At A Loss For Art
On the Christmas Eve of 1734, and most of the residents of the Real Alcázar de Madrid, the palace that housed the Spanish royal court, were in the chapel pews to observe midnight Mass all while on the other side of the palace, a fire had broken out in the rooms of the French painter Jean Ranc, who had been working as the Spanish royal family’s official portraitist.
It has been said that Ranc’s poor eyesight led an inability to detect the flames, and the fire bells were mistaken for the expected chimes that ushered in the holiday celebrations as well as the fact that the majority of the castle’s occupants were confined to the chapel and unable to quickly attend to the inferno immediately.
Unfortunately, the Alcázar burned down along with more than 500 works from the Spanish royal family’s art collection.
Built in the mid-ninth century, the Alcázar was present for nearly 1,000 years of Spanish history. It was originally built by Emir Mohamed, the ruler of what would become Madrid, following the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian peninsula. After the Christians regained control, they instituted the Spanish monarchy and each successive ruler put their own touch on the palace (much like the United States’ White House). In preparation for a new bout of construction, a large part of the collection that had been amassed in the previous century was relocated to another location prior to the outbreak of the fire. They were spared from the tragedy as were a good number of the paintings that hung on the Alcázar’s walls.
After the initial mayhem following the fire alarm, an effort was made to save some of the art while the blaze raged on as nearly 1,200 of the pieces were cut from their frames and tossed to the courtyard below (including famed masterpieces such as Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” and Titian’s “Equestrian Portrait of Charles V”).
Among the 500 works that were lost in the fire are some that disappeared without any trace that they ever existed while others left behind records of the great cultural loss. One could say the silver lining of the destruction of the castle gave Spaniards an excuse to build the extravagant Royal Palace of Madrid which still stands today.
While historians continue to agree that the flame first came to life in his room, the Jean Ranc denied it until the end of his life while even going so far as to put himself forward for contention for the job of overseeing the restoration of the recovered Alcázar works in order to save his good name.
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