She was a real princess, an infanta of Spain, and I’d come thousands of miles to pay her homage. She wasn’t exactly pretty; she possessed those unfortunate characteristics that, had she lived a long life, would have twisted her sweetness into the grotesqueness so characteristic of her family. She was a Habsburg, and no one would remember her today were it not for the sublime brush of Velàzquez, her father’s famous painter. As I gazed upon her, I felt something peculiar happening…deep in my pants, a downward motion completely beyond my control. Princess or no princess, I was about to let loose!
I’d come to Madrid to fulfill a childhood fantasy: I’d grown up in California and had been raised on tales of Spanish chivalry and pirates of the Spanish Main. As an artist, Spain loomed large in my imagination for another reason: in Madrid, The Prado Museum contained the greatest collection of Italian and Spanish paintings on Earth. Velàzquez was one of the most accomplished painters who ever lived, and in my opinion the best portrait painter. His painting, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) was arguably the greatest picture ever painted. I’d come to check it out with my own eyes. But greed came between me and Velàzquez’ masterpiece.
I entered the Prado and stood in line to purchase my ticket. It was a chilly day in late winter and the queue in front of the ticket counter was uncharacteristically short. After handing over a dozen pesetas for my ticket (this was before Spain went on the Euro) I passed into a chamber with hooks on the walls for coats. An attendant, nose buried in a newspaper, was doing a poor job of guarding the coats. I noticed that one of my shoelaces had come undone. Plunking down on one of the empty benches, I leaned down to retie the shoelace and my eyes widened at what I saw—Spanish treasure.
Projecting from beneath my bench was a thick rubber mat with slots in it. These slots were filled with glinting Spanish coins, like a giant coin tray in a bank. Some of these coins were worth as much as five or ten US dollars. Thousands of tourists must have dropped them while struggling out of their coats. For a moment I felt like Edmond Dantès discovering the treasure of Monte Cristo.
I looked up. I could hear snoring coming from behind the attendant’s newspaper. I wish I could report that my Catholic upbringing had immunized me from such temptations but, unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Before yielding to temptation, I glanced around the room for security cameras. When I saw none, I began plucking coins and shoving them into my pockets. I figured I’d stop in a minute or two when other tourists arrived, but none did. When my pockets could hold no more, I waddled out of the chamber, feeling rich as Midas as I sought out the little princess.
The coat chamber may have been empty, but there was a crowd gathered in front of Las Meninas. I pushed my way forward and got my first clear glimpse of her. The critics hadn’t lied. She was a miracle: Velàzquez had created Infanta Margarita and her entourage from a loose salad of brushstrokes that at a certain distance, like perfect pitch in music, transmogrified into the semblance of a living breathing person.
For those who haven’t looked closely at this painting, it’s worth the effort. Hundreds of years before the invention of the camera, Velàsquez defied convention by painting nearly everything slightly out of focus. The dog in the foreground being kicked by the dwarf is blurry up close, as is everything except for the face drawing the viewer’s eye to the center of the composition, the face of the little princess. And over on the left, Velàzquez has depicted himself standing before an enormous painting (Las Meninas?) palette in hand. But what is he painting? The little princess’ back is to him. And hanging on the wall in the background; is that a mirror? Reflected in it are the images of the princess’ parents, the King and Queen. Are they the subject of this painting, or are they standing in the doorway, an impromptu visit to their favorite painter’s studio as the artist prepares to paint their daughter? Art experts have been staring at this remarkable painting for hundreds of years, asking themselves the question: What the hell is going on here? What is this magical portal to seventeen century Spain all about?
I had come a great distance to study this painting, to take my turn at solving this mystery, but I was thwarted by greed, the sort that had roiled the blood of Spanish conquistadors. The princess’ eyes seemed to lock on me, and I was suddenly filled with unbearable shame. The ill-gotten treasure in my pockets seemed to burn through the fabric of my pants, branding my skin—a short-lived agony because at that moment the stitching in both pockets tore open and coins rained down my pant legs, a symphony of clinking and clattering on the marble floor as coins piled up at my feet.
Before bolting from the room as fast as I could, I caught one last glimpse of the little princess. Three hundred year old paint is brittle yet hard as cement, unchangeable, but in that fleeting moment I swear that long-dead little girl’s face had changed. She was laughing at me.