Spain’s history has been much influenced by the power and culture of the Roman Catholic church and the Spanish aristocracy. The direct power of these two groups is today much reduced, although they do retain some of their former cultural influence and cachet. Both the church and nobility had a passion for building and their construction of grand and expensive buildings has left Spain with a fascinating legacy of cathedrals, monasteries and palaces. These structures were often products of Spain’s “golden age” in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries when the treasure of imperial conquest and subjugation flowed into the country.
We made a visit to Gandia, in the province of Valencia, to see some friends. As the weather felt like early autumn we took the opportunity to visit the famous city palace to see for ourselves a striking example of aristocratic and church taste of the golden age. The palace was originally a small royal residence of the Aragonese royal family. In the 15th century it was acquired by the famous Borgia family. The Gandia branch of the Borgia family was founded by the sons of Pope Alexander VI. As Dukes of Gandia the Borgias ruled the local area until the 18th century when they died out in the male line and their land and titles passed through marriage to other noble families. We referenced this famous family in our article from March 2021 about the city of Xativa “The anteroom of the Borgias”.
The palace at Gandia was the visible centre of the family’s power and as such was designed to impress and show their lineage and prestige. The original late mediaeval building was enlarged and altered during the Borgia occupation and consequently contains features and decoration from a number of different periods and styles. The building is also notable for its examples of local craftsmanship and design of the Valencian region. The tour route taken by visitors broadly follows the chronological development of the palace and it is fascinating to see the evolution of the building as a public noble residence.
Crossing the great internal courtyard visitors proceed to the public audience hall on the second floor where the Dukes held court and dispensed justice. The room contains a number of features from the 16th century including an impressive coffered ceiling and tiled walls. The red bull insignia of the Borgia family appears on the stained glass of the windows overlooking the river Serpis below. Passing from the great hall visitors enter the private rooms of the Dukes, these are richly decorated spaces with religious themes rather than the heraldic pomp of the public areas of the palace. The intricate craftsmanship of the ducal private chapel is exquisite and a reminder of the strong links between the Borgias and renaissance Italy.
Visitors are then swept into the 17th and 18th centuries in huge reception chambers decorated in the baroque style. The most famous showpiece in the palace is the enfilade of rooms decorated in white and gold carving known as the Golden Gallery. This extraordinary set of rooms is of a type normally only seen in royal palaces. Every surface is covered in rich gilded carving, painted ceilings and inlaid floors. The overriding theme is a celebration of the lineage of the Borgia family. Two hundred years after the founding of the Borgia ducal house of Gandia these sumptuous rooms included images of the two Borgia popes as well as the famous 4th Duke of Gandia who later became a saint of the Roman Catholic church. The Golden Gallery is a magical space, light floods in through large windows and bounces off of mirrors and gilding and washes over the vibrant blues and yellows of the beautiful locally crafted Valencian floor tiles. The effect upon 18th century visitors who were used to small dark spaces with shuttered windows must have been quite overwhelming; it still works its magic today with audible gasps from visitors when they first enter the rooms.
This 18th century apogee was however to be a final hurrah for both the house of Borgia and the Palace of Gandia. The Borgia family died out and the palace was sold off. After a number of uses the building was eventually purchased by the Jesuits who restored it and in particular emphasised its links to the saintly 4th Duke; hence the numerous paintings and references to him to be found in the palace today.
The Palace of Gandia is well worth a visit for anyone interested in the decorative arts as well as being a monument to the ambition and status of the Roman Catholic church and the Spanish aristocracy. Above all however it serves as a reminder that all things, including earthly glory, pass away; a conclusion which the holy 4th Duke of Gandia would surely have agreed with.
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