This April, the Museo del Prado, the Biblioteca Nacional de España and Fundación El Greco 2014 are presenting the exhibition El Greco’s Library. Its aim is to reconstruct the theoretical and literary roots of El Greco’s art through 39 books, four of which belonged to him, that have been identified from two inventories compiled by the artist’s son Jorge Manuel in 1614 and 1621. Notable among them is a copy of Vitruvius’s treatise on architecture (from the BNE), and another of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the most excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Both were copiously annotated by El Greco with comments that reveal his ideas on architecture and above all on painting. Also on display is a copy of Xenophon’s Works and one of Appian’s Civil Wars, both of which were represented in his library, and one of Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural treatise with annotations that have on occasions been attributed to the artist. The exhibition is completed by three manuscripts, nine prints that probably inspired compositions by El Greco, and five paintings which reveal the relationship between his pictorial output and the books in his library.
El Greco’s Library includes 39 books of which he is known to have owned copies from the entries in the two inventories, selected on the basis of the editions that he is most likely to have possessed. Also on display are three manuscripts; the original inventories of 1614 and 1621; a letter from the artist to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese; nine prints, most of them by Cornelis Cort and Dürer, which were key reference points for the painter; and five paintings, including Boy blowing on an Ember and The Annunciation, which reveal the relationships between the artist’s pictorial creations and his books. In total, the exhibition includes 56 works that introduce visitors to what El Greco read and wrote, his knowledge and thinking, with the aim of understanding the ideas on the art of painting that underpinned his creative activities.
The five sections of the exhibition reconstruct the evolution of the artist’s career and analyse the way in which he saw painting as a speculative science. The first section emphasises the importance that El Greco’s Greek heritage held for him throughout his life, while the second and third sections recall the key role that Italian culture played in his artistic transformation. The largest section focuses on books on architecture, which highlight El Greco’s interest in the universal nature of this discipline and its influence on the status of painting as a liberal art. The exhibition closes with a small section on religious imagery and includes a copy of Alonso de Villegas’s Flos sanctorum [Flowers of the saints], which includes the first reference to the painter in print.
Museo Nacional del Prado Website