Holes in roof reduce Prado to a building site

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Madrid's top tourist attraction, the Prado Museum, will next week become a building site, and visitors will have to pick their way around scaffolding until well into the next century.

A massive steel gantry on wheels will encase the majestic 18th-century building while lead and glass is fitted to the dilapidated roof. The repairs represent a belated attempt to plug the holes that allowed rain during 1994 to drip into the room containing the Velazquez masterpiece Las Meninas.

So shocking was this disclosure that the museum's director, Felipe Vicente Garin, resigned on the spot, and parliament, in an unprecedented spasm of cross-party unity, approved an 18-month emergency repair programme costing 1,403m pesetas (pounds 7m).

Delays in starting the repairs, however, mean that the work will still be in train when building begins on an ambitious new extension, whose final shape is to be decided this autumn.

Disruption to the public will be inevitable, the Prado's new director, Fernando Checa, admitted this week, although he added that "the museum's basic collection will remain on view in its entirety, including all the works of Goya, Velazquez and El Greco, and 90 per cent of the Titians."

These works will nonetheless be shunted about from room to room as successive parts of the museum, including the first-floor central gallery, are closed for months at a time. Lesser works will have to be temporarily removed to make room for the most important paintings, and big exhibitions will be impossible.

The most disruptive work is scheduled to coincide with the summer months, the quietest time, according to Mr Checa, although likely to be the most inconvenient for international visitors. Visitors will be handed leaflets detailing the paintings' temporary locations during each of the five stages of the repair work.

The museum ruled out the idea of sending some major works on exhibition elsewhere. This was the policy adopted recently with spectacular success by Italy's Pamphili museum during restoration work, which put its Velazquez masterwork, Pope Inocente X, on show in Madrid and London.

Some thought had been given to mounting travelling exhibitions, Mr Checa said, "but the principal works will not leave the museum".

The repairs will be at their height during the closing stages of the international competition to design the Prado's much-needed extension. Ten short-listed projects selected in January must be submitted in detail on 10 August and a 14-strong jury of international architects and three senior Prado directors will choose the winner on 7 September.

It will take until spring 1997 for the government to approve the selection, and the 10-year work programme is due to begin early in 1998.