Museo Cerralbo in Madrid, an old 19th century house-palace that does not look like a museum

Museo Cerralbo is one of the most important museums in Madrid. However, it is also one of the least known, which contrasts with its rich interior decoration and interesting history. This national museum has a very special location, as it is located in an old palace-house that dates back to the 19th century and belonged to the Marquis of Cerralbo. So it is not surprising that a visit to the museum is an instantaneous journey into the past of an aristocratic family that lived at the end of that century. 

Museo Cerralbo

Gran Portal (Main Portico) and Escalera de Honor (Main Staircase) | Source: culturaydeporte.gob.es

The museum is made up of more than 50,000 pieces including sculptures, paintings, tapestries, glass, ceramics, furniture, medals, drawings, coins, armour and weapons, archaeological objects, clocks… In addition to these pieces, the architecture of the Museo Cerralbo is already striking, as it is a classicist style palace made up of the most unique neo-baroque and rococo elements. Since its creation, it was conceived as a home and museum, a place that would function as the home of the works of art belonging to the Marquises of Cerralbo and their children, known as the Marquises of Villa-Huerta, who would have harvested so many works in their many journeys through Spain and Europe. Thus, the Marquis of Cerralbo donated this heritage to the State in his will, with the consequent institution of the Museo Cerralbo, with the intention of ensuring that its collections would last over time. 

In order to respect the integrity of the historical setting, the palace does not have any information about the objects displayed there, except for the identifying signs set up by the Marquis himself. However, during the visit you can access a leaflet giving information about the space and the most important pieces.

First home and then museum, but without changing anything

The Cerralbo Palace was built between 1884 and 1892 and was constructed in the historicist style of a classical court that also shares its garden. It is worth noting that the Museo Cerralbo was inaugurated in 1944 and less than 20 years later was declared a Historic-Artistic Monument and an Asset of Cultural Interest. Since then, the museum has undergone various expansion and improvement works. The last one took place in 2006 and kept the museum closed for four years for its complete modernization. 

Museo Cerralbo houses the private collection of antiques, works of art and archaeological objects that Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, the 17th Marquis of Cerralbo, gathered during his lifetime. He was the founder of the museum, who died in 1922. He was a politician, historian and promoter of several archaeological excavations.

Museo Cerralbo

Corridors of the Museo Cerralbo | Photo: Emilio J. Rodríguez Posada

When the Marquis of Cerralbo died, he left almost all the pieces of his archaeological collection to the National Archaeological Museum and the National Museum of Natural Sciences. For his part, the rest of his collection and the palace where it was located were handed over to the State, which willingly accepted the Marquis’ legacy. Later, ten years later, the Fundación Museo Cerralbo was created.  

It is considered a setting museum, as it is one of the few 19th-century palaces in Madrid that still maintains its original decoration. Of the 50,000 objects conserved inside, some are works by renowned authors such as El Greco, Zurbarán, Tintoretto, Van Dyck and Bronzino. 

Rooms of the Museo Cerralbo

The Museo Cerralbo is one of the few spaces in Madrid that shows in its rooms the original decoration of an aristocratic residence from the end of the 19th century. This fact was recognised in 2008 with a medal from the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage and the Europa Nostra Nueva Prize, awards that serve as European recognition for the conservation of heritage.  

This former palace, which has now been converted into a museum, is organised into four floors, including the semi-basement, mezzanine floor, main floor and attics. As for the semi-basement and the attics, it should be noted that they were formerly used as a kitchen, pantry, boiler room, service room, garage, stables… Today these spaces house the assembly hall and the spaces used by the museum staff. Consequently, the rooms available for visits in the Museo Cerralbo are the first floor or mezzanine, which was intended for the everyday life of the marquises, and the second or main floor, which was intended for social life.

Gran Portal (Main Portico) and Escalera de Honor (Main Staircase)

The palace’s entrance hall is accessed through two large rock doors through which the carriages entered when the Marquises of Cerralbo were still alive. A space decorated in sobriety, in which the spectacular marble staircase of honour, consisting of a double ramp, stands out. Its function at the time was to highlight the social prestige that the owners of the house held. 

Escalera de Honor en el Museo Cerralbo

Escalera de Honor | Photo: Salvador Yzquierdo Peiro, Museo Cerralbo

The staircase has a wrought iron banister originating from the former Monastery of Las Salesas Reales de la Reina Bárbara de Braganza. The space is decorated with Roman busts and a fascinating lamp with multiple heads, elements that allude to the aristocratic origin of its previous owner. Special mention is made of the coat of arms of the Marquis of Cerralbo located at this entrance, where the emblems of the Pacheco family as well as his wife’s family rest. On either side are two 17th century tapestries made in Pastrana and Brussels. 

