The Andalusian castle whose courtyard sits in New York

In Almería but very close to Murcia awaits one of the saddest cases of Spanish Renaissance heritage. It is a castle, that of Vélez-Blanco. On the outside it appears to be a portentous defensive fortress, but inside it was a splendid palace. One of the first signs of a movement that was proliferating in Italy but had barely reached Spain. Even today its external floor plan is spectacular, with its straight lines and the height of its keep. However, the plundering to which it was subjected ended up with the complex being dismembered, with its best assets in American and French hands. A history that is repeated in the south of Europe.

Panoramic view of the castle of Vélez-Blanco.

Panoramic view of the castle of Vélez-Blanco. | Shutterstock

A display of Pedro Fajardo y Chacón

The creation and golden age of Vélez-Blanco Castle, in the 16th century, is tied to its first owner. This was Adelantado de Murcia, in charge of the royal affairs in the region. A high position he inherited from his father and passed on to his offspring. This is Pedro Fajardo y Chacón, whose surname reflects the lineages that were united through his parents. The three were prominent figures during part of the reign of the Catholic Monarchs and the nominal Juana I. His son took over the Marquisate of Velez, being the first to carry the title.

Ambitious and skillful, he was immersed in disputes that even led to royal punishment. However, he always emerged unscathed from them, beyond fines and payments to the church. Especially remembered is his participation in the kidnapping of the bishop of Cartagena, in the context of his rivalry with that of Orihuela. His fight with the church continued, confronting the prelate of Almeria later on.

Access to the palace.

Access to the palace. | Shutterstock

The very act of building a castle was a challenge to the legislation in force back in 1506/7. At that time it was forbidden to construct new ones of these buildings, in an attempt by the monarchy to secure its power against the nobles. However, they could be renovated. With these, Pedro Fajardo y Chacón excused himself. According to the marquis, the remains of a citadel were the basis of his fortress, so everything was within the norm. He also raised the need to strengthen his new power in the area. It seems that the reasons convinced whoever was needed, since the whole thing is still standing even today.

The Renaissance of the castle of Vélez-Blanco

Although the description of Pedro Fajardo y Chacón leads one to imagine a quarrelsome and mischievous nobleman, this does not mean that he was not educated. Something that the castle of Vélez-Blanco reaffirms, as in the case of another very similar couple, that of the castle of La Calahorra and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar y Mendoza. Built around the end of the first decade of the 16th century, it can be said to have a dual personality. On the one hand there was its military facet. The parade ground and the exterior canvases go back to a time of conflict that seemed forgotten in that post-Nazari Andalusia. Its square towers still look powerful today, especially the homage tower with its more than 30 meters high.

Castle of Vélez-Blanco.

Castle of Vélez-Blanco. | Shutterstock

The entrance to the castle was made through the mentioned parade ground, with simple shapes adapted to the rocks that support it. Two arches connected with the other wing, the main one, of the fortress. A drawbridge was necessary to cross, so the take was very complicated. This area was the palace. The guard passages and other defensive needs were carried out through convenient places isolated from the noble rooms, where discretion was a necessary priority.

The palace environment seems to have based its layout on the citadel that preceded it. An uneven hexagon forms its lines from above. In masonry, its compact appearance is still imposing. However, inside, the matter changed radically. The whole arrangement was aimed at generating a palace. Different salons and rooms were destined to the residence and the courtesan theme. A reflection of the Italian mentality that ended up prevailing in the construction, after a Gothic beginning. Not in vain, among its possible architects is Francisco Florentino, a native of Italy.

Walls of the palace area.

Walls of the palace area. | Shutterstock

In the centre of the building was the Courtyard of Honour. It is a superb Renaissance sample executed in the snowy Andalusian marble of Macael. With two heights, the lower gallery only covered the southern segment. The high one, on the other hand, took this side and the east. It was precisely this eastern side that also served as a viewpoint for the surroundings of the castle of Vélez-Blanco. Meanwhile, on the west wall there were six windows, in two groups of three. The north side was part of the eminently defensive tower of homage, and on it stood a coat of arms. All the elements showed a classical cut, with rich sculptural decoration.

The remains of the upper gallery of the castle.

The remains of the upper gallery of the castle. | Shutterstock

From the galleries you could go to different rooms. In those of Mythology and Triumph the absolute protagonists were a series of wooden bas-reliefs. These represent a new sample of the Renaissance that the Spanish nobility began to embrace to differentiate themselves from the religious and monarchical instances. Something that showed both style and theme. They showed, among others, mythological scenes and the conquest of Gaul by Caesar.

Plundering of the Castle of Vélez-Blanco

Centuries led to the palace-fortress ending up in the hands of the Dukes of Medina Sidonia. The nineteenth who held this position, Joaquín Alvárez de Toledo y Caro, was the person most responsible for the heritage disaster that awaited the castle of Vélez-Blanco. During his duchy, displaying an attitude that was predominant at the time and which led to a monumental pillage throughout Spain, he got rid of the patio and friezes. He also got rid of almost any other object in the building that might have value. The nobleman’s lack of sight and vision was denounced at the local level, but it had no effect.

Galleries of the Courtyard of Honor of Vélez-Blanco in New York.

Galleries of the Courtyard of Honor of Vélez-Blanco in New York. | Shutterstock

French antique dealers, one of the protagonists of this pillage in which Spanish nobility, newly wealthy foreigners and foreign art lovers allied themselves, passed into different hands. The Courtyard of Honor was acquired by the German-American banker George Blumenthal for personal use. After that, it would be donated to the Metropolitan Museum of New York, a place that accumulates a great amount of heritage similar to the castle of Vélez-Blanco. Therefore, galleries and windows now serve as a space to showcase themselves and other works of art.

Galleries of the Courtyard of Honor of Vélez-Blanco in New York.

Galleries of the Courtyard of Honor of Vélez-Blanco in New York. | Shutterstock

Another victim of the greed of the 19th Duke of Medina Sidonia was the bas-reliefs. These stayed in France, going from private hands to the Louvre. In their basements, they lay carelessly for decades. Their rediscovery in the 1990s, while changing some radiators, allowed them to emerge from the darkness. They were not exhibited in the aforementioned museum, which would have meant that they ended up next to the works stolen during the War of Independence that the institution possesses. Instead, they went to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

Thanks to all the above, the castle of Vélez-Blanco is a shadow of what it was during the Fajardo era. Nevertheless, it can be visited, which gives an idea of its decimated greatness. A project of the board will try to recreate the courtyard by using a scanner to give more luster to this space. A complicated mission due to its cost and the impediments of the Heritage laws in this regard. In any case, the rooms have been fitted out to show the history of the place. At the same time, there are several viewpoints of great interest from which to observe various views of the nearby town and its surroundings. A highly recommended activity that can be complemented by going to Lorca or the Sierra María Natural Park, due to their proximity.


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