A fiery rebranding of Madrid

The Hapsburg princess’ cheek was scorched when the Alcazar went up in flames

If you’ve ever been to the Prado you must have seen Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas. Painted in 1656, the picture shows princess Margaret Theresa with her pet dog, dwarf, and ladies in waiting. The enigmatic painting is now famous the world over, but what’s less known is that it narrowly escaped being burned up in a fire that raged in the former royal palace for four whole days in 1734.

The pimped out Alcazar

Flashback to the ninth century and Mohammed I of Cordoba constructs a small castle, or Alcazar on the site where the Royal Palace stands today. Overlooking the Manzanares River, it’s a sweet spot that appeals to Philip II when he decides to move the royal court to Spain in the mid-1500s. Instead of knocking down the fortification, he pimps it out as do successive kings from the Hapsburg dynasty adding a new facade, a chapel, and spires. The result is a mishmash of architectural styles bolted onto the original fort that does not appeal to Philip V, the very first Bourbon monarch to take the Spanish throne.

Born in Versailles and second son to Louis Gran Dauphin of France, Philip reportedly spoke no Spanish when he was named as next heir to the crown by a childless Charles II. With no hope of ever ruling France himself he settled for Spain and, after a bitter war of succession that lost him Sicily, Sardinia, Gibraltar, Naples, and Milan to various European powers, he set about making himself comfortable in his new country. But, the Alcazar was an ugly reminder of the previous regime’s aesthetic tastes and of their legacy.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve 1734 and, according to ABC Madrid, a small gathering in the quarters of court painter Jan Ranc gets out of hand when some curtains catch fire. An alarm is sounded which, at first, is mistaken for bells celebrating midnight mass. But finally the troops cotton on to what’s going on and set about evacuating the palace and with some help from some nearby monks, begin to remove priceless treasures and load them onto nearby carriages.

A surprising amount is saved; seven cartloads filled with gold and silver bling, plus some 2,000 paintings by masters such as Tintoretto, Durer, and Da Vinci. But 500 paintings are consumed in the flames, including works such as a Ruben’s portrait of former Hapsburg monarch Philip IV and Velazquez’s depiction of the Expulsion of the Moors, along with state documents and South American artifacts presented to the monarchy by the conquistadors.

Feeding on the original wooden timbers of the Alcazar, the fire raged for four days and it seems that little was done to actually put it out. More might have been saved if the public had been called in to help with the rescue effort, but fearing this would incite them to start looting, it was thought to best let things burn and salvage the melted down gold and silver from the wreckage.

Las Meninas did not come out of this incident entirely unscathed; the princess’ cheek had been scorched and had to be completely repainted by court artist Juan García de Miranda. Still, thankfully there were few real casualties. In fact, only one woman died.

The royal family were not affected at all because, rather than celebrate mass in the Alcazar’s chapel as was customary, they’d all been absent. That and the fact that key artworks had been moved prior to the conflagration, has kept the suspicion alive that Philip V might have encouraged some anonymous arsonist to torch what he felt to be an eyesore. In short order a brand new palace was built in the same spot, a Frenchified Baroque confection that pleased Philip V and indelibly stamped the Bourbon brand on the city.

 

 

The House of the Seven Chimneys

Where there’s smoke… Did Philip II have anything to do with Elena’s death?

In the 16th century, Chueca was far from being the bustling gay meca we know and love today. Practically on the outskirts of the city, bordered by fields and gardens, it was a quiet tranquil spot. Indeed, the ideal place for a powerful person to tuck away a mistress. The mistress in question being Elena, the ravishing daughter of Philip II’s huntsman for whom the House of the Seven Chimneys – a grand red brick residence – was built in 1577.

According to Mirador Madrid, Elena captured the heart of Philip when he was still a prince, however, being of noble birth, she was quickly married off to a Captain Zapata before any whiff of a scandal could get around. Shortly after this wedding Zapata was dispatched to fight against the French in Flanders where he died in battle. A pregnant Elena was said to be extremely distraught by his death and, after giving birth, died herself shortly afterwards.

