Rounds of the Prado: The Place of Painting

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Each morning, for the past few months, I have left my house and followed the same route to the Prado. In a bag slung over my shoulder, I keep a pen, a pencil, and two notebooks for the work ahead. Nothing else. The large notebook is to take notes in the museum library, in the Casón del Buen Retiro, beneath the tempestuous vault by Luca Giordano. I have always been deeply inclined to the study of the things I like. On days when I don’t go to the library, I walk a little farther and spend the morning in the exhibit rooms of the Villanueva building. In that case I use a smaller notebook that allows me to take notes while looking at the paintings, preferably in pencil, sitting on a bench and holding the notebook on my knees. I want to open my eyes as wide as possible to look at the paintings, and I want to learn from books as much as I can about them. The two activities are complementary. The more you know, the more and the better you see. An ornithologist can spot and identify more birds in the woods; a naturalist can see a wealth of plant species whose existence the uninitiated will never even suspect. Our sight can be trained, just like our memory or like the hand of a draughtsman. Looking is not the passive record of what stands before our eyes: we examine and reconstruct it in our visual cortex and then in our conscious mind, creating associations to other images or even, if we remember earlier encounters, to the very image that stands before us. The act of looking is a palimpsest. We find in it the traces of all we have seen before and all we have learned from those who faced the painting in the past, our forerunners through the years and the generations all the way back to the very first gaze, the painter’s, when the work was first completed.