As with the other schools of painting in the Prado’s collection, the nature of the French and Italian one derives from its origins in the Spanish royal collection, which is the source of its most important and valuable works and also explains its principal gaps. Among the latter is the lack of paintings executed prior to 1500, which the Spanish monarchs were less interested in collecting. The Prado houses works by important artists working before that date, including Fra Angelico, Antonello da Messina, Botticelli and Mantegna, but only The Death of the Virgin by the latter was in the royal collection. For a variety of reasons, Titian is one of the principal axes around which the Prado’s collection of paintings is structured. In addition to the number and quality of his works, the artist’s relationship with Charles V and with Philip II established a model for future Spanish monarchs. In addition, Titian’s work encompasses all the genres that were subsequently collected: the formal and allegorical portrait, the nude, and his celebrated “poesies” in which the artist aimed to compete with poets. The Museum’s collection of Venetian painting is completed with works by its leading representatives: Veronese, Tintoretto and the Bassanos. Numerous other 16th-century painters are to be seen in the galleries, including Raphael and Federico Barocci, whose works entered the royal collection during the reign of Philip III.
The 17th-century collection also includes paintings by a wide range of leading Italian and French artists, from Caravaggio to Luca Giordano and encompassing the Carracci, Guercino, Guido Reni, Claude Lorrain, Poussin and Georges de la Tour, to mention just some of the most important. Nonetheless, the most important figure for determining the particular nature of the 17th-century collection was not an artist but a king, Philip IV, who considerably enlarged the royal collection through purchases, diplomatic gifts and the commissioning of large series of paintings intended to decorate palaces such as the Buen Retiro, which was built during his reign. For this royal residence Philip commissioned a considerable number of masterpieces from Rome and Naples, which can now be seen in the Museum’s galleries. They include episodes from Roman history, landscapes, mythological scenes and floral compositions. Painted in similar formats and sizes, they give the Prado’s galleries a distinctive personality quite different to that of other museums, while the commissioning of these works imposed certain conditions on the artists that radically modified the course of European Baroque painting. The coherence of this collection is also due to the fact that many of the French artists represented in the Prado spent their active years in Italy, the majority in Rome, which was an artistic focal point in Europe at that date.
In addition to paintings formerly in the royal collection, since the time of its opening in 1819 the Museo del Prado has acquired works with the dual aim of consolidating the best represented groups and of adding important examples of less well represented areas. Among the latter was the acquisition in 2012 of the panel of The Agony in the Garden with the Donor Luis d’Orléans (cat. no. P-8106), painted between 1405 and 1408 and attributed to Colart de Laon. This was followed in 2013 by the acquisition of The Agony in the Garden by the Lombard painter Giulio Cesare Procaccini (cat. no. P-8151).
After seeing the Museum’s French and Italian galleries, a visit to the Casón del Buen Retiro is highly recommended. The Casón houses a ceiling by the Neapolitan painter Luca Giordano who worked for Charles II in Madrid from 1692 to 1702. Painted in fresco around 1697, it depicts The Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy.