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Gone Without a Trace? Searching for the Tomb of the Famous Artist Diego Velazquez

Gone Without a Trace? Searching for the Tomb of the Famous Artist Diego Velazquez

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Diego Velázquez was a standout artist amongst iconic Spanish painters and his artwork is famous around the world. As a painter in the court of King Phillip IV of Spain, Velázquez is best known for his detailed and precise portraits.

Over the last few years, Spanish officials conducted several kinds of research about some of the most famous Spaniards. The studies often involved recovering bones from old tombs situated in churches and graveyards to examine them and settle their identities. One of the most significant discoveries was finding the remains of Miguel Cervantes, author of the well-known book Don Quixote . In addition to this, a few years ago another research team used DNA analysis to conclude that bones from a cathedral in Seville belonged to Christopher Columbus. However, not all the projects ended with positive results. One of the most unfortunate stories is related to the tomb of the famed Spanish artist Diego Velázquez.

Adoración de los Magos (The Adoration of the Magi) (1619) by Diego Velázquez.

Adoración de los Magos (The Adoration of the Magi) (1619) by Diego Velázquez. ( Public Domain ) It has been proposed that Velázquez’s models for this painting were his daughter Francisca (as baby Jesus), his wife Juana (the Virgin Mary), his father-in-law Pacheco (Melchoir) and himself as Caspar.

Diego’s Masterpieces

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was born on June 6, 1599 in Seville to a Portuguese father and Spanish mother. He spent most of his life between Seville and Madrid (apart from an episode when he was in Italy), as he became one of the king’s painters.

Velázquez’s most famous masterpieces are the paintings called Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) from 1656-1657 and La Rendición de Breda (The Surrender of Breda) from 1635. The pigments used in his paintings didn’t differ much from other painters of his time. He used azurite, vermilion, lead-tin-yellow, smalt, ochers, and red lake. His palette wasn't impressive, but his imagination was unlimited. He was also very hardworking.

It is not surprising that his works are recognized all over the world. Velázquez crafted numerous portraits of the Spanish royal family, officials, and other prominent Europeans. The artist’s unique style received tremendous appreciation by many distinguished people. Because of this, he could practice and enhance his style of Baroque paintings - which are considered almost perfect. But his magnificent career, one full of success and appreciation, ended when he was only 61 years old.

Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) (1656-1657) by Diego Velázquez.

Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) (1656-1657) by Diego Velázquez. ( Public Domain )

La Rendición de Breda (The Surrender of Breda) (1635) by Diego Velázquez.

La Rendición de Breda (The Surrender of Breda) (1635) by Diego Velázquez. (Public Domain )

In 1660, Diego Velázquez decorated the Spanish Pavilion during the marriage ceremony of Maria Theresa to King Louis XIV on the Island of Pheasants. When he returned to Madrid at the end of July he had a fever. The painter never recovered from his illness and he passed away on August 6, 1660.

Where is Diego’s Tomb?

Velázquez was buried in the Fuensalida vault of the church of San Juan Bautista in Madrid. Just eight days later his wife Juana joined him in the crypt. The church became an important place for people who appreciated the famous painter’s artwork. However, in 1811 the French army destroyed the site. It was never recovered and the graves were not exhumed. All the human remains from the 12th century church are still underground.

Currently, a popular square called Plaza de Ramales is located where the church once stood. Now, the only reminder of Velázquez in the area is his image on a plaque.

Plaza de Ramales, Madrid, Spain.

Plaza de Ramales, Madrid, Spain. (Barcex/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

According to Henry C. Lee and Frank Tirnady:

“When excavations were occurring all around Madrid in 1999 in search of the bones of celebrated Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of his birth (and dubbed the Year of Velázquez), Spanish writer Francisco Ayala wrote in the newspaper El Pais, “Let the illustrious dead rest in peace.” (It does not appear that anyone was successful in finding the remains, but officials in Spain are prepared to conduct DNA tests on any good candidate bones that are discovered, which can be compared to the DNA of Velázquez’s descendants.) Ayala's criticism of the efforts to find the remains of Velázquez (and he was not the sole dissenter in Spain) are echoed throughout the world by those who see the pursuit of the dead as more ghastly than glorious.”

Despite a few attempts in the 1960s, 1999 –2000, and 2015, the search for Velázquez’s lost tomb has brought no result. It is probable that several individuals cross over his final resting place daily without even thinking about it.

Statue of Diego Velázquez next to the entrance of the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid. It was sculpted in Italian white marble by Celestino García Alonso in 1892.

Statue of Diego Velázquez next to the entrance of the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid. It was sculpted in Italian white marble by Celestino García Alonso in 1892. (ÁWá/ CC BY 3.0 )

The King’s Lost painter

Construction work has taken place in the Plaza de Ramales a couple of times and whenever possible researchers try to search for Velázquez’s tomb. However, it seems that the famous artist doesn’t want them to find him.

Yet the lack of Diego Velázquez’s grave is strongly criticized by many Spanish authorities. They believe that such a famous Spaniard should be honored in a proper manner. On the other hand, many people say that the place for the dead is in their tombs and Diego Velázquez should remain in his grave. So, the debate continues, and Velázquez remains under the square. It is fascinating to think of how much inspiration his paintings provided for artists who created their work long after his was completed.

Left: Pablo de Valladolid (1636-37) by Diego Velázquez. (Public Domain) Right: Young Flautist, or The Fifer, (1866) by Édouard Manet. (Public Domain) This portrait by Velázquez was one Manet most admired. Manet wrote: “Perhaps the most astonishing piece of painting that has ever been made is the picture entitled Portrait of a famous actor at the time of Philip IV (Pablillos Valladolid).

Left: Pablo de Valladolid (1636-37) by Diego Velázquez. ( Public Domain ) Right: Young Flautist, or The Fifer , (1866) by Édouard Manet. ( Public Domain ) This portrait by Velázquez was one Manet most admired. Manet wrote: “Perhaps the most astonishing piece of painting that has ever been made is the picture entitled Portrait of a famous actor at the time of Philip IV (Pablillos Valladolid). The background disappears. It is air that surrounds the man, dressed entirely in black and full of life.”

Top Image: Self-portrait of Diego Velázquez. Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Henry C. Lee, Frank Tirnady, Blood Evidence: How DNA is Revolutionizing the Way We Solve Crimes, 2003.

Rosa Giorgi, Velasquez, 2006.

Velázquez: Embodiment of a Golden Age by Jamie Katz, available at:
http://www.smithsonianstore.com/gifts/?sourceCode=SCOMADS&utm_source=Smithsonianmag.com&utm_medium=shopbtn&utm_campaign=hol2016&utm_content=giftlndgpg

El misterioso monolito que indica el camino para hallar la tumba de Velázquez, available at:
http://www.abc.es/madrid/20150529/abci-monolito-tumba-velazquez-201505282031.html

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