A Collection: A Scholar and a King

The city of Madrid has assigned some spectacular buildings to display its works of art and collections. It’s worth making the trip to only view the buildings, let alone consider their content. The Palace of Arts and Industry, which houses El Museo Nacional de Ciencas Naturales/The National Museum of Natural Sciences, is one of these stunning buildings.

Construction began in 1882 by architect Fernando de la Torriente. The facade of the brick and iron building has twenty arches, two wings and is capped by a 42- metre-high metal dome. It is located on the Altos del Hipodromo, which took its name from the Hipodromo de la Castellana, an old horse racing track. The track was demolished in 1933 with the extension of Paseo de la Castellana. At the side of the Palace is the Educational Garden of the Mediterranean Forest, which provides specimens and information on the geology and plant diversity of the Community of Madrid. The garden also grows exotic trees and shrubs including the fantastic cedar tree, which Robert Fisk repeatedly describes in his book, Pity the Nation:

“In Beirut, they said the cedars of Lebanon were dying. In that winter of 1980 it was suggested that the trees, some of them 1,500 years old, might have succumbed to a virus [. . .] They were neither sick nor dying. Their trunks were gnarled by centuries of wind, but their branches were firm, thick with age, waving slowly and hypnotically in the frozen breeze [. . .] The cedars, Lamartine suspected, “know the history of the earth better than history itself.”‘

Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation

The National Museum of Natural Sciences, which started out as the Royal Cabinet of Natural History in the Goyeneche Palace on Alcala Street, is currently celebrating its 240th year. To mark the end of its 23rd decade, an exhibition dedicated to the creation of Charles III’s Royal Cabinet of Natural History, which opened on the 4th of November 1776, is on show. The exhibition remembers Pedro Franco Davila, the creator of the original collection. When reading about Davila’s life, comparisons from Marco Polo to Charles Darwin come to mind: Davila travelled around the globe collecting and studying the flora and fauna of the places he visited, he was shipwrecked in Ecuador; captured near Jamaica and subsequently held captive for seven months by British pirates.

Davila was born in 1711 in Guayaquil, then a settlement in the viceroyalty of Peru*, nowadays the most populated city in the Republic of Ecuador. His parents’ were of Andalusian origin. In his teenage years he travelled across Latin America working for the family trading business, which was mostly based on trading cocoa. His interest in natural history was awakened from those early voyages.

After unsuccessfully trying to return to Guayaquil, at the age of 34 he moved to Paris. Paris had entered the Age of Enlightenment, where authors and philosophers such as Rousseau, Diderot Voltaire and Kant were influencing thought on liberty and tolerance in contrast to the powers of absolute monarchy and religious illiberality. In Paris, Davila trained as a naturalist and set up one of the largest cabinets of natural history of the period. The cabinet contained over a thousand volumes and over 12,000 art objects including paintings by El Greco and Velazquez. In 1767 his, Catalogue Systématique et Raisonné was published. The tome, which became a reference work for naturalists, consisted of 1,800 pages.

In 1771 Madrid’s Royal Cabinet of Natural History was founded. King Charles III appointed Davila the first director. Arrangements were made to transport Davila’s collection from Paris to Madrid, which took four journeys in total. In 1776 the Royal Cabinet of Natural History opened to the public. The museum was open to everyone irrelevant of social standing, something unusual at that time. Davila died on the 6th of January 1786.

Una colección, un criollo erudito y un rey/A Collection, a King and a Creole Scholar is currently being exhibited in the National Museum of Natural Sciences. To learn more about Pedro Franco Davila and Charles III’s natural history legacy, and to view some of their collection and interests, go on a day’s outing to wander around a magnificent Madrid building housing a fascinating collection.

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, José Gutiérrez Abascal, 2.

Metro: Gregorio Marañon L10, L7.

Until 9th of May. Tuesday – Friday: 10:00 – 17:00.

Sat – Sun & hols: 10:00 – 20:00. Price: €3 – €7.

By Brian Collins

* A viceroyalty was a local, political, social, and administrative institution, created by the Spanish monarchy in the 15th century, for ruling in its territorial overseas territories. The administration over the vast territories of the Spanish Empire was carried out by viceroys, who became governors of an area, which was considered not as a colony but as a province of the empire, with the same rights as any other province in Peninsular Spain.*

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