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Madrid’s Prado Museum (5:21)

Madrid, Spain

Once the most powerful man in Europe, Emperor Charles V amassed a most impressive collection of paintings by the great masters. Works by Titian, Bosch, Velázquez, and Goya each tell a fascinating story.

Complete Video Script

Today, Spain enjoys its peace and prosperity. That’s particularly clear at the Retiro Park. It’s made to order for a green and breezy escape from the city. During weekends it becomes a carnival of fun. Madrid’s much-loved “Central Park” offers splendid picnicking, row boating, and people-watching.

Opposite the park, the Prado Museum holds my favorite collection of paintings anywhere. The paintings give an eye-pleasing overview of Spain's rich history, from the Golden Age through its slow fade.

In the 1500s, Spain was Europe's superpower, flush with gold from newly discovered America, and ruled by this man: Emperor Charles V. Here the great Venetian artist Titian portrays Charles as he was — the most powerful man in the world.

Charles' son, Philip II, though very religious collected a bevy of sensual Venetian paintings.

In Titian’s Venus and the Organ Player, we see the conflicts these people struggled with — torn between high cultural pursuits — as symbolized here by music — and more worldly pleasures.

Danae, also by Titian, is a virtual Renaissance “Miss August.” Money falling from the sky made royals and aristocrats — the people who commissioned this kind of art — feel their wealth was blessed by God.

Hieronymous Bosch — who painted 500 years ago and seems radical even today — gives all this hedonism a different spin. His Garden of Earthly Delights — a three-paneled altarpiece that actually hung in the king’s bedroom — shows where all this worldly temptation ultimately leads.

First, man and woman are born innocent in the Garden of Eden, blessed by a kind God. Then, foolish people chase after earthly delights — a pursuit that is ultimately a vicious cycle. They're lured by the world’s pleasures: eating…drinking…sex. Two lovers are suspended in a bubble….

…and in the third panel, the bubble pops. These party animals are heading straight to hell…a burning, post-apocalyptic, wasteland where sinners are led off to eternal torment. Every sinner gets his just desserts. Gluttons are themselves consumed, good-time musicians are tortured by their own instruments, gamblers have their party forever crashed, and a lecher gets sexually harassed by a pig-faced nun. In the center of it all a face peers out of this bizarre nightmare — a self-portrait of the artist: Bosch.

Starting in the 1600s, Spain entered a long slow period of decline. But its wealthy court continued to finance great art. Perhaps the most loved painting in all the Prado is Las Meninas, by Diego Velasquez.

Velasquez takes us behind the scenes as he paints a portrait of the king and queen. The artist paints himself at work, along with a princess, who's watching her mom and dad pose. She's joined by her servants…the “meninas.”

In this wonderfully 3-D painting, the unique perspective is that of the king and queen as they pose. In fact, they can be seen in the mirror at the back of the room.

By 1800, Spain was no longer a world power. But it continued to produce great artists.

Francisco de Goya was Spain’s official court painter. He dutifully portrayed the king and queen in all their royal finery. But many see Goya becoming disenchanted with his patrons. Here in these vacant faces he reveals the ineptitude of the royal family.

Goya’s painting called The Second of May recalls how Spain hoped the ideals of Revolutionary France would spread, bringing democracy to Spain. But when Napoleon invaded, their hopes were dashed.

On May 2, 1808, Madrid’s working people staged a protest. French soldiers, with their Egyptian mercenaries, slashed through the crowds and arrested the ringleaders.

The next day — this painting’s called The Third of May — the French began reprisals. Ignoring the rebels' passionate pleas, a faceless firing squad mows them down — without mercy. Goya, disillusioned by all the senseless violence, portrayed common people as the victims of war.

Thankfully, stepping out of the Prado, it’s a bright and happy day in Madrid — which seems determined to celebrate its freedom and enjoy life to its fullest. While Spain remembers its rich and poignant history — and shares it well with visitors — the focus of today seems to be on living well. After every trip to this exciting city, the impression I take home is that of a thriving people with an enduring culture…which really knows how to dance.