Hofdame Note: Queen Letizia will take her some of her visitors to tour this royal palace today. Please enjoy the fascinating history prepared by our own Baguette Iselen!
The Royal Palace of La Granja of Saint Ildephonsus is known as La Granja, The Farm, because that’s exactly what it was. It’s located in Segovia, 80 km north of Madrid, very close to the Guadarrama mountains, which means the weather is nice compared to the city. The forested area was a favorite hunting grounds for many Castilian kings in the Middle Ages. They built a lodge and a small chapel devoted to Saint Ildephonsus, until Isabella I granted both buildings to the monks of the Santa Maria del Parral monastery in the 15th century. And guess what? They built a farm, hence the name. Spanish kings kept visiting the area because the fresh breeze from the mountains feels really nice in summer.
King Felipe V, the first Bourbon on the Spanish throne, was a hunting enthusiast. He purchased the land from the monks and began building a new palace in 1721 in a French baroque style, inspired by his grandfather, King Louis XIV. Architect Teodoro Ardemans designed a palace around a cour d’honneur, Patio de la Herradura, the “horseshoe patio” because of the shape. Felipe brought French gardeners to design the flower beds and fountains. In the end, instead of getting an exact copy of Versailles, Queen Elizabeth of Farnese, his second wife, brought some architects from Italy that embellished the building and gardens with neoclassic touches. We got a mix of Versailles and Reggia di Caserta, only smaller.
Felipe also founded the Royal Factory of Glass and Crystal of La Granja in 1727, which manufactured float glass for the windows and mirrors, and the Royal Tapestry Factory near Madrid in 1720, copying the French Gobelins Manufactory. Felipe loved fancy things and had two new palaces to decorate since the old Madrid Royal Palace burnt in 1734. A new palace was commissioned immediately to architect Filippo Juvarra, an Italian, not French commission, because at this point Queen Elizabeth was very much in charge of everything. Felipe suffered from severe depression throughout his life and, after some tests, doctors nowadays are sure he had bipolar disorder. The queen was ruling the country, actually.
It’s a good thing that Elizabeth of Farnese decorated La Granja as she liked it because it became her prison. King Felipe died in 1746 and was buried in this palace church, not in El Escorial pantheon. This makes him a rare exception among Spanish kings, along with his son Fernando VI, who’s buried in the convent of Salesas Reales with his wife. Fernando was not Elizabeth’s son. His mother was Marie-Louise-Gabrielle of Savoie, Felipe’s first wife. The new king didn’t like his controlling stepmother so he told her to stay in La Granja and never set foot in Madrid again. She added two courtyards and more buildings in Italian style and lived there surrounded by a court of musicians, artists, educated ladies, and writers.
When she died in 1766, the property was inherited by King Carlos III, who was also king of Naples and Sicily, and was one of her sons with Felipe V. He decided that her mother’s home would become the summer residence of the royal family. Lot of events took place in La Granja during the next couple of centuries: Carlos IV and Marie Louise of Parma’s wedding, the proclamation of the 1812 Constitution by Queen Marie Christine of Naples, the baptism of Infanta Isabel La Chata, to name a few. The Count of Barcelona, King Juan Carlos’ father, was born in the palace in June 1913 because Queen Ena still spent summers there.
The interiors changed according to the fashion of the day. For example, the church ceilings were painted by Giambattista Tiepolo and finished by Francisco Bayeux, Goya’s father-in-law. The entire collection of sculptures of Queen Christina of Sweden was bought to be exhibited on the ground floor of the palace by Felipe V, along with the original Italian pedestals. His bed is still in the palace, embellished with amazing yellow silk damask fabrics that came from Italy in the 18th century, and the crystal chandeliers coming from the factory are stunning. The old “house of the ladies” is the Tapestry Museum, displaying the Flemish Apocalypse series, The Triumphs of Petrarch and the Honours and Virtues series, based on cartoons by Goya.
The gardens extend over 1,500 acres taking advantage of the natural slope of the site. They were designed by Rene Carlier enhancing axial visual perspectives with twenty-six sculptural fountains and old trees that came from all over the world. They all represent themes from classical mythology, including Greek deities, allegories, and scenes from myths. They are cast in lead to prevent corrosion, painted over to simulate bronze, or lacquered over with white oxidised lead to imitate marble. The original waterworks and piping are still functional. They rely purely on gravity to project water up the fountain jets, including the 40 metres (130 ft) height of the “Fame” fountain. A reservoir, El Mar (the Sea), lies secluded at the highest point of the landscape park and provides the supply and water pressure for the whole system.
If you ever visit Madrid, I highly recommend you to go to La Granja, it’s a one-day tour since it’s near the capital. You can visit the palace, gardens, the Tapestry Museum and the glass factory that’s still working. They’ll show you the old furnaces and how they blow Venetian style crystal. You can buy stuff at the shop. It’s not cheap, I’m afraid, but there’re modern designs, chandeliers, reproductions of old glass sets from the royal family… All of them stunning.