This April, the Museo del Prado
, the Biblioteca Nacional de España and Fundación El Greco 2014 are presenting the exhibition El Grecos Library. Its aim is to reconstruct the theoretical and literary roots of El Grecos art through 39 books, four of which belonged to him, that have been identified from two inventories compiled by the artists son Jorge Manuel in 1614 and 1621. Notable among them is a copy of Vitruviuss treatise on architecture (from the BNE), and another of Giorgio Vasaris 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 Xenophons Works and one of Appians Civil Wars, both of which were represented in his library, and one of Sebastiano Serlios 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.
In addition to reconstructing part of the artists library, the exhibition also encourages a reflection on the traditional interpretations of El Greco and his work, based on the books that he owned and on his annotations to his copies of Vitruviuss treatise and Vasaris Lives.
El Grecos 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 artists 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 artists career and analyse the way in which he saw painting as a speculative science. The first section emphasises the importance that El Grecos 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 Grecos 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 Villegass Flos sanctorum [Flowers of the saints], which includes the first reference to the painter in print.
On El Grecos death in Toledo on 7 April 1614, his possessions included 130 books that are partly known from two inventories compiled by his son Jorge Manuel Theotokopouli: one drawn up a few weeks after the painters death and another of 1621, compiled as proof of the possessions that Jorge Manuel was bringing to his second marriage.
Based on the original documents of these two inventories, the exhibition is organised into five sections which together present its theoretical argument.
Greek forefathers and the classical heritage
This section reveals the importance of Greek culture on El Greco, who was always manifestly proud of his origins. This is evident in the copies he owned of classical texts by Homer, Appian and Xenophon and others on the life of Alexander the Great, a hero of Greek history and the paradigm of artistic patronage due to his support for Apelles, of whom El Greco may have considered himself a modern personification. Also notable in this section is the absence of books by Plato in the artists library and the contrasting presence of works by Aristotle.
Metamorphosis in Italy
The second section analyses the definitive transformation of El Grecos painting following his time in Rome, Venice and other Italian cities. It was at this point and through an intensive process of self-education based on his knowledge of other artists work, his contacts with intellectuals and his own reading that he assimilated the prevailing practice and theory of art. At this point El Greco began to see painting as an autonomous discourse that went beyond the moralising depiction of subjects inspired by mythology, history and religion.
Painting as a speculative science
This section provides the exhibitions central focus, given that El Greco believed that painting could imitate the invisible but also the impossible: in other words, he conceived of it as a means to explore the wonders of the real and to represent mythological subjects or sacred mysteries.
Vitruvius and the terms of architecture
While El Greco championed the hegemony of painting in relation to sculpture and architecture, at this period it was habitual to consider the latter the preeminent art form due to its traditional association with the liberal arts and because a knowledge of it was essential for becoming a universal man. This is how the artist must have seen himself: he designed the architectural settings for some of the altarpieces into which his paintings were set and also wrote an architectural treatise, the contents and whereabouts of which are now unknown. These issues explain why his library included several copies of Vitruviuss treatise as well as copies of the most important architectural treatises published in his own day, such as those by Sebastiano Serlio, Vignola and Andrea Palladio.
The problem of religious imagery
The final section emphasises the fact that although much of El Grecos output consists of religious paintings, he did not devote a single one of his reflections to this subject and only owned around eleven books on religion. Aside from his own religious practice, he must have used these books to ensure that his works were doctrinally correct and conformed to contemporary precepts of decorum.