Looking up under the haughty gaze of the Marquesa de Linares, her gold-encrusted gown screaming at the seams, one is tempted to mumble something about lipstick and pigs.
The portrait, part of a pair by Pradilla (of Juana la Loca fame), hangs in the private office of the over-the-top Gilded Age manse the Marquesa and her husband built in 1872 on the Gran Via of Madrid. It was the greatest palace built in the Spanish Belle Époque, a “temple of contemporary fine art” and “without dispute the richest one among the modern ones of the court” claimed none other than Eugenio Rodríguez Ruiz de la Escalera, the Elsa Maxwell of Gilded Age Madrid who wrote under the name Monte Cristo. Today it is the Casa de América.
Constructed over 18 years, inhabited for only 11, and abandoned for a century, the Palacio de Linares sits in the literal and figurative shadow of the more famous Palacio de Cibeles across the street. So, despite a legend of incest and a murdered love-child, as well as being one of the most ineffably lavish homes I’ve come across—it has remained largely off the Madrid tourist path.
José de Murga y Reolid, Marqués de Linares, was born in 1833 into one of the richest, quasi-new-money Basque families in industrial-era Spain. His financier father had made a large fortune in the Americas and railroads. According to legend, the heir fell in love with his future wife, Raimunda de Osorio y Ortega, who was allegedly the daughter of a cigar seller, but he was forbidden to marry her by his father, supposedly because of her unknown parentage. When his father died, José, now one of the richest men in the country, married Raimunda anyway. However, in the midst of their nuptial bliss, the newlyweds found a letter from his deceased father outlining a scandalous but relevant bit of family drama: his new wife was in fact his half-sister, as her mysterious father was none other than his own.
There is just one problem.
None of it is true.
The legend has been refuted by the Spanish journalist Torcuato Luca de Tena in Spain’s ABC, as he reports that Raimunda’s own mother gave her away at the wedding, and it’s unlikely she’d have done so in the face of incest.
But this is Spain and the Linares were arriviste lambs ready for societal slaughter. So, while the legend may seem sufficiently outrageous, it grows even more sinister. The Linares allegedly got a papal bull signing off on their marriage from Pope Leo XIII. Titled Casti convivere, the papal permission slip stipulated that the two could stay married but must remain chaste. But they could not abstain, and they ended up with a child—a daughter they were said to have murdered at birth to keep the incest secret. The corpse was purportedly buried between the walls of the palace, and thus her ghost is said to have haunted the place ever since.
Whatever could have inspired such a mendacious tale?
For an answer, one need only step inside the limestone-clad palace. Nearly every room is a visual gasconade of wealth. Gold, lacquer, exotic woods, crystal, and marble—lots and lots of marble. The home is so opulent it makes another famous 19th century aristocratic palace across town—the Museo Cerralbo—look almost humble. No wonder Madrid society liked to say that the couple never actually had their food cooked in their house, but instead ordered every meal from the restaurant Lhardy (which still exists). To make matters worse, the Marqués refused to follow the recent tradition (started by the Marqués de Salamanca) of opening one’s palace doors to any of the curious population who wished to tour it. Given how strenuously the Linares strutted their wealth, they were lucky to get off with nothing more than the incest rumor.
The tour of the palace—it is now open to the public—begins on the ground floor, which was the private level for the Marqués. The floor above, the piano nobile, was for the Marquesa and visitors. (The palace’s top floor, still closed to the public, was mostly servants’ bedrooms). Visitors enter through a stark white oval hall floored with blocks of dark wood, installed originally to muffle the clatter of horses’ hooves. On through an incense-filled (to de-street-ify you) vestibule between two simple sets of doors of mahogany and glass, and you are in.
The rooms and hallways of the ground floor are floored in mosaics. Given that these were meant merely for personal use, they give a hint of the splendor to come. A music room with paintings done in grisaille above the doors by Manuel Domínguez and embroidered Lyon silk wall coverings. An “everyday” dining room that is anything but everyday with its remarkable tapestries depicting Jean de la Fontaine fables. A Renaissance-style wood-paneled library, made famous by the film Patrimonio Nacional.
