Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Toledo painting courtesy of the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art
A few years ago, while visiting Madrid, I decided to go to Toledo to see the home of one of the greatest late-medieval painters Dominikos Theotokopoulos known to the world as El Greco i.e. the Greek.
A day before, I had visited the Prado and spent considerable time at the rooms of their El Greco collection but the View of Toledo, one of his only two surviving landscapes, was in my mind at the time of the Toledo city visit. The painting is now located at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A few years back, while visiting Crete, I had seen the building, now a museum, in Fodele, where El Greco was supposedly born. It was a modest stone and stucco structure, typical of the Cretan housing of the period (16th century). Similar buildings are still used in the Cretan villages. Most are single-story structures; if it is a two story house, the ground floor was used in the past to house the horses or mules and other animals of the household. Even today, the ground floor of a 2-story Cretan village domicile is used mostly as garage and storage or business premises.
In my living room I have hanging a framed poster of the El-Greco painting of Mary Magdalene that was used as a promotion for the 450th celebration of the anniversary of El Greco’s birth; I was visiting Heraklion when the event took place and I went to the church building, no longer consecrated, that was used as an exhibit venue, across from the Morosini lions’ fountain of the city’s central square. The Heraklion municipality had borrowed as many paintings as they could from European museums and art collections for the exhibit.
El Greco portrays the Spanish city he lived and worked in for most of his life. He was born over 480 years ago in Fodele, near Candia (Heraklion), Crete, but spent a considerable amount of his life at the Spanish Court. His initial training was in traditional Byzantine iconography in Crete, and later on he moved to Venice, where he is known to have worked in the 1560s at Titian’s workshop. Landscape painting was rare among paintings of the Renaissance period, because of the ban by the Council of Trent's of non- liturgical, non-sacred art. Cityscapes did not really exist in sixteenth century European art. El Greco may have literally invented the genre.
Using dark, moody colors, El Greco presented the city of Toledo at the top of a rolling hill, the way it would be seen from a distance. The city itself takes up only a little space in the center of the painting and is not an accurate representation of the location of many important city buildings. The landscape and sky dominate the painting in a gloomy, almost apocalyptic, fashion.
To visit Toledo, I had taken a local bus from the center of Madrid.
As the bus crested a hill, a little distance from the city, I saw in front of me, live, almost a full representation of the painting. The weather that day was very cloudy. The cityscape in front of me looked almost exactly like the El Greco image!
I’m sorry I did not have a camera with me to immortalize that remarkable view, but it will always be etched in my mind.
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