Lady of Spain


The 18th Duchess of Alba, the most titled woman in Europe (if not the world), opens her masterpiece-filled Madrid palace for a rare visit.

Photographer: Simon Watson

Visitors to the Palacio de Liria ascend a monumental domed stairway, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens during an early 20th-century restoration. The royal residence is actually just one of six palaces the Duchess, 79, owns throughout Spain.

Photographer: Simon Watson

In 2004 the Spanish magazine Capital estimated the Duchess (her full name is Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart Silvia y Falco) was worth 500 million euros. Much of that wealth is said to come from land; she is one of the largest property owners in Spain. Here, a view of the palace’s Spanish salon, with a Velazquez portrait of the Infanta Margarita, along with paintings by El Greco, Murillo and Zurbarán.

Photographer: Simon Watson

“I come from a very old family, but I’m very modern in my ideas, and I’m very liberal,” says the Duchess. After the death of her first husband, she caused a near scandal in 1978 by marrying Jesus Aguirre, a handsome former Jesuit priest and Socialist intellectual eight years her junior. A hallway with painted ceiling leading to the Duchess’s private quarters.

Photographer: Simon Watson

The manicured garden, the largest private park in Madrid.

Photographer: Simon Watson

In recent years, the royal offspring have provided plenty of fodder for the Spanish tabloids. In 2002, the Duchess’s only daughter, Eugenia, separated from her bullfighter husband and began an affair with a 24-year-old aspiring actor. One of the Duchess’s sons recently married the mother of his two children (a “no-class” Mexican beauty, as one put it) only after she delivered what was said to have been an ultimatum. And the Duchess’s eldest son is nearing his second marriage, this time to billionaire Alicia Koplowitz, heiress to a construction and finance company started by her father, a Polish-born Jew. Here, family photos are on display in an informal sitting room.

Photographer: Simon Watson

A double portrait of Charles V and the Empress Isabella, by Rubens (bottom center), hangs prominently in the Flemish salon, which also includes paintings by Rembrandt and Brueghel.

Photographer: Simon Watson

The Duchess, known to her friends as Gayetana, claims 47 titles, 18 of which carry “the dignity of Grancee of Spain.” She does not have to kneel before the Pope. She alone, it is said, can ride into the Seville Cathedral on horseback. And since the Duchess is a descendant of James II, it has been claimed that Queen Elizabeth, an upstart Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, should bow to her.