To access the excess of the piano nobile, one must enter the next stage of oligarch heaven (or WASP hell), ascending by way of the palace’s bifurcated Carrara marble staircase, flanked by walls of colored marble, gold decorative trim, allegorical paintings by Manuel Domínguez, and lit by swooping French brass candelabras in the hands of brass nymphs. The French part was key, as the couple had spent many years in Paris and evidently came away soaked in the Second Empire ethos that there is no such thing as too much.
The palace, not including the furnishings or decoration, cost three million pesetas, or tens of millions in today’s dollars. While there is some debate, the lead architect is generally considered to be Carlos Colubí (some contend that Colubí was merely adapting the plans of Flemish architect Adolph Ombrecht, or that Colubí was the initial architect but replaced by Ombrecht in 1879). The three-story white limestone exterior is neo-Baroque, with a monumental sculpted family crest looming on top. “Recalling the example of the famous Medicis,” Monte Cristo wrote, every room has its own mythological ceiling painting, painted by some of Madrid’s most notable painters at the time: Francisco Pradilla, Casto Plasencia, Alejandro Ferrant, Manuel Domínguez, Valeriano Domínguez Bécquer, Jerónimo Suñol, and Francisco Amérigo. Tapestries were ordered from Gobelins. Carpets from the Spanish Royal Tapestry Factory. Fabrics from Lyon. Lacquered furniture from Vernis Martin. Sculptures by Carrier-Belleuse.
Although construction began in 1872, the house was not ready for occupation until 1884. Even then, the interior decoration would not be completed until 1890. The family lived first on the third floor and then the mezzanine once that was finished. The piano nobile was the last floor to be finished.
On October 28, 1901, Raimunda died. Just six months later, José died at the age of 69 from a lung condition (the rumor mill would attribute it to a self-inflicted shotgun wound). The status-enhancing chateau was no more than a glittering sepulcher.
But, oh, what glitter!
French (again) brass lamps illuminate the hallways of the piano nobile, crammed full of polished dark marble and a rib-vault ceiling uplit to show off gold mosaic ceiling decorations.
Through a set of sleek black and gold doors, one enters the dining room, where 22-karat gold mosaics frame more silk tapestries. Two nearly life-size bronze semi-nudes holding candelabras rest on a hulking Portuguese red marble fireplace (the largest in the house).
While most of the palace rooms’ exuberance and abundant decoration is voyeuristic fun, the showstopper is the Chinese Room adjoining the dining room and used for smoking and card playing.
The profusion of showy materials and ornamentation that came to define the Second Empire were what one today might call a hot mess. (Empress Eugénie, gazing upon the stylistic cornucopia of Garnier’s Paris Opera House harrumphed, “What is this style? This is no style. It is not Greek or Louis XVI.” ). However, the rise of eclecticism (a mixture of different historical styles) inspired some truly remarkable buildings, decorative objects, and interior design, the Palacio Linares and its Chinese Room chief among them.
Mercury-red lacquered walls imported from China edged with black and gold dominate the room, contrasting sharply with the gossamer-like hand-painted rosé silk panel landscape scenes. The interior-facing sides of the doors have ditched the Baroque and Rococo styles of their peers and are instead decorated with beautiful marquetry depicting a vaguely Chinese village scene. The room’s real prizes are the sensuous gold dragons winding around the window casings. One can only imagine how provoking this room would have been while slightly inebriated. Wreathed in smoke, it might have taken years for a visitor to catch some of its finer details, such as the out-of-place Greek key running along at waist height on the wall, the arms of the brass chandelier that are actually dragons, or the comparatively simple yet lovely silk ceiling panel.
Decked out in pastel and gold boisery and crystal chandeliers typical of Rococo Revival, the reception hall on the other side of the Chinese Room is just one giant twinkling Easter egg. (Imagine the sybaritic old men in Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny y Carbó’s The Choice of a Model chatting here).
Visitors arriving for a fin-de-siècle ball would have continued from the reception room into an antechamber resplendent with a hand-painted neo-Arabic pendant vault ceiling of red, gold, and green with inset coffers of mesmerizing swirls of gold, purple, and green. The room ushered guests on through Fabergé egg-like doors of milk-chocolate and, yes, gold.
