September 20, 2020

Treasures and legends of the Casa de Alba | Babelia


Located in the heart of Madrid, on Calle de la Princesa, a few meters from the suffocating asphalt of the Plaza de España, the liria palace it has always been surrounded by mystery for passers-by. Half hidden by centuries-old trees and well-kept French gardens, only in the background could you glimpse from outside a palace full of treasures among which the Alba lived, an aristocratic family rich in heritage, history and legends. In September of last year, the locks on the wrought iron gates that surround the neoclassical palace they opened to the public by decision of the XIX Duke of Alba, Carlos Fitz-James Stuart and Martínez de Irujo.

The opening of the Liria Palace was, without a doubt, one of the great cultural news of 2019, because the city of Madrid added to its many museums the possibility of knowing the best private collection in Spain, a kind of reduced version of the Prado Museum , which until then had been able to taste droppers through its loans for large national and international exhibitions and in a complete exhibition at the CentroCentro Cibeles.

In the wake of other large private European collections, that of the Alba is shown just as the works have lived within the walls of the building built by Ventura Rodríguez on plans by Louis Gilbert. The public can visit it spread over the first two floors of the building. In the third, the duke lives, sometimes accompanied by one of his sons, Fernando and Carlos.

Flamenco Hall of the Liria Palace.
Flamenco Hall of the Liria Palace.

After the inevitable stoppage imposed by the pandemic, the Alba have reopened the palace with few variations. The new protocol consists of taking the temperature of the visitors, who can enter groups of 15 people every 30 minutes (before there were 20) and never exceed 40 visits inside. The tour (14 euros the entrance) is done with audio guides that are disinfected with a new ultraviolet light system.

The palace was ordered to be built by Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Colón. During the Civil War, the bombings left the building reduced to the chassis, although it gave time to protect the contents in safe places, such as the British Embassy or the Bank of Spain. After the war, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falcó decided to rebuild the palace with very few variations on what it had been. With the help of her daughter Cayetana and her first husband, Luis Martínez de Irujo, Liria rose from her ashes. The duke made her daughter promise to always reside in the palace and to keep the collection together. The aristocrat kept her promise and, although she liked spending long periods in the Dueñas palace in Seville, she never left Liria.

Just for its furniture, miniatures, tapestries or watches, the collection would be worth a detailed visit. But it is its almost 400 paintings that place it among the most important in the world. The masterpieces of the Spanish and Flemish schools are the envy of any museum. But it also has exclusive jewels in Spain, such as the one that was added by surprise after the postcovid reopening: an oil painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Philip V imposing the Golden Fleece on the Duke of Berwick (1817), which is exhibited alongside the preparatory sketch made by the French artist. The painting was commissioned by the XIV Duke of Alba to the painter, although it was later incorporated into the collection, when it was recovered by the current Duke’s grandfather at the beginning of the 20th century.

'Philip V imposing the Golden Fleece on the Duke of Berwick' (1817), by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
‘Philip V imposing the Golden Fleece on the Duke of Berwick’ (1817), by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Álvaro Romero Sánchez-Arjona, cultural director of the Alba Foundation, explains that what we see in Liria is a sum of collections contributed by different branches linked to the family, both through political and family channels. On the floor of the hall that gives access to the route, the tiles of a spectacular mosaic reproduce the arms of the houses of Berwick and Alba, together with the dates 1773 and 1953. The beginning and the reconstruction. Duke Carlos Miguel contributed fundamental Italian and Flemish pieces, to which more than twenty corpus are added, although the most recognized are those of the houses of Monterrey, Carpio and Eugenia de Montijo, who died in Liria and bequeathed her collection to his nephew Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart. Incidentally, the wife of Napoleon III will open in 2021 the series of small temporary exhibitions in Liria.

The tour of the rooms involves an encounter with milestones in painting, such as the portraits of Francisco de Goya to the XIII Duchess of Alba and the Marquise de Lazán; those of the Grand Duke of Alba made by Tiziano and Rubens; that of the Infanta Margarita de Velázquez; that of Canon Juan de Miranda de Murillo; that of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, founder of the Dominicans, of Zurbarán; he Saint Onofre from Ribera, and Venus and Mars by Lavinia Fontana.

Christopher Columbus manuscript.
Christopher Columbus manuscript.

The last stop is in the library, created by Duke Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falcó, with nearly 20,000 volumes and in which Jesús Aguirre, Cayetana de Alba’s second husband, worked. If paintings are very important, paper treasures are no less so. The first showcase contains the Bible of the Casa de Alba, from 1430, the first in the Spanish language. It is a manuscript book, with beautiful illustrations, which was commissioned by the Master of the Order of Calatrava. It remained in the hands of the Inquisition and ended up in the possession of the Count-Duke of Olivares, one of the titles of the Casa de Alba.

Other incunabula are the Complutense Bible, the Polyglot, the double marriage agreement of the children of the Catholic Monarchs, Don Juan and Doña Juana (Juana la Loca) with Margarita de Austria and Felipe el Hermoso, respectively, and the last testament of Fernando el Catholic, signed by him in the Cáceres town of Madrigalejo the day before he died, in 1516. The colophon is formed by the set of documents, drawings and letters written by Christopher Columbus. Liria preserves the largest set of missives from the admiral, 21 of the 43 existing (another 16 rest in the Archive of the Indies in Seville).

Out of sight of visitors, in the private part of the gardens, is the pet cemetery that have accompanied several generations of the family. Like Peggy Guggenheim at the Venier dei Leoni palace, each is remembered by name. But that is part of the Alba’s private life.

Liria Palace. Alba’s house. Calle de la Princesa, 20. Madrid. Open Monday through Friday in the mornings, and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, morning and afternoon. Check schedules on the website.

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