Exterior shot of the Thyssen Museum in Madrid

Back to life: How MO guests are restoring a 17th century masterpiece

In Madrid, a micro-patronage campaign is aiding the skilled restorers of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum to work their magic on masterpieces, including brightening the blooms of a 17th-century still life.

“I always compare restoring paintings to medicine: the painting is like the patient,” says Alejandra Martos Figueroa, a conservator and part of the team that restores and protects the masterpieces of Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. “We study every work of art individually, and figure out what the condition or the problem is and what it needs. It might only be cleaning, or it might be strengthening the support it’s been painted on. The needs will be different for an oil painting or a watercolour, and for a work painted on canvas or one painted on wood or copper.”

One of the three celebrated big hitters of city’s ‘Golden Triangle’ of national galleries (along with the Prado and Reina Sofía), moments from Mandarin Oriental Ritz, Madrid, the Thyssen-Bornemisza holds a collection that traces every major European painting movement, with masterworks by the likes of Van Eyck, Caravaggio, Rubens and Canaletto.

The museum’s restoration studio works continuously to protect the paintings from unnecessary deterioration or return them to a state that’s closer to their original appearance. Current high-profile projects include the restoration of Chinese Bowl with Flowers, a 1640 still life by the French artist Jacques Linard. A micro-patronage crowdfunding project in collaboration with Mandarin Oriental Ritz, Madrid, will allow different benefactors to contribute to the restoration of the painting by choosing to donate towards the revival of different individual flowers in the bowl to see them return to vivid colour (the hotel is sponsoring the restoration of the painting’s Chinese bowl, its largest individual element).

“The varnish has yellowed over time,” says Martos of Chinese Bowl with Flowers. “And when a varnish ages, the perspective of the painting becomes flat and there’s a yellow veil over colours so you don’t see them as they should be. After restoration, the vase will look much more three-dimensional and the vibrant colours of the 17th-century Baroque style of the artist will be seen once again.” It’s a transformation she never tires of helping to bring about. “The cleaning of a painting like this means a very beautiful thing happens: all the nuances suddenly pop, and everything that the artist intended is once again there.”

The Thyssen-Bornemisza’s other recent success stories include the restoration of the oil painting Young Knight in a Landscape, by the Italian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio. “To be able to say that I was one of those who helped to bring it back to life is fantastic,” says Martos who, along with her colleagues, even worked for a time behind a glass wall, allowing visitors to the museum to observe the conservation process first hand. A key part of the museum’s mission is to help the public to engage with what restoration work can tell us about the way art was created, as well as how pieces can be preserved for future generations.

“The chemical analysis that we perform in our lab tells us the materials that were used, and the order in which they were added, from the ground layer up to the varnish and all the layers in between,” explains Martos. “We are able to dig in deep with the use of x-rays, infrared photography, ultraviolet light and more. By taking a minimal micro sample from a painting and blowing it up 400 or 500 times, it’s as though you cut through a cake,” she smiles. “And you see all the individual layers for the first time.”

Contributions towards the restoration of Chinese Bowl with Flowers at the Thyssen-Bornemisza range from €400 to €1,500, with thank-you rewards including a guided tour of the museum and a private visit to its restoration studio.

Guests of Mandarin Oriental Ritz, Madrid have the chance to access unique private tours and more. The hotel’s Philanthropic Experience Stay is a special package that includes a chance to contribute to the restoration of Chinese Bowl with Flowers, a guided tour of the Thyssen-Bornemisza and a one-hour private tour – ‘A Walk Among The Flowers’ – that showcases the many different ways that flowers have been used in artworks from the Middle Ages to the present.

Find out how you can contribute to the restoration

All offers and experiences available at time of publication. Please contact the relevant hotel team for more information.