What does Romanticism really mean? The definitions abound with words like subjectivism, emotion, individualism, imagination, escapism. A new way of looking at the world, with the individual moving onto center stage. In Spain, the Romantic movement got off to a relatively late start, not really taking hold until 1840; by that time, it was fairly diluted and didn’t give rise to anything especially original. Nonetheless, the word “Romantic” reminds me of the ballet. I think of tutus, slippers bound with silken ribbon, pastel blues and pinks and pure white, strong muscular men hoisting ethereal women airborne, or leaping about to glorious music. But underneath it is the reality of hours of bone-grinding work, open sores on overworked toes, repetitions of the basic movements, strictly disciplined. So with Romanticism: pale ladies courted by aesthetic looking gentlemen in dark frock coats that set off their long limbs. Full ruffled dresses in organdies and sprigged muslin. Genteel through and through. But visit the Romantic Museum on calle San Mateo (now officially and more exactly known as the Museum of Romanticism) and you get a clearer idea of what went on behind the scenes. Yes, the well-off surrounded themselves with beautifully and painstaking detail. But the overall effect is claustrophobic, as stiff as the whalebone corsets nipping in tiny waists, all of it garnished with a morbid fascination with death.
This is not to say that the visit isn’t a pleasant one. Housed in a neo-Classical palace dating from 1776, the museum has been recently and completely refurbished, with every detail carefully recreated. Damask, satin and brocades cover chairs, drape the windows and line display cases filled with exquisite porcelain plates, bowls and knick-knacks. Walk up the stairs to the main floor, after leaving your bulky 21st century bags and backpacks in the lockers and getting your ticket, and you step into the 1800’s: gracious, refined.
The ballroom is sedate. A large rectangular space, a round settee is set in the middle of the room. A piano in one corner (the first of several throughout the museum), chairs against the walls, mirrors and portraits. A thick and lovely carpet is covered with a wide strip of coarse protective matting, and the guards have to keep reminding visitors to kindly not step on the lovely old pattern, despite the fact that most of the information on the bottom of the paintings is so tiny that inevitably, one forgets. Despite this intrusion of the everyday contemporary world, one likes to imagine polkas and mazurkas sounding to the delight of young dancers, watchful mamas seated on the brocade-lined chairs, fanning themselves while the gentlemen lounge against the polished wooden tables, à la Jane Austen.
Exiting through the door at the far end of the music room, the visitor enters a more museum-like section in that there are various displays set up according to theme rather than attempting to imitate a home. Two important aspects of Romanticism are present here. Costumbrismo, the idealized depiction of gypsies, countryfolk and bandits, was popular in the décor of this period. Women wearing full skirts in black and white, embroidered shawls picturesquely draped over their shoulders are shown talking to dashing-looking men often seated on horseback, pistols tucked into their wide waistband. There is no hint of poverty or unwashed bodies. Backgrounds can be landscapes or the steps of a dark church. Another popular subject was the ruined abbey or an oriental motif, evocative and mysterious and most often unnamed. Again, as with the unrealistic paintings of romantic peasants and gypsies, these were not attempts to record an actual scene. The caption on one of the paintings showing a scene that could have been painted anywhere between Greece and Egypt, for example, simply reads, “Oriental landscape with ruins”.
Religious themes, with the accent on death, is omnipresent in the art of this period. Sweet-faced virgins facing martyrdom and haggard white-haired hermits alone in the desert fill the paintings. Pause to admire the lovely little statue of a sleeping child: Round-faced and chubby-cheeked, it looks like the epitome of peace and innocence – and then one sees its outstretched hand resting on a skull. Further on is a painting titled, “Married Love”. The scene? A man on his deathbed, his grieving wife praying at his side. Not exactly an optimistic outlook on life!
The children’s area is filled with beautiful toys. A large dollhouse is furnished with everything down to the last detail in imitation of the “real” thing: fans, bookcases complete with books, dressers with tiny drawer handles, elaborate chandeliers. There’s even a model “doll house” of a convent. Dolls made out of porcelain and bisque wear fussy lace dresses. Several minute decks of playing cards are stacked on a shelf – everything, while beautiful, seems too ornate and tiny for a child’s eager fingers. Portraits show children in lace bonnets, fat and red-cheeked, but in most of them the child is solemn and unsmiling, miniature adults.
The wife’s boudoir is filled with objects of all sorts. Every inch of space is occupied by something; the effect is one of neat clutter. The room is interior and this, couples with the bed hangings, dried flowers set under glass, delicate chairs that look as if they’d crack under the slightest weight, make this area of the house claustrophobic, too hot-house for our modern eyes. The bedroom was considered the woman’s refuge and this one seems a reflection of the ideal woman of the time: fragile, elegant, dainty. (Although it’s important to bear in mind that the museum here is not an attempt to recreate an exact replica of a home but that its main purpose is to display objects from the time.)
The men’s rooms, which give onto the exterior, are much brighter. The furniture is made of heavy solid wood, with business-like desks and highboys, drawers everywhere. The smoking room would be the equivalent to the lady’s boudoir, a place to meet with one’s most intimate friends. There’s a spacious office and a wonderful billiard room; this last includes a curious portrait of a young boy of about 13 or 14, shown holding a large cigar.
Some of the splendid – and noteworthy – objects found in the museum are early examples of toothbrushes (why is it always surprising to us moderns to learn that our ancestors were already taking care of their hygiene 200 years before us?); in a similar vein, we can see Fernando VII’s magnificent toilet, the central chair set in mahogany. Is this regal and far-from-shy design the reason why these objets are sometimes referred to as “thrones”? There’s also an elaborate recliner type armchair that looks like a more elegant example of the ones to be found in any modern store furniture nowadays. A pitcher with the handle in the shape of a female figure seems to be a precursor to the purest Art Deco. Fans trimmed with feathers too floppy to create much of a breeze were no doubt excellent for setting off a flirty look, while others show beautiful hand-painted scenes set into ivory bases. There are several lithophane lampshades made from translucent bisque (unglazed ceramic) etched with designs that show most clearly when backlit. Dainty lace-edged parasols to keep pink and white complexions from turning to unsightly brown or, even worse, red. Another thing our ancestors had on us, although for different reasons. The dining room with the table completely set for a formal meal: snowy white damask tablecloth, wine goblets, gold-rimmed water glasses, heavy silver.
But after wandering through all of the rooms, one finds the best and most original feature of the museum. Looking like a dollhouse for grown-ups is the façade of a building that reproduces two storeys of windows with their iron balcony railings. The beauty of it is that, peering in at the different levels one spies scenes from everyday life. A family sitting at the dinner table, being served by the maid; a couple dancing while a Chopinesque young man accompanies them at the piano; another couple just alighting from their carriage; two maids in the kitchen. The effect is similar to that of the famous hologram of Princess Leia in “Star Wars”, as the miniature figures endlessly re-enact their scenes.
At the end of the tour, there is a very cleverly-set up exhibition of objects belonging to the Larra, the Romantic writer who committed suicide at the age of 28. Letters, bills, receipts, books, a frockcoat, all of these can be seen in a small room just off the main entrance. The room is dim, and the objects are set within covered cardboard containers. The covers have small tabs that, when pulled, open the case which in turn lights up so that the object can be comfortable studied. An appropriate and secure system for viewing delicate and very old objects.
And most certainly worthy of mention is the pleasant gift store opposite the ticket counter, full of appetizing items ranging from coffee table books to bookmarks and pencils, and leading onto a coffeeshop where one can enjoy refreshment looking out onto the walled garden that has been restored as carefully and lovingly as the rest of this jewel of a museum.