by Liisa Berg

Writer Hortensio Felix Paravicino skillfully summarized the biographical high points of El Greco’s life when he said: “Crete gave him life and the painter’s craft, Toledo a better homeland, where through Death he began to achieve eternal life.” He revealed in but a few words two factors in many a great artist’s life: no one is a prophet in his homeland, and often it is in retrospect that his work gains its true appreciation and value.

Of all the misunderstood and unappreciated artists, El Greco stands as a prime example. His contemporaries despised him and looked upon him not only as a foreigner but as a rebel who fought a solitary philosophical battle against those who demeaned his profession as an artist. Similarly, for centuries, art students and experts considered him little more than a slightly daft eccentric with poor eyesight who, in fits of some sort of lunacy, painted grossly twisted human forms and other-worldly visions.

Born in 1541 in Candia, Crete, El Greco started his life as Domenikos Theotokopoulos. His documented history begins on June 6, 1566, when he signed a document in Crete as Maistro Menegos Theotokopoulos, sgoufaros (“Master Domenikos Theotokopoulos, painter”). He was known to have been in Rome as a student and practitioner of art, calling himself a “painter of miniatures.”

Curiously, what El Greco painted, also narrated the scope of his work: his career was but a small success. He had a few patrons, but failed to secure significant commissions, and without a major work, he had no future. However, through a benevolent twist of fate, El Greco was invited to Toledo to work on three altarpieces for the Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Other propitious commissions followed.

El Greco’s arrival in Toledo seems to have been a tangible turning point in his career: not only did his production gain much larger scope, but his style evolved into that inimitable trademark that is his alone.

El Greco’s Toledo has been described as “a city of decadence and decline, a mystical, intensely religious community given over to the spiritualism of Santa Teresa de Avila.” There seemed to be nothing to recommend Toledo: “In my judgment, it is one of the worst cities in the world because of its hills, narrow streets, darkness, dirt, tiny plazas, lack of water, the mosquitoes, the bad manners of its people, and one hundred thousand things more,” writes a contemporary of El Greco’s. Its only asset seems to have been the cathedral, “the richest in the Christendom,” according to a Venetian observer.

Although in the grip of evident decline, El Greco’s Toledo did not suffer from intellectual stagnation, thanks to a small group of wealthy ecclesiastics, merchants and noblemen who extended patronage to the fine arts. Always having considered himself an intellectual, El Greco favored the company of the upper echelons. To validate his intentions as an artist-intellectual, he is known to have written treatises on art and architecture. Following the example of Italian artist-writers whose works he had come to know in Venice and Rome, he carried out a twofold purpose: to elevate painting, sculpture and architecture to the level of liberal arts, and to confer an exalted status on the artist.

Aside from his activities as an artist-philosopher, not much is known of El Greco’s personal life and personality. It appears, however, that while he had gathered an important nucleus of friends and patrons who sanctioned his individualism, the Toledan society did not in general allow him the same singularity, but rather, considered him a stranger and a recluse. This disfavor was further perpetuated by the extravagance El Greco displayed: in those days, it was customary for an artist to work only on commissioned projects, but El Greco painted on a personal whim. It seems that his caprice extended to his life style as well: he hired musicians to play for him at mealtimes, and otherwise spared no expense to retain the ostentation of his house, a fact which frequently put him in debt.

During his more prosperous years in Toledo, from 1585 on, El Greco made his domicile in the Villena palace—a nobles’ residence turned into rented accommodations. He occupied what was known as “the royal suite,” with a kitchen and various other rooms.

The El Greco house and museum of today merely approximate the location of the original Villena palace, making no claim to authenticity whatsoever. It was Marquis Benigno de la Vega-Inclán, an active artist himself, who had the foresight to purchase the general area where the Villena palace had stood and the buildings on it, and to try to restore and rebuild the block in memory to El Griego. Vega-Inclán did not attempt to create an authentic El Greco house; he merely wished to erect a monument to the artist that would communicate his memory far better than a statue ever could.

The El Greco house enjoys a picturesque setting, with the antiquated Transito gardens on one side and the rugged stone-walls of Samuel-ha-Levi’s synagogue on the other, keeping vigil over the museum and the house across the narrow Transito Street. The short alley ends at a pair of massive old wooden doors and a small wicket which serves as the entrance to the museum. This edifice was built on the ruins of a Renaissance palace which was situated along side the Villena palace. Some of the structural and decorative aspects were incorporated in the construction of the museum. It was Vega-Inclán’s hope to establish a center where all El Greco’s works, scattered all over Toledo, could be gathered under one roof. Once this aim was realized, the museum was offered to the State in 1907, which it subsequently received most enthusiastically.

