"Death to the thief!" cried the crowd and the assault on the Palace of Aranjuez began. Inside, King Carlos IV's prime minister, Manuel Godoy, huddled in fear just minutes before being attacked by an angry mob that had been roused by supporters of the new monarch, Fernando VII. Everything inside the palace was ransacked: tapestries, china vases, paintings...
That was how Spain's great 19th-century writer Benito Pérez Galdós depicted the insurrection of March 17 to 18, 1808 in his Episodios Nacionales series of novels.
Among the items destroyed was an 1806 painting by Francisco de Goya, Godoy. Protector de la instrucción, in which the official was portrayed holding a treatise on public education by Swiss educationalist Heinrich Pestalozzi, the textbook that had inspired his reform of Spain's education system. In the background appears a building with a lintel bearing the inscription: A la educación de los españoles (To the education of Spaniards).
That building is the Pestalozziano Royal Military Academy, created in November 1806 in Madrid to train future army officers, and Goya's painting hung on its walls for a while. But opposition from the Catholic Church and reactionary sectors forced the closure of the "revolutionary" center.
Two copies, by artist Agustín Esteve y Marqués, were left behind
Nothing more was ever known of the original Goya painting, which the mob ripped to shreds. However, two copies of it were left behind. They were made by Valencian artist Agustín Esteve y Marqués, "chamber painter, portraitist of the Dukes of Osuna and Goya copyist," in the words of José María Luzón, museum delegate at Madrid's San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
One of the replicas was kept at another of Godoy's residences but, like so many other works of art, it was taken to Madrid's Buenavista palace by the French Army during the Peninsular War, which pitted Napoleon against the allied powers of Spain, Britain and Portugal between 1808 and 1814.
"Later, in 1816, those paintings were transferred to the Academy of Fine Arts, the only institution there was to store them," says Luzón.
This Esteve copy, measuring 2.50 by 1.76 meters, was folded up, later placed on a frame and subjected to a succession of poor restorations over the years, up until December 2012, when a serious clean-up was finally undertaken by three restorers.
We want to recover it not just for its artistic quality, but also for its message"
Now, that idealized depiction of Godoy wearing his finest formal dress is about to see the light once again. "We want to recover it not just because of its great artistic quality, but also because of its message, which is the defense of public education," says Luzón, who is a former director of the Prado Museum.
Arturo Ansón, a professor of art history at Zaragoza University and an Esteve scholar, says Goya and the Valencian artist worked closely together. "Since Goya didn't have the time to make his own copies, he commissioned them from Esteve. Those two were on the same wavelength," he explains.
He says Esteve was the painter "who portrayed Godoy the most often" and that "he became a chamber painter late in life because he failed to find a niche for himself with his religious paintings, so that he ended up specializing in portraits."
Esteve's talent was eclipsed by Goya, and the fact that he had been Godoy's portrait painter further hindered his career after the fall of the prime minister. When the Peninsular War broke out, he found refuge in Valencia, and by the time he returned to Madrid, "those were other times, and his own era had come and gone by then."
Luzón explains that the quality of the second Goya copy is not as good as the one they are restoring. "There are also a few differences, in Godoy's legs, for example." The second replica first traveled to Switzerland, then eventually ended up at the Valencia Museum of Fine Arts.
What nobody knows is which of the two copies is most like the original. "The one at the Academy has extraordinary details, like the character's head," says Silvia Viana, who with Ángeles Solís and Judith Gasca made up the restoration team.
A tiny piece of the original canvas was purportedly salvaged from the palace at Aranjuez, and it is now kept at the Meadows Museum in Dallas. It depicts a group of children and corresponds to the lower left corner of the painting. But the restoration team doubts its authenticity. "The faces of the children are too sweet to be by Goya, and besides, they're dressed like princes rather than like students," notes Viana.
The restoration is due to be completed in May, and the painting will go on display then. "It was in very bad shape because it had been folded, and you could still see the fold marks," adds Viana. "In the end it's going to look really good, although we've had it in intensive care."