NGV National Gallery of Victoria

Audio Guide

Exhibition map
Exhibition map

Absorb yourself in the exhibition with the audio guide tour.

Martyrs sizzling on hot-iron beds, kings with oversized codpieces, female gladiators fighting to the death – these are a few of the characters that feature in the National Gallery of Victoria's Italian Masterpieces from Spain's Royal Court, Museo del Prado audio tour, narrated by award-winning and much-loved Australian actor Vince Colosimo (Chopper, Lantana, Walking on Water, The Great Gatsby).

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Welcome to Italian Masterpieces

"Buenos días! Mucho gusto. Encantado." And, also: "Buon giorno! Che piacere vederti!"

I'm Vince Colosimo. Welcome to the National Gallery of Victoria and to the exhibition Italian masterpieces from Spain's Royal Court. This exhibition features some of the finest Italian works from the Prado Museum, the home of Spain's most important collection. So you see, both Spain and Italy are important to this story!

But, first, why is this an exhibition of Italian artists from Spain's Museo del Prado? Why not Spanish?

To begin with, some of what we now think of as Italy was ruled by Spain. The Italy that we know now was only created in 1860. In the three hundred years that this exhibition spans, from 1500 to 1800, the Kingdom of Naples was ruled by Spain. Over this period, Naples was a thriving centre for art. Hundreds of artists lived there, including Caravaggio, Jusepe de Ribera, Guido Reni, Giovanni Lanfranco and Luca Giordano. The Spanish residents of Naples were excellent art patrons, buying up much of the cutting-edge contemporary art being made around them.

One of the most dedicated patrons of Italian art during this period was the Spanish Royal Family. Certain members of the Royal Family loved and admired Italian art and, over time, they amassed an exceptional collection. Outside of Italy, the Prado's collection of Italian art is unequaled in scope and quality.

The Royal Family ultimately gave its collection to the people of Spain, and this collection formed the basis of the Museo del Prado, which opened in 1819. The Museo del Prado's collection is a reflection of the Royal Family's taste and so, in this exhibition, you will enjoy a kaleidoscopic presentation of the best Italian art over 300 years.

Room 1

The Genius of the Renaissance


In this room, you are immersed in the genius of the Renaissance, a time of incredible innovation across science, mathematics, technology, philosophy and art. Much of this innovation was fuelled by the formidable patronage of powerful and cultured families such as the Gonzaga in Mantua, the Este in Ferrara and, most especially, the Medici in Florence. Describing the motivation behind his vast philanthropic efforts, Cosimo de Medici stated that it was "for the honour of God, and the honour of the city, and the memory of me".

Artists were central to the advances made during this time. They were not mere reporters of events taking place; they were absolutely central to the culture of experimentation and innovation. Around you, you will see evidence of the extensive artistic developments in drawing and disegno – or design. Artists were searching for increasingly realistic ways to depict the world around them. Look, for instance, at Bartolomeo Passarotti's Head of a figure. The artist has used a sophisticated cross-hatching technique to depict the head with a high degree of depth and three-dimensionality. During the Renaissance, artists developed bold new techniques to depict the world with verisimilitude. This led to exciting advances in the use of perspective – almost every work in this exhibition utilises the new techniques of multi-point and linear perspective in art.

Also populating this room are figures from Greek and Roman mythology – you'll see the hero Hercules; Minerva, goddess of wisdom and arts; Apollo, god of the Sun; and Mars, god of war. Even Bandinelli's sketch of a powerful prophet owes much to Greek sea gods. The Renaissance saw a reassessment of pre-Christian thinking. The Medici encouraged radical thought, even when it was difficult to reconcile with the Christian religion. This freedom to think outside of the Christian doctrine led to ruminations upon the place of the individual in society, resulting in key texts such as Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man or Matteo Palmieri's On Civic Life. These secular intellectual pursuits, combined with an interest in scientific observation of the natural world, led to the emergence of the Humanist philosophy.

Raphael's powerful painting of the Holy Family is an unmissable work here. Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael is one of the Renaissance's towering figures. Here, he has combined new innovations in artistic technology with a humanist ethos to create a most tender image. Painted with intimacy and great realism, Raphael's painting encourages us to connect to the family as fellow humans, rather than as distant gods.

Incidentally, this work is popularly called Madonna of the Rose, but Raphael didn't actually paint the rose. An unknown artist added it when the canvas was extended a few hundred years after Raphael's death.

The Body

Behold the rippling muscles of Baccio Bandinelli's Seated Prophet! Your average evangelist is not usually in possession of such a magnificent physique.

Bandinelli's Seated Prophet was likely inspired by the classical tradition of sea gods. During the Renaissance, artists were greatly inspired by their Greek and Roman precursors. The idealised nudes of the classical tradition were closely studied, resulting in the kind of heroic images of 'the body beautiful' that you see in this room. Michelangelo, for instance, was much inspired by the exaggerated musculature in ancient sculptures such as the Farnese Hercules and the Belvedere Torso. His male figures bristle with power, energy and forcefulness. In this room, his sketch of a shoulder is a study of brute strength. This sketch was a preparatory work towards his Sistine Chapel masterwork, the Last Judgement. You'll see the muscly shoulder of a devil that, in the fully realised painting, has the nasty job of dropping a woman onto the writhing mass of lost souls bound for the inferno. Early Church fathers had been opposed to the body, which they equated with sin. True beauty, they argued, resided in the soul, not the body. The body's base temptations were to be overcome through prayer and the worship of God. However, in the fifteenth-century, a Neo-Platonic argument was put forward that, if mankind was made in God's image, then mankind – particularly the male figure – could be equated with the divine. Images of Christ now took on a perfect form, inspired by classical sculpture from Antiquity. The figures in Correggio's Noli me tangere and Raphael's Holy Family are highly reminiscent of classical sculpture, only reinterpreted for the Christian tradition.

The obsession with realism throughout the Renaissance also led to artists undertaking anatomical studies. This included dissection of male corpses in order to correctly understand the anatomy. Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical studies from the end of the fifteenth century were followed by the 1543 publication of Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body, by Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius. This groundbreaking study of human anatomy featured hundreds of woodcuts illustrating the body's bones and muscles.

The relative intellectual freedoms of the Renaissance enabled a loosening of approaches to the body and sexuality. The celebration of homosexual love in classical literature, such as Plato's Symposium, was of interest to certain Renaissance scholars. Giovanni Castello's Mars and Apollo offers an example of an emerging sexual ambiguity in depictions of the male nude.

Saints and martyrs

In October 1517, the German friar Martin Luther nailed a letter to the door of a church, setting off a chain of events that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. In his text, Luther challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and accused it of corruption, in particular deriding the practice of 'indulgences', whereby a person could purchase their salvation from the Church – for a fee. The Reformation sparked by Luther spread across Europe, igniting debates around religion and society and challenging the supremacy of the Catholic Church.

In Italy, the existence of many progressive intellectuals, and the proliferation of the Humanist ethos, created a milieu well primed for such debates around religion. Despite this, Italy remained a staunch defender of the Catholic Church. She was joined by Spain in this act –indeed, Italy and Spain were inexorably linked as the major stalwarts of Catholicism after the Reformation. In 1520, when Martin Luther refused to retract his texts, Pope Leo X excommunicated him. A year later, Charles V, the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, held a formal assembly – the memorably titled 'Diet of Worms' – at which he declared Luther a criminal. You'll see a portrait of Charles' son Philip II in the next room.

