The Patio of the Infanta, Saragossa’s Renaissance Treasure

When British architect Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt traveled to Spain in 1869 to sketch its architectural heritage, the country was in the throes of the Third Carlist War. His illustrated memoirs of the journey, An Architect’s Note Book in Spain, overflows with acid commentaries on the ruinous state of Spain’s historic buildings and monuments and the general backwardness of Spanish society. Regarding the former residence of the Condes de Miranda in the city of Burgos, he noted, “it is now but a half-ruined and entirely dirty lodging house for the lower classes in a poor and neglected part of the city.” In Saragossa, the story was the same; he described the façade of the centrally located exchange building (La Lonja) completed in 1551 as “fine” and “noble,” but was unable to enter and understood it to be abandoned. The Donya Juana and son whose names were engraved on the façade of the Lonja were Juana I (the ill-starred daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella also known as Juana the Mad) and Emperor Carlos V. The Spain of Carlos the Emperor—heart of an empire that  was during long periods ruled from Sicily and extended to faraway lands its ruler would never see—bore little resemblance to the Spain that Wyatt visited in 1869, a country scarred and exhausted by nearly a century of internal power struggles that had begun when the ambitions of another Carlos V (pretender to a crumbling peninsular throne that could claim only vestiges of a once-vast empire) precipitated the first of a series of disastrous civil wars that would bear his name.

It seems that Wyatt’s principal guide to Spanish monuments was the multi-volume Viaje de España, o Cartas en que se da noticia de las cosas mas apreciables y dignas de saberse, que hay en ella, compiled more a century earlier by Antonio Ponz Piquer at the instigation of Pedro Rodríguez de Campomanes for the purpose of cataloging property seized by the state in the wake of the dissolution of the Jesuit order in 1767. Wyatt laconically noted in his book of sketches that Ponz had spoken “with great complacency of the sumptuousness of the houses of Saragossa.” Regarding the highly praised Renaissance palace constructed by the merchant Gabriel Zaporta, he sadly reported, “My sketch sufficiently shows the ‘base uses’ to which the truly palatial Casa de Zaporta or de la Infanta has ‘come at last.’”

The  building was one of a series of extraordinary residences designed around ample central courtyards that were built by Saragossa’s Renaissance elite. Zaporta was one of the city’s most prominent merchants. Born in the municipality of Monzón to a family of “New Christians,” Zaporta appears to have taken full advantage of the financial and political opportunities open to converts during the period, relocating to Saragossa, amassing a substantial fortune in the trade of a wide range of goods between Aragon, Valencia, Castile, France, and Flanders and securing long-term stability through the purchase of “censales,” an early form of public debt that provided a perpetual annuity to investors, was not considered a form of usury, and that could be maintained indefinitely, sold, and even inherited. In 1542 Zaporta acquired a title of nobility and the properties of the Senorío de Valmaña in recognition of a loan for four million reales that the merchant had provided the crown to finance a military campaign in Tunisia. He also held positions of power within the Kingdom of Aragon. For at least five years he held the position of Treasurer-General, and from 1550 until 1569 he repeatedly served the city of Saragossa as jurado municipal (a position created to defend the municipality and its citizens from the overreaching authority of magistrates) and municipal councilor.

The history of Zaporta’s spectacular private and public success stands in stark contrast to those of others who fell foul of the inquisitional authorities of Saragossa. Although other converso families were suspected of playing a role in the assassination of the inquisitor Pedro Arbúes in 1485, there seems to be no record of the Zaporta family being mentioned in connection with the affair. In any case, Zaporta enjoyed royal favor, and the Inquisition was busy stamping out other heresies during the period of Zaporta’s climb up the social ladder. The French and other foreigners were under heavy suspicion of Protestantism and the Inquisition in Aragon was especially zealous in punishing those suspected of committing sodomy or practicing bigamy or witchcraft. Although undertaken in the name of the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition’s work was often fueled by xenophobia, personal grudges, and ignorance. Nevertheless, Zaporta seems to have known how to keep his name and his fortune above the fray of ecclesiastical interference and popular envy. In addition to his palatial home, he also constructed a family funerary chapel in Saragossa’s cathedral (La Seo).