Mezzanine

The mezzanine floor was the floor where the closest visitors were received and where the daily life of the family also took place. Designed for domestic use, the family and historical circumstances that occurred over the years led to repeated transformations on the first floor. 

Some of the most outstanding spaces in this area are, first of all, the so-called Recibimiento de Verano which, as its name indicates, was the space located in the private flats destined to receive the guests with more confidence. Secondly, the garden, a recreation of 1995, as little information has been obtained from the original one. It is a classical-romantic garden in which you can see various sculptures of Roman emperors. 

Museo Cerralbo

Corridors in the Museo Cerralbo | Photo: Tim Adans

Another of the spaces to be seen on the mezzanine floor of the Museo Cerralbo is the Salón Rojo, the first of a group of three rooms overlooking the garden. The name of this room comes from the tapestries that cover the walls, decorated in this colour tone. This room was used as an office by the Marquis, who attended to suppliers and administrators here. The next one is the Salón Amarillo, used as a dining room for the newspaper and as a private office. Finally, the Salita Rosa, belonged to the Marquise and was used as a company room in which the owner could sit comfortably and without so much protocol. 

Jardín del Museo Cerralbo

Garden of the Museo Cerralbo | Photo: Emilio J. Rodríguez Posada

On the mezzanine floor you can also see the Marquis of Cerralbo’s bedroom, the corridor, the Recibimiento de Invierno, the lounge-dining room and the Salón de Confianza. The latter was intended for the reception of more intimate visits and also for those of obligatory compliance, but attended to on days when so much etiquette was not necessary. From here it is worth mentioning the great Murano glass lamp bought by the Marquises on one of their many trips to Italy.

Main floor

Museo Cerralbo

Dance Hall | Photo: Angel Martínez Levas, Museo Cerralbo

The main floor was designated to protocol, so no luxury was spared in its decoration, as it reflected the social and economic position of its owners, with image prevailing. Thus, the best spaces were reserved for guests, where the rooms on the main floor were only open during receptions and parties. 

This space has many more rooms than the previous one. One of the first that can be seen when entering the main floor is the armoury, where the hand kissing ceremony was held, and the bathroom room, where the exhibition prevails over the practical. For exclusively male use was the Sala Árabe, a room that became fashionable in Europe during the 19th century and was associated with tobacco consumption. Other rooms were the Salon Estufa and the Pasillo de Dibujos where, as its name suggests, different drawings are exhibited. 

Museo Cerralbo

Sala de las Columnitas | Photo: Miguel Angel Otero, Museo Cerralbo.

Continuing with the tour, we arrive at the Sala de las Columnitas, where the Marquis of Cerralbo’s desire to collect is clearly evident. Here the gentlemen would meet to talk about business and politics in the nineteenth century. The name of this room is due to the set located on the central table, where figurines from Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Etruscan and Modern Age cultures rest, made in terracotta, bronze and marble. 

Museo Cerralbo

Galería II | Photo: Salvador Yzquierdo Peiro, Museo Cerralbo

A visit to the main floor of the Museo Cerralbo also includes the Salon Vestuario, the Salita-Imperio which was used as a dressing room for the Marquise and the Salon Billar, used as a support space for the dining room service. Another of the rooms found here is the Salón Chaflán. It was conceived as a room for social gatherings and rest between dances. 

Museo Cerralbo

Office | Photo: ASF, Museo Cerralbo.

One of the most relevant spaces is the office, linked to the personality of the Marquis of Cerralbo. In this room the Marquis received the most illustrious visitors. In this way, objects of sumptuous rather than practical value can be seen in the office. The library contains 10,000 volumes: from incunabula to books dating from 1922, manuscripts of scientific, literary and artistic value. In its time it was considered one of the most complete libraries in terms of Numismatics and Archaeology. In addition, the showcases display a small sample of seals, medals and coins collected by Cerralbo and his stepson, the Marquis of Villa-Huerta. 

Finally, on the main floor there is also the Galería Segunda with a striking collection of Italian furniture, the Galería Tercera which was used as a guest toilet, and the Salón de Baile, decorated with marble from the Pyrenees, agate panels from Granada and large Venetian mirrors. 

*Main picture: Angel Martínez Levas, Museo Cerralbo


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