Cecilio Zaldo was far from the richest trader with America in Cádiz. But the luxury with which he decorated the house of his son José María for the wedding at the beginning of the 19th century certainly made many a nobleman from Madrid blush. More than 40 rooms with mahogany furniture, large mirrors, and paintings; an elegant dining room with engraved silverware and fine glassware – china was still plentiful in those days – and a kitchen even equipped with two chocolate machines. So much detail was far from nouveau riche eccentricity. Those entrepreneurs who made their fortunes with Ultramar based on marketing “cultivated luxury not as vanity but as necessity and acquired habit”, as researcher Ramón Solís recalls in his work The Cadiz of the courts. Dozens of neoclassical mansions adorned with Italian marble, Dutch tiles and American carpentry remain of this opulence that disappeared more than a century ago. They’ve weathered the economic crisis, but whether they’ll survive the looting of today’s renovations remains to be seen.
That is the justified complaint of the experts who are members of the project Palatinate, a research group created within the University of Cadiz (UCA) to uncover all the heritage that is now hidden inside, mostly uncatalogued and in serious danger of disappearing. “We created it because of the clear risk of loss and the lack of valuation that the palaces of Cadiz have (…). There is no system to control what is in them or what should be there,” summarizes Yolanda Muñoz, professor at the university and leader of the team integrated into the group Total 726 Image, city and heritage from the UKA. With that premise, and with scant financial support—moreover, two prizes—Muñoz and three other researchers launched an initiative that has been running for five years and is now culminating with the publication of a dissemination book on the interior architecture of Cádiz, which they will publish in the want to have ready in the coming months.
Cadiz is not the only Spanish city to incorporate palaces into its urban fabric. Its uniqueness lies in the business and civic origins that influenced its physiognomy so much that it separated it from the classic model of the Andalusian mansion inhabited by a nobleman. Also in the number of buildings of this type that were built “until they corresponded to the urban planning of the city”, as Moisés Camacho, one of the group’s researchers, points out. In the heat of the capital’s maritime commercial splendor between the 17th and 18th centuries, sailors from India built magnificent houses, elegant enough to house an ambassador, practical enough to house offices and warehouses. This hybridization took place in the scarce urban space that Cádiz offered, so the buildings played with verticality, reaching four heights – ground floor and mezzanine for work, ground floor for living, upper floor and roof terrace for service – topped by slender observation towers that used by merchants to control the arrival of their goods by sea.
The merchants adorned their mansions with portals, curbs, columns and floors of Italian marble; Dutch tiles, railings, mahogany doors, plasterwork and interior murals. To this they added interesting furniture and artistic collections of paintings and sculptures considered in their day, such as that of Sebastián Martínez, a friend of the painter Francisco de Goya, who is said to have come into his possession Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. But that furniture was soon lost, sold, and fragmented into inheritances from “children and grandchildren who didn’t have the commercial spark of their ancestors and ended up in ruin,” says Muñoz. With the commercial crisis of the 19th century, the villas were rented out, split into smaller apartments – known in Cadiz as small parties – or closed. Inside, these architectural elements remained associated with the building for more than a century without many noticing their uniqueness.
The urban boom that preceded the 2008 crisis has already proliferated the figure of the demolition antique dealer, professionals specialized in removing floors, beams, doors or railings from the city’s historic properties in order to later repair them sell, as Palatia reports. However, the researchers believe that the current situation, fueled by dozens of project promoters building small apartments for second homes or rentals, aparthotels or hotels, is much more worrying. “These antique dealers have woken up with tourist rentals, with very invasive interventions where conservation is sometimes left or not to the sole discretion of good taste,” Muñoz explains.
On paper – more precisely the general development plan – there are 61 castle houses, cataloged with the highest degree of protection, zero. In addition, there are the partially protected settlements with a lower degree, which partially affect areas of the building, such as facades or observation towers. All of them are said to be protected by the Local Heritage Commission, which is dependent on the City Council and has powers conferred by the Provincial Delegation for Culture. But in Palatia they criticize that the problem lies in the fact that these private fortunes are not cataloged, so it is not known what interesting elements they hide. “It’s not enough just to protect the facade, these houses have more elements of identity inside,” criticizes Antonio de la Cruz, another researcher on the project.
“Before issuing a sanitation permit, it is necessary to catalog what is already there and, at the end of the work, to check that everything that needed to be protected is there,” summarizes Muñoz. To make this task easier, researchers have developed a mobile application that would allow officers to more quickly catalog the items of interest in a mansion using 400 descriptors accompanied by photographs. All information collected is later added to a digital database file linked to the created photo gallery. The researchers hope that the administrations involved in monument protection will be interested in acquiring the patent for the system, which they won in the competition atrÉBT! the UCA – “so that all the endangered heritage can be used and protected,” emphasizes Muñoz.
While the politicians were plucking the daisy before the offer, Palatia is already working on the publication of a monographic book on the palaces of Cadiz, which they aim to have ready in less than a year. They combine these efforts – even without financial means – with guided tours and public relations in the few mansions that can be visited today, having become public places, such as the headquarters of the Open University of Cádiz, the Provincial Archives or the Casino Cádiz. After all, this desire to see and be seen was in the DNA of bourgeois merchants like Cecilio Zaldo and his son. Because since this opulent furniture, crockery and glassware has been lost over time, at least those elegant houses have remained intact, with which Cadiz rivaled the kingdom’s capital in luxury.
All the culture that suits you awaits you here.
The literary news analyzed by our top critics in our weekly newsletter
reduced by 50 percent
Subscribe to continue reading
read without limits