Paseo Del Prado: An Imprint of Madrid’s Historical Heritage

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An Imprint of Madrid’s Historical Heritage

From the Age of Enlightenment to Plan Especial Recoletos-Prado


This research looks at one of the grandest boulevards in Spain, if not in the world, Paseo del Prado in the city of Madrid. The purpose of the study is to examine its historical context, urban functions, as well as its relationship to the landscape, monuments and museums in the area. Specifically, the study involves analyzing Prado museum and relevant art objects through their cultural and artistic influences within the context of Spanish Enlightenment. By studying the above, this paper will then discuss a recent controversial project, the Recoletos-Prado Special Plan that was first proposed by the City Council in 2005; and argue that the proposal is ambitious yet unfinished – it needs to study the existing heritage in greater depth and let the citizens involve better.


Paseo del Prado is an urban imprint of Madrid’s historical heritage

it provides setting for institutions to demonstrate their artistic/cultural wealth;

It generates urban spaces for local citizens as well as tourists to enjoy.


In order to illustrate the significance of Paseo del Prado throughout the history, it is necessary to examine the historical contexts it has been in. To begin with, the city of Madrid is a relatively young capital; it became the capital of Spain in the sixteenth century, where the Habsburg dynasty reached the peak of its power and influence.[1] Towards the end of seventeenth century, Spain started to decline in terms of economy as well as military power, as ruled by a weak King, Charles II.[2] However the biggest influence, perhaps more indirect than direct, that Charles II had on Spain was the fact that he was not able to leave a successor. The result of which is his nephew, later known as Philip V, a French born House of Bourbon member, ascended the throne.[3] Having the first Bourbon ruler in Spain, it was easy for the rest of Europe to anticipate the close ties between the two nations; and that the union of the two under a single monarch would without a doubt become a huge threat to them, hence the War of the Spanish Succession (fig. 1).[4] Yet in the same period, an extremely high proportion of scientific activity during the Enlightenment was linked to Madrid because of the French King. The expansion of science was closely linked to the city, as seen in the opening out of the Paseo del Prado which was achieved by widening the public space by placing fashionable boulevards where the city walls once stood.

Nevertheless, from a cultural and scientific perspective, Philip V was indeed an important factor of the spread of Enlightenment in Spain. The influx of French goods, ideas and books encouraged scientific and empirical thoughts in an effort to remodel Spanish government, infrastructure and institutions in a more modern fashion. Paseo del Prado was naturally improved in such direction as well: not only the streetscape conditions were improved; numerous scientific, academic institutions were also introduced along the sides of the avenue.[5] By 1780 the Paseo del Prado has become an area devoted to cultural ends. The location of the new scientific buildings at such an elegant site reveals how scientists were earning public credit for the renewal of the monarchy's image.[6] On the other hand, according to Stewart, despite the mentioned fact that the Enlightenment idea left an impact on the development of the Paseo, it is worth noting that the modern idea was still somewhat suppressed by the conservatives; and the top of Spanish social structure by 1780s was still the nobility and the church.[7] This is also evident in the later discussion of the Prado Museum. Nonetheless, both Noel and Stewart’s statements share the same acknowledgement: that Madrid is full of historical marks and there are traces all over the city that lead back to their origins.

