Considered one of the landmarks of Madrid, and adorned with a grand combination of imposing architecture, Plaza Mayor, the grand central square of the capital city, is a rare but expansive opening in the tightly packed streets of central Madrid with a rich history dating back several hundred years. Known as one of the prettiest open spaces in Spain, it is surrounded by three-storey buildings with porches all along the plaza and filled with numerous commemorative plaques, and other symbols. Throughout the ages, it has been used for different purposes like public announcements, crowning ceremonies, bullfights, trials during the Spanish Inquisition, even public executions.
Originally called Plaza del Arraba, its name was changed several times over the years to Plaza de la Constitucion, Plaza de la Republica, and finally, it earned a new name Plaza Mayor after the end of the Civil War, which is still retained.
The history of the plaza dates back to the 15th century when it was called Plaza del Arraba and was used as the main market of the town. In 1561, the plaza was transferred to the city of Madrid, and King Philip II commissioned architect Juan de Herrera to remodel the area. However, the construction began during the reign of Philip III in 1617 and was completed by the architect Juan Gomez de Mora in two years, who built it in the typical Herrerian style of architecture that developed in Spain, during the last third of the 16th century, of which the slate spires are the most obvious expression. Since then it had been the place for the celebration of royal births and weddings when bullfights were arranged in the square until 1878, with royalty watching the event from the balconies and around 50,000 people crammed into the plaza.
Far more notorious were the ritual condemnations and the trials of the heretics during the Spanish Inquisition, followed by their death by burnings at the stake on the north side of the plaza, or death by public hangings in the south.
The Plaza Mayor had to face three major fires during its lifetime. After the first devastating fire, it was reconstructed by Juan Gomez de Mora, and following the second fire in 1670, architect Tomas Roman was in charge of the reconstruction. However, the last fire that struck the plaza in 1790 was most devastating when the fire devoured one-third of the plaza.
Today, the architecture of the Plaza Mayor is credited to Juan de Villanueva, who handled the massive reconstruction of the plaza following the fire of 1790. He lowered the height of the surrounding buildings from five to three storeys, closed the corners, and created large entrances into the squares. The reconstruction process took years, and after the death of Juan de Villanueva, the work was completed in 1854 by his disciples Antonio Lopez Aguado and Custodio Moreno. During that time, the building that now houses the Museo de Prado was named after him.
Today, the 423 feet (129 m) long and 308 feet (94 m) wide Plaza Mayor in Madrid is equipped with ten entrances and nine archways, the most famous of which is Arco de Cuchilleros, located in the southwest corner of the plaza and named after the cutlers’ workshops once located on the spot. The grandeur of the plaza is largely increased by the uniformly warm ochre-coloured three-storey residential buildings with 237 wrought-iron balconies that face inward towards the Plaza. The famous equestrian statue of Philip III was shifted from the Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid, and reinstalled in the centre of the square in 1848. Created in 1616 by Juan de Bolona and Pietro Tacca, it was a gift from the Duke of Florence to the King of Spain and was kept in the park until it was shifted. The famous Casa de la Panderia, a municipal and cultural building on the north side of the plaza, was built in 1590 and was named after the main city bakery that was once housed in the building. Its remarkable façade framed by two two-angled towers was restored by Joaquín María de la Vega in1880. However, the frescoes covering the façade of the building have been reconstructed numerous times, most recently by Carlos Franco in 1992.
In 1960 the plaza closed itself to road traffic, and an underground parking lot was constructed below the plaza. Nowadays, the plaza houses several outdoor cafes and restaurants, usually full of tourists. It also holds the traditional Christmas market for nearly 150 years, offering Christmas decorations, costumes, and numerous gift items.