A new movable frame hides the parts that were added in the 18th century and that removed a mythological scene
The Prado Museum exhibits ‘Las hilanderas’ as painted by Diego Velázquez, without the parts that were added in the 18th century. The gallery has endowed the canvas with a sophisticated frame that, in addition to hiding the eighteenth-century enlargement, preserves the painting from fire and eliminates toxic agents. With the new technology, the axis of the painting is restored, also titled ‘The Fable of Arachne’, which appeared displaced due to the manipulations.
When the Alcázar, residence of the kings, caught fire in 1734, the Royal Palace was built, which was decorated with paintings from the Royal Collections, including ‘Las hilanderas’. So that the works did not seem too small in front of the magnificent walls, some pieces were enlarged by means of additions. Those were times when the concept of authorship “was not as revered as it is now,” according to Javier Portús, head of Conservation of Spanish Painting until 1800 at the Prado.
This is what happened to ‘Las hilanderas’, to which an upper band of about half a meter was added -in which an oval arch and window were recreated-, and smaller bands at the ends, in addition to a fringe lower. Such operations were not uncommon in the 18th. In fact, the paintings of ‘San Pablo Ermitaño’ by José de Ribera and two equestrian portraits by Velázquez, those of Felipe III and Margarita de Austria, also suffered.
The intervention in ‘Las hilanderas’ altered the painting from a spatial, chromatic and narrative point of view, to the point that what was a mythological scene was taken for a costumbrista print. The ill-fated manipulation pushed the background away from the foreground. Not in vain, the dispute between the goddess Pallas and Arachne about her abilities to weave is relegated to a secondary role.
With the new frame, the original vision that Velázquez devised is recovered thanks to a «masking panel» that prevents interference. The frame, designed by museum technicians and built in Spain, is unprecedented in other museum centers, according to the deputy director of Conservation of the art gallery, Andrés Úbeda.
In view of the delicate state of conservation of the painting, it was inadvisable to remove the added bands, as has been done with other pieces. For four years they had been working on the search for a montage that would allow access to the painting at all times, but that at the same time only allowed to see the real painting of Velázquez. The frame, which can be opened and closed and inside which there is a fire blanket to prevent fires, has been paid for by American Express, in an initiative of the American Friends of the Prado Museum Foundation.
Four years after Velázquez’s death, an inventory of Pedro de Arce’s possessions was made, including a painting attributed to the teacher. It specified that the measurements of ‘Las hilanderas’ corresponded to 167 by 250 centimeters. Later, when the piece becomes part of the Royal Collections, it is discovered that it has dimensions larger than those described, specifically 220 by 289 centimeters.
The mythological story that was distorted by the enlargement is found in the background space, where the goddess Pallas, armed with a helmet, argues with Arachne. Behind them is a tapestry that reproduces ‘The Rape of Europe’ that Titian painted for Philip II and that Rubens in turn copied during his trip to Madrid in 1628-1629.
The new installation is part of the ‘Framing the Prado’ project, which aims to frame paintings that lack it and to reframe works by developing innovative solutions.