Officially Elena died from a broken heart, but the story doesn’t end here. The servants began to whisper about knife wounds they’d discovered on her body. Could Elena’s child be the illegitimate daughter of the king? Could she have been silenced by those who didn’t want the infant to have any claim to a royal lineage? Before an investigation could be conducted into the affair, Elena’s body went missing and her distraught father was found some time later hanging dead from the rafters leaving Elena’s daughter orphaned.

Years passed and Philip II took the throne, ordering the Alcazar where he resided – a fort originally constructed by the Moors – to be pimped out in splendid style.  However, disturbing reports began to circulate that citizens passing by the House of Seven Chimneys had spotted the figure of a woman in white flitting between the chimneys on the roof of the house pointing an accusatory finger at the Alcazar. Could she be Elena demanding justice?

Despite these apparitions, Philip’s relationship to Elena remained apocryphal, that is until the end of the 19th century when the building was renovated by the Bank of Castilla and the bones of a woman found in the walls of the basement along with several 16th century coins. Was this poor Elena, interred to prevent a scandal?

The house is currently home to Spain’s Ministry of Culture, but has had a couple of other noteworthy residents. The first being the Marquis of Esquilache, Charles III’s ill-fated adviser, whose social reforms sparked the Esquilache riots which ultimately led him to being banished from Spain (read more about this in a previous post). It’s said that during the insurrection, Esquilache took refuge in The House of Seven Chimneys while the crowd raged outside. The other famous resident of the house was the poet and diplomat Sir Richard Fanshawe, British Ambassador to Spain, who died there in the inauspicious year of 1666 at the age of 57.

If you’re in the neighbourhood, check out the house, which is of interest not only for its ghoulish associations, but also for being one of the few examples of 16th century architecture left in the city. If you’re worried about catching the vengeful eye of the woman in white, it’s probably best to visit by day.

Murder most horrid at 69 Calle Mayor

An ancient curse, a severed hand… Just your average day at 69 Calle Mayor

A curious coincidence recently led me to visit 69 Calle Mayor twice in the space of one week. My first visit was to attend a Japanese conversation session held at the Japan Foundation, the second was an art exhibition in the basement. Both times I noticed a slight chill when I walked through the ancient stone doorway and this got me wondering about the history of the building. Be warned fair reader, what I discovered is not for the faint of heart!

Built around the late 16th and early 17th century and formally known as the Palacio de Cañete, this handsome townhouse was the property of one Marquess of Cañete. Legend has it that its noble owner was found dead in 1654, run through with a sword, following a meeting with Antonio Amada, an important member of the clergy. The priest was promptly put to death and, according to the custom of that day, his severed hand hung from the door. But this grizzly tale does not end here. From what I’ve gleaned from Secretos de Madrid and Mirador Madrid, this was the start of a series of creepy paranormal events. 

Those that lived there reported candles going out and spontaneously lighting up, furniture moving itself across rooms, terrible shrieks issuing from empty rooms, even the severed hand of Amada and the Marquis himself appearing to terrified witnesses. This violent haunting only came to an end years later when one of the Marquis’ servants confessed on his deathbed that he had murdered the Marquis for trying to seduce his wife.

At the end of the 19th century, the building passed into the hands of the state and, in 2010 was renovated and partly put to use as the Centro-Sefarad-Israel, an organization that works in part to educate the Spanish public about Jewish culture. This donation itself is part of a larger package put together by the Spanish state to atone for the expulsion of the Sephardi Jews in 1492 during the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand. Many Sephardi Jews who could prove their Spanish heritage have recently been granted Spanish citizenship in a law that went into effect in October 2015. Which is all well and good, though why this law didn’t extend to Muslim families expelled from the country around the same time is a sticky subject perhaps best left to another post.

