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Kings and queens 

In Santa Cruz the Museo de Bellas Artes in Calle Jose Murphy, next to the Plaza del Principe, houses a collection of paintings and sculptures dating from the 16th century to the 19th century, together with small displays of modern work. The subjects of the paintings, many of which are by notable Canarian artists, are, of course, varied. The ones that appeal most to me are the old landscapes and drawings of bygone Tenerife – but I digress – the theme of this article is ‘monarchy’.

There are four paintings of Spanish monarchs in the gallery, three of which are portraits, while the fourth also tells a story. Like all portraits, in themselves they have a limited general appeal unless you know something about the people you’re looking at, so I did a bit of digging around and I’m able to shed a little bit of light on all four of them.

‘ALFONSO X – DIOSCORO TEOFILO PUEBLA’ (also called ‘Alfonso X el Sabio y la Astronomica’), 1881

Don Alfonso el Sabio, or ‘The Wise’, reigned from 1252 to 1284. In economical terms his reign was a disaster through his continually spending money and demanding taxes. Politically, although he defeated the Moors, he was unsuccessful in his attempt to acquire the crown of the Holy Roman Empire and the throne of Gascony, he also tried to gain control over the adjoining independent kingdom of Navarre. In Spanish domestic politics he tried to curb the power of the nobility, which they naturally resented.

However, history remembers Alfonso X mainly for his patronage of culture. Everything from law, to history, to chess, to the use of vernacular Spanish interested him, and as the patron of the Toledo School of Translators he encouraged the compilation of the first general history of Spain and the translation of classical works by Jewish and Islamic scholars.

In this painting we see his interest in astronomy and astrology, for which he is best known. Twenty men are in deep discussion around the king, some of them are using the scientific devices of the day, the astrolabe, a globe of the night sky and a model of the solar system as it was believed to be then, while scribes sit on either side of Alfonso to record the proceedings. Astrology was regarded as one of the sciences of the day and one man is seen to be studying an isolated sunbeam as it moves along a chart of the zodiac. These seminars resulted in a set of tables that were used to compute the position of the sun, the moon and the planets in relation to the fixed stars. The tables were popular for 300 years and were often updated; they were called Alfonsine Tables after King Alfonso.

He also wrote poetry and treatises about chemistry and philosophy. Perhaps being a king got in the way of what he really wanted to do.

‘ALFONSO XII’, 1875

The reign of King Alfonso XII began after the six years of political chaos that followed the expulsion of his mother Queen Isabella II in 1868. She was replaced at first by a short-lived republic and then by an experiment with a ‘neutral’ king, called in from Savoy in Italy. But King Amadeo I never stood a chance with the Spanish people, who sarcastically nicknamed him ‘King Macaroni’.

Alfonso’s reign was one of recovering economic prosperity and political stability that experimented, in theory at least, with constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, but which in reality turned out to be a corrupt sham.

Alfonso came to the throne in December 1874 at the age of seventeen, having returned to Spain after an education in Vienna and England, where he had been a cadet at Sandhurst. He was a young man, he was popular with the people, he had the rare gift of a social conscience, and, rarely for a Spanish monarch of those times, he was his own man, he was not influenced by cliques, nobles or powerful politicians. In short, he was a king who was full of promise.

Sadly the promise was never fulfilled, Alfonso died tragically young in 1885, aged only 27. He had suffered from tuberculosis, then called ‘consumption’, but the immediate cause of death was dysentery.

In El Museo de las Bellas Artes his portrait looks across the gallery to his first wife, Maria de las Mercedes.

‘MARIA DE LAS MERCEDES’, 1878

Born in 1860 at the royal palace in Madrid, Maria de las Mercedes of Orleans was the first wife of King Alfonso XII. She was the niece of Queen Isabella II and when Isabella was expelled in 1868 Maria’s family had to go with her. When the family returned to Spain, Maria and young Alfonso began a romance that resulted in their marriage in 1878, when she was seventeen years old. This was the year and probably the occasion for Maria’s portrait.

Soon there was joyful news that Maria was pregnant, but sadly, only a few months later her pregnancy miscarried and Maria died of typhoid two days after her eighteenth birthday. Her marriage to Alfonso had lasted only six months.

Maria de las Mercedes died tragically young, too young to make an impression on the history of Spain. But during her brief ascendency she was a driving force behind the construction of the cathedral of Almudera in Madrid, which was begun in 1879 and not finished until 1993.

‘ISABELLA II’, c.1845

When it came to living the high life, Queen Isabella was in a league of her own. She was born in 1830, the only child of Ferdinand VII who died in 1833 leaving her mother as regent. In 1843 at thirteen years old Isabella was declared to be of age and eligible to reign in her own right.

As a very young queen, in the portrait painted around 1845 when she was fifteen, Isabella is a not an unpleasant-looking young woman, she is pictured standing in front of the Spanish throne with the crown and sceptre on a table by her right hand. On the face of it, as a teenager she could be compared to Queen Victoria when she first came to the throne, but their careers as queens diverged to be poles apart. Like Victoria in her later life, Isabella became plain and fat, but unlike Victoria, Isabella was openly criticised for her coarse appearance and ‘common’ demeanour, and she was anything but virtuous.

Due to her upbringing at court Isabella was politically ignorant, or innocent depending on how you look at it, and she came under the influence of the reactionaries. Her reign was one of political instability, with swings between progress and reaction, with an attempted revolution in 1854. Added to this she had a habit of interfering personally in politics and eventually she only managed to stay on the throne with the support of the army.

Her private life was interesting. She was married in 1846 to her first cousin Francisco de Assisi, who was rumoured to be impotent and homosexual. The rumours were almost certainly true, because Isabella soon embarked on a series of affairs, which is surprising given her unattractive appearance, but then she was the queen. She became notorious for these affairs and it was rumoured that few, if any, of her nine children were actually fathered by her husband. In addition to all this were her dubious financial dealings. By 1868 Spain had had enough of Isabella’s scandalous “bigoted and licentious” ways, so she was banished and she went to France live out her life in exile.

And there we have it, in El Museo de las Bellas Artes, not counting Maria, we have three different monarchs, three very different people who show us that kings and queens are human too.