Stories of saints and martyrs feature often in this exhibition. In this room, there is a lovely pair of images relating to Giorgio Vasari, the Florentine painter and architect who is perhaps best known as the author of The Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors. This text does much to promote the greatness of the artists of the time, as well as to expound Vasari's ideas around disegno – the necessity for artists to be highly skilled at drawing and design as the basis for their art. Have a look at Federico Zuccaro's drawing of A dignitary kneeling before a Pope. The kneeling figure may well be Vasari, recognisable through his pointy beard and distinctive turned up nose.

In this room there is also a stunning drawing by Vasari of Saint Luke painting the Virgin. St Luke is popularly known as the patron saint of artists and is often depicted painting an apparition of the Virgin Mary. In this version, she is surrounded by lovely little heavenly beings that float about her. St Luke wrote about the life of Christ and was also a physician – he was described as 'Medico e speziale', a doctor and spice dealer. His knowledge of spices meant that he would also have understood the techniques for making artists' colours, which is perhaps why he has been adopted as the patron saint of painters. Other accounts also name him as the first to paint an icon of the Virgin Mary.

Prado Lotto

Here is Correggio's exquisite Noli mi tangere, which translates as "touch me not". Here, Christ appears before Mary Magdalene after his Resurrection, and urges her not to hold fast to him.

Correggio was a much-admired painter. Vasari speaks glowingly of him in his Lives of the Artists, describing him as "an excellent and very beautiful genius" and a "marvellous craftsman". Of this work in particular he stated that it was "painted with such delicacy that it defies belief".

Correggio was a very conscientious artist, and this is fully evident here. The Conservators of the Prado recently produced an x-ray image of Noli mi tangere that revealed Correggio's working edits. The figure and pose of Christ were resolved relatively quickly; only his feet were slightly shifted. However, Correggio significantly changed Mary's position three times. At one stage, Mary's head was placed low and her gaze cast downward. At another, her head was raised, but her eyes still averted from Christ's face. In the final stage, her eyes are powerfully locked with Christ's in the most dramatic of all configurations. It's hard to image the work without this dramatic tension – the great emotion in her face contrasts magnificently with the serenity of his. With each of these revisions, the strong diagonal working across the two figures was also perfected. Correggio was evidently at pains to make this formal device work – the x-ray reveals that he adjusted Mary's right hand numerous times, seeking the best placement to enable this dynamic diagonal composition.

Extreme attention has been paid to every inch of this canvas. Notably, Correggio has elevated the landscape to make it as important as the figures. Just look at it – it is no mere backdrop! The rustic farm implements, the brocaded garments, and the flesh are also most carefully rendered. As Vasari noted of Correggio: "no craftsman ever painted with greater delicacy or with more relief, such was the softness of his flesh painting, and such the grace with which he finished his works".

Room 2

Titian and the Venetian Empire


In this room you are immersed in the gorgeous brushwork and sumptuous colour palette of the Venetian painters. In particular, you are surrounded by five paintings by Titian, a painter whose works are celebrated – then and now – as the epitome of Venetian painting. The Venetian painters are renowned for the importance placed on colour in their works, which is often contrasted with the Florentine preference for design and line as the basis of art. The difference is sometimes overstated, but certainly this room, with its brilliant colours and fluid brushwork, feels different to the previous room, which held highly technical drawings by artists associated with the Florentine school.

There are a number of theories as to why Venetian art features such exquisitely strong colour. Some attribute this to the reflections of light from the city's lagoons and canals. Others accredit this to Venice's long contact through trade and war with the colours of Byzantium and the exotic Orient.

This room also makes the connection between Titian and the Spanish Royal Court. You can't miss Titian's magnificent royal portrait of Philip II. Titian had previously painted the portrait of Charles V – Philip's father – but it was Philip who became Titian's most important patron. Titian met Philip twice, and painted his portrait on both occasions. (Actually, this painting was originally intended to be a portrait of Charles V, but Titian painted over him to make it a portrait of his son.) It's a terrific portrait, and justifiably influential. Portraits such as this, and Titian's celebrated portrait of Charles V on horseback, became the quintessential portraits of power, establishing a prototype for royal portraits that was much copied.

Charles V wielded incredible power. As King of the Spanish Empire and Holy Roman Emperor, he ruled over a vast domain. He was one of the most extraordinary monarchs that Europe has ever seen. He voluntarily abdicated the throne in 1556, and divided his realm between Ferdinand, his younger brother, who was made Holy Roman Emperor, and to Charles' own son, Philip II, who was made King of Spain. At the time, the Venetian Republic was also a superpower. It was financially strong and politically independent with formidable international trade networks

Charles V was relatively uninterested in art, but Philip became an important patron and collector. Initially Philip's taste was for more slickly painted art from The Netherlands, but over time he became enamored with the loose brushwork of the Venetian painters. The Spanish Court bought work by many Venetian artists, but it was Titian in particular who was Philip's favoured artist. Titian received honours and a stipend from the Spanish Court and, for the last twenty years of his life, painted almost exclusively for Philip. At one point, the Spanish court owned ninety works by Titian – an incredible holding. While this number has been reduced to thirty-four – through diplomatic gifts and, alas, through fires – the Prado still holds the world's largest collection of works by Titian.

Titian is a towering figure in art history, and this room offers a rare opportunity to chart the stylistic evolution of this influential painter.

The Body

Here you are before Paolo Veronese's rather chaste interpretation of the Penitent Mary Magdalene. During the Renaissance, Mary Magdalene was depicted with a level of eroticism that provoked censure from orthodox viewers. However, things changed after the Council of Trent, the process that instigated the Catholic Revival, which took place between 1545 and 1563. You can hear more about the Counter Reformation in the 'Saints and Martyrs' tour in this room.

At the Council of Trent, Church fathers made a series of decrees, some of which concerned the body in art. The Council decreed that in religious imagery "all lasciviousness be avoided" and that "figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust." After Michelangelo's death in 1564, the artist Daniele da Volterra was brought in to paint drapery over the numerous naked genitals that Michelangelo had carefully painted onto the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in his The Last Judgment.

Veronese's Mary Magdalene is very much a post-Council of Trent depiction. This Magdalene is certainly beautiful, but she is perhaps not endowed with a "beauty exciting to lust." She is a virtuous figure: one bathed in celestial light, with tears that will "wash away her sins", and her right hand gesturing in a manner redolent of the Virgin Mary. At the time of painting her, Veronese had to watch his step.

Elsewhere in this room you will find Titian's image of Philip II in full regalia. Here he gives a different insight into the treatment of the body. In the Renaissance period the clothed body came to symbolize power and authority. In Spain, the armed portrait was particularly associated with Philip II. Here, the young heir to the throne wears a magnificent suit of armour – look at the stunning metalwork and expertly articulated joints. The burnished metal gleams beautifully against the red velvet cloth and Philip's soft white stockings and shoes.