If you fancy visiting the Palacio de Cañete, Centro-Sefarad regularly hold exhibitions open to the public, the most recent of which I should add includes some fine artwork by my friends Lance Tooks and Margarita Gokun Silver (this closes 25 May, so you’ll have to get a move on if you want to catch it). In addition, the Japan Foundation has a very nice library there where you can while away an quiet afternoon reading, that is if you’re not bothered by the prospect of accusatory severed hands appearing out of the ether!

 

The grandmother of all rockers

Vallecas’ rocking grandmother raising two triumphant fingers to the worldWe all have those moments when we realise we’re getting a bit past it. Mine came about two weeks ago at a gig. The (very very) few other people in the room around my age had all sensibly positioned themselves at the back and were bobbing gently along, while I had foolhardily gone right into the maelstrom up front. My reward for losing myself in the moment; a searing burst of pain that froze my neck stiff. A trapped nerve. Clearly that my days in the mosh pit were not even numbered. They were over.

So it was with some delight that I read an article in ABC Madrid about this fantastic lady from Vallecas who got into rock music when her grandson took her to a heavy metal concert. From that moment on  was hooked and soon became a fixture at all the big rock concerts. She was so popular that she ended up with her own “Consultant Grandmother” column in the magazine “Heavy Rock” and was also a regular on a late night radio show.

Her notoriety was such that Chilean rock band Panzer put a photo of her holding up her fingers in the ‘sign of the horns’ on the front of their record “Toca Madera”. After her death in 1993, her likeness was cast in this pose and mounted on the Boulevard de Vallecas. The money for the statue was raised at a benefit concert held in her honor. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, her fingers have been snapped off by some disrespectful young scallywags and she now appears to be shaking her fist at the cruelty of a forgetful world.

A brief crawl around Madrid’s most historic bars

Casa Labra, where Spain’s socialist party was formed in secret

There are some bars that, rather than advertise their existence, seem to actively discourage new clientele. As soon as you walk through the door you feel like Luke Skywalker walking into the Cantina on Tatooine; the music stops, the patrons turn to give you withering looks and the bar tender ignores you when you try to order a drink. Back in the late 1800s, Casa Labra was just such a place. The innocuous botilleria was host to a group set on forming Spain’s socialist party; an act which at the time was considered by the moneyed classes to be tantamount to a political conspiracy.

The secret meeting took place upstairs on May 2 1879 and sought to address the shameless exploitation of the working classes by capitalist bosses. Many of those gathered were – like my own socialist grandfather – print-shop workers keen to campaign for the right to strike. A leader was appointed: Pablo Iglesias, then the president of the typesetters union, a figure who managed to stay in power until his death in 1925. Though the party was outlawed during Franco’s reign, these days a plaque commemorating this clandestine meeting is mounted on the wall outside the bar and inside, you’re free to raise a glass to the party that was partly instrumental in the formation of Spain’s short-lived Second Republic.

Those with an interest in the following tumultuous period might like to next hit La Venecia, a sherry bar that was founded back in the 30s and has changed so little that its walls still retain the same dingy yellow sheen from cigarettes smoked by weary socialist soldiers fighting the good fight against Franco. The rules of the house remain unchanged: no photos – a measure then taken against spies but probably preserved to keep the selfie crowds out – and no tips (which according to The Culture Trip has something to do with the owner’s socialist principles, though I’ve not quite worked out the logic behind that one). Hemingway fans will be delighted to know that the great colossus of macho literature did frequent this bar when he was working as a journalist covering the Civil War in Madrid.

Our last bar was also frequented by writers and brave men of a different stripe. Founded in 1827 in the same building Cervantes once lived in, Casa Alberto was a firm favorite with bullfighters who would come to congratulate or commiserate with each other over a glass of vermouth. According to Expancion, it was also a meeting spot for pickpockets who, during the period of severe poverty that succeeded the Civil War would down a shot for courage before setting off on a purse snatching spree.

