Over the years, I’ve told people that if they want to develop a deeper understanding of Spain, and a meaningful empathy for it, they need to start with the Escorial. Completed in 1584, it’s the architectural embodiment of Philip II, Spain’s empire-building king, and the necropolis for Spanish kings and queens. Its austere aesthetic is distinctly Spanish. Both palace and monastery, it unites church and crown. A basilica, a university, and a library, it’s an all-purpose emblem of a culture. Franco’s tomb was deliberately placed next to it, so that era now has a place in the Spanish sun. The Escorial is not in Madrid or Granada or Seville but in the forbidding Guadarrama Mountains, lean and mean like so much of Spain outside its cities.

After seeing “A Place of Memory,” I’d say the Prado tells the story of...


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