Why so much gold?
The Linares were a striving couple in an era of new wealth and tumult for the aristocracy in Spain. They had only received the title of Marquis in 1873 by the soon to be deposed Amadeo I, and would keep this new social prominence by being major financial backers of Alfonso XII’s restoration to the throne. The family had previously lived in an area called Cuatro Caminos, and they chose as the site of their palace land which had once been a silver mill. In the middle of the Carlist wars, the country was perpetually on the verge of violence and chaos. While today the Gran Via is a dramatic avenue flanked by theatrical architecture, for a long time it was a wasteland. In the latter half of the 19th century, however, this is where the new bourgeois built their palaces—Madrid’s own version of the manses popping up around the Parc Monceau in Paris. Indeed, Madrid had her own version of Baron Haussmann in José de Salamanca, the Marqués de Salamanca who was responsible for much of the expansion of Madrid.
Ubiquitous marble, a fancy new title, and a hot address only go so far. If anyone harbored any doubt about the stupendous wealth of the couple or their willingness to spend it, those doubts dissipate the moment a visitor stepped into the Linares ballroom.
Gold, gold, and more gold. Everywhere you look, the oval-shaped ballroom is drowning in gold. Milk-chocolate and gold fluted columns topped by gold Corinthian capitals. A golden frieze and cornice. Golden bare-breasted women flanking doors and windows, which are also cased in gold. The trims on the alcoves are gold, nearly eclipsing the paintings in them by Pradilla, who also did the lively one on the ceiling titled The Lesson of Love.
Trying to take in the room, I had never considered that gold was possibly a more overwhelming color when accented by adjacent tones like russet as opposed to contrasts like black, white, or blue. So too, had I failed to appreciate the Linares obsession with brass lighting until seeing the lustre afforded the ballroom by the Medusa-esque brass chandeliers hanging on velvet ropes. Even Eugenio Rodríguez Ruiz de la Escalera (Monte Christo) remarked upon the lighting’s effect, saying it gave the room an “indescribable sumptuousness.”
Waiting on the other side of the ballroom, through a less remarkable antechamber, is the family’s office. The warm wood-paneled room with a coffered faux-wood ceiling (it’s really plaster painted to look like wood) of receding octagons of red and gold serves as the display case for the unforgettable portrait of the Marquesa. Hanging to the right of her is Pradilla’s matching one of her husband, who looks mildly stoned with badly attached mutton chops dangling from his jaw. Apparently, despite her corpulence and his general air of halitotic old man, these portraits were considered forgiving.
Only recently returned to the mansion, the portraits suffered the same ignominious 20th century fate as the palace. When the Linares died, they had no children, so they left the palacio to his goddaughter, Raimunda Avecilla y Aguado. The palace was abandoned, and Raimunda and her family treated the palace “as a gift fund, they took what they wanted,” Santiago Miralles, the director of Casa de América told El País. While some of the paintings’ journey remains a mystery, it is believed they were shipped off to Venezuela in 1958. In 1992, they were returned to Madrid for an exhibition at the the National Museum of Romanticism which ended in 1993. For the next 11 years, they were held hostage at the Barajas Airport due to a lack of clear legal ownership, until 2004 when they were placed in the Prado. After years of legal dispute, the restored paintings finally made their way to the Casa de América in 2016, where they were unveiled in the spring of 2017.
The mansion did not fare much better. It went unused by those who inherited it, and was reportedly only spared from a bombing during the Civil War because of its use as a hospital. In the ’50s it began to be rented out to private entities, including Trasmediterránea and CECA. In the ’70s it was slated to be razed, but it was saved by the Spanish government when it declared the mansion a “Good of Public Interest.” While in a state of decay (María Álvarez-Garcillán, a restorer with the Prado, described it as in “ruins”), most of the important details remained untouched since the day the Linares died. After being used in the film Patrimonio Nacional by the director Luis García Berlanga (part of a trilogy reportedly based on the Linares), it was given to the Spanish government as part of a land swap by the industrialist Emiliano Revilla. The government then began an ambitious restoration of the palace in order for it to be reopened as the Casa de América in 1992 for the quincentenary of Spain’s “discovery” of the Americas.