 

Even a Spanish clock tells the right time twice a day

It only took 100 years for Sol to acquire an accurate timepiece

The Spanish are infamous for their poor timekeeping. Those of us who’ve lived here long enough know that ‘I’ll meet you at 8 pm’ actually translates into 8.30 or even 9. It’s simply something you get used to and, if truth be told, it’s nice not to have to rush to appointments. But back in the day when the majority of Madrileños relied on public clocks, things were even more chaotic.

The first clock in Puerta del Sol was mounted on the facade of the Church de Buen Suceso during the 1700s. Though it only showed the hour, it was not very accurate and complaints from the public finally led to a new mechanism being installed in 1848. This too failed to tell the right time and though the church was torn down in 1854, the spendthrift authorities kept the clock and were about to have it mounted on the facade of the Gobernación when it was announced that a new three faced clock was to be commissioned. Though it was a very handsome affair the timepiece nevertheless failed at its primary function with press reports noting that now people could at least chose the time which suited them as each of the three sides showed a different hour.

The joke continued until Spanish horologer José Rodríguez Losada, who ironically had taken on British citizenship and plied his trade in London, saved the day by building a clock that actually worked and donating it to the city in 1866. According to Spanish Wikipedia, the clock continues to tell the right time only losing four seconds each month. On New Year´s Eve each year it appears on TV when, just before the stroke of midnight, its golden ball descends to mark the end of the old year.

Tearing down the church

Church in Lavapies burned down by arsonists just one day before the start of the civil war

Time was you couldn’t swing a cat, let alone drive through central Madrid without hitting a church or monastery. A lack of urban planning meant that the city’s narrow streets were stifled by religious institutions. That was until Bonaparte’s troops rolled into town. The new ruler, Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, decided to modernize the city and ordered the demolition of churches and monasteries to make way for new squares, thus creating some of Madrid’s most famous urban spaces: the Plaza Santa Ana, Plaza de la Cebada, Plaza de Ramales and Plaza de Oriente to name but a few.

Joseph’s path of destruction during his short reign from 1808 to 1819 earned him the nickname El rey pazuelas (The King of the Small Squares) and though he may not have been very popular in his day, Joseph gave the city some of its loveliest spaces; wide open squares in which it’s possible to while away the hours drinking a café con leche while watching the world pass by at a sedate pace. However, according to Secretos de Madrid, one thing the city lost forever during this time was Velazquez’s bones. Interred in the church of John the Baptist in 1660, the artist’s remains were destroyed along with the church to make way for the Plaza de Ramales.

After Joseph was ejected from Spain, the church did not have much breathing space to lick its wounds before Prime Minster Juan Álvarez Mendizábal ordered the seizure of church property by the state to be auctioned off, the profits of which went to his cash-strapped government. From 1835 to 1837 a huge amount of formally church held land was sold to private owners and the city got even more public spaces, the largest of which is Tirso de Molina.

The church was left to its own devices for nearly 100 years until in  May 11 1931, just after the Republic was formed, churches in cities throughout Spain were set on fire by angry citizens. It was the first of many attacks to go largely unpunished in the new anti religious era. Resentment against the church had long been festering among the country’s working class who found it hard to stomach the hypocrisy of the priests who preached self sacrifice and toil while enjoying a relatively cushy life supported by an institution that was not short of a bob or two.

The new regime was not at all pro Catholic and among other measures, banned members of its order from the teaching profession. Rome reacted like other major landowners in Spain and threw its support behind Franco, thus inciting further attacks on church properties. A reminder of this violent episode in the church’s history can be seen in Lavapies at the Escuelas Pías de San Fernando where a lovely new library owned by UNED (Spain’s equivalent of the Open University) sits within the crumbled shell of church that was burned to the ground just a day before the start of the civil war on 19 June 1936.

 

San Isidro Madrid’s (male) patron saint

San Ididro’s remains

In the church of San Isidro lie the embalmed remains of Madrid’s most famous patron saint, Isidro the Labourer. This varnished bag of bones lying on a bed of white satin, his modesty covered by a flag embroidered with the city’s heraldry, is not doing too badly considering it’s getting on for 1,000 years since he kicked the bucket.

