As I walked up to the entrance of the Royal Palace in Madrid I thought it looked much bigger up close instead of from my view down the street. It was easily bigger than the White House. Impressively tall, white stone pillars loomed over us like sentinels guarding the palace entrance. The Spanish flag snapped in the wind, a patriotic reminder of where I was. Standing in the center of the courtyard I could hear the click of cameras from people everywhere snapping photographs, unable to fully capture the beauty of the building. After I pulled out my own camera to get a picture of me standing in front of the palace, I looked down at the tiny screen to see that not only was it clear that a photo would not do the palace justice, but also that I was very small in comparison to such a huge building. Even from just my initial view from the outside, everything screamed pomp and splendor from the gold carving of ivy on the looming streetlights to the delicate handrails leading to the entrance. The rim of the rooftop was lined with statues, keeping watch from a bird’s eye view. At the midline of the palace there stood a clock standing even taller than the rooftop statues reminding me to hurry inside before it got to late. Even the pavement was pristine, the large white, grey, and black stones expertly organized into geometric patterns. Little did I know that if I thought the exterior was beautiful, the interior was even more striking.
I began the tour of the rooms. Each room had its own personality. Some rooms were dressed in comforting shades of blue and ivory, with ceilings adorned with exquisite paintings of angels and cherubs or carvings of flowers and vines. Some were stern shades of red or green accented by flashes of gold. Dangling chandeliers of sparkling crystal glistened, filling the rooms with a warm glow. The furniture was just as exquisite as the walls and ceiling. It was refined yet overly sophisticated with plush, rich fabrics or overly meticulous carvings into the wood grain. Many of the pieces seemed to be used as for display only. Throughout the rooms, upon the variety of furniture sat delicate tea sets, crystal glasses, hand-painted china plates, or candelabras holding unlit candles. They were all so detailed and vibrant, as if screaming “Look at me!”. Every area was blocked off prohibiting me from touching the beauty my eyes beheld. Although each room was decorated in a modern, yet royal fashion, as I walked I could hear the creaking of the old, aging flood under my feet with each step. There was not an inch unadorned; from the painted or carved ceilings to the tapestries on the ground every inch was immaculate.
At times the embellishments felt excessive, screaming out over extravagance and royalty. The royal palace is home to over 3,400 rooms; was all this necessary for rooms that seemingly go unused? Years ago the royal family and everyone associated with them, lived, breathed and worked here. I remembered reading a sign in the lobby describing the palace as once “a little city”. Though it was a place for showing off the country’s power and wealth, it was also a place many once called home. It was difficult to imagine that this had at one time been a place of family and community for the Spanish nobility for despite the beauty it felt formal and unemotional. I tried to imagine little children running through the hallways, but, looking around the room, the image seemed absurd. Though each room was more beautiful than the last, the air felt dry and unmoving, to formal too feel like it could really be a home. It was the air was almost stale behind the roped off areas, as if someone had not breathed it in for a very long time. It lacked any familiar smells of food or a familiar person that often bring me back to my own home. Here instead all I could pick up on was a faint tinge of furniture polish. Looking into each room every one of them were frozen in time, untouched and unused by all with the exception of gazing upon its beauty. I thought back to my mother’s old piano. Although not as extravagant as the pieces here, to my mom is was just as precious. I bore the signs of living in a home inhabitied by children. A nick from the swing of toy or the scratches from our carelessness over the years were battle makes from the years it spent playing among us. These pieces of royal furniture lacked any such character. I could not find a single fault or defect on anything here in the palace. It all seemed to perfect to have been used. It felt more like looking at a piece of art than a home. Almost as if created for the sole purpose of being pretty, the adornments around the room stood as models, to be enjoyed but untouched. Everyone’s job, past and present was to look but not to disturb the beauty before us. The guards glared at us tourists as if saying, “Don’t even think about touching something!” with an austere look in their eyes. It made me feel like when I was a young child, and my parents would get upset if I got anywhere close to a glass vase or our nice china. There was a coldness intertwined with beauty that was clearly felt by others as well as myself for I did not dare to raise our voices over a whisper, although there were no signs to remain quiet. The only sounds were the creaking of the old floor, footsteps and hushed tones of the other tourists.
However, as I continued on I began to feel that the quiet, somber mood of the place was due to more than beautiful yet intense, uninviting adornments located in every room. Dressed in a simple black and white dress, I felt out of place. As I entered in the most beautiful, most immaculate room and looked up at the ornately decorated ceiling I felt very small in comparison to the grandeur of not only the entire building but also to the single expansive space. At some point in time, someone considered living in a palace like this to to be the standard, while I could not even imagine having one of these beautiful rooms. Everything in the room was massive, which only added to the feeling of insignificance. The room felt even bigger because on each wall hung large, elongated mirrors framed in intricate gold-leaf frames reflecting back images of the opposing walls. Covered in plush deep-red fabric, the walls gave the room a warmer ambiance while still maintaining a regal feel. Thick, heavy red curtains outlined windows that reached from the floor nearly to the ceiling. Larger-than-life paintings of former members of royalty around the room served as additional reminders that this was a place of nobility. And to top it all off, two golden lion statues flanked the striking red and gold royal thrones. This room, the throne room, was the most spectacular of them all.
That feeling of smallness and insignificance had been building as I passed through each room so when I reached the throne room it was clear what emotions were being invoked. Being in a place with such deep history and visual majesty was a reminder that I am but a small fish in a sea of many people, past and present. What began as a feeling of formal coldness had transformed into feelings of reverence. The austerity was not meant to discourage but to preserve history and beauty. Looking more closely at the detail in the carvings or delicacy of the brush strokes in the paint or the complicated patterns in the tapestries, I began to realize how many people put hours of their lives into creating this palace. The original castle was built between 860 and 880, but various kings continually renovated the palace thought the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. In 1734 the palace was completely destroyed by a fire. It had take over twenty-five years to rebuild the palace, but renovations did not end until the nineteenth century. Future, the palace needed further restoration in the twentieth century due to damage endured during the Spanish Civil War. I had known that hundreds of years ago the palace had been burned to the ground, but in that moment I could only imagine magnitude of what it meant to rebuild it.
Now, here I was years later gazing at all the royal splendor, enjoying the fruits of their labor. So many people had given countless hours to create the beauty of which I was experiencing. Standing in the middle of the throne room, the thought of such a grand legacy made me hope that one-day someone in the future would be able to look back and value what I had left behind just as I was doing in that moment. Thinking of the amount of labor and history each room carried helped lead me to understand why the Spanish guarded this place so closely. The history of this place went much deeper than simply being a beautiful building for tourists to enjoy. I could see the value or preserving such beauty. I admired not only the physical beauty of the objects in front of my eyes, but also the effort of the hands that made it. The adornments now no longer seemed the least bit gaudy or overly flashy but instead now served as a visual prompt that I too desired to be a part of something much bigger.
Photo by Keri Schoenemann