Prado leak damages Brueghel

A painting by the Flemish artist was among 10 works affected by dripping water in the storerooms Restorers are now working to rescue the pieces

The Wedding Banquet (1623) by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).
The Wedding Banquet (1623) by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).

The heavy rains that caused extensive flooding across the country in March also took their toll on the Prado Museum, the gallery has revealed.

A leaking pipe discovered in its storerooms on March 11 caused damage to around 10 works, most significantly Jan Brueghel the Elder’s oil painting The Wedding Banquet (1623), but also several Spanish drawings and pastel works from the 18th century. Other sources say more works were also affected.

The leak came as an upsetting surprise to museum director Miguel Zugaza and his team, as well as the Prado board, who took solace from the fact that it had not been more serious.

“Nobody likes this to happen, naturally, but though we don’t want to play down its importance, we believe it wasn’t too bad,” Zugaza explains. He says things like this “can happen at any given moment in any museum, old or new.”

The Prado had initially chosen not to go public about the incident. Zugaza and his team met as soon as they knew the facts, immediately informed the board and its president, José Pedro Pérez-Llorca, as well as the gallery’s technical team, and decided the best thing to do was keep knowledge of it within its walls. “We debated whether to reveal it or not, and we decided it wasn’t important enough an issue to report, and that it was the moment to let the restorers work in peace,” Zugaza explains.

But now, a month later, a source at the Madrid gallery has revealed the details of the leak to EL PAÍS, information confirmed by Zugaza. What happened caused a “real stir” in the museum, the source says.

The leak was discovered on Monday, March 11, after it caused a short circuit in the gallery’s storerooms. The source turned out to be three small nozzles connected to an extraction pipe that are used to release noble gas in the event of fire, according to Rafael Moneo, the architect who was responsible for designing the 2007 revamp of the museum. The gas displaces oxygen to prevent the spread of any potential blaze.

Inside the nozzles is a fan that automatically activates in case of fire. “The problem,” says Zugaza, “was that the water went over the perimeter of these small nozzles and went through to the storeroom, and began to drip.” Specifically onto a fluorescent light, which was what led to the short circuit.

The leak extended in area for at least 24 hours before it was detected by the Prado’s security systems. Other sources say water was falling for the whole weekend prior to the discovery of the drip.

The museum swung quickly and diligently into action once the leak was detected. Zugaza met with his team and took the necessary measures to immediately restore the damaged works and put in place a special mechanism to prevent further incidents. The leak was plugged and a solution to the problem was found according to the criteria of both the museum technicians and Moneo. The architect was in the United States at the time of the incident, but one of his colleagues traveled to the Prado.

“The team of restorers worked in an exemplary manner,” says Zugaza. The paper works, among them several by 18th-century Spanish painter Joaquín Inza, are still being dried by an evaporation method. Meanwhile, the restoration of The Village Wedding continues under the steady hand of Clara Quintanilla, who has eliminated the damp caused by the drip from its surface.

This is not the first leak to affect the museum in its recent past. In the last 20 years there have been at least six known similar incidents. In 1993 water dripped into the room housing Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, one of the gallery’s most treasured works — an event that ultimately led to the dismissal of then-director Felipe Garín. In 1997, Prado head Fernando Checa had to admit that there had been leaks in several rooms in the museum, which was undergoing reformation work at the time.