Roman aqueduct of Segovia and Sierra de Guadarrama in the distance
A noble road winds from the Escorial over the Guadarrama chain amid immemorial pines and
firs to San Ildefonso. The scenery is
splendid, a jumble of mountain and
rock with glorious pines flinging their
wild arms athwart the precipices. It
was constructed at a reckless expense,
for the personal convenience of the
King (Philip V of Bourbon): it is occasionally blocked up
by winter snows. After passing the
puerto, we descend into the village or
royal sitio, in which the court always
passed the hot months of June, July,
and September. There is an excellent
inn, (..) and those
wishing to see Segovia, which is only
2 leagues off, and a pleasant hour's drive,
will be much better lodged here than
at the wretched posada of that venerable and interesting old city.
A Hand-Book for Travellers in Spain by Richard Ford - 1847
This cool castle in the air is, say the Castilians, a worthy chateau of the king of Spain; as he is the loftiest of all earthly sovereigns, so his abode soars nearest to heaven: the elevation cannot be doubted; as the palace is placed on the N.W. range of the Sierra, 3840 feet above the level of the sea, and thus, in the same latitude as Naples, stands higher than the crater of Mount Vesuvius. The localities are truly alpine; around on all sides are rocks, forests, and crystal streams. (..) While nature is truly Spanish, here it is entirely French; for the one-idead founder Philip V could conceive no other excellence but that of Marly and Versailles. (..) It chanced that while hunting at Valsain Philip observed this granja, then a grange or farm-house of the Segovian monks of Santa Maria del Parral, of whom he bought the site. Ford
In reserve and bigotry (Philip V was) a Philip
II, his hypochondriac shyness drove
him into retirement, wanting nothing
but his mass-book and wife, and thus
becoming a puppet in her and her confessor's hands. (..) He was no sooner fixed
on the Spanish throne than he meditated its abdication. Ford
In 1714 Philip V, the first King of Spain of the French House of Bourbon and a widower with three boys married Elisabeth Farnese, daughter of the Duke of Parma. History books used to describe the king as weak-willed and indolent, but recently it has been suggested that he suffered of manic/bipolar disorder. In 1724 he abdicated the throne to his eldest son, but the latter died of smallpox seven months later and Philip returned to the throne. He afterwards greatly relied on Elisabeth for the conduct of state affairs and according to many contemporary observers she was the actual ruler of Spain until her husband's death in 1746. This explains why at La Granja de San Ildefonso there are many double coats of arms as if Elisabeth had been a queen on their own.
Colegiata de la Santísima Trinidad (Royal Chapel)
First visit the Colegiata, built from
a design of Teodoro Artemans, in the
form of a Latin cross. (..) The tomb of Philip
V and his wife Isabella Farnese, with
medallions, and Fame, Charity, and
other ornaments in bad taste, are the works of Messrs. Pierre Pitué and Hubert Dumandré. Ford
Teodoro Ardemans was the Master of Royal Works and chiefly a painter. At his death in 1726 the completion of the Royal Chapel and of its decoration were entrusted to Andrea Procaccini, one of a series of Italian artists whom Elisabeth Farnese suggested her husband to hire.
The centre body is destined to the royal family, and the
wings to their suites. The facade
fronts the garden, and is cheerful,
although over-windowed and looking
like a long Corinthian conservatory. Ford
In April 1735 Philip V entrusted Filippo Juvarra with the construction of a new palace in Madrid to replace the Royal Alcazar, a former fortress, which had been destroyed by fire. The Italian architect had acquired fame by designing Basilica di Superga and Palazzo Madama for Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy who, after becoming King of Sardinia in 1720, decided to give Turin the aspect of a royal capital. Juvarra designed also the façade of La Granja de San Ildefonso, but could not oversee its construction because he died suddenly in January 1736. This was done by his assistant Giovanni Battista Sacchetti who was appointed Chief Architect of the Court and held this position until his death in 1764. The façade is characterized by the use of the Colossal order, which extends through two or more interior storeys. It was employed by Michelangelo at Palazzo dei Conservatori, by Bernini at Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi and by Juvarra himself at Palazzo Madama. You may wish to see Cappella Antamoro, an early work by Juvarra in Rome and his book of drawings of papal coats of arms.
We arrived for dinner at Saint Ildefonso, and sound orders had been sent before for our immediate admission to the palace water-works, and other curiosities of the place. This palace was much embellished and favoured by Philip the Fifth. (..) The palace is patch-work, and no part of the architecture agreeable. In the apartments is a very numerous collection of pictures. (..) In the Gallery below are many fine statues, busts, and bass-reliefs.
Henry Swinburne - Travels through Spain in the years 1775 and 1776
The saloons above and below were once filled with paintings and antiques (..) After having been long neglected, they were carted out to Madrid by Ferdinand VII (king in 1814-1833), when he refurnished the palace with his favourite modern trumpery. Ford
In January 1918 a fire destroyed the upper storey and its contents. Today the interior of the palace is finely furnished with pieces taken from other royal palaces. It houses a number of paintings or copies of paintings portraying Philip V and his family. The interior can be visited, but it is not allowed to take photographs, because it is occasionally used for events attended by the King of Spain.
The title of the painting which was made in 1743 could as well be The Triumph of Elisabeth Farnese. She is seated at the very centre of the scene and her left arm is very near a crown; her husband looks like an old courtier, rather than a king. Ferdinand, Elisabeth's stepson and the heir to throne stands near his father, but he does not have as many decorations as Charles of Bourbon (far right), his half-brother to whom Elisabeth had managed to secure the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in 1734 by sending a Spanish army to Italy.