Philip II could sometimes be prudish. In 1576, Francesco I de' Medici sent him a beautiful marble sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini of a naked Christ on the cross. Philip had Christ's genitals covered with a gold fig leaf. And yet here, in Titian's portrait, Philip is depicted sporting a prominent codpiece, in strange contrast with his prudishness. The codpiece was a pouch that was attached to the front of men's trousers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its name was derived from "cod", the Middle English word for scrotum. By Philip's time, codpieces had become so exaggerated as to convey explicit sexual advertisement. They emphasised rather than concealed the genitals, and attained a size suggestive of sexual excitement.

While he may have been squeamish about the depiction of male genitalia (other than his own), Philip II was an avid collector of Titian's female nudes, despite the prohibition of the time on owning paintings of the nude. Titian's images often depicted fleshy female nudes, bringing a highly eroticized, unashamed imagining to the naked body for the first time since antiquity. These more lascivious images would have been kept in private rooms with restricted access.

Saints and martyrs

In this room, you are surrounded by art of the Counter Reformation. After the Protestant challenge to the Church, the Catholic stalwarts – most especially Spain – summoned their energies to mount a counter-attack in order to uphold the supremacy of the Church. The Council of Trent, held by Church fathers in twenty-five sessions between 1545 and 1563, initiated this period of Catholic Revival.

The Council of Trent made a series of decrees, some of which concerned art. While the Protestants were retreating from the worship of icons and relics, the Catholics reasserted the importance of art in inspiring devotion.

Here is Spain, come to save the Church from heresy in the form of Protestants, symbolised as a group of horrid hissing snakes. You can see them to the right, writhing nastily behind the downtrodden figure draped in blue, symbolising the Church. Heresy can also be seen in the form of the Ottoman Turks, symbolised by the turbaned figure out to sea. The image was painted just after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, in which the Holy League, a coalition of Catholic states, defeated an attack by the Islamic Ottoman Empire. The enigmatic male face at the left is probably that of Philip II's half-brother, Don Juan de Austria, who commanded the Christian fleet at Lepanto. In this painting, Spain's powerful army marches in from the left, triumphantly upholding the might and the right of the Catholic Church. One female figure proudly brandishes the sword of Justice. It's a masterful image, full of vim and vigor, and it's one of Titian's last. This work was sent to Philip II just a year before Titian's death in 1576.

The Church was under no illusions when it came to the importance of these intense devotional images as religious propaganda. The Church sanctioned the veneration of relics and sacred images – albeit with a few changes. Depictions of the nude figure became prudish – you can hear about this in 'The Body' tour – and the viewer was expected to approach the religious images with a pious demeanour. Even though religious occasions might inspire a sense of festivity, the Council was clear: "the celebration of the saints, and the visitation of relics", it stated, were not to be "perverted into revellings and drunkenness". Art was, therefore, to be decorous and taken sober. With the Catholic Church as the major patron of the arts in Europe, these statements had a profound effect on the art of the period.

Prado Lotto

This Prado Lotto focuses on the painter Lorenzo Lotto – a double lot of Lotto!

In the 16th century, images of penitent saints came to play a dynamic role in personal devotion. In the 14th century, the quintessential image was Christ crucified on the cross but the focus shifted over time to images of sinners who had redeemed themselves through remorse and self-discipline. Saint Jerome was a popular figure of this style of personal reform.

St Jerome was a gifted, but worldly, scholar. One night, he was unnerved by a dream in which he was accused of being a pagan. As he later told his friend, he henceforth removed himself to "the remotest part of the wild and stony desert" with only "scorpions and wild beasts for company". In order to rid himself of physical desires, he said: "I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks."

The saint is customarily depicted striking his chest with a stone while contemplating the crucifix, however Lotto has presented him with arms extended, physically and spiritually imitating Christ on the Cross. Overhead, an angel holds a text stating, "Now he reads, now he prays, now he cries on his bosom for the sins committed." You can see his cardinal's hat lying discarded nearby, as well as a scull and a Bible. You'll also see his tools for self-mortification – there is a whip and also the stone used for beating his breast. The brilliant red of his robes also demands attention – it reminds us of the Venetian painters' love of vivid colours for dramatic effect.

Lorenzo Lotto painted this subject a number of times. This version was commissioned for the hospital chapel of the Ospedale dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, an institution funded by the Venetian government and powerfully aligned with the ideals of the Catholic Reformation. Lotto's picture, with its focus on penitence and self-mortification, made it highly suitable for the institution.

Room 3

The Carracci and their Legacy


The Prado is a collection primarily based on taste rather than a museological desire to present the history of western art; however, its holdings are so strong that it enables insights into various developments in Italian art. In this room and the next, you will explore the two main lineages of the early Baroque: the Carracci and the Caravaggisti. In here, you are surrounded by the elegant classicism of the Carracci school; next door, you'll find yourself immersed in the more 'down and dirty' realism of the Caravaggisti.

But, first, the Carracci… Here you are before Annibale Carracci's exquisite Assumption of the Virgin, a painting with a wonderfully imaginative composition – look at the terrific zigzag of figures that leads the eye up the image. It's quite a classical painting – you can see how ordered the composition is –

- and it's also a painting striving for realism – look at how lifelike the figures are and how naturalistic the setting is.

Annibale Carracci was instrumental in restoring an approach to art based on classical realism. This was a move against the Mannerist style, which had become dominant. Practiced by Florentine artists such as Michelangelo and Vasari, Mannerism was an urbane approach to art, which favoured artificial elongation and highly stylised forms. Carracci diverged from this, advocating a return to a classical approach. He encouraged the close study of the natural world and also attention to Venetian painters such as Titian, and Veronese, the proponents of the classical school of the Italian Renaissance.

The Carracci profoundly shaped Italian art of the seventeenth century. Annibale, together with his brother Agostino and cousin Ludovico, ran a large and influential school, the Accademia degli Incamminati, in Bologna. This room has work by a number of their students – including two of their best, Guido Reni and Francesco Albani. At the Carracci Academy the students were taught to find the "truth in nature". Drawing from life was a basic principle; the students diligently studied nature and also took their models from everyday life and the street. Another basic principle was to draw everything you set eyes on! The students drew relentlessly. One of the Academy's mottos was "Perfection through effort". This explains why there are thousands of drawings by the Carracci and their followers in collections all over the world. The Carracci also praised individuality. They encouraged their students to draw with invenzione and held regular competitions to stimulate students' creativity.

The Carracci integrated what had previously been two rather divergent techniques in art – those of colorito and disegno. If you remember, in the first room there were highly constructed drawings by Florentine artists such as Andrea del Sarto and Vasari. These artists advocated disegno – or drawing and design – as the basis of art. In Room 2, Venetian painters such as Titian and Veronese practiced a technique based on fluid brushwork and vivid colour, or colorito. The Carracci fused these two traditions. In Annibale's Assumption of the Virgin and Ludovico's The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, you can see that both techniques are crucial. Colorito and disegno are fully – and brilliantly – integrated into the one artistic approach.

The Body

Here you are before Guido Reni's celebrated painting of St Sebastian. He was a Christian martyr; the patron saint of soldiers, a protector from plague; and a gay icon.

Sebastian was a Roman soldier who suffered martyrdom for his Christian faith at the end of the third century AD. Sebastian is usually depicted bound to a tree and pierced with arrows in what turned out to be a failed attempt to kill him. This is how Guido Reni has depicted him in this image. This is one of Reni's most famous compositions.

