Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature
or

I had always naively assumed that the Count of Xiquena, who gave his name to a small street behind the Financial Times office in Madrid, was as exotic as his title suggests: impoverished and with a dusty cloak perhaps, but surely noble, romantic and wielding his sword in the face of cruel enemies in the Middle Ages.

Alas, a little research suggests he was about as exotic as Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare. Like the UK’s Lord Archer, the Count of Xiquena was a politician, albeit in the 19th century, and twice held the post of minister of public works. As for Xiquena, if you believe Google Maps, it is the site of a petrol station on the A92 motorway in Andalusia, although there is also a ruined castle of that name in Murcia.

After swallowing this bitter dose of reality, I was glad be reminded that there is still one surviving Spanish aristocrat who can make the front pages of the world’s gossip magazines with no more than a coy glance from under her shock of frizzy, white hair.

Amid the everyday routine of Spanish news – peace in the Basque country, earthquakes in the Canary Islands, the gravest economic crisis in a generation – the 85-year-old Duquesa de Alba commands the rapt attention of Madrid’s chattering classes, exciting scorn and admiration in equal measure. She usually achieves this through the antics of her six children from two previous marriages, or by posing at the beach in a bikini. But two weeks ago it was her marriage to Alfonso Diez, a civil servant 24 years her junior, and her impromptu flamenco dance afterwards that generated headlines.

The contrast was delicious: he, a €1,500-a-month bureaucrat in an obscure department of the National Institute of Social Security; she, billionaire aristocrat and socialite, with lands, castles and paintings by Goya and Velázquez to her name.

The Duchess of Alba – her full name is too long to quote but begins with María del Rosario Cayetana and ends with Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart, Silva, Falcó y Gurtubay – boasts at least 50 titles, more than anyone in the world. Absurd as some of the titles may seem, they are no more controversial than those inherited or awarded under the British honours system.

Neither Francisco Franco, the late dictator, nor the current King Juan Carlos can be accused of being overly generous with dukedoms or marquisates, and not everyone advertises them. (Vicente del Bosque, made a marquis for managing the Spanish team that won football’s World Cup last year, should technically be addressed as ilustrísimo, or most illustrious.)

The baffling thing about Spain is not the titles themselves but title-overlap. Students of 17th century Spanish history will recall “Count-Duke of Olivares”. Could he not decide which? I always assumed he was in a sort of halfway-house to a dukedom, but it turns out he was both duke and count, of different places.

The Duchess of Alba beats both him and the Count of Xiquena into their cocked hats. She is seven times a duchess, 19 times a marchioness, 23 times a countess and once a viscountess. And there are no prizes for guessing who is the current Countess-Duchess of Olivares.

Aristocrat to fat cat

Except among a few die-hard republican leftists, there is little animosity in Spain towards the country’s residual aristocrats or the newly ennobled. The same cannot be said of the fat cat bosses of some regional savings banks, whose self-enrichment before their institutions collapsed into the arms of the official bank rescue fund has shocked even cynical bankers.

The scandal is not just that some directors of savings banks such as NovaCaixaGalicia and Caja Mediterráneo (Cam) awarded themselves millions in salaries, early retirement packages and pensions. No, the reason they risk becoming public hate figures is that several seem to have done so at a time when institutions they had mismanaged were headed for financial ruin. Cam, which lent billions to property developers, homebuyers and a theme park called Terra Mítica (Land of Legend) will probably end up costing the taxpayer at least €2.8bn.

In the next round of honours, perhaps one of Cam’s ex-bosses should be made Conde-Duque de Terra Mítica to commemorate their contribution to the nation. Or maybe a simple pair of donkey’s ears – the Spanish equivalent of a dunce’s cap – would do.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
myFT

Follow the topics mentioned in this article