Today a major monument in Seville opened to the public for the first time ever in its centuries-long history.
The Casa de las Dueñas is the official residence of the Dukes of Alba in the city, and was the favoured residence of Cayetana, 18th Duchess of Alba. She spent much time here during her nearly nine decades, and said that she felt most at home in Seville. More recently, Cayetana married her third husband, Alfonso Diaz, at the palace chapel in 2011. Three years later she passed away in the palace, aged 88, surrounded by Alfonso and her six children. Her eldest son, Carlos Fitz-James Stuart y Martinez de Irujo, inherited the title Duke of Alba.
It is one of the most beautiful palaces in Seville (known in Spanish as the more prosaic Casa – House – de las Dueñas), dating from the 15th century, with spacious private gardens famously celebrated in the works of Spanish poet Antonio Machado. These lines are familiar to every Sevillano:
“Mi infancia son recuerdos de un patio de Sevilla,
y un huerto claro donde madura el limonero.”
My childhood memories are of a patio in Seville
And a bright orchard where a lemon tree ripens.
I was lucky enough to see inside the palace earlier this week, before it opened to the public, and was allowed to take photos in the rooms. (If you see unexpected practical details such as cables and cleaning carts in my photos, that’s why – on my visit, they were preparing for the grand opening ceremony on Wednesday.)
What is extraordinary about this monument-museum is the intensely personal aspect – you can see the Duchess’ family photographs, personal letters, favourite drawings. You can feel her sense of fun. Of course, as a palace, it has grand drawing rooms with elegant period furniture, but alongside are colourful ethnic cushions; Sevres porcelain and irreverent plasticine figures of the Duchess. I heard those who attended the opening on Wednesday agree that the palace hasn’t been changed at all for this new phase of its existence – “Igual de siempre” was the verdict – same as ever. And as the Mayor of Seville, Juan Espadas, put it: “Her presence is still here”.
Her son, Carlos, was very keen to stress how pleased he was to be able to open the palace to the public, stressing the extraordinarily close bond between his mother and the people of Seville. At the official opening on Wednesday, he said: “I wanted to pay back to Seville and the Sevillanos the huge affection which they had for my mother, the unforgettable Duchess Cayetana.”
The house-palace is laid out in typical Andalucian (Roman/Moorish) style, with adjoining rooms off a main patio. Its original owner, Don Juan de Pineda, sold the house to the de Ribera family in 1483 to facilitate his own rescue from the Moors during the War of Granada. The house-palace came into Casa de Alba family ownership in the 17th century, when Antonia de Ribera married the 6th Duke of Alba.
In many ways Las Dueñas is similar to the Casa de Pilatos, the nearby house-palace which dates from the same era and was extended by the same family, de Ribera. Both have intricately-carved mudejar arches, elaborate artesonado ceilings, fabulous ceramic tiles, and a garden with a higher terrace at one end. Mudejar means by Moorish (Islamic North African) craftsmen working for a Christian ruler – although some people don’t realise, the Alcazar of Seville is mainly Mudejar, with only a few areas which date from Moorish times.
Las Dueñas is named after the 13th-century convent of Santa Maria de las Duenas, which was located next to the palace, but was destroyed in 1868, and was sister to Santa Clara and San Clemente convents, which still remain today.
At Las Dueñas, you enter through the gates and see the palace at the end of an avenue of orange trees, with flower beds beneath them. Covered with bougainvillea, the building doesn’t have an imposing palace feel, but more of a country house ambience – from the outside, at least – with its traditional esparto grass blinds.
It’s a cliché, but as soon as you step through those iron gates, you can feel the peace – the outside bustle of every day Seville life drifts away. It’s easy to see why the Duchess loved this palace so dearly – it’s right in the centre of the city, close to shops and restaurants; the hermandad of her favourite Semana Santa procession, Los Gitanos, in whose church her remains lie, is just a few streets away; and a little further is her beloved Avenida 5 Cines VO cinema (she loved seeing films undubbed). And yet it is an oasis of calm.
After the entrance patio, you walk through the stables, with the horses’ names on the stalls, under vaulted stone arches. The Duchess was a keen equestrian, and was painted several times riding horses by Spanish artist Zuloaga.
From the stables you arrive at the Patio de Limonero, so vivid in Machado’s childhood recollections. A large garden, it has a central tiled pool and beautiful painted ceramic jars, similar to those in the Alcazar gardens. This is a place to wander, admire the lemon trees and lush greenery, which must provide a much-needed shady relief in the baking hot summers, and relax on a bench. When I visited, spectacular orange clivias were in full bloom.
At the far corner is the water tank, a white swimming pool-shaped construction which would have held water for the palace – much of Seville’s water came along a Roman aqueduct from Carmona, arriving at the city walls close to the palace.