The first paintings to arrive at the new museum were the thirteen works dealing with the apostles. The canvases were salvaged from an empty convent, where they hung, covered with centuries of dust and neglect, unframed and unfulfilled. More works started to slowly flow in: View of Toledo, Portrait of Juan de Avila, Crucifixion and the Covarrubias portraits were the next to find their way here. Eventually, the museum became a haven not only for El Greco’s works, but other important paintings as well as historical artifacts.

The craftsmanship of El Greco’s time was duplicated in the construction of the residence, thanks to the Toledan artisans who still use traditional techniques in carpentry, tiles, ironwork, plinths and plasterwork. The furnishings in the house are considered reliably authentic and faithful to the time period in question, coming from Toledo and the surrounding province. These treasures include, most notably, Talavera pottery, Toledan fabrics and antique domestic items and paintings.

The entrance to the house is to the right of the museum doors. After passing through the small ticket vestibule, the trapezoidal Andalucian courtyard takes the visitor back hundreds of years—if not all the way to 1585 when El Greco himself domiciled in this place, at least far enough back to assure an ethereal feeling of having arrived somewhere in the misty past.

The light-filled atrium is surrounded by second-level galleries which are supported by slim painted brick and plaster columns and rimmed with wood railings and banisters. Decorative, knife-cut plasterwork in the style of the old Moors, large earthenware pottery, climbing ivy and potted plants serve to add charm and freshness. The courtyard is capped by a traditional canvas awning that provides much needed sombra from the scorching Manchegan sun. A verandah overlooks the rugged, earthy hamlet of Toledo and the rocky, narrow ravine carved by the Tagus river—a sight that could have inspired the rugged mysticism of El Greco’s art.

The dining room on the first floor is sparsely furnished, keeping with the intended spirit of the house. In the center of the room is a platform, provided for the musicians who El Greco hired, even during his leaner years, to create a pleasant dining atmosphere. A copy of Tintoretto’s The Washing of the Feet hangs on the wall—perhaps a reminder of the great influence Tintoretto had on El Greco.

The drawing room is a delightful example of Moorish architecture. It is positioned so that during the hot summer months the room stays dim and cool. The only window opens to the fragrant gardens which bring in a breath of delicacy that is a decorational aspect in itself. There is a low platform for the womenfolk to do their embroidery and needlework, and large lounging pillows and small pieces of furniture are scattered about the room, to articulate the simple elegance of this cool summer repose.

The heart of the house, the artist’s studio, is located on the second floor. The room is probably smaller than El Greco’s own atelier would have been, but it gives an ample representation of his sanctum sanctorum. The ceiling is decorated with latticed boards and delicate frieze of carved plaster. Simple Castilian furniture is scattered around the room, with objects d’art and molds representing El Greco’s contemporary trends. The indisputable focal here, however, is the easel donning one of his versions of St. Peter Weeping, the only El Greco in the atelier. Signed by the master, it is in poor repair, but even as such, it bears a great significance, being one of the original works of his that have not been restored or refurbished in any way.

The beautiful gardens are visible from many parts of the house and are accessible from the courtyard and the kitchen. They offer a bright relief from the fairly dark, monochromatic interior of the residence. Profuse and virtually untamed, these gardens grow in the manner of the typical Toledan garden—unplanned and casual, sprinkled with archeological objects to complement the delicate beauty of the flowers and bedding plants. A walk in the gardens in the cool of the morning or late afternoon affords an invitation to the flights of fancy of how life might have been on these premises nearly half a millennium ago.

The El Greco house remained Vega-Inclán’s personal property until his death in 1942, at which point the State took over the proprietorship, having been named the inheritor of the estate. Both the museum and house are open to the public daily, except on Mondays and public holidays.


Title photos Sagrada Familia, detail, and El Caballero de la Mano en el Pecho, courtesy of Museo del Prado, Madrid. Other photos by author.

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Copyright © 1998, 1999 Liisa Berg
This page was created on March 3, 1998
Most recent revision: September 6, 1999