Because the mansion had been virtually empty for so long, Madrileños would reportedly always be trying to climb the fences and sneak a look inside at the deteriorating grandeur. In the words of the historians Francisco Azorin and Isabel Gea in La Castellana, escenario de poder: Del Palacio de Linares a la Torre Picasso, the empty “appearance demanded legends, mysteries” and so there soon started to be legends about ghosts that wandered the halls. In the April 2, 1989 issue of El Pais, the vicious rumor about the Linares’ incestuous relations were made public in a breathless piece by Luis Escobar that dubbed the palace “fruit of an incest” and claimed that the reason the Marqués’ rooms were on the ground floor and basement while the Marquesa’s were in the piano nobile was to enforce their Pope-ordained chastity.
At the same time, the house became the source (or target) of parapsychologists who claimed that the mansion was a focus point of psychophonies, to the point that workers working on the restoration claimed they heard footsteps and something whispering “I had a daughter.” The morbid fascination went so far that one individual, Carmen Sánchez de Castro, sent a report to Madrid’s City Council with 283 photographs taken of the palace interior, of which 22 he alleged had clear manifestations of the paranormal. Sanchez de Castro went on to tell El Pais, “One of the people who accompanied me entered the next room, I did not do anything but go in and I was thrown back… as if the wind pushed me.”
When you stare at the portraits of the long-dead Linares, such conflicted feelings are inevitable. These two built themselves a temple to the finest things in life that would make a medieval king look like a pauper, but the world outside was seething over worsening inequality in the industrial age. For those who find such ostentatious displays of consumption hard to stomach, there is one morbid morality tale. Often the men and women who build these ego-strokers never live to enjoy them for long, and attempts to maintain them in perpetuity in any form other than a museum prove ruinous for descendants (or force them, God forbid, to marry outside their class as the British did with “dollar princesses”). Only one of Newport’s Cliff Walk mansions remains in the hands of the family that built it. After spending millions on Marble House, William K. Vanderbilt lost it in his divorce only to see his ex-wife toss it aside for her new husband’s castle down the street. Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo never lived in her famed New York palace, and died hundreds of thousands in debt. Evalyn Walsh Mclean, fabled owner of the Hope Diamond and Star of the East, saw her treasures auctioned off by her heirs. California robber baron Mark Hopkins died before his 40-room Gothic mansion on Nob Hill was finished, and his partner Leland Stanford turned his home next door into a memorial for his dead son. George Boldt’s wife died before his love-letter castle in upstate New York was finished, so he abandoned it. Ludwig II died in mysterious circumstances and never got to enjoy his copy of Versailles or his fairy-tale castle in the mountains. Even 50 Cent’s Connecticut mansion has put three separate owners in, or on the verge of, bankruptcy. And perhaps the one with the most schadenfreude is Nicolas Fouquet, who didn’t even had a full year to enjoy Vaux le Vicomte before Louis XIV stripped him of everything. ( Mohammed bin Sultan, who just bought an estate that rips off Vaux completely, should beware).
Nowhere is the cliché about what money cannot buy more apparent than in the final stop on the tour—the family’s chapel.
Decorated in the Byzantine Revival style, the chapel’s floors are covered in marble geometric patterns. A pietra dura dado with more intricate geometric patterns are topped by carved wood Iberian arches inset with portraits of the apostles (minus Judas). In a lunette on the left wall, Francisco Amerigo painted San Raimundo de Fitero Receiving from Alfonso VII of Castile the Castle of Calatrava, a reference to the ancestors of the Marquésa. The journalist Torcuato Luca de Tena in his investigation would claim that the Marquesa was not, in fact, the daughter of a cigar-seller or the illegitimate daughter of the father of the Marqués, but rather from a noble Galician family with ancestors who were Knights of Calatrava.
But if one stands in the center of the chapel and looks up, a large iron lamp hangs from a golden ceiling. For baptisms, the ceiling could be opened up, and the lamp could be brought up and folded, so that a baby could be lowered down just like a baby from Heaven.
The Linares never had a chance.