The 400th anniversary of the death of Philip II gives Madrid's great gallery a long overdue opportunity to pull itself together, writes Fiona Sturges
IN RECENT years, Madrid has become synonymous with a certain sort of lifestyle. It is a city of long, well-lubricated lunches, endless shopping, sunny strolls in the park, late-night tapas and dancing 'til dawn. And, like any self-respecting European city, it has long had a thriving cafe society. But despite being home to the Prado - one third of Europe's Holy Trinity alongside the Louvre and the Uffizi - the city's arts scene has been conspicuously subdued of late.

The blame, it appears, lies largely with the Prado. Since the Sixties, the 213-year-old gallery has been starved of resources and plagued by endless bureaucratic wrangling. Stories have circulated regarding the poor treatment of its treasures, as have reports of complaints from visitors about the numerous gaps on the gallery's walls, the lack of coherent information regarding the collection, and the discomfort of having to pick one's way across treacherous building work to actually see some of the works of art.

When I asked the proprietor of a stall selling Picasso-style scarves about the recent difficulties, he exploded into a torrent of Mediterranean rage. "I have been working in a cloud of dust for the last two years. They keep building but I cannot see any difference. It is a complete disgrace."

While other major European galleries have seemingly embraced the 20th- century appetite for art, and adjusted themselves accordingly - the Louvre's Pyramid and the National Gallery's new wing, for example - the Prado appears to be lagging behind and has fast became an object of ridicule in international art circles.

The gallery reached its lowest ebb in 1993 with reports of rainwater dribbling into the room containing Velasquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas. By the time the Guggenheim appeared in Bilbao last year, it seemed that the Prado had given up restoring its reputation.

But the scandal of the "raindrop" catastrophe prompted the first in a long line of resignations by disaffected directors, and parliament was eventually jolted into approving an emergency repair programme. Last September, 12 refurbished rooms were opened to the public while the gallery's plans for expansion also came to a head as 10 architects submitted their proposals. Whatever the outcome, they promise that building work will begin next year. Good news for us, but bad news for the stall- holders outside. "More building?" cried the man with the scarves. "I may have to move and take my customers with me."

However, in an extravagant display of good intentions, or perhaps a stroke of good fortune, the last few months have seen Madrid transformed into a hive of artistic activity. After a difficult few years, smaller independent galleries claim to be enjoying a roaring trade while visiting numbers for the Prado's neighbouring galleries - the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia - are creeping upwards.

The 715 hand-picked paintings of the Thyssen collection now rival the Prado in terms of starriness, and the Reina Sofia has effortlessly raised its profile after rehanging its main attraction, Picasso's Guernica, in a room of its own last year.

But most miraculous of all is that the government's plans to raise the city's cultural profile has coincided with the 400th anniversary of the death of Philip II, one of the country's best known monarchs who was a passionate patron of the arts.

Philip II enjoys a mixed reputation in Spain, mostly as the King who raised the country's international profile but also as the monarch who frittered away valuable funds with his vainglorious pursuit of fame. But the residents of Madrid are excited about the anniversary since it was their city that was very much at the centre of Philip's patronage.

The celebrations have, at least, offered a prime opportunity for art institutions, not to mention smaller businesses, across the city to stand out against the stiff cultural competition posed by Barcelona and, now, Bilbao.

One restaurant I visited had even reorganised its menu in an attempt to reflect the festivities. Cut-price "Titian Tapas" was promoted on posters stuck on the windows, while an array of cocktails seemed to have assumed the names of Philip's wives, Isobel, Mary and Ana, although when I quizzed the owner, he was less than enlightening on the details. "The 18th century was a marvellous time for the city," he explained.

In May 1561, the King relocated his entire royal household and set up camp in Madrid. Philip's father, Charles V, had been appointed Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 and had found little time to visit his country, but following his abdication in 1555, Spain and Burgundy were passed on to Philip. As well as using Madrid as an administrative base, it was here that he stored his trinkets and decorative trophies from trips abroad, as well as his burgeoning public and private art collections. It is said that if the King so much as looked at a work of art while abroad, the owner felt compelled to offer it to him as a gift.

The arrival of the King and his extensive court nearly doubled Madrid's population as it became a thriving centre of consumption and artistic patronage. It also acted as a magnet for visitors from all over the world.

By celebrating this Golden Age of culture, it seems that Madrid's present administration is hoping to recreate the period's artistic climate in order to boost today's tourist trade

You certainly cannot miss the propaganda. Lurid leaflets flutter about the pavements, flags fly at every street corner and giant posters bearing Philip's gigantic Hapsburg chin adorn every billboard. The inevitable array of mugs, pens, stationery and other paraphernalia can also be found across the city. On the Plaza Major, I observed a visiting child pointedly refusing to accept a lovely Philip II sweatshirt from her parents.

But despite continuing construction work, the Prado has pulled itself together with a stunning exhibition devoted to different themes of Philip's reign, from his famed piousness and patronage to his aristocratic retinue and family life. The catalogue alone reads like a textbook of Renaissance art, listing masterpieces by artists who worked in the court, including Titian, Moro and El Greco, as well as other exhibits such as tapestries and suits of armour to jewels, gold and silverwork, medals, engravings, sketches, books and sculpture.

The exhibition tells the story of a flourishing capital where gold and silver from Mexico and Peru gave the upper echelons limitless wealth which they could lavish on clothes, land and art, while in room after room, devout paintings represent the contrasting piety of the age.

The narrative of Philip's reign is continued in other parts of the city, notably in the King's favourite foundation, the monastery of El Escorial. This gloomy yet commanding edifice serves as a symbol of Philip's religious and artistic devotion. Here, he accumulated works by El Greco and Titian, together with his collection of Hieronymus Bosch and the Flemish masters. You can also find his magnificent library, embellished with a multicoloured barrel-vaulted ceiling, whose 50,000 volumes are reputed to rival even the Vatican's holdings.

The nearby towns of Aranjuez and Valladolid, Philip's birthplace, have also hosted a series of exhibitions highlighting the monarch's passion for gardens and his love of science, though they have already come to an end to make way for a whole new set of exhibitions and celebrations. Next year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Philip's father, Charles V.

These celebrations will not only consume the capital, but will sweep across the whole of the country. Luckily for the Prado, Charles was not averse to having his portrait painted from time to time, and collected plenty of treasures from his extensive travels.

You can just see the Prado's board of directors wringing their hands in delight.



Getting there

Fiona Sturges travelled to Madrid courtesy of the Spanish Tourist Board. Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) offers flights to Madrid in December and January from pounds 140.20 return. EasyJet (tel: 0870 333 0870) offers flights from pounds 68 for the same period.

Further information

The main tourist office in Madrid is in the Duque De Medinacela, 2 (tel: 00 34 91 429 4951). The office is open from 9am to 1.30pm and 4pm to 7pm and can provide maps and general information, including events and arts festivals. Alternatively, call the 24-hour brochure-request line at the Spanish Tourist Office in London (tel: 0891 669920; calls cost 50p per minute).