Madrid really is the city that never sleeps, as I discovered when I hied thither for the opening festivities for Balenciaga and Spanish Painting, curated by Eloy Martinez de la Pera, which opened last week at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
I raced from the plane for a splendid paella lunch chez photographer Gorka Postigo with Rossy de Palma and her daughter Luna, Spanish Vogue’s effervescent editor-in-chief Eugenia Torriente and her husband Alfonso Conde, Gorka’s brother Diego, the actress Barbara Lennie, and sundry culturati: immense fun.
Thence to the Prado for a tour of the Alberto Giacometti exhibit, which takes the form of an intervention, with twenty Giacometti works imaginatively placed by curator Carmen Gimenez in dialogue with the museum’s permanent installation of Spanish masterworks. The artist’s immense The Leg (1958), for instance, is set in a room hung with Zurbarán’s Labors of Hercules series, commissioned in 1634, whilst a series of sculptures originally intended for the open spaces of the Chase Manhattan Bank Plaza complex (a project sadly aborted when the architect had the temerity to ask to see what Giacometti was planning) are now arranged in the room of Velasquez works that include, of course, the famed Las Meninas (1656).
In the museum’s dedicated exhibition, the compelling Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance, curated by Carl Brandon Strehlke, curator emeritus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through September 25), showcases the recent conservation and restoration of the museum’s celebrated Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, painted by Fra Angelico in the mid-1420s and now revealed in the full glory of the vibrant colors and subtle treatments that the artist intended: a miracle in paint. Thence to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum for a private tour of Balenciaga and Spanish Painting with Eloy: glorious!
That evening I was bidden to the Italian Embassy for highly amusing cocktails in the expansive gardens of the amazing city palace, the Palacio de Amboage, built between 1914 and 1917 by the architect Joquin Roji for the Cuban family lately ennobled by the Pope—the Spanish king having refused to do so. (Franco, by the by, sold the property to Mussolini in 1939.) Ambassador Stefano Sannino proved a delightful host. Little did I imagine when asked to cocktails at an embassy that I would be dancing on the lawn to Raffaella Carrà and Mina at two in the morning!
Nevertheless, I was up early to explore El Rastro, the famed Madrid flea market, with the city’s über decorator Lorenzo Castillo—who, let me tell you, knows all the right dealers and places. We took a very quick lunch at the tapas bar Mu?iz, and then it was off to the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the epically scaled fortress palace outside Madrid. King Philip II commissioned architect Juan Bautista de Toledo to realize his vision of a place that would symbolize the might of his Catholic empire. Built between 1563 and 1584, it is a powerful building, and although much of its original treasury is now in the Prado, there are wonders to be seen—notably the Hall of Battles, with its frescoes of amazingly complex choreographed battle scenes, and the library. Here, an early librarian decided that it would be better for the books to breathe if they were turned with their spines facing the wall. The leaves of every book were gilded, with a reference number painted on. As the bright gold has faded over the years, the effect is of walls of book leaves that glow softly like the sun at dusk: magical.
The cozier Bourbon monarchs of the late eighteenth century (depicted with remarkably unflattering truth by Goya) used the palace in the autumn and commissioned the Royal Tapestry Factory to weave tapestries that cover every room in the endless enfilades: wonderful as they are (and many are worked after cartoons by Goya), the effect borders on the surreal and suffocating. Not as suffocating, however, as the crypt below, the Pantheon of the Kings, where the monarchs—and far too many of their infant children—have found their final resting place. Magnificent as their marble and gilded mahogany tombs are, it is not a place for the faint-hearted. We had been warned that the tour would take two and a half hours, which wildly underestimated my level of enthusiasm—we finally rolled back into the hotel at half past eight.
That evening, the Dutch couture designer Jan Taminiau and his partner Juan Varez gave a glamorous dinner in their art-filled apartment, replete with an installation of Taminiau’s complex and beautifully realized clothes. The couturier is famed for dressing Holland’s Queen Maxima—most notably in her sharp-shouldered sapphire blue 2013 coronation robes.
The following day, I went to the CaixaForum for the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power, and Politics (memorably staged in an earlier iteration by Robert Carsen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), which charts the evolution of the genre through various cities and the composers who flourished there. I was dazzled, of course, by the mid-18th century opera costumes, Empress Eugenie’s wasp-waisted ballgown, and the headset audio that moves from aria to aria as you walk through the galleries.
A lunch at the Thyssen-Bornemisza for the lenders to the Balenciaga exhibition brought together museum directors and some well-heeled Spanish women, notably the distinguished Sonsoles Diez de Rivera, whose superbly elegant mother, the Marchioness de Llanzol, was Balenciaga’s great friend and paradigm Spanish client. The dress that Balenciaga made for Sonsoles's coming-out ball—an exquisite meringue of almond pink taffeta and lace—is included in the exhibition, as is her magnificent wedding gown of oyster satin organza embroidered in silver thread.
I returned to the Italian Embassy to be given a tour of its palatial interiors, now stylishly counterpointed with contemporary Italian furnishings, including—in a diplomatic marriage—pieces by the great Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola made by the Italian firm Cassina.
The gala opening of Balenciaga and Spanish Art that evening brought out a flotilla of Spanish beauties, including Sofia Palazuelo, Duchess of Huéscar (and daughter-in-law of the Duke of Alba) and the ageless Naty Abascal, former Duchess of Feria, along with many former clients touchingly wearing their long-treasured Balenciagas.
There was more transcendent art later that evening at the Auditorio Nacional de Música, where the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Op. 64, and Brahms’ Symphony Number 1 in C Minor, Op. 68, conducted by the wonderful violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Sublime.
I fell in love with the restaurant La Parra when Michael Smith threw a dinner there as part of his birthday celebrations when he was Ambassador Consort to Ambassador James Costos, America’s effective and beloved ambassador to Spain during the Obama administration, and I was delighted to return there with a fun group of friends.
My last day found me in conversation with Ana García-Si?eriz at the Condé Nast College before a room full of engaged and engaging students, followed by lunch with my colleagues at Spanish Vogue and Vanity Fair at the wonderfully atmospheric restaurant Salvador, opened in the 1940s, its walls covered with posters and images celebrating the legendary bullfighters of yore. Perfect end to a fascinating visit.