Already in the 15th century, King Juan II of Castile bestowed on the Alvarez de Toledo family, the town of Alba de Tormes. Since then and until now, the heirs have shown loyalty to the Crown and the nation, as well as dedication to preserving the art and culture that has become part of Spain’s national patrimony. They have been rewarded with royal privileges and political and military appointments for their service to the country.
Only a century after the birth of the Duchy, the great Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo had the opportunity to display his excellent military skills courageously defending the interest of his king, Philip II. Additionally, the House of Alba is recognized for its involvement in the collection and preservation of antique archival documents, veritable treasures, such as a beautiful 15th century Bible, sketches of the island of Hispaniola made by Christopher Columbus in 1492, or letters in which the “Chancellery of the Indies” grants coats of arms to Francisco Pizarro, and to the cities of Arequipa and Santiago de Chile.
A large selection of paintings from the Spanish Golden Age are doubtless some of the most valued objects in the collection. The unmistakable brush strokes and elongated faces of El Greco, as well as one of the most important historical Royal portraits: Carlos V and Isabel of Portugal by Peter Paul Rubens; two paintings by Titian featuring the Gran Duke de Alba; Santo Domingo by Zurbarán, and two colorful and luminous landscapes by José de Ribera or Lo Spagnoletto (The little Spaniard), as he was known in Naples, are also part of the collection.
One of the periods of greatest relevance of the Duchy is represented in the portrait of the 13th Duchess of Alba, Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Álvarez de Toledo. Famous worldwide, the painting was commissioned to Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (royal painter of the Court of King Charles IV.
The 13th Duchess died childless; therefore a close relative, the Duke of Berwick inherited her titles and possessions. Thus, Carlos Miguel Fitz-James Stuart y Silva (1794-1835) became the 14th Duke of Alba. His intelligence, culture, and love of travel were the driving forces that led him to add valuable artworks to the collection, such as The Virgin of Granada by Fra Angelico, and Pathway to the Market by Rubens.
The collection also sheds light on the fraternal relations between the Emperors of France and the Duchy of Alba. María Francisca de Sales, who in 1844 married the 15th Duke of Alba, was the sister of Empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III. The close relationship between these sisters promoted the friendship between the two noble couples. After the premature death of the Dukes and the Crown Prince, Empress Eugénie became even closer to her nephews (from the House of Alba), who would later inherit her legacy: a large collection of paintings, decorative arts and historical objects including Napoleon III’s desk and some of the vessels and paintings that decorated his residence.
Other important pieces in the collection include portraits of the parents of the 18th Duchess of Alba: Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falcó, 12th Duke of Alba, and Rosario de Silva y Gurtubay, Marchioness of San Vicente del Barco. The death of Duchess Rosario hastened the education of her young daughter, Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, 18th Duchess of Alba, who continued the work of conservation, study, recovery, and expansion of her rich heritage until her death in 2014. The 18th Duchess’ contributions to the artistic legacy of the House of Alba began with the introduction of masterpieces from the impressionists and modernists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (so scarce in Spanish private collections), works by Renoir, Corot, Picasso, and Miró. Additionally, and in accordance with what she learned from her father, she also supported the constant development of music and the opera in her country. ■