One of the most important cultural events in Madrid in recent years was the public opening, just before the pandemic, of a collection that had been sitting behind the closed doors of a private palace for about 200 years.
The Palacio de Liria, the grand 18th-century home of the Alba family — among Spain’s (and Europe’s) oldest and most storied aristocratic families — is set in a tranquil garden just steps from the bustling Plaza de España in central Madrid. Often compared to the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace of Madrid for the masterpieces it contains and the noble residents who lived there, the house is filled with works by Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, Goya and other artists favored by the Spanish court. There are also vast literary and historic archives, as well as letters written from the Americas by the explorers Columbus, Pizarro and Cortés.
Since assuming the title in 2014, the 19th (and current) duke, Carlos Fitz-James Stuart, through the Casa de Alba Foundation, decided to share his family’s treasures with the world — an effort that began in 2015 with the opening of other singular family properties like the Palacio de las Dueñas in Seville and the Palacio de Monterrey in Salamanca. Here is a tour of those three sumptuous palaces, along with a stop in the small town of Alba de Tormes.
First, a little background
The Duchy of Alba, created in 1472 when King Henry IV of Castile elevated Don García Álvarez de Toledo from count to duke, takes its name from an early family seat in Alba de Tormes, near Salamanca. Over the centuries, the dukes and duchesses of Alba have distinguished themselves in various ways. In the 16th century, the third duke, sometimes called the Iron Duke, was known for his military campaigns in the Eighty Years’ War. In the 18th century, the 13th duchess beguiled the painter Goya, who portrayed her several times.
Along the way, the Alba lineage became deeply intertwined with the lineages of other noble families. Titles were amassed. The 18th Duchess of Alba — whose name was Maria de Rosario Cayetana Paloma Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Fernanda Teresa Francisca de Paula Lourdes Antonia Josefa Fausta Rita Castor Dorotea Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, Falcó y Gurtubay — had more noble titles (over 40) than first names. Doña Cayetana, as she was called, was the most titled aristocrat in the world and, until she died in 2014, kept the Alba name in the public eye, mostly by doing and dressing exactly as she…