This may resemble a sacred anatomical relic, like Saint Bartholomew’s foreskin or the toe-clippings of some martyred Roman matron, but it’s actually the central part of a chiropodist’s window display in the Cortes quarter of Madrid. The rest of the window is devoted to corn plasters and diagrams of half-flayed feet (which also have an inadvertent religious air, portrayals of flaying being a popular theme in late 16th and early 17th century art – there’s a particularly gruesome example of some unfortunate saint having his skin peeled off in Palazzo Corsini in Rome). All the putti are doing here, with their harps and whatever the other instrument is meant to be, is framing the chiropodist’s skill with a recalcitrant bunion or two.
One of the best things about Madrid was the unobtrusiveness of its churches. In five days, the only one we went into was the cathedral, an unmatchably charmless building attached like a carbuncle to the side of the Palacio Real, where it no doubt brought comfort to generations of simple-minded Hapsburgs and their court of buffoons and dwarfs. It’s now the home to some of the worst religious art I’ve ever seen, and I imagine that’s true of all the other churches we didn’t bother to enter, despoiled of their riches during the civil war, which are now to be found in the Prado and elsewhere, in grand and secular state.
The book I took with me to read during my stay was C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, which looks like a failure of the imagination (mine) and, in some ways, was, as I plucked it from the pile of unread novels in my study at the very last minute, as much for its size as anything else. But it turned out to be an ideal choice. It’s always a pleasure to read a novel set in a place you know, and it’s even better when you’re discovering the city as you read, in a game of real and virtual narrative mirrors. Gran Via, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol – I shared them with Harry Brett, the novel’s hero, as he struggled with poverty and corruption in post civil-war Spain and I, less manfully, with far too much to eat and drink in a much richer, and safer, city than the one the book describes. It’s a well-researched novel and, I thought, thoroughly gripping on an intellectual and emotional level, its wilful flatness of tone reflecting the sort of austerity you find in films like Brief Encounter, an austerity, finally, of the heart. I don’t know what Sansom’s politics are, though I’m sure he’s anything but extremist. Still, he spares few punches when he talks about the shameful collusion of the catholic church in the spirit-crushing destruction of Spain under Franco. There’s a particularly appalling moment in the book – in the midst of the routine cruelty oppression feeds on – when some prehistoric cave paintings are found, only to be smashed to rubble and dust as pagan.
The photograph on the left is of a statue on the Gran Via, on the roof of one of the splendid 20th century pseudo-Baroque extravaganzas that line the street. When I took it, I thought of Icarus, but Icarus would have lost his wings well before hitting the ground, so now I assume it represents a fallen angel. It has a Gormley-like feel to it, as though the act of falling had stripped away the angelic qualities and left the bare man, upturned; even the wings look more like the leaves of a large succulent than aerial limbs, designed for flight. He’s no more a creature of the spirit than the chubby gilded urchins are in the chiropodist’s shop, entertaining their plaster foot with a tune or two.