MADRID, Spain — “I looooooove Seville.”
“I looooooove Barcelona.”
Those are the sentences I always hear when I tell a fellow American I’m headed off to Spain again.
Spain’s capital city, with its labyrinthine layout and its craven failure to be perpetually awash in sunlight, sadly is often less loved by tourists. Charm is not a word often ascribed to Madrid, nor is enchanting. Sure, it has the Prado, the Palacio Real, the Gran Via and the Almudena Cathedral. But for many, more delight is to be found in picture-postcard places like Gaudi’s Park Guell and Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or the Alcazar and Calle Sierpes in Seville.
But while Madrid’s charms may yield themselves more slowly, there is no doubt that those charms do exist, including one of Spain’s most beguiling—and least known—treasures. Just across the street from the far more famous Templo de Debod sits a building that I guarantee will charm and enchant—the Museo Cerralbo.
This mansion built by the 17th Marqués de Cerralbo, Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, between 1883 and 1893 is a perfect step back into turn of the century Spain. Halls of weapons and armor, over-the-top Murano chandeliers, a shimmering mirror-clad ballroom, galleries for jewelry and art, and one of the most enviable entrances I’ve ever encountered—the house is full on period-piece porn. It also provides a glimpse into the life of one of the era’s more eccentric and famed figures: the Marqués was one of Spain’s premier archaeologists, collectors, and statesmen who was married to a woman 30 years his senior. Think Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, but with a Spanish flavor.
Given the look of confusion on my Madrileño friends’ faces when I said I was going to check it out (they insisted I must have meant the Museo del Romanticismo) the Cerralbo is also still one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
Walking through the doors into the palace’s iconic entryway with its dramatic marble and iron staircase and impeccable trompe l’oeil marbled walls will certainly give every visitor pause, and in that breath it’s worth considering the man who between 1883 and 1893 built this edifice with a dual purpose: it would be his home but it would also serve as a museum to hold his vast collections of art and artifacts.
Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa was born in 1845, the seventh of 13 brothers in a family with an illustrious pedigree. By the age of 24, he had joined the Carlist party, which supported the claims of the pretender Carlos de Bourbon, Duke of Madrid. For most of the 19th century, the Spanish were enmeshed in a series of civil wars known as the Carlist Wars. The fighting revolved around the question of who truly had the right to the Spanish crown. It continued as a political issue in the early 20th century until Franco solidified control.
In 1871 the Marqués married Inocencia Serrano y Cerver, who was three decades his senior, and a year later at 27 he was made a member of Parliament. Along the way he inherited innumerable titles, estates, and towns and traveled to dozens of countries, collecting art, archaeological treasures, and the odd bauble for his planned future museum. Toward the end of the 1880s he embarked on a propaganda campaign for Carlos that he pursued until 1899, when he forsook politics and refocused his energies on history and archaeology, overseeing hundreds of digs across Spain. In 1913 he would return to politics, but would resign again in 1919. In 1922, at the age of 77, he died at home in his palace in Madrid. He left his entire archaelogical collection to the Spanish nation.
The roughly 20,000 square feet palace is asymmetrical in shape, with a façade, crowned by four towers, that manages to be both classical and eclectic. When he built it, the palace reflected the desires of his era for mansions that served the need for private refinement on the mezzanine floor and public rooms on the piano nobile that could show off a family’s lineage, taste, and wealth. And while the Spanish version of Victorian clutter isn’t to everybody’s taste (certainly not mine), one cannot deny its visual power.
The visitor first makes his or her way through the rooms on the mezzanine, which provide a window into the private life of the family. These rooms, which include bedrooms as well as private sitting rooms and dining rooms, are largely ordered around an interior garden. The photographs, private items, and less ostentatious decoration give us some idea of how wealthy Spanish aristocracy would have lived away from the great stage of pomp and ceremony in public life. Perhaps not altogether shocking in a country where one of the great palaces doubles as a monastery, the bedrooms of this palace unlike all the other rooms in the house are notably severe and spartan in their décor.
But the real fun begins upon ascending the magnificent main staircase to the rooms on the piano nobile. As the museum notes, this sumptuous portion of the home “reflects the 19th-century mentality where appearance, above all else, was of the utmost importance.” This section of the mansion was used only for parties and balls. The first room, the armory, certainly makes the difference clear with its terrifying panoplies of swords, suits of armor, and guns set against a scarlet wall. The mood the Marqués was going for was that of a medieval throne room conjuring of up visions of great deeds by noble families. The two subsequent rooms, the Arab Room and the Sun Room, are slightly more personal, reflecting their owner’s tastes as a collector (the former room was decorated with objects from the Orient) and as an archaeologist (the latter had items from the Necropolis of Las Angosturas, for instance). The eclectic acquisitiveness of the Marqués is capped off by the aptly named Small Columns Room, which contains dozens of Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Medieval figurines, all mounted on, um, small columns.
What follows is a tour de force of over the top interior design. A dressing lounge full of gilded furniture is dominated by a Game of Thrones-esque bouquet of swords and sabers on a dressing table. A banquet room combines dark wood paneling, oversized mirrors, and early, i.e., weak, electrical lighting to create a haze in which one can only imagine slowly dying, crushed by the weight and expectations of Spanish high society. A billiard room holds a painting by Tintoretto and a billiard table reportedly made for King Ferdinand VII. After the billiard room comes the delightful chamfered room, which the museum informs the visitor was devoted to “discussions, whispering, and resting between dances” and looks like a Gainsborough acid trip. The library is like a miniature of the one at the Morgan Library in New York City, and contains everything from the royal seal of Alfonso X the Wise to a copper plaque commemorating the execution of Marie Antoinette (because, why not?).
The most important rooms, however, would have been the three galleries connecting the previous rooms to the ballroom. There were the rooms that housed the collection for which the Marqués was renowned. While the dramatic portraits, genre paintings, and a dazzling collection of jewelry do catch the eye, the best, albeit not the most tasteful, part may be the gaudy giant Murano chandeliers, a number of which might be charitably described as Quinceañera couture gone wrong.
But the pièce de résistance comes at the end of the tour—the ballroom. Light twinkles off gigantic Venetian mirrors, casting a glow on panels of agate and marble, an eye-catching French mystery clock, as well as an oil painting on the ceiling depicting a dance of the gods.
Gazing upon this magnificent jewel box of a ballroom with its illusory sense of space and light (it measures only 720 feet squared), it’s easy to imagine the lavish parties it once held. And while I’m not sure I’d love to have lived that life (modern medicine and all that), I did find myself walking away charmed and enchanted.
At certain times of the day, this obscure palace museum can find itself literally under the shadow of two towering monuments to Franco’s Spain—the Edificio España and the Torre de Madrid on the Plaza de España. These edifices loom at the end of Madrid’s heavily trafficked iconic and aptly named Gran Via with its sensational smorgasbord of architectural styles. The next time you’re in Madrid and are tired of being jostled while clamoring for that perfect shot of the Schweppes sign on the Edificio Carrion on the Gran Via, just slip down the street, cut across the plaza, and duck into the unique time-traveling dreamscape that is the Museo Cerralbo.