VII, was imprisoned in France. A bloody war to liberate Spain from French control soon followed, lasting until 1814; Ferdinand then returned to Spain. Two years later, he married the Portuguese princess, Maria Isabel de Bragança, who became an advocate for establishing a museum to consolidate and display the royal collections of artworks.

El Prado was initially intended as a museum not for the fine arts but for the natural sciences. Natural history collections Charles III, the Spanish monarch who was the most assiduous follower of the Enlightenment, Enlightenment;Spain was committed to establishing institutions that fostered scientific and cultural activities. Thus, he supported academies, schools, museums, gardens, and an astronomical observatory. As king in Naples, he had established a museum for the recently discovered ruins of Pompeii. As king of Spain, he came to be known as “the best mayor of Madrid” because of the many urban amenities he contributed to the city.

To carry out his many construction projects, Charles engaged the most illustrious architects of Spanish neoclassicism. Neoclassicism;architecture Architecture;neoclassicism Most prominent among these was architect Juan de Villanueva, born into a family of noted artists: His father was a sculptor, and his older brother was an architect. Villanueva’s career advanced when he became architect for repairs and maintenance of the historical Hieronymite church and monastery, situated then just outside the city. Affiliated with the royal court, the monastery gave Villanueva access to King Charles III, who recognized his talent and designated him chief architect.

The Hieronymite monastery housed the hermit monks of the order of St. Jerome and had been built in isolated meadowland. The monastery was an austere retreat from the daily cares of the world. However, the area around it came to be considered a place of bucolic refuge for the court at the royal palace just over a mile away. It was near the Hieronymite, therefore, that King Philip IV built a luxurious new palace, the Palácio de Buen Retiro (Palace of Pleasant Retreat), in the seventeenth century. Mounted in architectural splendor, it was filled with sumptuous collections of art and surrounded by alluring gardens, fountains, and promenades.

The south facade of the El Prado Museum, c. 1860-1880.

(Library of Congress)

When Charles III entered Madrid as king in 1759, it was in this city that the enlightened monarch would decide to lay out a complex of buildings and grounds for scientific research and study. Along with his advisers, he planned botanical gardens for living nature, a science museum for nonliving nature, and an astronomical observatory. Villanueva completed his designs for the science museum in 1785, and they were quickly approved by Charles; construction began the same year.

Villanueva envisioned a building that continues to impress its visitors. He laid it out on a north-south axis. The west entrance brought one to the central portion, a domed basilica, from which cascaded abundant natural light flooding the heart of the building. From this center, two galleries extend north and south, their ceilings arched, admitting a further flow of light and prompting a subtle play of shadows. Each of the galleries ends in an elegant salon.

The aesthetic balance of the environment was achieved not only by the integrated flow of light but also by the serene, austere design. Using stone and brick, Villanueva followed strict standards of structure and motifs from classical antiquity. Visitors, advancing through the building, encounter an environment both luminous and tranquil, monumental and intimate.

Construction progressed until 1788, when Charles III died. Villanueva became occupied with numerous other commissions and responsibilities, including the observatory. The independence wars at the beginning of the following century ruined most of what had been impressively completed of the building until then. The structure became a stable and storehouse, and many of the building’s parts were vandalized or stolen.

In this lamentable state and with the return of Ferdinand VII, the building received the attention of his second wife, Maria Isabel de Bragança. She encouraged the building’s housing the royal collections of paintings and sculptures, since they were now being retrieved, restored, and augmented after years of war and exile. In 1819, a year after her death, the royal art museum opened to the public (initially on Tuesdays only) with a stunning collection of more than three hundred works.


El Prado Museum arose during an eighteenth century filled with enlightened monarchs, and even despots, who called for neoclassical architecture and design as a secular aesthetic representing social harmony and balance. The courts displayed their wealth and power to the public, and their subjects, through these spaces. By sponsoring art academies that would produce painters, sculptors, and scholars trained in and committed to this cultural wealth, it also became necessary to assemble collections of art to support such study. The holdings of El Prado derived from a monarchy that from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth century attracted and sustained the leading artists of Western Europe.

Nonetheless, it is not the quantity of works in El Prado but the extraordinary quality of its holdings and its elegant setting that have drawn the most admiration. El Prado is dense with iconic masterpieces, including Titian’s Titian stalwart portrait of Emperor Charles V, Pieter Brueghel’s Brueghel, Pieter minuscule drama of The Triumph of Death, the chaste sensuality of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer, Dürer, Albrecht the diminutive intricacy of The Maids of Honor by Diego Velázquez, Velázaquez, Diego and the luminous horror of Francisco de Goya’s Goya, Francisco de war paintings.

El Prado and its collections have survived a harrowing history. The three decades from the museum’s construction to its inauguration included the savage battles for Spanish independence. Further tumult threatened during the Carlist Succession Wars in the nineteenth century, and the Spanish Civil War and World War II in the twentieth. Only in recent decades, nestled now in the heart of the city that has expanded well beyond El Prado’s walls, has the museum come to enjoy an environment of stability and renown.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alcolea i Blanch, Santiago, and Gabriel Martín. The Prado Museum. 2d rev. ed. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2002. A sumptuous illustrated catalog of holdings of El Prado Museum, with a masterful historical essay by scholars of Spanish art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herr, Richard A. The Eighteenth-Century Revolution in Spain. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. A reissue of a detailed scholarly analysis of intellectual life in Spain under the Bourbon Dynasty and during the Enlightenment. Includes an authoritative bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hull, Anthony H. Charles III and the Revival of Spain. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980. Exceptional scholarly study that examines the details of the interrelated cultural, socioeconomic, political, and military objectives and accomplishments of the reign of Charles III.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">López Torrijos, Rosa. Mythology and History in the Great Paintings of the Prado. London: Scala, 1999. Examining El Prado masterpieces of Spanish, Italian, and Flemish painting during seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this work analyzes themes of classical mythology and portrayals of history. Includes color illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petrie, Charles. King Charles III of Spain: An Enlightened Despot. New York: John Day, 1971. Work by an English scholar that examines Charles III as an exceptionally effective Spanish monarch, particularly his role in determining intellectual, cultural, and educational developments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Stanley J., and Barbara H. Stein. Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759-1789. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Recent authoritative reassessment by noted scholars of late Spanish imperial revival under Charles III. The sequel to the authors’ Silver, Trade, and War: Spain and America in the Making of Early Modern Europe (2000).

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Categories: History