The next question to answer is: within the Enlightenment context, how did the Paseo and its institutions evolve, particularly from an urban planning standpoint? In the magazine History Today, Charles C. Noel provided an informative description of Madrid’s urban development around the Enlightenment era. He stated that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the inner part of the city had remained its baroque appearance for the most part; the majority of the development was rather concentrated on the peripheral of the city, commissioned by the crown and the municipal government.[8] Paseo del Prado, being on the east border of the city, was part of this development (fig. 2). As new neighborhoods were being built up near the city wall, numerous wide paved roads including del Prado were laid down to provide transformation to the interior city.[9] These roads featured multiple rows of trees along with hardscape elements such as sculptures and fountains, similar in appearance to its current state. According to Noel, when the crown and the municipal government built the Paseo, they wished to achieved three objectives: “to beautify Madrid and make it a more magnificent capital, worthier of its king and empire”; “to afford comfortable, safe, decent and well-ordered open spaces in which Madrid's citizens would gather and entertain themselves”; and “to provide an appropriately handsome setting for some of the most prominent new institutions of the Enlightenment in Madrid.”[10] The result was more than fruitful: the Paseo provided a great setting for institutions to demonstrate Spanish artistic and cultural wealth. It was and still is one of the favorite spots for citizens and tourists to stroll around (fig. 3). As a matter of fact, as Cathryn Griffith pointed out, the promenade idea was so inspirational that it was later implemented in Cuba as well, under the exact same name Paseo del Prado, yet in this case, in Havana (fig. 4).[11] They share similar urban functions of providing generous and enjoyable spaces for citizens and tourists. The major difference being the one in Havana has mostly hotels, cinemas, theaters and mansions along its sides, in contrast to the cultural institutions in Madrid.

Prado Museum

After examining the Paseo at an urban scale, it is also beneficial to take a closer look at its institutions at the building scale, specifically, the Prado museum. The design of the façade features rows of columns, elongated windows and blind panels in a very organized manner, also has no clear indication of access to its interior. It was designed in neoclassical style with a rather domestic appearance that fitted well on the Paseo (fig. 5). In her book A History of Visual Culture, Susan Bakewell analyzed the Prado museum in details as a mean of branding for Spain.[12] As she described it, the museum is a “quintessential” Enlightenment institution that plays a key role in cultural, economic, political and social spheres.[13] The Prado museum when compared with other younger museums is considered “venerable and traditional” even today.

Although it was the first ever art museum in Spain that is open to public, the very first planning of this building was not for art collection, but natural science.[14] Charles III initially intended the building around 1776, to be designed by architect Juan de Villanueva.[15] In addition, Charles III and his reformist chief minister, José Moñino, planned to establish a wide range of institutions that are supportive to the Enlightenment, including the Science Academy, the Prado, an astronomical observatory, a museum of machines and the Academy of Fine Arts.[16] After putting much effort into culminating the Enlightenment idea however, the construction of the Prado museum (Natural History museum at the time) was unfortunately interrupted by the Napoleonic War and Charles III’s death.[17] The setbacks were then followed by a change in the museum’s use. The monarch’s grandson, Ferdinand VII, decided to change it from science to a royal art museum, which later opened to public in 1819.[18] This somewhat proves that although Enlightenment was a major influence in Madrid, the crown and the nobility were still at the top of the social hierarchy. And as claimed by Bakewell, Spain at that time needed to showcase it’s national wealth, both in science and art, to prove it was of equal merit to the rest of the European nations.[19] The extremely rich and representative collection of the Prado did serve the need particularly well. I could not agree more with her statement on the symbolic meaning of the Prado:

“Shucking the constraints of the recent past, Spain began to invoke a distant and glorious heritage by investing in cultural institutions, most notably the Prado. ... The Prado represents a nationalizing collection, in the sense that its origins and expansions are tied to Spain’s history and identity.”

Influence of the Enlightenment is also evident among the museum’s art collection. For example, as seen in the painting Industry by Francisco Goya (fig. 6), there are two young women working on their tapestry wheels in a factory setting with enthusiasm and energy. The subject was chose by the owner himself, Manuel Godoy, to present his enlightened politician image.[20] Another vivid painting, Boys Playing with a Cat, by Jose del Castillo (fig. 7) depicts a childhood scene in which three well-dressed boys are playing with a cat. In addition, there are drawings on the wall and one of the boys’ lap, as well as a figure plaster sculpture in the foreground; all of which are promoting intellectual activity for children such as outdoor playing.[21] In short, most displays in the Prado museum either attest to the royal patronage, or reflect the current ideology in the local context, such as the Enlightenment. To a certain extent, the collections can be perceived as Spain’s history captured in canvas/plaster. They are all products of the cultural, social, political and economical situations in which they were produced in, just like the Paseo and the Prado, only at a micro scale.