Kept in a coffin with nine locks that only the King holds the key to, he hasn’t had a public airing since 1985. Probably all for the best as he’s been knocked about a bit over the years. Charles II had one of his teeth extracted so he could place it under his pillow and benefit from the saint’s good juju, and it’s even rumoured that a lady in the court of Isabella I of Castille bit off his toe, presumably hoping to obtain some of his magical powers for herself.

So why all the fuss? Well the miracles wrought by Isidro during his long lifetime were pretty impressive, apparently, he got angels to plough the fields for him, brought forth springs out of parched earth, and conjured food out of thin air. So, he’s definitely a character you’d want to align yourself with in a fix and in my own small way, I’m linked to the saint himself as Isidro also happens to be my husband’s surname; a name the family were forced to take on after the Reconquista by the Catholic kings when all Muslims had to convert to Christianity or be kicked out of Spain. To demonstrate their new Christian identities these families were given the surnames of saints, surnames that nevertheless marked them out as former Muslims.

Isidro’s life is commemorated every year on the 15th of May when Madrid holds a long weekend of festivities.

Cloak and dagger

Esquilache riots by Francisco de Goya

Cloaks have a long and infamous history in Madrid. In fact, the English term “cloak and dagger” derives from 18th century Spanish and French dramas, (capa y espada in Spanish) in which villains would fight with the fabric of their cloaks wrapped round their arms to form a shield. In reality criminals used to profit from the fashion for long cloaks by concealing weapons under the voluminous fabric. Even if they weren´t carrying a sword, they might have been using the garment to hide a more minor demeanour of relieving themselves in the street. A slit at the back called the excusón came in handy in the days when Madrid lacked a proper drainage and sewage system (if you think Madrid smells rather ripe after a Saturday night, it´s nothing to the stench of the city in days gone by).
By the mid-1700s, one thing was clear to the king´s Neapolitan adviser, the Marquis of Esquilache; long cloaks, along with wide brimmed hats – that much like hoodies in modern Britain concealed a criminal’s identity – had to go. The Marquis issued a proclamation stating that long capes and broad brimmed hats were now out in favour of short capes and three cornered hats, a la Francés. The suck ups in Charles the III’s court of course all capitulated but things went more than a little awry when it came to getting the commoners to adopt the namby pamby foreign style of dress. The problem was that after liberalizing the grain trade, Esquilache was not popular with the common man. The price of bread and other staple foods had shot up through the roof, so this high-handed edict dictating how people were to dress served as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
On March 10 1766 placards went up throughout the city instructing people to adopt the new style of dress or have their hats and cloaks confiscated. These were torn right back down to cries of “Long live Spain” and “Death to Esquilache.” Things came to a head in the tiny square of Anton Martin when a couple of lads wearing long cloaks and wide brimmed hats swaggered up to some soldiers. Insults were traded and swords drawn. It looked like the crown would win this particular skirmish until one of the caped crusaders whistled loudly and a band of armed and angry citizens appeared to back them up. The soldiers fled and the mob made its way to the palace whereupon their demands were presented to the king. Among these was the immediate expulsion of Esquilache and the repeal of the edict.
Poor old Esquilache was banished to Venice along with his modern ideas and the king, fearing for his life, even after capitulating, scarpered to Aranjuez. Once the monarch had returned and the drama had died down, the modernizers finally got their way by less draconian methods. The long cape was declared to be the new uniform of the executioner and the city´s citizens, not wanting anything to do with this ill-famed character, quickly ditched their long cloaks in favour of the shorter versions.
There aren’t many people out and about these days in capes, but Madrid is still home to the artesanal cape store Seseña, where an elegant cape will set you back about 300 euros. If you do cough up the cash you´ll be in illustrious company, Nicolas Cage has bought one from the shop and Pablo Picasso is said to have loved his so much that he was buried in it. Viva la capa!