The first interior part you come to is the magnificent stairwell, whose random mix of tiles is very similar to that of Pilatos, as are their designs. If you like the tiles, watch out for the gift shop at the end of your visit.
At the top of these stairs is a selection of paintings, including Empress Eugenia Montijo, wife of Napoleon III of France, and aunt of the 16th Duke of Alba. You can also see two of Seville’s icons, Christian martyrs Santa Justa (after whom the train station is named) and her sister Santa Rufina. They are often depicted with the Giralda, as it’s said that these two humble pottery workers from Triana saved the minaret-turned-belltower from destruction in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Look out for them around in the palace, in statue and ceramic tile form.
The main patio has some of the earliest tiles in the entire palace, in a traditional star design. It was built in the 16th century, and refurbished in the 19th century. Like all patios, it has a fountain in the centre, although this is filled with plants rather than water.
The next stop is one of the most important rooms in the palace, and was the duchess’ favourite – she was often photographed in here for interviews. Salon de la Gitana is named after the bronze sculpture in the centre – a vibrant figure, full of energy and joy and she twists her body to the rhythms of flamenco, her dress swirling around her. The gypsy’s face doesn’t have the passion and contorted expression of the flamenco dancers you see today, but the movement of the statue is a delight. It was sculpted by Mariano Benlliure, a friend of the Duchess’ father.
In this long, narrow salon, typical of the patio house layout, you can see antique furniture, 400-year-old tapestries and porcelain, as well as paintings.
Then at the end of this room is a smaller space, called the Salon Cuadrado (Square Room) which has a variety of photographs and figures. I spotted a bust of the Duchess almost hidden from sight on a side table – as I later realised, one of many around the palace, and with less aesthetic value – expressed surprise that she wasn’t more visible, and suggested they move it (half-jokingly – “Noone puts Baby in a corner”) to the central table. The lady who was cleaning the room agreed, so when I left it took pride of place in full view, next to some Moroccan perfume bottles. Who knows if it’s still there?
The next long room was host to the Chapel, a small but exquisite Gothic room with vaulted stone roof, plus one of the palace’s most important paintings: Santa Catalina de Siena entre los Santos, by Neri di Bicci, a Florentine Renaissance artist from the 15th century. The colours are extraordinarily vibrant, with rich reds and shining golds.
The rooms to the either side of this, the Salon de los Carteles (Poster Room) and Biblioteca (Library) are the most deeply personal, full of mementoes of the late Duchess’ friends, family, passions and Sevillano affictions.
The Poster Room is covered in Feria de Abril (April Fair) and bullfighting posters, while on the sofa lie brightly-coloured ethnic cushions, a nod to her hippy side – Cayetana loved floaty dresses and ankle bracelets – the tailored suits and court shoes typical of European royalty weren’t her style.
On the other side of the chapel is the library, which is a treasure trove of memorabilia about the Duchess, from letter and poems to photographs and paintings of her; a shrine to her beloved Real Betis football team. One of the more entertaining items you can see is a kitsch scene made of little figures – Cayetana is attending a bullfight, and the matador is offering her his hat. The Duchess is wearing orange, and is accompanied by two friends, one of whom could be her loyal companion, Carmen Tello, wife of the bullfighter Curro Romero (the figures are very similar to the ones we saw at the Science Museum exhibition).
Just behind the library is a room with a flamenco stage, where the Duchess used to dance, and also paint.
After this it’s time to go outside again, this time to the Patio del Aceite (Olive Oil Patio), and into the Apeadero, the area where people would dismount from horse-drawn carriages, with its stained glass depiction of the family heraldic crest, and finally the Santa Justa garden with its pal, box, myrtle and orange trees.
If you’re as much of a sucker for museum stores as I am – can’t resist a souvenir pencil or fridge magnet – then don’t miss this one, to the right of the main entrance. Las Dueñas shop has books about the Duchess’ long and colourful life; Casa de Alba food products – olive oil, honey, biscuits, beer – with their distinctive blue and white family shield logo; as well as themed sections on ceramic tiles, bullfighting, flamenco, Semana Santa, antique furniture and even toys of the little white dog in the famous Goya painting of her antecedent wearing a white dress (although it’s not in Las Dueñas, this is the most famous painting of a Duchess of Alba).
This is an essential visit for anyone who is interested in the life of one of Spain’s most fascinating aristocrats, but also to see a historic palace with wonderful architecture and some stunning art.
Las Duenas is at Calle Duenas 5, and is open daily from 10am to 6pm October to March, and 10am to 8pm April to September. Closed 1 and 6 January, 25 December.
Admission price is 8 euros for adults, 6 euros for children aged 6-12 and over-65s. Free entry on Mondays from 4pm. Books you tickets at their website.