St Sebastian first became popular during the Black Death, when the saint's message of grace despite bodily suffering was particularly appropriate. Over time, this notion of "beauty in suffering" has proved compelling and it has been re-interpreted many times.

For instance, St Sebastian was beloved by Oscar Wilde. Wilde found Sebastian's message of grace in suffering an uplifting when he imprisoned for his so-called crime of "gross indecency" with other men. Wilde was much taken with Reni's depiction. He wrote: "the vision of Guido's Saint Sebastian came before my eyes … a lovely brown boy, with crisp, clustering hair and red lips, raising his eyes with divine, impassioned gaze towards the Eternal Beauty of the opening Heavens".

Reni's Sebastian was also famously elevated as a gay icon by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. In his autobiography Confessions of a mask from 1949, Mishima wrote that it was a picture of the painting in a book that awakened his homosexuality. The heady mix of pleasure and pain in Reni's image was full of erotic energy for Mishima.

Countless other artists and writers such as Thomas Mann, Derek Jarman, Susan Sontag, Julian Schnabel and even the band REM – have been fascinated by the figure of Saint Sebastian and his message of "beauty in suffering".

Reni's image is full of languid eroticism – actually, it proved a little too heady for some. If you look closely at the saint's loincloth, you will see that the side on your left is badly painted compared with the rest. Someone evidently found Reni's work too risqué and commissioned a painter to cover Sebastian up.

Saints and martyrs

This is Guido Reni's image of The Apostle Saint James the Greater. It's a powerful image - look at the bold colours and strong forms. Reni was a star pupil of the Carracci school. He also came under the influence of Caravaggio, whom you will hear more about in the next room. Reni's image fuses Caravaggio's realism with the Caracci's classicism. It's an image that is both idealised and realistic and it carries a great psychological charge.

At the time this was painted, saints such as Saint James the Greater provided a problem for Church leaders. Protestant reformers accused the Catholics of having too many saints and relics. The Protestant thought the Catholics were peddling false gods, just like in the pagan era.

These accusations triggered a crisis in the Catholic Church. The worship of saints was a central part of people's lives, and the Church was reluctant to interfere. At the council of Trent, the Catholic Church confronted this problem. The Church upheld the worship of saints, however serious efforts were made to authenticate the lives of saints and their relics.

Why, then, did Saint James cause concern? The Catholic Church could easily defend "universal" saints, such as the Virgin Mary; however, the creation of more "local" saints – like Saint James here - was harder to justify. Every year, thousands made a pilgrimage to Compostela to venerate him and the Church didn't want to hamper this

Other features in this room relate to the Catholic Churches push to create an "approved" list of saints. There is a wonderful feature in Annibale Carracci's painting The Assumption of the Virgin. In the centre of the image, you can see a figure holding up a piece of white fabric. This is the Virgin Mary's girdle. She has passed it down to Saint Thomas as a form of material proof.

Nearby, you can see Ludovico Carracci's The Ecstasy of St Francis. St Francis of Assisi was a role model after the Council of Trent. St Francis had enjoyed a youth of frolicking, but he ultimately gave all this up to live a life of religious devotion and poverty. Ludovico's image depicts an episode from Francis's life in Porziuncola in Assisi. It was here that St Francis was said to have overcome lustful thoughts by rolling in rosebushes. Legend has it that red roses sprang up where drops of blood hit the ground.

Prado Lotto

Guido Reni was one of the Carracci's most exceptional pupils. In 1601, he and Francesco Albani moved to Rome under the leadership of Annibale Carracci, who was commissioned to create frescos in the Farnese Palace that are now regarded as his masterwork. In the case here, you can see an incredible preparatory drawing, featuring exhilarating linework.

After the completion of his work in the Farnese Palace, Guido Reni stayed in Rome and experienced much success, becoming Rome's leading painter of the 17th Century. He also travelled to Naples to undertake a commission but was chased out by the so-called "Cabal of Naples". This was a fiercely territorial group of local artists. The cabal conspired against Reni, allegedly aiming to hurt or poison him. Luckily, he took note and left town.

The artist Domenichino, Reni's colleague from the Carracci academy, was not so fortunate. In 1631, Domenichino went to Naples to take up a lucrative commission. However, he never completed the work, because he died from poisoning at the hands of the Cabal.

Room 4

The Rise of the Caravaggisti


Welcome to the room of shadows… Here you are surrounded by the work of the Caravaggisti, the followers of the artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Caravaggisti were also sometimes called the Tenebrosi, meaning the tenebrists, or "the shadowists", and it's not hard to see why. Many paintings in this room feature a strong contrast between light and dark. Look at the intense shaft of light in Matthias Stom's work. Much of the image is in gloomy darkness, aside from the brilliant light illuminating the chest of Christ. This intensified contrast of dark shadows and strong light is called tenebrism. It's an exaggerated chiaroscuro and it's one of the hallmarks of this school of painters.

So too is a sense of radical realism. Look at the naturalism of Christ's body, accentuated by Thomas plunging his fingers into the fleshy meat. The Caravaggisti followed a determined realism and refused to idealize their subjects – right down to dirty feet. When you see Cecco del Caravaggio's Guardian Angel with Saint Ursula and Thomas, make sure to look at the undersides of the feet – they are very grubby indeed! These painters were famed for painting the "low life" of seventeenth century Italy – the fortune-tellers, drinkers, vagrants and gamblers. They chose swarthy models from taverns and sometimes even gaols, and hired prostitutes to work as female life models.

"Dirty realism" was just one of a number of provocative strategies employed by the Caravaggisti. Another was their almost complete disavowal of drawing. As you've heard, the notion that drawing was a fundamental technique was drummed into artists. However, the Caravaggisti shocked the artistic community by painting directly from life models. These artistic renegades arranged models and props in their studios, boldly lit the scene with a single source of light, and then painted it directly onto the canvas.

Caravaggio was a notorious ruffian; he fraternised with a dangerous urban underclass and was frequently drunk, brawling or imprisoned. He was born in Milan but left for Rome in 1592, allegedly fleeing after injuring a police officer. He arrived penniless but over time developed a prominent if idiosyncratic profile. He was a profound influence on the painters Orazio Gentileschi and Cecco del Caravaggio, whose paintings you can see in this room. Guido Reni – whom you met in the last room – also fell under the spell of this intense artist when he travelled to Rome.

In 1606, Caravaggio killed a man and was forced to leave Rome. He fled to Naples, where he exerted a formidable influence on artists such as Jusepe de Ribera and, through Ribera, Pietro Novelli, Andrea Vaccaro and Luca Giordano, of all whom have works in this room. Curiously, the Prado only holds one work by Caravaggio but acquired many works of his followers.

In his art as in his life, Caravaggio radically divided opinion. Some deplored his provocative tactics – the disavowal of drawing, the unidealised realism, and the dirty feet. Yet others admired his spirit of radical innovation.

Caravaggio died at the age of 38 in suspicious circumstances, probably a victim of lead poisoning. During the Baroque, the Caravaggisti's influence was relatively short-lived, yet their influence on art has been profound. Many artists – then and now – have taken inspiration from the Caravaggisti's bold experimentation and high-contrast stylistic approach.

