On September 12, 2001, the day after the al Qaeda attack on the twin towers in New York, I called Jonathan Brown. We wanted to understand how the capital of the world might feel after the attack. The 21st century was born between the rabble of the ruins and the pain for the victims. Many dreams and hopes of all had been buried by the collapse.
On the other end of the phone was Jonathan’s defeated voice: “And what does it matter what an old Spanish art teacher says about what’s going on?” He was overwhelmed, he told us that his son worked for one of the companies based in the Towers, although he was not there that day. But he had lost colleagues and friends in the attack.
The whole city was a lament, sleepless. We insist, “we care what an old professor says because there will always be catastrophes, but maybe we can find comfort, is there something we can invoke today?” Then, with all the humility and a small voice, he raised an amazing speech. He said that culture is stronger than attacks and wars, that great works of art survive human cataclysms, books and paintings survive, that even those that have been destroyed by bombing remain in our memory. «They attack the most precious thing we have, they attack our freedom, our sense of memory and culture, our way of organizing ourselves as an open society, but today is the best day to say that that freedom and that culture, that memory of what we are, is born from works such as Las Meninas or Las Lanzas, that the disasters of this day are already thought of in Goya, and that this is much stronger than the hatred that has hurt us today, no matter how deep that wound is».
That was Jonathan Brown, a professor with a luminous awareness of culture, able to shine a light on art even in the darkest hour.
Throughout thirty years of profession I spoke many more times with him. He never shied away from debates, he always knew how to remain critical in order to help the press participate in public life that concerned museums, and especially the Prado. He shared his opinions when the expansion of the Prado collided with the neighbors of the Jerónimos Cloister, he was even the author of a project impossible in any other country, together with John Elliott: the reconstruction of the Hall of Realms – which could soon become a reality in the Prado – with the space and the original works of that palace of Philip IV. He also contributed his vision to the controversy over the Colossus, which for him was undoubtedly Goya’s as well, demanding a rigorous study before any museographic decision. And when he wanted to show the best of Goya to a new generation, he included ‘The Milkmaid of Bordeaux’ in the Frick Collection exhibition.
But if there is something that, as a journalist, I can never forget, it was the first time you heard a voice. One afternoon in August 1994 the phone on my desk rang (there were no cell phones). I had just published a report that made a lot of noise about the serious restoration problems that the Prado Museum was suffering at a time when his workshop was dedicated to recovering works from private collections and neglected the most important works that were deteriorating on its walls. , under the sub-direction of that time. A scandal. Among the nearly one hundred paintings whose abandonment was denounced and urgently needed to be restored were Titians, Dürers, Boscos, Goyas and also works by Velázquez, among others.
On the other end of the line I heard a voice speaking in Spanish with a sweet American accent and who told me “I have finally just read the report in which all my fears regarding the state of the Prado paintings are expressed. I thank you for being able to publish it and for doing so rigorously. We don’t know each other but you’ve done the museum a great service.”
We journalists like to remember these things. It may be that what we do does not matter too much, but if something matters it is because of this, not so much because of the scandalousness of a complaint, but because of the ability to express some concerns together with some verifiable facts that, hopefully, although not always, push good direction and avoid greater evils. It is evident that the Prado solved this problem in the following years, with the arrival of a new director who, that August, joined and decided that this list of works was a priority work program.
Brown has been one of the world’s leading experts on Velázquez. Together with John Elliott, he carried out the study of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, of which today the Casón and the Salón de Reinos are the last vestiges, with the ambition that one day that space, unique in the world, be rebuilt, the room in which the Austrians showed the embassies of the 17th century all the power of the Hispanic Monarchy.
‘A palace for a king’ was also a book to show that history without art is less, much less understandable. And vice versa. It is a valid Affirmation both before the walls that Velázquez and Felipe IV covered and in the dust that followed the fall of the tallest towers in September 2001. I learned from Brown that only culture, as then, can save us. Breathe the air of Las Meninas. Know that everything will pass.
As the other Eliot, the poet, would say in ‘The Waste Land’
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria