Prado pays tribute to civil war 'heroes' who helped save its art

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While queues for Madrid's blockbuster Titian exhibition snake round the Prado museum, a smaller show on the ground floor that offers no Old Masters packs a punch just as emotional.

For the first time, Spain is honouring those brave enthusiasts from both sides of the civil war who saved the museum's priceless art treasures from the conflict. In two small rooms, a show displays monochrome photographs and faded, typewritten and handwritten documents that track a remarkable operation mounted in 1936 to protect the artworks from Franco's bombardments.

Posters urged Madrilenos not to destroy any ancient engravings, "Keep them for the national treasure". As Spaniard fought Spaniard over religion, one poster said, "Don't see a religious image as anything more than art. Help to conserve it".

The Prado was sandbagged, and wooden shelters erected to protect delicate cupolas, but old photos show the building's shattered skylights, and rubble strewn across its marble flags during three years of combat. With few resources, and with bombs exploding all around, an impromptu committee packed and sent from Spain thousands of precious canvases for the duration of the conflict.

Each work was catalogued, labelled and carefully packed. Each piece had a filecard that was completed on arrival at Valencia, the first safe haven. While the battle raged for Madrid, lorries and trains laden with paintings trundled across 300 miles of combat zone to Valencia, home of the displaced republican government. As Franco's forces advanced, the works moved again to Figueres, then to Perpignan in France, then to Geneva. The exiled works were taken in by the League of Nations, which put them on show in the summer of 1939.

Valezquez's magnificent Las Hilanderas (Spinning Women), for example, sent "in open lorry" in April 1936, was found on arrival to have suffered only "a small increase in the bruising it already had".

World war had begun when a train brought the treasure trove back from Geneva in September 1939.