The gardens of the palace are among the finest in Spain. (..) As everything is artificial the cost was enormous, reaching to 45 million piastres, the precise sum in which Philip V died indebted. To form these gardens, rocks were levelled and hollowed to admit pipes of fountains and roots of trees, whose soil was brought up from the plains. The earth requires to be constantly renewed, and even then the vegetation is dwarf-like. (..) Although smaller than Versailles, these gardens are far more real than their type; pure genuine water is their charm, which here is no turbid puddle forced up by a wooden waterwork, but a crystal distillation, fresh from a mountain alembic. Ford
Fuente de la Selva and side view of the palace
Philip the Fifth, spent much treasure in forcing Nature, and rendering it in some sort an imitation of what he remembered to have seen in the garden of Versailles. His son Ferdinand abandoned it to his mother in law. Swinburne
The gardens, the waterworks and the statues of the fountains were all designed or executed by French engineers and sculptors during the reign of Philip V. He and Elisabeth personally endorsed the projects and closely followed their implementation. After the death of Philip, Elisabeth retired to La Granja de San Ildefonso; her relationship with Ferdinand, the new king, was very poor because for many years she had kept him away from his father. She did not entirely disappear from the Spanish political scene. Ferdinand was childless and after the death of his wife in August 1758, he fell into a state of depression and died after twelve months at the age of 46. Elisabeth became Regent for her son Charles, who reached Madrid in December. He soon made clear to his mother that he did not need her assistance and she spent her last years at Aranjuez, another royal residence.
Fuente de Amphitrite in the New Waterfall
The statues of the fountains depict gods and goddesses or other mythological personages who symbolize the royal couple or their deeds in ruling the country. Amphitrite, the wife of Neptune, is portrayed in a statue of a fountain which is situated right opposite the palace. She is a personification of Elisabeth.
Fuente de Neptuno
The fountain of Neptune, the personification of Philip V, does not enjoy a location as prestigious as that of Amphitrite. Because of Spain's large oversea empire, the king was associated with Neptune as master of a sea domain, rather than with Jupiter, the king of the gods. The fountain is also referred to as The Horse Race because of two other statues depicting putti riding horses and of its racecourse shape.
Fuente de Apollo parallel to the New Waterfall
The waterworks surpass all those I ever saw, not excepting the finest at Versailles. Not having any memorandums of their different heights, I do not know, but those in the French king's gardens may throw the water up higher. (..) These jeux-d'eaux of Saint Ildefonso send forth a stream as clear as crystal, whereon the sun-beams play in the most beautiful prismatic tints; it falls around like the sweetest finest dew. The lofty column of water issuing out of the trump of Fame, exceeded all our conceptions of the power of hydrostatics; the gardener mentioned a height to us that I durst not commit to paper on his authority, but I confess the water went up to such an extraordinary elevation, that it was no longer in my power to guess at the number of feet. Swinburne
The fountains play on the first Sundays of the summer months, great festivals, and royal birth or saint days, when the traveller should visit this spot. Ford
Today a yearly published calendar lists the days when the fountains play (for a short time); they are divided into two groups; they all play at the same time only on May 30, Feast of Saint Ferdinand, July 25, Feast of Santiago (St. James the Apostle) and August 25, Feast of King Saint Louis.
Fuente de Apollo (y Minerva)
The chief statues are the Apollo and
Daphne, Lucretia, Bacchus, America,
Ceres, and Milon; poor and second-
rate, they are much more admired by
Spaniards, who have very little fine
marble sculpture, than they deserve. Ford
In order to reduce the cost of the fountains, most of the statues were made in lead and then painted to resemble bronze. Every year they had to be repainted and the colour was made in France. There were two options: bronce dorado with a golden tint and bronce encarnado with a flesh-resembling tint.
Charles III came every year to La
Granja to fish and shoot. Ford
The court now comes here in the hot months of summer, as it is a remarkable cool spot, being fenced from the hot south winds by a ridge of very high snowy mountains, and situated in the bottom of a vale open to the north. But this situation exposes it to such sudden and frequent changes of temperature and seasons in the course of a few hours, that it is often necessary to shift from cloth to silk, and from silk to cloth, twice or thrice a day; and these transitions are sometimes productive of colics and other serious disorders. Swinburne
After having visited Spain Swinburne travelled to southern Italy and wrote about the palace and the gardens Charles had built at Caserta prior to becoming King of Spain.
Royal Stables in the town of San Ildefonso along the road leading to the palace; the image used as background for this page shows an enlargement of the coats of arms at their entrance
Below the town is the manufactory of plate-glass belonging to the crown; two hundred and eighty men are employed. The largest plate they have made is one hundred and twenty-six Spanish inches long; the small pieces are sold in looking-glasses all over the kingdom; but I am told the king makes no great profit by it; however, it is a very material point to be able to supply his subjects with a good commodity, and to keep in the country a large sum of money that heretofore went out annually to purchase it from strangers. They also make bottles and drinking-glasses; and are now busy erecting very spacious new furnaces to enlarge the works. Swinburne. The factory was closed in the 1830s and briefly revived in 1911. In 1982 a Museum of Glass was established in its premises.
Charles III ruled Spain for nearly thirty years and endeavoured to modernize the country. He gained the reputation of mejor alcalde (best mayor) of Madrid and in the 1990s, municipal authorities decided to erect a bronze monument to him. You may wish to to see two other equestrian monuments to Spanish kings.