The Villahermosa Palace is one of the most important buildings in Madrid’s repertoire of palatial architecture. Although it was built at the beginning of the 19th century, its origins date from the early 17th century, when the first structures emerged at the intersection of the Paseo del Prado Viejo and Carrera de San Jerónimo. During the 18th century this part of the city would gradually develop into the new court area opposite the Buen Retiro Palace. Before very long, the high-ranking aristocrats linked to the Crown would seek closer proximity to the monarchs by situating their retreats in the area, which was open and spacious and thus ideal for building stately mansions with extensive grounds and parks. Hence, the Villahermosa Palace was abutted on one side by the Palace of the Duke of Lerma, later the Duke of Medinaceli (the present-day Palace Hotel), and on the other by the Palace of the Duke and Duchess of Béjar (the present-day Bank of Spain), on the corner of the Calle de Alcalá.
Situated at the epicentre of this area, the Villahermosa Palace also has a long history associated with cultural circles, thanks to the patronage of the arts exercised by its various owners and tenants. After its purchase in the late 18th century by the Duke and Duchess of Villahermosa, its halls hosted important intellectual gatherings along the lines of the Enlightenment “salons”. It was also the seat of Madrid’s Lyceum of Arts and Letters – one of the main cultural institutions during the Romantic period – and, at the turn of the century, of the city’s most famous salon, hosted by the Marchioness of Squilache. Throughout the century, the most prominent artists, writers, politicians and thinkers would gather regularly at the palace. This cultural genealogy burgeoned again in the second half of the 20th century when the building served as an annexe to the Prado Museum, and culminated in 1989 when it was turned into the headquarters of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
In the 16th century, this area lay on the outskirts of Madrid and was given over to crop-growing and manufacturing. However, during the latter years of that century and throughout the 17th century it underwent urban development and became the court district of the city. This transformation began in the year 1606 with the definitive relocation of the Spanish Court to Madrid, the royal family’s occupation of the Monastery of San Jerónimo el Real and the construction in 1635 of the Buen Retiro Palace as the monarchy’s summer residence. Following the fire at the Alcázar, or royal palace, from 1734 to 1764 this palace served as the permanent residence of the royal family while the New Royal Palace was being built. The immediate vicinity was developed in keeping with its importance and the junction of Prado Viejo and the Carrera de San Jerónimo became the focal point of the area, an obligatory part of the route for all official processions and the stage for official royal ceremonies.
Anonymous, Intersection of Paseo del Prado and Carrera de San Jerónimo
At the beginning of the 17th century the site now occupied by the Thyssen Museum was divided into multiple properties. These were bought, sold, inherited and disputed throughout the century but were eventually unified into a single estate. The first house was built in the mid-17th century and is reproduced in the painting by Kessel which hangs in the Central Hall of the museum. Designed in keeping with the style established by the Madrid architect Gómez de Mora, the house first belonged to the Count of Galve and then to the Count of Frigiliana (brother-in-law of the former, who inherited it from his sister, Galve’s widow). It was the Count of Frigiliana who, at the beginning of the 18th century, became the sole owner of all the sections of the estate that currently accommodate the museum (including the additional facilities at 19-21 Calle del Marqués de Cubas), plus the sections between Marqués de Cubas and the Paseo del Prado that stretch to the plot on which the Bank of Spain now stands, which until then had been gardens and crop fields. The property remained unaltered until the mid-19th century.
1686 KESSEL III, Jan van (attributed) View of the Carrera de San Jerónimo and Paseo del Prado with a Procession of Carriages
In 1746 the house and all the aforementioned lands were purchased by the widowed Duchess of Atri, who secretly married Alessandro Pico de la Mirandola two years later. The couple built a much larger, more palatial home with Baroque décor, designed by the architect Francisco Sánchez, and the result was a two-storey building with attics.
