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Pedro de Tapia, lord of the manor and Plaza Mayor

A picture by an unknown artist of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid in 1623.
A picture by an unknown artist of the Plaza Mayor in Madrid in 1623. / SUR
  • The only book of poetry written by Cervantes is dedicated to the son of the royal advisor in an attempt to curry favour and obtain his patronage

  • The fourth centenary of one of the most important works in 17th century Madrid has revealed new information about the man who founded Villanueva de Tapia

Madrigal de las Altas Torres and Villanueva de Tapia have a great deal in common. The former, in Ávila, was the birthplace of Pedro de Tapia y Rivera in the second half of the 16th century; he is known in history for his close links with the crown, his position as a lawyer and senior civil servant and for overseeing one of the most important civil projects in Madrid in the 17th century: the demolition of the Plaza Vieja and the construction of the present Plaza Mayor.

Villanueva de Tapia, the village in the north of Malaga province, was purchased by De Tapia from Felipe III for 12,000 ducats, to satisfy his longing to become a lord of the manor, which was one of the highest ranks of the nobility at that time.

This was largely unknown until last year, during preparations to mark the fourth centenary of the construction of the Playa Mayor in Madrid (1617-1619). There is a plaque dedicated to Pedro de Tapia on one side of the square; the Centre of Madrid Studies (CEM) decided to find out more about him and went to Madrid historian Isidoro Otero, who has published numerous articles in specialist magazines about the founder of Villanueva de Tapia.

Otero says Pedro de Tapia became “a key player in the 'Madrid de los Austrias' [Madrid of the Austrians or Habsburgs]”, and that it all started from his career as a jurist, a profession which led him to travel all over Spain.

“He studied law in Valladolid, and after that he had a splendid 'cursus honorum', and a spectacular climb up the professional ladder,” Otero says. De Tapia began as a judge of the chancelleries - the old law courts - in Madrid and then Valladolid and Granada. During his time in Andalucía he met Clara del Rosal, who would later become his wife.

“He became the warden of Loja castle and held an important position in society, but it wasn't enough: he wanted to be lord over vassals, in other words to join the gentry,” explains Otero.

In order to do that he would need to own land, and it was then that he discovered a place that was the subject of dispute between the House of Iznájar and the House of Osuna.

This area, known as Entredicho, did not officially belong to any municipality, so he told Felipe III, to whom he was senior adviser, that he would like to buy it. Thanks to his close relationship with the king, he was able to obtain the land and then the jurisprudence for a bargain price. By 1605, De Tapia was the lord of the manor which now bore his name, imparted justice and collected taxes from all the agricultural production on the land.

Once in the comfortable position as Lord of Villanueva de Tapia, he was given a very special commission by Felipe III. Previously, the Duke of Lerma had persuaded the king to move the capital city to Valladolid, in what was really just a major speculation operation.

This lasted for a few years, but then the monarch decided to move the court back to Madrid again. However, he missed the Plaza Mayor in the town of Pisuegra, so in 1617 he ordered the Plaza Vieja in Madrid to be demolished and the present Plaza Mayor to be built. De Tapia came onto the scene as the project director, which shows how highly the king thought of him.

The whole of this ambitious project was placed in the hands of this man who had founded the village in Malaga. He chose Juan Gómez de Mora, one of the most highly valued designers in the early years of Spanish Baroque, as the architect.

“The square is all down to him, but the only tribute to him is the plaque,” says Otero. The idea was that all the city's important events would take place in the Plaza Mayor. “These squares were to Baroque what the amphitheatres were to ancient Greece or football stadiums are now; they are where the power was instrumentalised.”

Thanks to De Tapia's project management, this square in Madrid became an example for other major cities in Spain and Europe.

Patronage

Isidoro Otero explains that most writers in Spain's Golden Age sought the favour of high-ranking officials, of whom Pedro de Tapia was one. The best example of this is the only work of poetry produced by Cervantes, which he dedicated to the official's son, Rodrigo de Tapia, because he wanted his father's favour.

De Tapia also knew Lope de Vega, who refers to him in several works, and came under scrutiny by Juan de Tassis, Count of Villamediana. The critic, who was “the stone in the monarchy's shoe” attacked Pedro de Tapia in a satirical poem because of his privileged position.

De Tapia never lived in his village, although he is said to have paid short courtesy visits from time to time. Nevertheless, these days Villanueva de Tapia, in Malaga province, has reason to be proud of its prestigious beginnings.