History of a building, the Palau Reial Major

25 August, 2011 | Unknown City

Paris has got Versailles, Berlin Sanssoucci, Madrid the Palacio de Oriente and London Buckingham Palace. The capitals of large states, in their former golden ages, built majestic palaces as royal residences, to show off their power and wealth. Barcelona too, in its turn. We have the Palau Reial de Pedralbes, the work of Count Güell, which was handed over, at the start of the 20th century, to the Spanish crown, though it has never been a formal residence for any monarch. One building that certainly does have a royal court as well as walls that have seen a great deal of the hustle and bustle of royal government is the Palau Reial Major, in Plaça del Rei. It is here that the counts of Barcelona and Kings of Aragon lived and ruled, until the dynastic union with Castile in the 15th century which resulted in the court’s removal to Madrid.

The Palau Reial Major (so called to distinguish it from the “Menor”, another medieval palace that is no longer extant) is medieval palace that has nothing to do with the architecturally majestic constructions of the modern period mentioned above. There are, of course, no endless gardens or enormous number of halls and rooms. Architecturally austere, the Palau Reial Major is currently one of the few examples of Catalan lay gothic (as opposed to religious gothic, of which we have numerous samples), despite the almost constant changes made to it since its original construction.

The Count-King James I had the old palace altered, giving it, in essence, its present form. His grandson James II built the adjoining Santa Àgata chapel (originally dedicated to St Maria) but it was Peter III “the Ceremonious” who built the Saló del Tinell, the most symbolic space in the palace, and which was the hall for the court, banquets and ceremonies. Later, in the 16th century, when the kings of Aragon and counts of Barcelona ruled from Madrid as the kings of Castile, the Generalitat was called on to construct a residence for the king’s lieutenant in Catalonia, which led to the building of the Palau del Lloctinent, the current headquarters of the Crown of Aragon’s Archives, at the same time of the building of the Torre del Rei Martí was built, attributed to this count, despite the fact he had died over a hundred years before.

It was under these circumstances, in the 16th century, that the Palau Reial Major became the seat of the Santo Oficio, in other words, the Inquisition, in Barcelona, as well as the Royal Audience and Batllia General [Mayor's Office] for almost three centuries. In 1718, the first Bourbon King, Philip V of Spain, gave the building to an order of nuns called the Poor Clares, after the convent of St Clare, in the La Ribera neighbourhood, had been pulled down to build the military citadel on the site that is now Ciutadella park. This change of hands of the palace led to new and successive alterations and additions, such as the construction of the new floors, apparently removing all traces of the count. A restoration carried out in the 1930s returned part of the medieval splendour to the palace, removed a good deal of its Poor Clares’ past and left it much as we find it today, the main headquarters of the Museu d’Història de Barcelona.

We recently visited it and took some of the photos you will find in our Flickr album.