1750 Francisco SÁNCHEZ. Project for the Duchess of Atril and Alessandro Pico de la Mirandola
In 1777 the Atri House was purchased by Juan Pablo Aragón-Azlor, the 11th Duke of Villahermosa. From Aragon and descended from King John II of Aragon, the Villahermosas were one of the oldest and most important families in the Spanish aristocracy. They also owned the largest amount of land, principally in Aragon and Navarre. Attached to the Court, the Duke of Villahermosa held diplomatic posts and was a learned encyclopaedist (he lived in Paris as a young man, where he participated in Enlightenment salons and became friends with d’Alambert and Voltaire). His interest in the house was due to the fact that it was the best-situated property in the Court, being flanked on one side by the Buen Retiro Palace, opposite the Palace of the Duke and Duchess of Medinaceli (his wife was the duchess’s sister), and on the other by the avenue along which the official royal processions passed. His purchase of the property in 1777 was clearly the result of a meditated decision, although he did not actually occupy it until 1783.
From the outset, the duke and his wife, María Manuela de Pignatelli, were keen to undertake alterations and enlarge the house. Although the details of the process are still a mystery, there are records of the remodelling and extension projects commissioned from Juan de Villanueva (rejected as too costly) and Manuel Martín Rodríguez (aided by his then apprentice, Silvestre Pérez), who seems to have been responsible for the first alterations to the palace façade and interior to adapt them to the new Neoclassical taste.
1805 Antonio López Aguado, project for the Villahermosa Palace
However the major remodelling and extension of the palace took place in 1805, and the exterior dating from this time has survived to the present day. The project on this occasion was drawn up and supervised by Villanueva’s disciple, Antonio López Aguado, the Chief Architect of the Madrid City Council and the author, among other works, of the Puerta de Toledo Gate, the initial project for Madrid's Royal Theatre, and the completion of the Prado Museum after the War of Independence. Carried out after the death of the 11th Duke of Villahermosa by the widowed duchess and her son José Antonio de Aragón-Azlor, the 13th Duke of Villahermosa (1785-1852), the remodelling virtually doubled the floor plan of the building along the Paseo del Prado and added a third storey. Meanwhile, the façades adopted the Neoclassical style that characterised Madrid’s palaces.
In addition to their relations with the Court, the Duke and Duchess of Villahermosa showed a lively interest in the arts and letters. Their palace not only contained a vast library but also hosted a literary gathering led by Tomàs de Iriarte. José Antonio Aragón-Azlor played an equally important role in the Court, in particular as an ambassador, and continuing the family tradition he befriended and championed writers, painters and architects such as Aguado, Vicente López and Madrazo, fellow students at the Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. In 1823, during the duke’s sojourn in France, the Duchess of Villahermosa provided shelter at the palace for the Duke of Angoulême, the general at the head of the French army (“The Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis”) that invaded Spain to support the restoration of absolutism under Ferdinand VII.
1814, José Ribelles (draughtsman), Blas Ametller y Rollán (engraver) Funeral Procession in Memory of Daoiz and Velarde
In 1846 the Duke and Duchess rented out the main floor of the palace as the seat of the Madrid Lyceum of Arts and Letters. Created a few years earlier, the Lyceum remained at the palace for ten years until it became defunct in 1856. Since the Villahermosas had excellent relations with artists and intellectuals, they would undoubtedly have looked favourably on such a tenant. The Lyceum was one of the city’s most prominent cultural institutions during the Romantic period and drew its members from the most important circles of artists, writers and musicians, as well as welcoming journalists, politicians and aristocrats. Figures such as Esquivel, Zorrilla, Pérez Villaamil, Gutiérrez de la Vega, Ramón Mesoneros Romanos and the Marquis of Molins, to name just a few, all frequented the Lyceum. Artists and arts enthusiast would gather there to hold intellectual discussions, workshops and other cultural initiatives. The Lyceum’s activities were publicised in the house magazine, but also in all the newspapers and weekly reviews. It played a very important role in the cultural and social milieu of the period, and although its members claimed to be apolitical, they openly supported the queens Maria Christina and Isabella II, who regularly participated in or presided over the Lyceum's activities. Among others, these activities included annual fine arts exhibitions, the origin of the National Exhibitions of Fine Arts whose first edition was held in 1856, the year the Lyceum closed. The masked balls, a tradition later carried on by the Círculo de Bellas Artes, were equally famous.