Shortly after his second marriage to Sabina Santángel in 1549, Zaporta undertook a major renovation of his home in Saragossa. The crowning jewel of his efforts was an elaborate two-story courtyard supported by banded columns executed in the Spanish “Plateresque” style. Almost every surface of the structure was covered in sculptural relieves of mythological and historical figures such as Charlemagne, Carlos I, Philip II, and Ferdinand V (“the Catholic”) of Spain, surrounded by Italianate floral decoration and astrological symbols. Courtyards were used in different ways throughout the Mediterranean, depending on the local climate and culture. As opposed to Andalusian garden patios, which echoed traditional Roman and Islamic atriums and were employed as intimate leisure spaces, courtyards in Saragossa were more apt to be used as carriage entrances and were more closely linked with work and business activities. When opened, the wide doorways of the palaces of Saragossa allowed the public an occasional glimpse of their impressive courtyards.

The house was meant to convey a sense of prestige and mark the founding of a local dynasty. However, although Zaporta fathered five children who styled themselves as nobles, rather than merchants, within a few generations the house was sold and changed hands various times until 1789, when it became the home of the Infanta María Teresa de Vallabriga, widow of the Infante Luis Antonio de Borbón, brother of Carlos III. When Wyatt passed through Saragossa in 1869, its connection with the Zaporta family had been largely forgotten and the house was popularly known as the Casa de la Infanta. Over the years the building served as the headquarters of the Real Academía de Bellas Artes de San Luís, housed a conservatory and several schools, and was for a time the municipal social club before being relegated to more industrial uses such a piano factory and a print shop. Ironically, the Real Academy of the Fine Arts of San Luis was founded in 1792 by Manuel Godoy, the son-in-law of the Infanta María de Vallabriga, the building’s most famous tenant. The organization today states its mission as “the defense, conservation, and restoration of all manner of monuments and works of art within the territory of the Autonomous Community of Aragon.” In its failure to rescue the house of Gabriel Zaporta in 1903, the academy fell regrettably short of its professed goals of defending, conserving, and restoring the cultural heritage of Saragossa and Aragon.

By the late 1880s, the building had fallen on what seemed to be irreversibly hard times. Wyatt knew it as a run-down boarding house and reported that many of the arches of the patio “are now closed up in lath and plaster; with a heartless indifference to everything else than getting as much room as possible to let to poor lodgers who swarm this once splendid palace.” Such makeshift alterations and the installation of a carpenter’s workshop on the ground floor converted the once elegant building into a tinderbox. In 1903, after a series of fires and several unsuccessful attempts to find a local buyer, the owners decided to raise the building. By sheer luck, a French antiquarian and collector named Fernand Schutz purchased the courtyard shortly before the demolition for 17,000 pesetas (by my own feeble calculations based on 1900 exchange rates between the Spanish peseta and the American dollar, approximately $2,550), and later reconstructed it on his own property on the Quai Voltaire in Paris. Decades later, art historian and University of Zaragoza professor Guillermo Fatás Cabeza vented his rage at the shortsightedness of the turn-of-the-century “unsophisticated country bumpkins” of Aragon for their lack of preoccupation for the judgments the more discriminating French would be bound to make concerning the lack of cultural awareness on the part of Spaniards, “who, for a few lousy pesetas, allowed foreigners to cart off their art, their history, and their noble heritage.”

Luck struck again when the savings bank IberCaja purchased the courtyard in 1957 for 3 million pesetas and hauled it back to Saragossa. Years later, in 1980, it was reassembled and installed in the bank’s new central office where it shares a space with a fine set of antique tapestries and several paintings by Goya. The Patio of the Infanta has been accessible to the public since its inauguration and serves as an intimate setting for organ recitals that showcase another key piece of IberCaja’s collection: a historic organ constructed by José de Sesma in 1692 lovingly restored by José María Arrizbalaga.