The Body

A persistent theme here is the naked and suffering male body. There is no denying it - this room is morbid.

The tortured male body emerged as a potent theme in Counter Reformation art. Great pleasure was taken in the body throughout Antiquity and also during the Renaissance. However, during the Counter Reformation the body was viewed as an obstacle to spiritual salvation. Strict Christians considered pleasure in the body to be sinful. The destruction of the flesh was seen to be liberating. You can see a focus on martyrdom in this room.

Many works in this room are extremely realistic. The religious leader St Ignatius of Loyola encouraged Catholics to try to identify physically and spiritually with depictions of the sufferings of Christ and the martyrs. Consequently, many Counter Reformation artists worked with the highest realism possible. Crespi's painting of Christ is strikingly real. Crespi has depicted the anatomy very accurately – look at the fleshy gash and the grey complexion of Christ's face.

If you look around this room you will notice that the women are usually very modestly depicted – look at them, covered in yards of fabric. During the seventeenth century, lascivious paintings were illegal in Spain. This prudish disposition was an effect of the Counter Reformation but it was also reinforced by the taste of King Philip lll who reigned from 1598 to 1628. Philip lll disapproved of anything unless it was highly devotional. Despite this prudishness, many monarchs and collectors owned paintings of nude bodies. Somewhat amusingly, the number of paintings made of the Immaculate Conception at the time, equal those of Venus, and those of Venus would have almost certainly been scantily clad. Such spicy paintings would have been exhibited in private rooms where women were not allowed. Any nudes in public spaces were covered whenever the Queen passed.

The other way to wriggle around the rule against lasciviousness was to choose subjects where nudity was a central theme. This included Biblical subjects such as Lot and his daughters, which you see in this room. Francesco Furini's version of Lot is a sensitive one but also a spicy one – the voluptuous buttocks of one of the daughters are front and centre in the image. The story of Lot was popular in seventeenth-century Florence – it gave Baroque painters permission to depict nude women in sensual poses. It's a pretty intense story from the New Testament. Having lost their husbands when Sodom perished, Lot's daughters decide to inebriate their elderly father and have sex with him to assure the continuance of their family.

Furini's painting is a sumptuous one. He had fallen under the spell of Leonardo da Vinci, and his use of da Vinci's technique of sfumato – the use of subtle graduations between tones – lends a smoky atmosphere to the painting. Furini had a strong understanding of the female form. He developed this through the study of Antique nudes but also life models. In fact, Furini achieved notoriety at the time by continuing to draw the female nude even after taking Holy Orders.

The female nude in Pietro Negri's Vanitas is not as naturalistic. Michelangelo's heroic nudes were still influential at the time. It has been remarked that Michelangelo's female nudes seem more like muscular male figures to which female breasts have been somewhat unconvincingly attached. Negri's Vanitas has echoes of this.

Saints and martyrs

Poor old Saint Francis has fainted. He had a visitation from an angel and the shock of it pretty much knocked him out. Brother Leo saw it and described it like this:

"All of a sudden there was a dazzling light. It was as though the heavens were exploding and splashing forth all their glory in millions of waterfalls of colours and stars. In the centre of that bright whirlpool was a core of blinding light. It flashed down with terrifying speed until suddenly it stopped in front of Francis. It was a fiery figure with wings"

Well, if that appeared before me, I'd probably pass out too.

This image, and Cecco del Caravaggio's nearby, feature glorious angels. They look mighty in these paintings, but they were under serious attack. During the Counter Reformation the existence of angels was questioned. For Protestants and sceptics, angels were ridiculous examples of blind superstition. They were an absurd hangover from medieval times.

Despite this mockery, the Catholic Church stood up for angels and upheld their faith in them. Angels found strong support from St Ignatius of Loyola, the influential theologian and founder of the Jesuits.

Ignatius was a Spanish nobleman who had a religious conversion after being injured in a battle. He gave up worldly goods and retreated to a cave where he prayed for up to seven hours a day. In his influential text Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius stated that angles were an important aid to devotion. He stated that Christ was most important, Mary second, but then followed "the angels, the holy Fathers, Apostles, disciples and all the saints". So, Ignatius defended angels, and their position became totally secure in the 1670s when Pope Clement X made them official.

Many paintings in this room consider ideas around faith and proof. This was a significant preoccupation of the time. The Protestants had harshly criticised the Catholic Church for its unregulated proliferation of saints and their relics. In response, the Catholic Church was bringing in much tighter controls around the canonization of saints and their relics. Consequently, notions of proof and authentication became important.

Have a look at Bernardo Strozzi's charming image of St. Veronica. Saint Veronica dried the sweat and blood of Christ as he carried his cross to Calvary. When she removed the cloth from Christ's face, Veronica discovered a miracle – the cloth bore the image of Christ. The Catholic Church decided to keep "Veronica's Veil" in its canon of miraculous relics – there was sufficient proof to uphold it.

The great enforcer of "correct faith" at this time was the Spanish Inquisition, most especially its gruesome practice of auto-da-fé, or "act of faith". That was the public burning of heretics at the stake. There had been inquisitions since 1478, but they intensified in the mid sixteenth century in the fight against the Protestants. There were few Protestants in Spain and it's not hard to see why – the auto-da-fé was a powerful deterrent.

For another terrific Saints and Martyrs story, listen to Prado Lotto for the story of Saint Lawrence…

Prado Lotto

I'm afraid that this Prado Lotto is nothing but grisly stories…

Two images in this room depict the story of The martyrdom of St Lawrence. The smaller version, by Jusepe de Ribera, is from the NGV's own collection. It was an exciting acquisition in 2006. Ribera was Spanish but lived almost entirely in Italy. He was nicknamed Lo Spagnoletto, "the Little Spaniard". Ribera was an influential artist, but he was also notorious as the leader of the "Cabal of Naples". This was a group of thuggish painters who violently protected their monopoly on painting commissions. They were especially menacing to the Carracci and their followers. If you listened to the Prado Lotto in the last room, you'll know just how dangerous they were.

There is also an imposing painting of St Lawrence by Valentin de Boulogne, a French émigré who lived in Rome. He hung around with a rowdy group of Dutch and Flemish artists that loitered about the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo. They called themselves "Birds of a Feather". One night, out with this dubious mob, de Boulogne fell into a fountain in a drunken stupor. He caught a terrible cold that led to his death.

I'm afraid that the story of Saint Lawrence is not any cheerier…

Lawrence was born in Spain near the Pyrenees Mountains around 227 AD. He moved to Rome to become a deacon where his role was looking after the Church's treasures and distributing alms to the poor.

The Emperor of the time – Emperor Valerian – was set against the Church. Valerian ordered Lawrence to hand over the Church's treasures. Lawrence asked for three days to complete his task. During this time he gathered up the Church's treasures, sold them, and distributed the outcomes to the poor.

At the end of the three days, Lawrence went to the Emperor Valerian without gold or silver. Instead he had a crowd of the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, what Lawrence called "the true treasures of the Church". You can see some of them at the left of the composition. Emperor Valerian was furious at Lawrence's insolence and sentenced him to a slow death.

A great gridiron was prepared with hot coals placed beneath it. You can see them glowing under the iron frame in de Boulogne's rendition. Lawrence's body was placed on it and made to slowly burn.

