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The fire that devastated the Prado Museum

A tragic last minute news slipped into the inner pages of the newspaper El Liberal on the early morning of November 25, 1891: Last night’s catastrophe. Spain is in mourning. Fire at the Museum of Paintings, said the headline. The Prado Museum was burning violently. People crowded in front of that infernal spectacle. Wailing, crying, insults… were the only things heard above the crackling of the flames. No wing had been spared, the building had burned as a whole. 

The citizens and artillery soldiers risked their lives by going dangerously deep into the smoke and ruins of the irretrievable gallery to rescue the battered remains of the few paintings that had survived. Paintings of Titian, Velázquez, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya and the rest of the art treasure had passed away. That day had been one of the most tragic for human heritage. The government was to blame, as it had not intervened to improve the building’s facilities. It was only a matter of time before a tiny spark ignited the horror. Not surprisingly, when people read the note that morning, they rushed to see the museum’s ruins. What was their surprise at finding it intact.

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Mariano de Cavia was the architect of the “fake news” that served to make the government concerned about the integrity of the Prado Museum. Wikipedia

This is an example of the fact that fake news comes from long ago, although this one had a praiseworthy purpose. Mariano de Cavia, author of this report, published the next day in El Liberal the explanation of his performance with the headline Why I have set fire to the Museum of Paintings. His aim was to “invent a catastrophe… to avoid it” and to call the attention of the Minister of Public Works to restore and renovate the facilities of the Prado Museum and to avoid catastrophes like those that other Spanish monuments had already suffered throughout their history precisely because of the negligence of the corresponding administration. The truth is that it took effect, and the Ministry had to get down to work.

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