Considered by many as one of the finest palaces in Europe, Palacio Real, located on Calle de Bailén in the western part of downtown Madrid, is the official residence of the Spanish Royal family, although now it is used only for state ceremonies, while the King lives in the significantly modest Zarzuela Palace. Often referred to as Spain’s jewel-box, Palacio Real is a majestic building with an impressive entrance featuring limestone statues of over 44 Spanish royals.
The origin of the Palacio Real dates back to the 9th century, when the palace was initially built by Muhammad I, Umayyad Emir of Cordoba between 860 and 880, as a defensive outpost to protect Toledo from the advancing Christians. After the Moors were driven out of Toledo by King Alfonso VI of Castile in 1083, the edifice was rarely used by the kings of Castile, but it retained its defensive function. The Royal Alcazar of Madrid, originally built in the second half of the ninth century and located at the site of today’s Palacio Real, was almost like a fortress. It was extended and enlarged over the centuries, particularly after 1560, as it suffered severe damage during the War of the Castilian Succession of 1476.
However, a fire that originated in the rooms of the French painter Jean Ranc, destroyed the Alcazar on Christmas Eve 1734. The fire lasted for four days and the remaining walls of the old Alcazar were finally demolished in 1738. After that, intending to build a palace for his Bourbon dynasty, King Felipe V commissioned Italian architect Filippo Juvarra to design a new palace to be constructed on the site. But due to the untimely death of Juvarra in March 1736, his disciple Giambattista Sacchetti ultimately drew up the final plans. The first stone of the building was laid in 1738 and it took seventeen years to complete the project. In 1760, Charles III commissioned Francesco Sabatini, a neoclassical architect, to enlarge the palace and he was the first monarch to occupy the new palace in 1764.
Occupying an area of 13 hectares, Palacio Real has 3000 rooms, along with 870 windows, 240 balconies and 44 staircases. It was built in the form of a square that looks out over a large courtyard with galleries and a parade ground. The Plaza de la Armeria, another courtyard on the south side that looks out toward the Almudena Cathedral, serves as the principal entrance to the palace.
It consists of a two-story rusticated stone base, from which rise numbers of tall Ionic columns on Tuscan pilasters framing the grand windows of the three main floors. The upper story is hidden behind a cornice encircling the building is capped with a large banister and adorned with a series of statues of saints and kings. The statues were later relocated elsewhere under the reign of Carlos III, to give the building a more classical appearance. Much later, in 1973, during the restoration of the façade that included the Sabitini's balcony of four Doric columns, some of the old Sachetti's sculptures were returned. The main staircase with 70 steps, was designed by Sabatini.
The Grand staircase with seventy steps, composed of a single piece of San Agustin marble, was designed by Sabatini. One of the two lions that grace the landing was created by Felipe de Castro and the other by Robert Michel. The fresco on the ceiling, depicting ‘Religion Protected by Spain’ was done by Corrado Giaquinto. The ground floor is graced by a statue of Carlos III in Roman toga, with a similar statue on the first floor depicting Carlos IV.
The decoration of the rooms and their layout changed gradually over the years to suit the tastes and choices of its residents. However, for interior decoration, costly materials like, Spanish marble, stucco, mahogany doors and windows were used, along with many artefacts, particularly the frescoes by the leading artists of the day.
Apart from the Royal Library, which was moved to the lower floor during the regency of Maria Christina, the ground floor of the palace houses the Royal Pharmacy and the Royal Armoury. The Royal Pharmacy became an appendage of the royal household during the reign of Felipe II. It preserves the prescriptions meant for the members of the royal family, cabinets for storing the natural medicines and the ceramic pots made by the Talavera de la Reina pottery in the 18th century and the La Granja de San Ildefonso in the 19th century. The Royal Armoury, opened in the Palacio Real in1879, is considered one of the best in the world and its collection includes the weapons and armour used by the kings of Spain and other members of the royal family since the 13th century. It highlights the full tools that Carlos V used in the Battle of Mühlberg.
The first floor of the Palacio Real includes Apartments of King Carlos V that consists of the Halberdier’s Room, the Hall of Columns, the Throne Room and a Saleta or an anteroom.
The Hall of Halberdier, converted into the Guards Room by Carlos III, was designed by Sabatini and includes the fresco Venus and Vulcan by Tiepolo and two paintings Luca Giordano, depicting scenes from the life of King Solomon. The Hall of Columns is decorated with a ceiling fresco by Giaquinto entitled the Sun Before Which All the Forces of Nature Awaken and Rejoice, depicts an allegory of the king as Apollo. It also has a bronze statue of Carlos V. The Bronze chandeliers, made in Paris in 1846, were installed by Isabella II.
The Throne Hall with a ceiling fresco by Tiepolo dates from Carlos III in 1772. It has several bronze sculptures that include the Four Cardinal Virtues namely, Prudence, Courage, Temperance and Justice; four planets and four Medici lions flanking the dual throne. Apart from a ceiling fresco, the antechamber of Carlos III, also called the Conversation Room, has four royal family portraits by Goya.
The three rooms of the former Queen’s Apartments during Carlos III were converted into a banquet hall by Alfonso XII. The Royal Chapel, designed in 1748 by Sacchetti and Ventura Rodriguez, features ceiling frescoes by Giaquinto. It is home to a collection of string instruments made by the legendary Antonio Stradivari.
Palacio Real, the largest building in Madrid, is adjacent to the beautiful Plaza de Oriente and surrounded by the formally landscaped Sabatini and Campo del Moro parks. Wide alleys lead to the Palace, with round topiaries and statues punctuating the side alleys and borders. However, the Palace Gardens are called Campo del Moro, named after the Muslim leader Ali ben Yusuf, who in 1109 allegedly camped in the area in his attempt to re-conquer Madrid.