Those present stated that Lawrence's face looked peaceful and that, rather than smell the burning flesh, the scent of sweet nectar perfumed the air. Legend also has it that, after searing for a while on the grill, Lawrence called out, "Turn me over! I'm done!" That is why he is the patron saint of cooks.

The Escorial Palace, which is the home of the Spanish Royalty in Madrid, is dedicated to St Lawrence. In honour of the Spanish martyr, the floor plan of the Escorial was designed in a gridiron pattern.

Room 5

Buen Retiro Palace


The Buen Retiro palace officially opened in 1633. It was built on the orders of King Philip IV. The palace was situated on the edge of Madrid on a site that was home to the monastery of San Jerónimo el Real. It's not far from where the Museo del Prado is today. Philip was fond of the area: prior to the construction of the Buen Retiro, he would stay in a room annexed to the monastery and enjoy walks in the landscape. The Buen Retiro was built as a country house for the Royal Family – their "good retreat".

Philip IV became King in 1605, and his reign was an exciting time for art. Philip was passionate about the arts, particularly theatre and painting. He was determined to build a collection of artworks of the highest quality. In 1652 an ambassador observed that: "Nowadays nothing pleases the king as much as the gift of notable pictures."

The ambition of the Buen Retiro project was unrivalled in the seventeenth century. The project included a vast park with gardens, fountains, a menagerie, an aviary, a theatre and a lake large enough to accommodate sailing ships. The site also contained six sanctuaries, home to religious hermits supported by the King.

Philip was genuinely devoted to art, but the Buen Retiro was also a grand political advertisement. Philip's reign was beset by political difficulties, including the Thirty Years' War, the longest continuous war in history. Consequently, the Buen Retiro was part of a campaign to promote the Spanish Monarchy and ward off any whiff of imperial decline. It worked; for a while. You can hear more about the decline of the Hapsburgs in this room's "Prado Lotto".

A massive commissioning project was undertaken to fill the palace with excellent artworks. A staggering eight hundred new works were commissioned – you can see twenty of them in this exhibition.

The commissions were in three distinct series. The "Hall of Realms" paintings celebrated the Spanish Monarchy. It was appropriate that Spanish artists undertake these commissions. This series included, for instance, equestrian portraits of the Royal Family by Diego Velázquez.

Secondly, there were commissions of "Landscape and Flower" paintings. Next door, you will see Mario Nuzzi's flower works and in this room are two landscapes by Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain.

The third series explored "The History of Rome". Around you you'll see emperors, gladiators, elephant parades, an amphitheatre and stories of mythology.

Unfortunately, only two rooms from the Buen Retiro palace survive today. In the eighteenth century, Charles III distributed the Buen Retiro collection across different Royal residences. This was perhaps fortunate: the palace suffered damage in 1808 when Napoleon's troops were stationed there during the Peninsula Wars. In the nineteenth century Isabella II attempted to restore the palace, but it was deemed irreparable and subsequently demolished.

The Body

In the previous room, the male body was often depicted in a deteriorated state. In here, however, the men are fit and strong. They have bulked up and buffed up! This room presents a return to the heroic male body. There are also some pretty heroic women too.

When designing the Buen Retiro, Imperial Rome provided an example to follow – and to surpass. The Buen Retiro was designed to rival the palaces of the greatest Roman Emperors. Many decorative schemes of the palace borrowed the iconography of Imperial Rome. One of the most important commissions for the palace was the History of Ancient Rome cycle.

This included three narrative sets. One set related to events in an emperor's public life, such as images of his military career. The second set related to scenes drawn from mythology. Look for Poussin's monumental painting of a boar hunt from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

The third set related to the recreational pursuits of the Roman people. In here you can see Andrea di Lione's charming parade of elephants, a kind of Ancient Roman version of half-time entertainment. There is also Jusepe de Ribera's not-so-charming image of Women gladiators fighting. The Romans are infamous for their love of blood sports. Female gladiators existed in ancient Rome, and they polarised opinion. Some Romans – including Emperor Nero – delighted in them as a novel form of entertainment. Others found the spectacle distasteful or ridiculous. Ribera's image is a tense one in which the victor is poised to administer the coup de grâce to her opponent.

Ancient Greek and Roman artists depicted the body with idealised perfection. They venerated strength and vitality and portrayed their athletes and warriors as strong, almost super-human types. There are many examples in this room of Classical Antiquity's love of "the body beautiful". Giovanni Lanfranco's painting of An Auger sacrificing for a Roman Emperor is a good example. It features two brawny and basically naked Roman men. Look at those muscles ripple as they drag those sheep about!

Saints and martyrs

Here is Viviano Codazzi and Domenico Gargiulo's gigantic painting of a Roman amphitheatre. These artists were commissioned to make four artworks for the Buen Retiro on the theme of the Roman's recreational pursuits. This included paintings of a circus, a gymnasium, a "naumachia" or mock naval battle, and this one of an amphitheatre.

The amphitheatre continues to be a subject that fascinates. It was the setting for Roman public spectacles, such as gladiator contests, chariot races, animal fights and executions. This painting depicts a venatio, or the slaying of wild animals. These fights included diverse creatures such as elephants, rhinoceros, lions, bears, crocodiles, and dogs. Animals were transported from as far as Africa or the Middle East and in great numbers too: the opening of the Colosseum saw 9,000 animals killed.

The venatio often featured professional animal fighters – that's the event depicted here. The amphitheatre was also home to the grisly practice of Damnatio ad bestias – that's Latin for "condemnation to beasts". This was a form of capital punishment in which the condemned were thrown into an arena filled with wild animals. This mode of execution was reserved for the most loathed criminals, including Christians.

For much of the Roman period, Christians were a persecuted class. They were regarded as a secretive group practicing suspicious rituals. Their punishment was to be "thrown to the lions", and it was an event that allegedly inspired frenzied delight in the Roman public.

The most infamous period of Christian persecutions was under Emperor Nero. Seeking a scapegoat for a terrible fire that had destroyed parts of Rome, Nero blamed the Christian community. As a form of retaliation, he condemned many to death. Some were crucified or thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre, while others were burned alive as living torches in Nero's garden.

On a less bloodthirsty note… another prominent theme in the Buen Retiro palace was that of hermit saints. The site had historically been home to the cloisters of San Jerónimo, a monastery dedicated to the reclusive St Jerome. Religious recluses continued to live in the six hermitages on the property.

Incidentally, St Jerome was a dab hand in taming lions. The story goes that one day a lion limped over to St Jerome and held out his paw, which had a thorn stuck in it. St Jerome removed it and bandaged the wound. After that, the lion was tamed. In fact, the lion grew so fond of Jerome that it took up residence in the monastery, even assisting in jobs. If only all relations between lions and Christians were so friendly.

Prado Lotto

You are now in front of a swashbuckling image by Luca Giordano. It's a scene from Ferdinand the Catholic's capture of Granada in the late fifteenth century. It's a furious battle, but the Spanish are victorious. You can see the Turkish giving up their stronghold and surrendering.

This exhibition has a few artworks by Luca Giordano, a celebrated artist from the late Baroque era. Giordano's ability to work with remarkable speed across diverse styles earned him a host of nicknames. For instance, he was called Luca Fa Presto (that's "Luca, Work Quickly") and Fulmine (that's "The Thunderbolt"). Giordano was born in Naples and apprenticed to Jusepe di Ribera but he later moved to Spain to become court painter for King Charles II, Philip's successor.

