It is said that it is possible to recognize a tourist in a city because they are the only ones who walk with their eyes directed to the heights. Apart from causing a few accidents, this example is a good reminder of the beauty found when looking beyond the everyday, beyond what the eyes perceive at first. Like all big cities, the capital has many hidden corners and a few are between the rooftops. The statues of Madrid observe its streets from the heights.
Many of these statues located on the rooftops share materials and also a taste for mythology. Sculptures with history that have ended up creating their own, crowning the buildings.
One of the most recently built triumphal arches in Spain is the Arco de la Victoria in Moncloa. With a model of sober construction that reminds us of Italian fascist architecture, it was built in the 1950s as part of the typical post-war constructions. At the top of its 49 metres we find the mythological statue of Minerva, a recurring Roman goddess in urban sculptures, also known as Athena by the Greeks. The Olympic deity crowns the building mounted on a quadriga pulled by four horses, holding a laurel wreath, symbol of victory. A viewpoint that the city has not been able to enjoy.
The arch was also known by another nickname among the people of Madrid. There was a brewery very close to the location of the arch, known as El Laurel de Baco. Spontaneously the monument became known as El Laurel de Paco, in reference to Francisco Franco.
It is not the only triumphal entrance that exists in Madrid, nor is it the only one with mythological references. The monumental Puerta de Alcalá has the representation of Fama (Pheme), without its typical trumpet, however. In Roman and Greek mythology, Fama is considered to be the bearer of news, not necessarily true. The rumours to which Fama gave notoriety could sink or extol heroes who did not always deserve it, so she was a goddess seen with some mistrust. The sculpture is holding the coat of arms of Charles III next to a Genius, a spirit considered to be a good omen. At the time when it was sculpted by Francisco Gutiérrez, the image of Fama was considered to be a way of extolling the goodness of monarchs, so the statue did not carry any second thoughts.
Another famous Minerva and probably better known is that of the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid. It has become an emblem of the activities of the Círculo and of the city itself. The magazine that compiles the extensive cultural agenda of the space bears its name and it is a pleasure to be able to see this mythological statue up close on Madrid’s mythical terrace. The Minerva sculpture was made in bronze by Juan Vassallo in 1964 and is almost seven metres high. It looks at Madrid from the 46 metres of the building and climbing it was a real headache. A 12 m2 platform built for the occasion had to be used, as well as cranes and specific scaffolding. Because, despite being hollow, its three tons and height made it difficult to move and position.
The statue has all the attributes that were traditionally identified with the goddess, first known as Athena, and who was born from the head of Zeus himself, in one of the first known cases of single-parent families. An owl, symbol of wisdom and power, as well as of philosophy; a shield where you can see the head of the gorgon Medusa, or the lightning as a reminder of her father Zeus. Its goddess’ warrior condition is expressed through the lance and the characteristic helmet of this sculpture.
The bifurcation of Calle Alcalá and Gran Vía offers one of the most typical postcards of Madrid, the one presided over by the Metropolis building. This dates from the beginning of the last century and was once the tallest building on the Gran Vía. Originally and until the 1970s, the statue that inhabited the dome was a phoenix mounted by Ganymede, a symbol of the insurance company that owned the building, La Unión y el Fénix. Until another insurance company took it over and placed the definitive winged Victory. The statue takes on special prominence in a dome where nothing more and nothing less than gold leaf abounds, and a good number of spotlights in the Madrid night to give it a more majestic image.
However, the statue of the Victory is not the only one that decorates the building’s coarse ornamentation, with several reliefs and even a sculptural group by Mariano Benlliure that watches from above. These small attractions make the Winged Victory stand out and it is probably the most photographed statue in Madrid. Or well, maybe the second one, for not making Cibeles angry.
Built to crown the Ministry of Development, now the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in front of the Atocha station. It is an allegory about progress, where Glory, a Victory, is placed at the centre of the sculpture group. At its feet, two figures representing science and art. At the sides, two other anthropomorphic figures representing agriculture and industry, and philosophy and letters, both riding two winged, Pegasus horses. So many protagonists had to have a great weight, literally, and more when the decision was to make them in marble from the Italian municipality of Carrara, the same material that Michelangelo used for his Moses.
The original statues of Augustine Querol, placed at the top of the ministry in 1905, had to be replaced over the years due to their deterioration. The decision took on even greater force when several fragments of the statue fell to the pavement, and of course, they were not exactly gravel remains. It seems that at the beginning of the 1970s a piece of about 20 kilos fell at the doors of the ministry itself. From there it began its restoration and a unique journey through the capital. These mythical statues of Madrid were divided into parts to bring them down from their original location.
The whole was restored with unequal fortune and separated to continue contemplating Madrid but from below. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Glory was installed first in the Príncipe de Vergara roundabout and finally in the Cadiz roundabout. A few metres away, in the roundabout of Legazpi, the two Pegasus were originally installed. However, due to some work on the surface, one of the Pegasos was moved to a warehouse in the capital. His companion stayed in Legazpi, however, with one wing less. Today, the group of sculptures we can see at the top of the ministry was made in cast bronze by the sculptor Juan de Avalos in 1976.
