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Taking a look at the Royal Palace of Madrid

The official home of the Spanish Royal Family, for much of the year, the Royal Palace of Madrid is open to the public as one of Madrid’s top tourist attractions, where each year it attracts millions of visitors. The Royal Family, themselves, are seldom in residence, preferring the Pavilion instead in the El Pardo Estate near La Zarzuela, and for the most part, the building is only used for important state ceremonies. Like all good palaces, the Royal Palace is steeped in history, a structural catalogue of Spain’s national narrative across all its highs and lows.

Moorish Foundations, Baroque Finishes

The currently visible building is fairly recent in comparison to the overall history of the palace itself, being built directly on top of a structure that had existed for centuries prior. Built upon a strategic hill that overlooked the River Manzanares, the first structure upon the site was a fortress-cum-palace erected somewhere between 860 and 880 AD by Emir Muhammad I of Cordoba during the Islamic period of Spanish history. Frequent raids by Christians from the northern kingdoms of Castille, Leon, and Aragon mandated improved defences in the region of Toledo, and as such, the spot was chosen to defend the important river crossing and observe and check Hispanic advances.

Intended to be the centre of the Moorish city of Mayrit, it consisted not only of a defensive fortress, but also a mosque, a residence for the Emir, and extensive recreational grounds. While no images of the fortress as it originally looked have survived, we do know from writings and descriptions that it was just shy of ten acres in size, and the structure was expanded upon repeatedly through its history while keeping the original core intact. The images we do have show the palace after extensive renovations, with the only signs of the old building being the semi-circular turrets that do not match the rest of the structure.

Like the rest of Umayyad al-Andalus, the city eventually fell to the triumphant forces of the Kingdoms of Leon and Castille in 1083, whereupon the Muslim elites of the city were replaced with Christians. The town of Madrid was incorporated as a city in 1188, and the fortress remained principally as a military outpost for much of its early medieval history. King Alfonso XI held court within Madrid for the first time in 1329.

Primary dome over the Royal Palace of Madrid. Photo: Rob Shenk via Flickr

The fortress was expanded first by Henry III of Castille, who added new towers to the building, and his son, King John II added a royal chapel and a new room called the Sala Rica (so named for how richly it was decorated). Charles V, after the Revolt of the Comuneros, decided to place his court within the city of Madrid, and as a result of this ordered another renovation to the Alcázar. In particular, the King sought to reconcile the Moorish and medieval elements with the more modern Baroque style that had come to be favoured in the country. Such additions to the palace continued apace over the next few centuries, by which Madrid became established as the capital of the burgeoning Spanish Empire and the Alcázar properly adopted as the principal residence of the King of Spain.

By this time, the fortress came to be known as the Real Alcázar de Madrid, derived from the Arabic word for fortress: “al qasr”.

The Fire of 1734

The original structure of the palace was eventually destroyed in a terrible fire that completely razed the structure on Christmas Eve in 1734. The fire was thought to have started in the room of the French painter, Jean Ranc, and rapidly spread from there.

The fire was first noted by one of the palace guards, who promptly raised an alarm to try and draw help towards the castle. Unfortunately, people were still in the midst of Christmas celebrations and mistook the alarm bell as a call to mass. The first to arrive to assist were monks from the nearby religious community, and the doors had been barred so as to prevent looting during celebrations. There was precious little time to rescue the multitude of precious objects kept within the palace, and as a consequence, countless artefacts and over 500 paintings were lost in the blaze. That said, certain items were salvaged before the flames reached them, principally from the Royal Chapel.

Another saving grace was the timely, yet entirely coincidental, decision by King Phillip V to move much of his collection to Buen Retiro Palace just before the fire.

The blaze sustained itself for four days before finally burning out, leaving the building completely gutted and uninhabitable. Last of its walls were torn down in 1738, and Phillip V ordered its immediate reconstruction. Italian architect Filippo Juvarra was initially assigned to the project, who took inspiration from the French palace of Versailles; however, he did not live to see the finalisation of his work. His protege, Giambattista Sacchetti, eventually saw the completion of the new palace in 1764. In order to ensure the palace could not burn down again, the structure was primarily built with stone, marble and brick. By that time, it was King Charles III who became first Spanish monarch to take residence within the completed building.

The final additions to the palace were made during the 19th century, when King Alfonso XII redecorated some of the interior rooms to reflect a more Victorian style of architecture in place of the older Italian style. The new fittings were completed by Jose Segundo de Lema. By this point the palace had become the largest in Europe in terms of floor area, encompassing 135,000 square metres and possessing no less than 3,418 rooms, all richly decorated.

From Presidential Palace, Back to Royal Residence

During the brief periods of republican rule in Spain, the Royal Palace was occupied by the ruling President of Spain at the time. In these days, the palace was dubbed the Palacio Nacional. It was during the Second Republic that the Royal Palace was last permanently occupied by a Spanish head of state when President Manuel Azaña held office from 1936 until his ousting by Nationalist forces in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War.

Upon assuming control of the Spanish government, the newly minted Caudillo Francisco Franco elected not to move into the Palacio Nacional, possibly out of respect for the Spanish monarchy that he had supported in the past. If so, the move is puzzling, as Franco arrayed himself with all the trappings of a king and a head of state otherwise. Despite declaring Spain a monarchy, he had made no move to restore the then Prince Juan Carlos to his throne and had taken to placing his image on coins and stamps, walking under a canopy, and even styling himself ‘By the Grace of God.’ In any event, Franco moved his residency into the Royal Palace of El Pardo, and the Royal Palace of Madrid has not been used as an actual residence since.

Upon the restoration of King Juan Carlos I to his throne in 1975, immediately after the death of Francisco Franco, the Royal Palace was once again the official residence of the King of Spain and was shortly afterwards opened up to the public as a tourist destination. Although no longer the actual dwelling of the King, it plays host to numerous diplomatic and ceremonial events each year, such as state banquets and investment ceremonies.

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