The Liria Palace in Madrid, home of the Duke of Alba, has finally opened to the public today and I was lucky enough to be one of the first through the doors. I’ve wanted to get in there for years – decades actually – but until now visits were limited to small groups once a week and you had to apply months in advance, which I somehow never get around to.
The palace, with contains one of the greatest private art collections in the world was built in the second half of the 18th century by the 3rd Duke of Berwick and Liria, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Colón. The French architect Guilbert drew up the original plan, but was soon replaced by Ventura Rodríguez, who designed the façades, borrowing details from both the Royal Palace in Madrid and La Granja in Segovia. The building was badly damaged by fires resulting from a bombing raid in 1936 during the Civil War, but fortunately the family managed to save a lot of their artistic treasures by moving them to the British Embassy, the Bank of Spain and the Prado Museum. Sir Edward Lutyens intervened during the rebuilding work, which lasted 20 years.
Today the palace is occupied by the 19th Duke of Alba, Carlos Fitz-James Stuart who, as chairman of the Casa de Alba foundation, has been instrumental in bringing the project to fruition, continuing the work of his mother Cayetana, a much-loved figure in Spain who died in 2014. She and her husband, Luis Martínez de Irujo, were the driving forces behind the restoration of the palace and the development of the museum.
The astounding collections include paintings by Rubens, Titian, Fra Bartolommeo, El Greco, Velázquez, Zurbarán and Goya, with many portraits of members of the Alba family, as well as tapestries, sculpture, ceramics, books and historical documents.
The visit is organised in guided tours, with 20 people at a time and a maximum of 250 a day. I’d recommend booking online as far ahead as possible – I got my ticket a couple of weeks ago but there is no availability for the rest of September. The tickets are timed and the tour takes around 70 minutes. You are given an audioguide (in Spanish, English, French, German and Italian at the moment) and have to follow a guide. You are advised not to talk amongst yourselves, so you can sink into the sumptuous splendour of the surroundings while listening to music that is appropriate to the period of history in each room in between the explanations. The guide leads the group from room to room, unhooking and hooking up again the endless ropes that keep the hoi polloi from getting to close to anything of interest. This is fine when you’re looking at the many large works, but you can’t really see a lot of the smaller paintings and there is no time to get a proper look at any of the decorative details or the framed photos that give a tantalising glimpse into life in the palace.
I was listening to the English version of the audioguide, which was pretty good and narrated by native speakers, although the translation wasn’t as professional as I expected – more like Spanish with English words than a fluent English text. But these are minor gripes; in general the whole thing worked really well, which is quite a feat on the first day.
You go up a very impressive main staircase, designed by Lutyens, to the piano nobile, where most of the visit takes place, with the group shuffling through a dozen or so rooms. In the Flemish room, highlights include the portrait of Charles V and the Empress Isabella of Portugal by Rubens and works by David Teniers the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder, as well as an ornate Meissen porcelain lamp. The Spanish room contains a Christ on the Cross by El Greco, a portrait of the Infanta Margarita by Velázquez and paintings by Murillo, Zurbarán and Ribera. On display in the Zuloaga room is the artist’s striking full-length portrait of María del Rosario Silva y Gurtubay, which was recently on view in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid as part of their excellent Balenciaga and Spanish Art exhibition. There is also an extraordinary portrait of Cayetana, the 18th Duchess of Alba, as a child, wearing a blue coat and riding a pony, with Mickey Mouse among the dogs in the foreground. The Goya room contains the best-known work in the collection, The Duchess in White, a portrait of María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Álvarez de Toledo, 13th Duchess of Alba, as well as the artist’s portrait of the Marchioness of Lazán.
These are just a few of the many superb works of art that you see as you stroll through the elegant rooms before going back down the magnificent staircase to the library – which is decorated in a rather vivid shade of emerald – where the exhibits include the bible of the Casa de Alba, a first edition of Don Quixote, printed in Madrid in 1605, and a collection of letters signed by Christopher Columbus.
This is just a very brief overview of the visit, which I think I’ll have to do quite a few times to grasp it all, as you really need to look at it from artistic, architectural and historical angles, as well as considering that it is also actually a home, albeit a very grand one. This is undoubtedly a fantastic addition to the cultural scene in Madrid and an excellent excuse for a return visit if you haven’t been for a while, I reckon.
On a practical level, as I said above, remember to book tickets in advance to be sure of getting in. Admission costs €14 on the door and €15 online. You can just show your QR guide on the ticket on your phone, so you don’t have to worry about printing it out. Bear in mind that all bags have to be left in small lockers and you are not allowed to take photos inside the palace. There’s no café – yet – but there is a good shop with all manner of merch. The guide costs €12.95 and is worth buying so you can digest everything you’ve seen when you’ve got a bit more time.