Prado parades hidden treasures

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Madrid's Prado Museum has cleared out its attic to make 10 new rooms devoted to works rarely or never exhibited before. The loft extension that opened to the public yesterday contains works by Goya, Tiepolo, Canova and Mengs - and some important British artists - long buried in the vaults of Europe's finest art collection.

The display of 171 paintings, sketches and sculptures marks "the first consistent exhibition of the Prado's collection of 18th-century European art ever mounted", the director, Fernando Checa, said. It includes the museum's most recent acquisition, The Witches, by Goya, and his equally arresting Duchess of Alba with her Chaperon.

The works are displayed in a specially low-lit circular chamber amid more than 30 Goya sketches that explore the artist's vision of nightmares, witchcraft and ignorance. The sketches, shown for the first time for decades, will be on view for only two months a year because of their fragile state.

The attic rooms, for years used as repair workshops and storage rooms, have had their ceilings lifted by a metre and are lit by filtered natural light, augmented by spots. "But we can turn the spots down when the sun shines", said a spokesman as if in tacit apology for uncharacteristically gloomy skies. Dispelling the gloom, however, was a joyous collection of court paintings whose luminous intensity is the result of restoration that most of them underwent in preparation for this exhibition. The works, sensuous country scenes by Boucher and Watteau, magnificent court portraits by Mengs and a stunning Susanna accused of adultery by Antoine Coypel mark the transition from the Habsburg to the Bourbon dynasties following the War of the Spanish Succession, which ended in 1713.

These rooms are more intimate in scale than the rest of the museum and echo the style of Spanish palaces of the time, with geometric marble tiled floors and eau-de-Nil walls, adorned with objects and furniture.

For the first time, the museum offers explanatory information on the labels identifying each work, "as part of our educational effort directed at the broad range of visitors that the museum attracts," Mr Checa said.

More difficult to understand, given this confident first step towards the millennium, is the authorities' lackadaisical approach to urgently needed expansion. The Culture Minister, Esperanza Aguirre, who last year annulled a massively trumpeted international competition, saying that none of the submissions was suitable, last week announced yet another contest.