One of the world’s greatest galleries will throw open its doors again on Saturday, but in circumstances very different from the past.
The Prado, home to masterpieces by Hieronymus Bosch, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya, will welcome visitors after its longest closure since the Spanish civil war, more than 80 years ago.
The museum shut on March 11 as Spain’s coronavirus outbreak gained pace. Reopening has meant rethinking its basic facts of life, with only a fifth of its paintings on display, vastly reduced ticket sales and strict health guidelines in place. “It is obvious we can’t open in the same conditions the museum was in March, because of the health emergency,” said Miguel Falomir, its director.
He likens the reconfigured museum to a perfume, “with all its essence concentrated in a small space” — a central gallery with an unbroken line of masterpieces in natural light, including Brueghel’s haunting The Triumph of Death and self portraits by Titian and Durer, with, just beyond, a scattering of magnificent rooms.
Other leading museums and galleries across Europe are also returning to life as the worst of the current wave of the pandemic recedes. For almost all of them, there will be fundamental changes as to how visitors attend and how works of art are displayed, and a big hit to finances.
As of Saturday people will also be able once more to go to Madrid’s two other chief cultural attractions — the Reina Sofia, which houses Picasso’s Guernica, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. The Guggenheim Bilbao already opened on June 1.
In Florence, the Uffizi Gallery opened on Wednesday, although France’s Louvre is not scheduled to do so until July 6.
The reopenings take place as lockdowns are loosened across the continent and Spain gets ready to readmit tourists from July 1. Despite disputes over the ministry of health’s official coronavirus statistics, the country’s death and infection rates are hugely down from their peaks.
The pandemic has been particularly traumatic for the Prado. The head of the museum’s economics division died after contracting Covid-19. Its president, Javier Solana, who has variously served as Spanish culture minister, Nato secretary-general and EU high representative, was one of three Prado personnel who were hospitalised.
The museum has absorbed blows before. It was bombed by Gen Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces in 1936, after which its treasures were shipped to first Valencia, then Catalonia and ultimately Switzerland. The Prado finally reopened in 1939.
While this time the context is not so devastating nor the hiatus so long, the museum has been altered all the same.
From Saturday, people will only be able to enter if they have bought tickets with specific time slots online, submit to a temperature test at the door and wear a face mask throughout the visit. Museum staff in the rooms wear masks and visors.
To ensure social distancing, the museum is reducing ticket sales from its normal levels of 8,000 to 9,000 a day to 1,800. Marina Chinchilla, head of finances and administration, adds that it has modified its ventilation system to ensure that the air is of “laboratory or hospital purity”.
But the biggest change will be to the exhibition itself.
The Prado will only be displaying some 250 of the 1,400 or so works it normally shows, rehung in ways that sometimes break with tradition by gathering together works from different epochs.
Some paintings, such as Bosch’s more than 500-year-old triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, have been deemed too fragile and cumbersome to shift. But overall, no fewer than 190 works have been moved.
Rubens’ painting of the god Saturn devouring his son now hangs next to Goya’s savage depiction of the same myth. Velázquez’s Las Meninas, a reflective masterpiece that inspired artists down to Picasso, has been joined by two others of his greatest works: The Triumph of Bacchus and The Spinners.
Meanwhile, Goya’s searing The Third of May, once described by the critic Robert Hughes as an “unrivalled archetype of images of suffering and brutality in war”, now accompanies the painter’s portrait of the family of King Carlos IV.
“In normal conditions, if we put the Third of May together with The Family of Carlos IV no one could ever get through the room,” said Mr Falomir. “But in these circumstances, with reduced attendance, we can have this absolutely extraordinary encounter.”
The sense of intimacy and space, the current configuration is due to last until September, will come at a cost.
The Prado generates 70 per cent of its own funds, with subsidies accounting for the rest. Ms Chinchilla says the loss of ticket sales and associated revenues during the pandemic has already cost €7m out of a 2020 budget of €49m. Nor is the Prado about to return to money making. Entrance will be free this weekend, after which tickets will be half price.
Many others of Spain’s roughly 1,500 museums, which lack the renown and the resources of the Prado, have even greater challenges.
Mr Falomir takes hope from the crisis all the same. “Can you imagine what this period would have been like if we hadn’t been able to read books, look at museums online, or watch films or plays?” he asked. “One of the few positive aspects of this pandemic . . . is that it has been a vindication of the importance of culture.”