The Statues of Madrid

Legend has it that, when the goddess Cibeles reached the crossroads of calle Alcalá with the Castellana, she fell in love with the view and decided to stay there forever. There she sits in her stone chariot, the key to the city in her hand.  The lions who pulled her from place to place remain faithfully tied to her chariot, the only sign of possible restlessness their raised paws.  Always at the ready in case they receive the order to continue on up and out of the city at last.  From her vantage point in the plaza bearing her name, she is content to spend day and night looking up calle Alcalá, the tip of the clock tower in the Puerta del Sol just barely visible between the buildings.  Or on the right, the Gran Vía, wide and commercial and always busy.  But the paseante is neither made of stone nor stuck in a traffic jam and can freely continue on up the street to explore.

An ornate monument in the best belles lettres tradition and dedicated to the author Juan Valera, stands near Plaza Colon.  Valera was a diplomat of liberal bent, known for his light style.  His most famous work is a sunny love story titled “Pepita Jimenez”.  The monument is fairly simple, just some stone steps leading to a tall wall, the author’s bust on the top.  What makes it delightful is the statue of Pepita herself sitting on the top step.  With her hair in ringlets, her full-skirted dress adorned with tiers of ruffles, and low comfy-looking slippers on her feet, she makes an utterly delightful 19th-century icon.  An open book lies forgotten near her elbow.  She’d rather daydream than read, gazing down at the flower bed that is almost always freshly planted at the foot of the monument.  Be careful not to get too close, though; she’s been known to lose the tip of her delicate stone nose, and the repair work is far from perfect.

Just a couple of blocks away from the Juan Valera memorial is a statue of the playwright Valle-Inclán.  Dressed in a natty suit, he is caught taking a step, his hands folded behind his back.  Every year on March 27, International Theater Day, a group of theater-lovers tie a white scarf around his neck.  Another figure that may be familiar is Mariblanca, a female figure set atop a tall white column.  The only bit remaining of a Baroque fountain, at different periods she has been moved around the center of the city but now stands once again in the Puerta Del Sol, at the mouth of Calle Arenal, an old street but newly pedestrianized when the square was re-modelled two years ago.

I was surprised, when walking in the Retiro Park a few months ago with friends who live here, that they didn’t know that Madrid has the only statue dedicated to Lucifer.  He has his own plaza in the park.  Surrounded by gargoyles spitting water at the base, the tormented Fallen Angel has been caught at in a moment of realization of some sort.  Has he just understood the seriousness of his sin or has he just been handed down his punishment, banishment from Paradise?  In any case, the look on his face is shows more anger than shock.

Less obvious are the anonymous statues dedicated to nothing in particular, half-hidden grace notes to a building.  It’s hard to miss the four graceful caryatids supporting the roof of the Instituto Cervantes with their heads and fine posture.  Their elegance is marred only by the pollution that coats their hair and shoulders and cheeks a dusty black, painting dark circles under sightless eyes.

And what about the ones that don’t meet the eye so easily?  The Gran Vía and Alcalá Street are dotted with statues crowning the roofs of buildings like displaced follies scattered on high by some powerful childish giant.  Diana the huntress stands solemn guard atop the Bellas Artes building, spear in hand and crested helmet on her head, a black statue against the building’s white.  One building is topped by a curious muscular Greek wearing nothing but a golden cloak draped over his shoulders, the two ends falling in neatly symmetrical folds.  High over his head he holds a miniature building that looks like a Roman temple.  It wasn’t until I took a picture, after years of seeing this at street level, that I was able to appreciate the dark pattern painted onto the “fabric”.  The most impressive of all, because of their size and breadth, are the wonderful chariot ensembles  – not one but two – complete with their riders and four prancing horses, on the roof of the Banco de Bilbao.

And then we have pure whimsy.

If your bus stops at the traffic light at the bottom of Joaquín Costa before turning onto the Castellana, you have time to look over the gate, into the otherwise unremarkable interior courtyard of a building belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture, at a dreamy shepherd.  He’s leaning on his staff and gazing off at the side of the building, just another wall with windows giving onto countless desks.  But surely what he is really seeing is his flock of fluffy white sheep grazing in the fields under the hot Castilian sun.  Makes a nice contrast in the midst of gray and brown high rises and the heavy traffic that fills this corner almost all day every day.

Another nice route goes past the dolphin fountain in the República del Ecuador square.  Six black dolphins, grouped in pairs, are leaping into the air or about to dive into the water.  Who can resist dolphins, even just stone ones?  Water and freedom and cavorting on your way to an über-urban activity:  a meeting, a movie, a visit to a museum.  Further along Serrano Street, in an area of a couple of blocks full of wonderful mansions, one of these buildings has always caught my eye for its neo-Gothic touches.  Four narrow windows with leaded glass panes and framed in stone are set into the street-side façade.  In one corner, a slim female figure stands stiff in a niche.   Best of all, high up on the peaked roof of the turret is a stone squirrel.  The fact that someone 1) had such a non sequitur sort of idea and 2) had the money to carry it out and 3) could find someone to sculpt it (“Good morning.  I’m looking for someone to carve a squirrel out of stone for the top of my turret.”) says a lot about a different, less hurried period – specialization indeed.  Unfortunately, the tip of the squirrel’s bushy tail somehow broke off some years ago, leaving only the iron pole that supported it.  It will probably never be repaired; I understand that this artisan stonework is prohibitive nowadays, not to mention the problem of the height, a good four storeys above street level.

But the most famous statue of all is the Oso y el Madroño, the emblem of Madrid.  This too has changed places several times, but always within the Puerta del Sol.  But even with all the changes, he never lost his status nor his visibility as a reference point for Being Downtown.  This fat black bear is standing on his hind legs, his front paws leaning on the trunk of the tree, stretching up towards the tip of the tree just out of reach above his head.  His mouth is open ready to grab some fruit.  Is the madroño, which translates as “strawberry”, a typical madrileño tree?  I’ve only ever seen one.  But the statue has stood in this square since 1967 – which means forever as far as most of us are concerned – and is the meeting point of everyone who has friends or acquaintances in this city.  Even newcomers will have no trouble finding this most popular of all the city’s icons, eternally pursuing his elusive snack in the heart of the city, oblivious to residents and visitors gathering at his paws to immortalize their visit or effusively greet each other as they set off on a night on the town.

Post by Clea.

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