Postcard from Toulouse, France: A far from humble home for city’s leaders

Above: Under renovation this past fall, the distinctive pink brick Neoclassical facade of the Capitole stretches across the entire eastern side of an impressive plaza.

The city government of Toulouse has headquartered itself on the same expansive plaza since the 12th century.

In the early 16th century, the people of Toulouse lived in fear of invasion by Spanish forces under the flag of King Charles V (1500-1556). The threat was ongoing because Charles V was at constant war somewhere on the continent as he tried to defend his multiple titles in a far-flung Hapsburg Empire. Charles simultaneously was King in Germany, King of Italy and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This powerful threat inspired city leaders to build what is now the oldest remaining governmental portion of its Capitole compound, a brick tower designed to protect the city’s archives and gunpowder. The tower often is referred to as Le Donjon, or The Keep. Le Donjon’s centuries newer belfry was added by the architect known for remodeling Notre Dame in Paris, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879).

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Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: If a resident peacock fanned his tail inside Real Alcazar, would anyone even notice?

According to traditional Western norms of design, seemingly incongruous combinations of floor-to-ceiling colors, textures and materials create a remarkable feast for the eyes in the Alcazar Palace.

In 913, in what had been the ancient Roman city of Hispalis, the ruling Caliph of Cordoba ordered the center of government be established on this site. His successors further embellished the palace and expanded it toward the Guadalquivir River.

When the Castilians under Ferdinand III (1199-1252) gained control of the territory in 1248, portions, but not quite all, of the original palace were lost as Christian rulers sought to imprint their taste and traditions onto the site.

Pedro I (1334-1369), either called Pedro el Cruel or Pedro el Justo depending on which version of history one sides, had a lot of complications in his life. In addition to those continually and violently contesting his throne, Pedro as a young ruler was coerced into several arranged politically advantageous marriages despite his obvious love of Maria de Padilla (1334-1361).

Before Pedro’s half-brother, Henry II of Castile (1334-1379) dealt him fatal blows, Pedro made extensive use of the talented artisans and craftsmen on hand in Sevilla to build a palace luxurious enough for him and his mistress. The Mudejar alterations resulting from the Moorish architects employed by the Christian king produced handsome results.

The Alcazar’s contradicting yet complimentary architectural styles represent an evolutionary melding of royal whims from 11th-century Moors through 13th-century Gothic, 14th-century Mudejar and the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. The ruling Bourbons made further architectural alterations to suit their 19th-century tastes and residential requirements.

Real Alcazar is where Queen Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504) contracted with Christopher Columbus to finance his explorations. The palace was the setting chosen for Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) to meet and marry Isabella of Portugal (1503-1539) in 1526. Today, portions of the palace still function as an official royal residence of the Spanish monarchy.

In addition to actual history-making events, the palace and grounds of Real Alcazar have lent their magical atmosphere to diverse film and television projects from Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 to several seasons of Game of Thrones.

And lo, the azulejos. What tiles are found throughout.

Postcard from Turin, Italy: How royals gave the city a French accent

Statue of Emanuele Filiberto (1528-1580), Duke of Savoy

Marriages among the titled in Europe generally had larger ramifications than the immediate household.

Once upon a time, the House of Savoy ruled over an Alpine region northwest of Italy, primarily now part of France. In 1051, Otto of Savoy (1023?-1060?) wed Adelaide, a marchioness whose titles brought Turin (Torino) under the House of Savoy.

The land that would eventually become Italy was a battleground in a constant tug of war between France and Spain between 1494 and 1559. When Emanuele Filiberto (1528-1580) inherited the title of the Duke of Savoy in 1553, he found himself somewhat turf-less. Turin was under French control.

Already known as “Testa d’fer” (“Ironhead”) for his early military service to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) (Charles I of Spain), Emanuele continued to serve the Habsburgs. Emanuele chose sides wisely. The seasoned soldier led the forces of Spanish King Philip II (1527-1598) to a victory at the Battle of Saint Quentin in northern France on the feast day of Saint Lawrence (of the grill) in 1557.

Gradually regaining the former Savoy kingdom from Spain and France [no doubt assisted by his marriage to Margaret (1523-1574), Duchess of Berry and the sister of King Henry II of France (1519-1559)], Emanuele made Turin the capital.

Bishop Domenico Della Rovere (?-1587) had commissioned a palace there as his residence and had the Cathedral of San Giovanni erected next door in 1498. Emanuele made the Bishop’s Palace his own. The Bishop’s Palace was hardly large enough to accommodate the needs of the ruling family, so Emanuele and his successors continually added wings and additional structures. The current fa├žade of Palazzo Reale addressing the sweeping Piazza Castello was the result of an ambitious construction project launched by Regent Maria Christina (1606-1663), a daughter of King Henry IV (1553-1610) of France and the widow of Vittorio Amedeo I di Savoia (1587-1637).

The domed Baroque Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Cappella della Sacra Dinone, was built adjacent to the Cathedral and the Royal Palace at the end of the 15th century during the reign of Carlo Emanuele II (1634-1675). The cherished cloth some claim bears the image of Jesus came into the possession of the House of Savoy in 1453. The relic was damaged by a fire in a chapel in the Savoy’s earlier capital before Carlo Emanuel moved it to Turin.

A major fire again threatened the shroud in 1997, with firefighters smashing its bulletproof glass to spare it. The renovated chapel was not reopened until this past fall, so the shroud itself was tucked away out of sight during our summer visit.

Successive Savoy rulers of the Kingdom of Sardinia resided in the Palazzo Reale until 1865. Victor Emanuele II (1820-1878) , the newly crowned King of Italy, moved out of the residence shortly after commissioning architect Domenico Ferri (1795-1878) to add the elegant Grand Staircase of Honor to the interior.

The Italian Republic claimed ownership of the Royal Palace and its grounds in 1946, and the extensive compound now is operated as Musei Reali Torino.

When Emanuele Filiberto made Turin the official capital of Savoy, he also turned his back on some of the family’s French connections by proclaiming Italian the official language of the kingdom. While he changed the spoken tongue, the architecture and design of Turin never lost a strong French accent.