At the beginning of Calla Alcalá, on the corner, stands the old building of the Banco de Bilbao, now the Ministry of the Environment. The monumentality and architectural interest is reinforced by the statues that finish off the two towers on the façade: two bronze quadrigas sculpted by Higinio de Basterra. The chariots are mounted by two Charioteers standing on a pedestal, without any apparent direct mythological link, but as a symbol of the power of the banks at the beginning of the century.
During the Civil War it was necessary to paint the sculptures black so that the brass covering of the chariots, shining in the sun, would not serve as a reference in the air attacks. These statues in Madrid became even more prominent when they became actors in the film “La Comunidad“. The director Álex de la Iglesia, fond of hanging actors from mythical places in Madrid, designed a scene in which Carmen Maura fled from her neighbours by clinging to the leg of one of the horses.
From one quadriga to another, this time in the Paseo de Recoletos, one of the main arteries of Madrid, which houses remarkable buildings. Built as an axis around which many palaces and mansions were erected in the 19th century. Later, large private companies began to locate in the capital and, in some cases, bought palaces like this one located at the beginning of the Paseo. The new tenants were Seguros La Aurora, who placed the mythological statue of the goddess of the same name, known as Eos to the Greeks, leading a quadriga of four horses.
Juan Adsuara was the sculptor of the ensemble made of bronze in 1920. He was very careful because, despite the numerous owners and restorations of the building, the Aurora has remained intact in its place to this day.
Back on the Gran Vía, you have to look up to find one of the most beautiful and recent statues of Madrid from its heights. This Diana Huntress is the work of the architect and sculptor Natividad Sánchez. The six pieces, which include Apollo’s twin goddess and her dogs, moved in 2007 to the now five-star Hyatt Centric hotel on Gran Via 31. The statue is made of bronze in shapes reminiscent of the Neoclassical period. It is also possible to see it shining up close, thanks to the restaurant and cocktail bar located on the roof of the hotel itself.
Travellers and onlookers will find the site better if they know that it is the building where a few years ago the Doña Manolita lottery administration was located.
The Phoenix is one of the most common allegories in art. To be reborn from the ashes with an image of strength and majesty is a symbol too coveted not to be used as an emblem. Perhaps that is why Madrid and its status as the headquarters of many companies houses so many statues dedicated to this mythological being.
The aforementioned Ganymede mounted on a phoenix that was in the Metropolis building also found its niche a few metres from its original home. It was relocated to the headquarters of the Mutua Madrileña in the Paseo de la Castellana, although already at ground level. To be faithful to the story, if it really is Ganymede, the truth is that more than a phoenix it should be an eagle. According to Greek mythology, Zeus kidnapped the beautiful Ganymede to make him his lover and made him transform into an eagle, and a big one at that. So there remains this matter in the mystery box. For the record, a statue with the same sculptural motifs was also placed at the top of the building, but with a lesser past than its twin.
Nearby, in the Plaza de Colón, there is another typical statue of the Madrid sky above the Gran Melià Fénix Hotel. This statue has had the privilege of seeing such illustrious guests as The Beatles when they played at Las Ventas, Rita Hayworth and Cary Grant.
It is worth taking a walk in search of the other statues in Madrid with the Phoenix as the protagonist, because there are up to four more. Just a couple of clues: most of them stand in hotels along the Gran Vía. Some, moreover, in the headquarters of an important radio station walking towards Callao.
A work by Victorio Macho, an art-deco sculptor with an important career in Madrid, this Roman of more than seven meters is located in Gran Vía 60. The dimensions of the bronze statue and the forms make this sculpture also known as the Colossus. The straight, sober forms are also very reminiscent of the Greek-Latin model, enhancing the musculature. Although the statue is covered with a white tunic, because in the winters of Madrid, with or without a lot of muscular mass, it is quite refreshing. Among the regulars of the area, it has become popular to believe that on the first day of spring, the sun shines through the heavy burden of the Roman in a spectacular way. As it is fortunately at dusk and not at six in the morning, it is still not that complicated to check.
Rumours of the capital made it clear for a time that Madrid did not have a statue dedicated to the fallen angel. It had two. Apart from the sculpture in El Retiro, the building situated on the corner of Calle Mayor and Calle de los Milaneses has a statue of a fallen angel on its heights, in fact. Few people knew about it, although it has now become one of those open secrets. And thanks to that, the matter has been uncovered. It is a fallen angel but it is not a demon. The sculptor, Miguel Ángel Ruiz, called it a “air crash” and, although it is an angel, the protagonist’s aspirations to the heavenly throne are unknown. It is made of bronze and is another of the most recent examples in this collection of sculptures; because it dates from 2005.
The roofs always retain the charm of looking without being seen; but they also have architectural secrets to be discovered that are as interesting as these statues in Madrid. An excellent way of getting to know the city and those of others in a different way; also getting to know their heights.
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