1844 PIQUER, José de (draughtsman) and ORTEGA, Calixto (engraver)Commemoration in the halls of the Lyceum of Arts and Letters of the coming-of-age of Isabella I
1848 The Villahermosa Palace, garden façade, MADOZ E IBAÑEZ
One of the Lyceum members was Marcelino Aragón y Azlor, who was the duke’s son and inherited the title on his father's death in 1752. Throughout his lifetime and that of his daughter Carmen, the future Duchess of Villahermosa and wife of the Count of Guaqui, the family continued to patronise the arts, even after the Lyceum closed. In addition to publishing books on the enlightened history of his ancestors, Marcelino befriended Zorrilla when they were both students and remained his lifelong friend and advocate. Zorrilla would stay at the palace whenever he was in Madrid and Marcelino granted him a maintenance allowance which his daughter Carmen continued, even transferring the funds to the poet’s widow after he passed away.
Undated: Zorrilla, seated, with Marcelino Aragón Azlor, the Duke of Villahermosa, and Fernando de la Vera (fellow students at the Seminario de Nobles)
In the second half of the 19th century the property underwent various segregations. Firstly, the part of the garden furthest from the house (abutting what is now the Bank of Spain but was then the palace of the Duke and Duchess of Béjar) was sold and Calle Zorrilla, then known as Calle “del Sordo” (“Deafman’s Street”) was laid along the new property boundary. Next, when the Duchess Carmen Aragón Azlor and her husband José Manuel Goyeneche, the Count of Guaqui, died without issue in the early 20th century, the land on which the edifices at 19 and 21 Marqués de Cuba would subsequently be built passed into the hands of Jose’s Manuel’s brother, Juan Mariano, who also inherited the title of Count of Guaqui. In 1918 the building at 19 Marqués de Cubas was built according to a design by the architect Cesáreo Iradier Uriarte, the author of the Zarzuela Theatre and the Royal Conservatory of Music, both in Madrid, and the Main Theatre in Vitoria.
José Moreno Carbonero Dance at the house of the Marchioness of Squilache
At the end of the 19th century one of the palace floors was rented by the Marchioness of Squilache, who created one of the most important Madrid “salons” of the turn of the century, inspired by the gatherings that had taken place there earlier in the century. The Marchioness’s salon was frequented by important figures from the world of politics, high society and international diplomacy. Although not a literary salon in the truest sense of the concept, it enjoyed great fame and was discussed by the leading writers of the day, including Emilia Pardo Bazán.
1917 Cesáreo Iradier Uriarte, elevation of 19 Marqués de Cubas, in work by unknown author
During the first half of the 20th century the palace remained the residence of the Villahermosa family. Regarded as one of the most important palaces in Madrid, it was covered in a special feature published in the magazine "Blanco y Negro" in 1966. The report included magnificent photographs of the palace interior, which at the time preserved the original layout, and most notably of the ballroom, chapel and main staircase.
In 1973 it was purchased by the López Quesada Bank to serve as the institution’s headquarters, and Moreno Barberá remodelled the interior to adapt the building to its new use. Except for the bay overlooking the garden, almost all of the entire original interior was demolished at this time.
In 1983, following the bank’s collapse and subsequent demise, the building became a state heritage asset. For several years it was used by the Prado Museum for exhibitions (entered via the Carrera de San Jerónimo) and for a range of activities organised by different offices (entered via the garden), such as the Friends of the Prado Museum Foundation.
Finally, during the course of Spain’s negotiations to accommodate the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in 1989, the building was designated as the seat of the future Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. The interior of the building was completely remodelled by Rafael Moneo.
Teresa Pérez-Jofre, April 2009