The role of court painter for the King was certainly a prized one, but with King Charles II it also presented difficulties. Charles was called el Hechizado – "The Bewitched" – because of his many physical, intellectual and emotional disabilities. He surprised everyone by living to the age of thirty-nine. His deficiencies were most likely hereditary, caused by generations of inbreeding amongst the Spanish royal family. They had continued to inter-marry to preserve their wealth.

Charles' intellectual and physical constraints meant that he was never able to rule without assistance. His inability to provide robust leadership resulted in ongoing power struggles. At the time, Spain was dealing with immense difficulties, including famine, natural disasters, almost continuous war, and a stagnating economy. Unsurprisingly, Charles' reign was haunted by the notion of imperial decline.

Consequently, an important task of the artists at the royal court was to advertise the robustness of the Spanish monarchy. Luca Giordano did this by representing the greatness of the Spanish monarchy in a symbolic way, rather than directly depicting the figure of Charles. The painting here is an example of this: it's a relatively generic depiction of battle, but one in which the Spanish Monarchy are clearly victorious and powerful. Through paintings like this, the Spanish monarchy could be glorified without drawing attention to the particular difficulties of Charles II's situation.

Room 6

Still Lives


Right now you must feel like you are suspended in a bouquet of flowers. Surrounding you are the most beautiful tulips, lilies, irises, carnations, peonies also a turtle and some cheese.

Most of the works in this room are by the celebrated Roman flower artist Mario Nuzzi. This artist earned himself the title "Mario dei Fiori" or "Mario of the Flowers" for his pre-eminence in the genre of flower painting. During the mid-seventeenth century, he was the most celebrated Italian still-life artist in Europe. The Prado possesses five flower works painted by Nuzzi for the Buen Retiro palace; four are here in this room. You can imagine how beautiful these works would look against the ornate interiors of the palace.

Nuzzi's compositions present still lives of dazzling and seemingly endless variety. Flowers burst exuberantly in each composition, along with other narrative intrigues, such as a hungry squirrel, an idle violin, or a rustic bunch of onions. Each image is predicated on a rigorous naturalism. Nuzzi kept a botanical garden in Rome, which was tended by his father. This would have assisted him to undertake the careful observation of nature that was central to his art. He was the most gifted painter of this genre – no one could match his acute observations of the botanical world. You can see the influence of Caravaggio here too, not only in the hyper-naturalism but also in the dramatic lighting that strongly illuminates some pictorial elements while leaving others in the gloom.

The landscape and flower paintings created for the Buen Retiro were extremely innovative – such scenes had never before been painted. The Buen Retiro artists were experimenting with bold new possibilities in these genres, both of which were relatively new for the time.

The commissions for the Buen Retiro involved many challenges. First, the enormous scale of the works required new approaches. Landscape and flower works had never been painted on such a large scale. The flower painters also had the challenge of having to work in an unusual horizontal format.

Furthermore, the architectural constraints at the Buen Retiro created obstacles. In the Landscape Gallery, the flower paintings were to be hung above balconies, and the landscapes between balconies. Not only did these paintings have to be of excellent quality, but painters had to work to specific sizes and formats. There were also rules governing the scale of human figures and the placement of the horizon. These rules were so that the room would work as a whole when artworks by different painters were installed together.

The Buen Retiro is consequently full of atypical and often idiosyncratic works. Many artists were pushed into new territory, commissioned to paint subjects that were not only unfamiliar to them but also often far removed from their sensibilities. Some artists journeyed into new territory and sometimes never went there again.

The Buen Retiro project was the catalyst for some of the best and boldest artists in history to create fascinating new works in various genres.

So now, take some time out and go smell the roses... Bravissimo Mario dei Fiori!

Prado lotto

This turtle is almost more real than a real turtle. Look at the careful attention paid to its scaly flippers, its wrinkly neck, its hooked nose and beady eye. The other sea creatures are also painted with startling naturalism – surrounding the turtle are bass, mullet, bream and squid. The droplets of water on the rocky surface intensify the freshness of the scene.

Giuseppe Recco's virtuosity in the field of still life was unparalleled among his contemporaries. He was the most celebrated Neapolitan genre artist of the second half of the seventeenth century. Luca Giordano often commissioned him to paint flower details. His excellence in the field was recognised by King Charles II, who summoned Recco to the Spanish Court in 1695. Unfortunately he never made it; he died after landing at the port of Alicante on his way to Madrid. His two daughters, Elena and Nicola Maria, both went on to become still life painters.

Artists such as Giuseppe Recco did much to advance the genre of still life. Previously, the painting of flowers, fruit and food was deemed secondary or incidental to the painting of humans or historical and religious subjects. Yet, the traditional hierarchy of genres was under challenge and, through the work of artists such as Recco and Nuzzi, the genre of still life was emerging in its own right.

In this room you will also see a terrific kitchen still life by a mysterious artist known only by his monogram "S.B." Who was S.B.? And why did he want his identity to remain cloaked? Cheese and poultry are not generally controversial subjects.

Art historians are not sure of this artist's identity. The monogram "S.B." exists in various configurations on several works that appear to have been painted between 1633 and 1655. S.B.'s work bears a strong connection to that of Tommaso Salini, an earlier Roman genre painter who died in 1625. Salini, incidentally, was Mario Nuzzi's teacher. Because of the resemblance to Salini's work, S.B. is sometimes called "the Pseudo-Salini".

Hopefully, the ongoing detective work of art historians will reveal more about this enigmatic artist.

Room 7

Spain and Italian Art in the 18th Century


In this room, Spain becomes a bit French. Let me explain:

In the year 1700, King Charles II died without producing an heir. This meant the end of the Hapsburg dynasty in Spain. Since the early 1500s, the Austrian Hapsburgs had built up a formidable empire – for more than a century Spain was the world superpower. But now, with the death of Charles II, the line was extinct.

In his will, Charles II bequeathed his properties to King Louis XIV of France, otherwise known as the "Sun King". The French King rapidly accepted them and installed his grandson Philip, Duke of Anjou, as the new King Philip V of Spain. Thus, the rule of the Kingdom of Spain was passed from the Austrian Hapsburgs to the French House of Bourbon.

The new century and the new dynasty largely picked up where the Hapsburgs had left off. Luca Giordano was still court painter when the new Bourbon King arrived. Like his predecessor Charles II, the new king spent hours watching Giordano paint. They must have seemed an odd pair: the old Italian painter watched over by an energetic, 17-year-old king, who was so different to his ineffectual predecessor.

By the mid-century, Italian painting maintained significance but shifts in taste were occurring. King Philip had been born at Versailles and, not surprisingly, he instituted French customs at the Spanish court. This included luring French artists to Madrid. There was also growing interest in the work of local artists, such as Francisco de Goya.

The eighteenth century brought in a new model for Spanish patronage of Italian artists. Previously the Spanish had imported works by Italian artists but in the eighteenth century the preferred model was to bring key artists to Madrid. This practice began with Luca Giordano and continued with Corrado Giaquinto and, later, the Tiepolos.

