The Madrid of Bonaparte, the French face of the capital

The Madrid of Bonaparte survives in the form of many squares, a famous subway passageway and even laid the foundations of a famous museum. Joseph I is a character that is part of the history of Spain and specifically of Madrid. Not in vain, he was king of the country between 1808 and 1813. In addition, he left a great legacy in the capital of Madrid. Despite all this, he was not respected by the people of Madrid because he was a monarch imposed by his brother Napoleon. He would end up fleeing and his Frenchified followers would pay for having followed the wave coming from France. After that would come the personified dastardliness, the terrible Fernando VII, but that is another story.

Plaza de Oriente

Planned earlier and completed later, the Plaza de Oriente was strongly encouraged by José I. | Shutterstock

One of the most convulsive periods in the history of Madrid and the history of Bonaparte

It all began with the uprising of May 2, 1808. From that moment the War of Independence broke out in Spain and one of the most turbulent times for the city of Madrid. These revolts were against the French who had invaded the city and the country. The main scenes of these insurrections were the Puerta de Toledo, the Puerta del Sol and the Malasaña neighborhood. In the latter, many of its streets and squares have names related to these uprisings.

The firing squads of May 3

The firing squads of May 3. | Wikimedia

The day after these revolts, executions were carried out in different parts of the city, as reflected in Goya‘s famous painting El 3 de mayo en Madrid (The 3rd of May in Madrid). One of those places was the Plaza de la Lealtad, where in 1840 a monument was built in tribute to the fallen with an urn with their ashes, where they still remain today.

About a month after all these episodes, Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, was proclaimed king of Spain under the name of Joseph I. One of the great objectives of the monarch, which was rejected by many of the people of Madrid at the time, was to modify the configuration of the city so that it would be more like Paris. To a certain extent, it was a modernization process that suffered from the fact that it was imposed. Progress with a shoehorn does not always fit.

Pepe Plazuelas and the beginnings of many of Madrid’s squares

To change the urban planning of the capital of Madrid, he demolished many religious buildings, such as monasteries and churches. In their place he built numerous squares in the center of Madrid. Great examples are those of Santa Ana, San Miguel or Mostenses. Due to the large number of such spaces he had built, Joseph Bonaparte received the nickname of Pepe Plazuelas. He was also called Pepe Botella because of the false rumor that he was very fond of drinking.

Plaza de Santa Ana

The Plaza de Santa Ana is part of Bonaparte’s Madrid. | Shutterstock

Possibly the most famous square he ordered to be built was the Plaza de Oriente, which received this name because it was east of the Royal Palace. However, the truth is that this project did not see the light until 1844 by the hand of the architect Narciso Pascual y Colomer. In the center of the place is a statue of Felipe IV. Around it, five statues of Visigoth kings and fifteen other monarchs of historical Spanish kingdoms. As for gardens, the Cape, Lepanto and Central gardens stand out. In any case, the original projection bears the Bonaparte seal.

The Bonaparte Tunnel

One of the great curiosities of the passage of Joseph Bonaparte in Madrid, as he built a tunnel connecting the Palacio de Oriente with the Palacio de Vargas. This subway passageway is called Bonaparte’s Tunnel, was built by Juan de Villanueva and served so that the monarch had a way through which he could not be seen by the people of Madrid.

Campo del Moro

Bonaparte’s Tunnel in the Campo del Moro. | Shutterstock

Given the antipathy that the inhabitants of Madrid had for this imposed king, it was a way to avoid attacks against the monarch. It is also believed that kings before José I already had this project in mind to unite the big game preserve, in Campo del Moro, with the small game preserve, in Casa de Campo. It is currently closed to the public, so it cannot be seen from the inside.

Citadel in the Retiro Park

It is also worth mentioning that his brother Napoleon, after winning the battle of Somosierra, in 1808 ordered the construction of a star-shaped citadel in the Retiro Park. Four years later, in 1812, the British occupied the park in the Battle of the Retiro and blew up the Royal Porcelain Factory, of which nothing remains. Shortly after, General Wellington ordered the destruction of all the fortifications of the Retiro.

Napoleonic citadel

This fountain was the site of the Napoleonic citadel. | Shutterstock

As a consequence of the war, the Buen Retiro Palace was left in ruins. The famous Madrid park suffered serious damage during this time, as most of its trees were cut down to make bonfires. However, the center of this fortification is where today stands the Fountain of the Fallen Angel, which is one of the most curious fountains in Spain.

The origin of the Prado Museum

Another of Joseph Bonaparte’s great contributions to Madrid was the foundation of the Josephine Museum in 1809, destined to house the most representative pictorial works of the Spanish school, such as those of Diego Velázquez or Francisco de Goya. The founding decree also ordered to take a collection of works by Spanish painters to the Napoleon Museum in Paris. The justification was that it was a symbol of the union between the two nations. However, it can also be taken as a full-fledged plunder.

Be that as it may, in 1810, the monarch and the expert Frédéric Quilliet began to search for valuable paintings and art objects in the convents of Madrid and Andalusia and in the Monastery of El Escorial. In this way they formed the first art collection of the museum and, finally, years later, it would become what today is the Prado Museum. The final impulse would come from Maria Isabel de Braganza. Ferdinand VII, her husband, destroyed it as he did with the liberties and the country. One more victim of the tyrant that was desired. Despite him, the institution is currently one of the most important museums in Spain and the world.

Prado Museum

Prado Museum. | Shutterstock

As we have seen throughout this article, the legacy that José I left in the city during his years of reign is much greater than it might seem a priori. Madrid’s urban planning was greatly influenced by Napoleon’s brother, something that is not well known even by the current inhabitants of the capital. However, there are still traces of the Madrid of Bonaparte and the Frenchmen.

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