Considering its site, great size, and architectural merits, no royal palace in Europe can be said to rival the one in Madrid. In mere size, the Escorial, thirty miles away, is far larger, the Palace of Versailles called for a greater expenditure of money, and Windsor Castle has a site even nobler; but none of these combine the conditions which make the Spanish residence the most beautiful and imposing in Europe. When Napoleon was installing his brother Joseph in it as King of Spain, he re-marked, as both were standing on the grand stair-case, and as if by way of reassurance for a doubtful tenure, “You will be better lodged here than I am myself.”
The palace was originally designed by Filippo Juvara, who died in 1735. It was erected in 1738-64 by Giovanni Battista Sacchetti on a height overlooking the Manzanares river from the east. This site had already been occupied by a royal palace, begun by Philip II., and destroyed by fire in 1734. Philip’s palace succeeded a Moorish one known as the Alcazar. The present massive pile has six stories architecturally treated as a rustic base surmounted by an ornate and imposing story having Corinthian pilasters. From all sides it presents an impressive appearance, but the best point for a view of it is the valley of the Manzanares river on the northwest, where the rapid slope of the ground, which is almost a promontory, has been neutralized by an approach, comprising immense structures of steps, balconies and platforms in solid masonry.
The building is in the form of a quadrangle en-closing a court 145 feet square. It occupies 26,900 square yards of ground; its sides are 500 feet long, and its height varies from 80 feet to 165 feet. At the corners are four massive towers. The en-tire structure is of granite, with door and window openings and other ornaments in white, marble-like “piedra de Colmenar.” The total cost down to 1808 amounted to about 75,000,000 pesetas, or, roughly, $15,000,000.
The main entrance is on the south side in the Plaza de Armas, and is enclosed by projecting wings. The interior is rarely accessible to the public, even in the absence of the royal family, and then only by written permission obtained from the Intendencia General. The ceiling of the Salon de Embrajadores, or Throne Room, is adorned with a painting of “The Majesty of Spain,” by G. B. Tiepolo. Another superb room is the Camara de Girardini, which was designed by the Italian artist of that name in the reign of Charles III. The ceiling is of porcelain, in the Japanese manner. The State Dining Room and other rooms with frescoes of Raphael Mengs, Bayeu, Maella, and others are also interesting. The Palace Chapel, in the north wing, contains sixteen large columns of dark-gray marble, frescoes by Corrado Giacinto, and an altar piece by Raphael Mengs. Two rooms opposite the sacristy contain the Royal Treasury of Holy Relics, including many fine antique works of art.
In the Tapiceria of the palace is a unique collection of tapestries, mostly of Flemish workmanship, which are shown to the public only on Corpus Christi Day. In all there are 800 pieces. The following are the most noteworthy : “The Conquest of Tunis” by Charles V., executed by Pannemaker of Brussels from drawings by Jehan Cornelis Vermeyen (ten pieces, two of the set being missing); “The History of the Virgin,” on a gold ground (six pieces) ; “The Story of David and Bathsheba”; “The Life of St. John”; “The Bearing of the Cross,” after Rogier van der Weyden; “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” after Bosch; “The Last Supper”; “The Apocalypse;” “The Seven Deadly Sins”; and “The Life of St. Paul,” after Bloemart. The publication of a magnificent illustrated work dealing with the Tapiceria was begun in 1903. The Royal Library, in the north-east angle of the palace, contains about 100,000 printed volumes and 5,000 MSS., some of which are very valuable. On the west side of the palace lie the Jardines del Palacio, which are accessible in the absence of the court. These beautiful gardens were first laid out by Philip II. in 1556. After a long period of neglect they were restored in 1890.