Art through the Ages

While Arabic, Romanesque, and Gothic art were all prominent in many areas of Spain between the 10th and 15th centuries, Madrid and surrounding Castile didn't really feature any prominent styles until the 16th century when Renaissance art finally flowered. Its supreme artist was El Greco (1540-1614), the Toledo-based Cretan (real name: Domenikos Theotocopoulos) whose strangely lit scenes, broodingly dark colors, crowded compositions, eerily elongated figures, and overall mystical aura are unmistakable.

Next came 17th and 18th century Baroque, characterized by a theatrical and decorative style that combined intense realism with a further daring use of light and shade. Leading practitioners of this art form were Naples-based José de Ribera, noted for his earthily humanistic depictions, and Sevillan Francisco de Zurbarán, whose glowing candlelit figures create a uniquely intimate mood. Most famous of them all was court painter Diego Velázquez, who used an unrivalled naturalist technique to produce his palace family scene Las Meninas (1656), considered by many to be Spain's greatest painting.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the pastel-hued Bourbon Rococo style, displayed to perfection in the Palacio Real, whose corridors and ceilings are frothily decorated with works by Bohemian Anton Mengs (1728-79) and Italian Tiepolo (1696-1770). Top Madrid painter of this period was the inimitable Francisco Goya (1746-1828), whose gargantuan assembly of works began mildly with sunlit Rococo depictions of San Isidro fiestas and progressed via ornate neoclassical portrayals (as in his clothed or unclothed Majas) and increasingly darker and more vitriolic condemnations of the atrocities of war to personal "Black Paintings" that reflected his own tortured struggles with deafness and depression.

Cubism and Surrealism -- with their often fractured and imploded look -- are the most prominent themes of the 20th century. Juan Gris (1887-1927), with his extraordinarily colorful palette, virtually stands alone as the only true cubist. Málaga-born Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), a genius who ignored all barriers, moved from teenage realism into far more complex realms, linking cubism with surrealism along the way. His masterpiece Guernica (1937) was a shockingly bleak and confusing polemic of the Civil War's most barbaric act. In its early days the painting was so controversial it needed eight guards to watch over it. Now only one stands on duty. The Catalan surrealists Salvador Dalí (1904-89) and Joan Miró (1893-1983) meanwhile both plumbed their ids for imagery. Dalí vividly explored the unreal worlds of nightmares and paranoia, while Miró's more whimsical images and sculptures suggest an inner exploration of childhood. Since the Civil War, abstract surrealist Antoni Tàpies (b. 1923), who uses material like wood, metal, and cloth to create his works, has emerged as Spain's leading artist.

Madrid's Architecture

Though between the 8th and 15th centuries much Arabic architecture was built in provinces like Andalusia, Madrid's old alcazaba fortress has long disappeared and the city only retains a few wall fragments known as the Muralla Arabe on the Cuesta de la Vega slopes just below the Almudena Cathedral. More complete are the pair of Mudéjar (Moorish) towers built by 12th and 14th century moriscos atop Madrid's oldest churches: San Pedro el Viejo and San Nicolas de las Servitas.

There's even less evidence of the 9th to 13th century Romanesque that abounds from Galicia to Catalunya, and though formidable 14th to 16th century Gothic cathedrals, with their conglomeration of stained glass windows, pointed arches, cross vaults, and flying buttresses, can be found in Castilian cities like Toledo, Burgos, and Leon, all we have in Madrid is the modest but charming Casa de los Lujanes just off the Calle Mayor.

We have to look again to the 16th century Renaissance period whose style was marked by intricate Moorish-looking facades called Plateresque due to their resemblance to the work of silversmiths (plateros) to find anything impressive. Philip II's austere, straight-lined El Escorial monastery, designed by Juan de Herrera (1530-97), is the prime example. The gray slate roofs and distinctive pointed spires of this monumental icon appear again in the capital's ubiquitous array of 17th and 18th century Baroque buildings, from Herrera's supreme Plaza Mayor and Juan Gomez de Mora's Casa de la Villa to the more lavish Real Academia de Bellas Artes designed by the Churriguera family in a proliferation of statues, carvings, and twisty columns stacked into pyramids.