Being an urban imprint of Madrid’s historical heritage of course doesn’t simply stop at the age of Enlightenment. As time goes by new history is constantly being written. How Paseo del Prado ought to adapt to the changes is not an easy question. For example, in Bieder’s review of Cultivating Madrid: Public Space and Middle-Class Culture in the Spanish Capital, he discussed and explored the relationship between public space like Paseo del Prado and the middle classes. “The new urban spaces carved out of the former royal preserves and now open to the middle classes turn out to construct ‘nature’ as rigidly as other spaces and social practices that constrict the lives of the middle class.”[22] These sorts of social and urban issues are often complicated and difficult to deal with in a short amount of time.

Another controversial project that is worth examining is Plan Especial Recoletos-Prado, a reform and revitalization of the Paseo del Prado and the Paseo de Recoletos. This project was authored by Álvaro Siza and several other international architects. It was approved by the city council on 23 June 2005. Its environmental impact study is still underway and reconstruction has not been initiated. The proposal intends to extend the existing sidewalks, reduce vehicular traffic, and install new dedicated bike paths. While the above might sound good on paper, most citizens argue otherwise in the proposal post on the government website. Some of the reasons include Importance of tourism to the city

Restoration and preservation of the traditional, neoclassical appearance.

historical memorymodernize everything is a realbarbarism

However one thing that we can be certain about is, any expansion or modification to the past will always be accompanied by controversy. Only with diligent research of the past, throughout survey among the public and pr



Alcolea I Blanch, Santiago. The Prado. New York: Abrams, 1991.

Bieder, Maryellen. "Review: Cultivating Madrid: Public Space and Middle-Class Culture in the Spanish Capital." Iberoamericana 10, no. 38 (June 2001): 221-223.

Buendía, J. Rogelio. A Basic Guide to the Prado. Spain: Madrid Silex, 1981.

Buendía, J. Rogelio. Paintings of the Prado. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

Editorial. "Museums in Madrid." The Burlington Magazine 134, no. 1076 (November 1992): 697.

Griffith, Cathryn. Havan Revisited: an Architectural Heritage. New York: W.W. Norton& Co., 2010.

Kromm, Jane, and Susan Benforado Bakewell. A History of Visual Culture : Western Civilization from the 18th to the 21st Century. New York: Berg, 2010.

Lafuente, Antonio, and Tiago Saraiva. "The Urban Scale of Science and the Enlargement of Madrid." Social Studies of Science 34, no. 4 (2004): 531-569.

López Torrijos, Rosa. Mythology & History in the Great Paintings of the Prado. London: Scala Books, 1998.

Noel, Charles C. "Madrid: city of the Enlightenment." History Today 45, no. 10 (1995): 26(7).

Pallucchini, Anna, Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, and Licia Ragghianti Collobi. Prado, Madrid. New York: Newsweek, 1968.

Stewart, Jules. Madrid: the History. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012.

[1] Jules Stewart, Madrid: the History (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 75.

[2] Ibid., 77.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Charles C Noel, "Madrid: city of the Enlightenment," (History Today 45, no. 10, 1995), 27.

[6] Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell, A History of Visual Culture: Western Civilization from the 18th to the 21st Century, (New York: Berg, 2010), 211.

[7] Jules Stewart, Madrid: the History (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 96.

[8] Charles C Noel, "Madrid: city of the Enlightenment," (History Today 45, no. 10, 1995), 27.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cathryn Griffith, Havana Revisited: an Architectural Heritage, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), 181.

[12] Jane Kromm and Susan Benforado Bakewell, A History of Visual Culture: Western Civilization from the 18th to the 21st Century, (New York: Berg, 2010), 214.

[13] Ibid., 211.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Santiago Alcolea I Blanch, The Prado, (New York: Abrams, 1991. (Alcolea I Blanch 1991) (Alcolea I Blanch 1991), 25.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 26

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.