There are three extraordinary works in this gallery by Corrado Giaquinto, an artist who moved to Spain in 1753. His paintings feature fluid brushwork, exquisite colouring and an extraordinary sense of illusionistic depth. Giaquinto deserves to be better known in art history. His flamboyant Rococo style is comparable with that of his more famous French counterparts, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Following Giaquinto's departure from Spain in 1762, Giambattista Tiepolo and his two sons, Giandomenico and Lorenzo, were enticed to Madrid. The Tiepolos' wonderfully playful paintings exude the era's interest in "capriccio" and "fantasia" – caprice and fantasy. The Tiepolos were the last great Italian artists to work in Spain. Giambattista's death in Madrid in 1770 marked the decline of the formidable Italian influence in Spain.

The second half of the eighteenth century saw a radical change in artistic taste brought about by the influence of the Neoclassical painter and theorist Anton Raphael Mengs. When you see the drawings by Mengs, Pompeo Batoni and Donati Creti, you will immediately notice a different mood.

The Napoleonic era brought a further decline in Italian influence, especially with the end of Spanish rule on the Italian peninsula.

In 1819, the Museo del Prado opened its doors. It was home to the royal collection, now bequeathed to the people of Spain. The Museo del Prado's collection reflects the tastes of different royals. The Spanish monarchs were uninterested in an encyclopedic approach to art: rather, they indulged their tastes and monopolized the artworks of their favourite painters. Overall, the Museo del Prado's collection of Italian painting is rich and uneven in equal measure. Some artists' works are noticeably absent, while those of others – most especially Titian – are present in great numbers.

The Body

Now, a "wardrobe slip" like this would never have happened in the Counter Reformation. The lovely excess of skin in this painting evidences new freedoms in the treatment of the body. The emergence of the Rococo style in the eighteenth century ushered in a renewed delight in flesh. The three works by Giaquinto here are wonderful examples: each depicts a potent tangle of bodies.

The Italian Rococo ushered in a triumphant return to the female form. This displaced the prevailing focus on the male nude. Artists delighted in depictions of sensuous women, both clothed and unclothed, and often multiplied to erotic excess. In contrast to the flayed bodies of the martyrs and the de-sexualized bodies of the hermit saints, the bodies in this room are built for pleasure.

The works in this room are often flamboyantly decorative and highly animated. Many are also witty – for instance, you will find a drawing in the display case of Hercules, the hyper-masculine Greek warrior, doing housework. As punishment for committing a murder, Hercules was sold as a slave to Omphale, Queen of Lydia. She made him do housework, apparently in the nude.

At the end of the century there was a swing away from the sensuous Rococo towards the more serious style of Neo-Classicism. Two Germans initiated this change: the painter and theorist Anton Raphael Mengs and his close friend the art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. They were helped along by the recent excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which renewed interest in the Classical. In the display case, you will see Mengs' Study for the dead Christ and two hyper-muscular nudes by Pompeo Batoni and Donati Creti. These works exemplify the return to the idealised classical nude.

Mengs may have brought an end to the Rococo era's love of buxom nudes tumbling down from heaven, but he also saved many nudes. King Charles III, who ruled from 1759 to 1788, was a zealous puritan. He was so offended by nudes in the collection that he ordered them to be destroyed. This was almost the end for master works by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, and also Francesco Albani's two forest scenes, which you saw in the Carracci room. Thanks to Mengs they survived. He hid the offending works away, some in "restricted access" rooms at the Buen Retiro palace Ladies were most definitely not allowed.

Saints and martyrs

Here is Giambattista Tiepolo's resplendent image of the Virgin Mary. She was a figure absolutely loved by the Spanish – for centuries they had been passionately devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary. This included campaigning so she could have her own special feast day. In 1467, after nearly a century of intense lobbying by the monarch, clergy and people of Spain, Pope Sixtus officially proclaimed the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It was the last time any Pope relented to public pressure to acknowledge a saint or holy day.

Giambattista Tiepolo's painting, then, depicts a highly popular subject in Spain. This depiction of The Immaculate Conception was created for an altarpiece. It displays Tiepolo's love for cool colour harmonies – for blues, greens and whites – that are enlivened by splashes of gold. Interestingly, in Tiepolo's image, Mary is given universal significance, rather than positioned as a local Spanish saint. The local symbols have disappeared in favour of universal ones, such as the dove and the crown of stars. She also seems to be standing on the earth – her triumph is complete!

One of the more intense paintings in this room is The Crown of Thorns by Giandomenico Tiepolo. Giandomenico has attempted to modernize this age-old subject by setting the scene in eighteenth-century Venice. Giandomenico had recently returned to Venice after years of living with his father and brother in Spain. The sudden death of his father, Giambattista, in Spain in 1770 was the catalyst for his return to Venice.

As well as setting his subject in a contemporary time, Giandomenico has engaged formal devices to closely involve the viewer in this ancient drama. As viewers, we feel very much part of the crowd. We peer across the figure in blue in the foreground that seems to share our space. We look around the crowd members and take in their curious responses. It's a horrible scene: Christ appears as a translucent figure in unearthly white. He sits calmly but sadly resigned to his fate. We are like the young woman, dressed in contemporary eighteenth-century costume, whose face peeps out from behind the Jewish elder to the left of the painting. We watch as the Crown of Thorns is painfully pushed down on the head of Christ's. Giandomenico does not let us become innocent bystanders in this scene – we are made fully complicit.

Prado Lotto

Welcome to Prado Lotto from the grotto. Here is Gaspare Vanvitelli's painting of the Seiano Grotto, a 700-metre tunnel built by the Romans and a "must see" for Englishmen on their Grand Tour. It's a charming picture: you can see a group of stylish travellers reading a commemorative plaque while Italian locals go about their business.

In this room there are many paintings of eighteenth-century folk enjoying themselves on all manner of outings. There is a party gathered in front of Trajan's Arch, another group fishing at Posillipo, and – more fantastically – Achilles and his friends romping around an architectural folly. After the austerity of the Counter Reformation, perhaps Europeans needed some romping.

Images depicting notable sights were common at the time. There are many examples in this room of the genre of vedute, or "view paintings", a genre that emerged at the end of the seventeenth century. There are also images of theatre sets. The two genres are related: many vedutisti started as theatre set-painters and diversified into view paintings.

Vedute were often created as mementos of trips. This is exemplified here by the painting of the dashing young English nobleman Francis Basset. Poor Francis never got this souvenir of his Grand Tour. (Rotten bloody luck!) It was on its way to him on the British ship the Westmorland when the ship was captured. King Charles III bagged most of the goods, which explains how a portrait of a young Brit ended up in the Prado.

Two curious examples of vedute are the Venetian street scenes by Giandomenico Tiepolo. Look for Il ciarlatano veneziano (The Venetian charlatan) and Il nuovo mondo (The New World). There is a lovely wry humour at work in these paintings: both engage the viewer in a kind of game. Take The New World, for instance. Some brouhaha is drawing a crowd, but Tiepolo has deliberately obscured our view of events. Such an image was called a capriccio – or caprice. This was an eighteenth-century genre that delighted in visual tricks such as blocking views in order to stimulate the imagination of the viewer. Giandomenico makes us piece together information by looking at the faces of those in the crowd – and their backs. Let's be honest, all we can really see are people's backs!