As a backlash against the latter's excesses, mid-18th-century Bourbon architects conjured up a blend of mathematical simplicity and classical grandeur to inaugurate the Italian-inspired neoclassical style. For them big was beautiful and its prime example was the El Prado museum and its magnificent adjoining tree-filled Paseo which has the beauty and sophistication of a Parisian boulevard.

Nineteenth century Industrial Revolution-era buildings, with their combination of cast-iron and glass, are spearheaded by the Retiro's Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) and (albeit renovated) Atocha railway station. In total contrast, Madrid's very own 20th-century Neo-Mudéjar style nostalgically re-created early Arabic structures by using fine red brick, arches, balconies, and tiles combined with modern iron. The finest examples of this are the Ventas bullring at the eastern edge of the Salamanca district and Antiguas Escuelas Aguirre, with its imposing minaret tower and high gallery rising above the junction of O'Donnell and Alcalá. (Since 2009, the latter has been transformed into an immaculate and well-equipped Arabic Cultural Center).

In the early 20th century, the Neoplateresque style imitated the Spanish Renaissance Plateresque style which had evolved 400 years earlier. Its style is elaborate and fussily intricate with an ornate predominance of curves, arches, and turrets.

Francoist utilitarianism, meanwhile, is personified by the bland and self-contained Edificio España, built by the Otamendi brothers in 1953, and the 32-story Torre de Madrid, which appeared 4 years later. Both of them overlook the Plaza España, in contrast to the romantic statues of Cervantes, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza below.

Upper Castellana Avenue meanwhile contains the best examples of the city's futuristic Tokyo-cum-New York style architecture: the 1988 Torre Picasso designed by Minoru Yamasaki in the AZCA business development -- the highest building in Madrid -- and the slanting twin Torres KIO, also known as the Puerta de Europa, which were built in Plaza Castilla by a Kuwaiti consortium. These were eclipsed in 2009, however, when the four nearby steely gray CTBA (Cuatro Torres Business Area) towers reached completion, elevating Madrid's architectural ego to even greater heights.

The newest project in progress is the portentously named, 75,000-square-meter Ciudad de Justicia (City of Justice), designed by Iraqi-Brit Zaha Hadid, the world's leading female architect (her credits include the prestigious Pritkzer award). A vast flying saucer-lookalike, it is nestled in the expanding Valdebebas development between the IFEMA Feria and Barajas airport's Terminal 4. Its huge, steely circular shape can already clearly be seen from neighboring Juan Carlos Park. When completed in 2011, the building will house over 100 law courts, while the still-burgeoning area around it will contain a host of highly sought-after new apartments and duplexes. It will be surrounded by a brand new 470 hectare (1,160 acre) park with trees, gardens, and lakes, which will be three times the size of Juan Carlos.

The Art of Advertising

In the early 20th century, Madrid shopkeepers began covering their establishments with elaborate tiled scenes to advertise their products and services. Some lovely examples still exist. In Malasaña, Farmacia Juanse (Calle San Andres, 5) occupied a large corner site giving ceramic artists plenty of scope to create scenes of men, women, and children taking formulations to cure everything from toothache to constipation. The proprietors of the Antigua Huevería, the old egg shop, around the corner (Calle San Vicente Ferrer, 32), embellished their premises with tiled images of hens. It’s now a tapas bar—a fitting spot for a slice of tortilla española. La Peluquería Vallejo in La Latina (Calle Santa Isabel, 22) was founded in 1908 and, a few years later, added its façade of a man and boy at the barbers. Tiled announcements promise unbeatable hygiene and speed. The barbershop is still going strong. As you bar-hop in Santa Ana, you’ll see further examples. The flamenco venue Villa Rosa (Plaza de Santa Ana, 15) is encrusted with tiled scenes of Spanish landmarks. Bar Viva Madrid (Calle Manuel Fernández y González, 7), features the Cibeles fountain, alongside exhortations to stop for “Vinos Finos” and “Cervezas, Refrescos y Cafe.”

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.