Meet The Montalvos: The First Global Family

From the 15th century to the 20th, one Spanish family has left an indelible mark on history across the world, from Florence to Havana

Hugh Thomas

500 years of influence: A 1533 edition of “Amadís de Gaula”, an old story which had been rewritten by Garci Rodriguez di Montalvo

One of the most international families in history were the Montalvos of Medina del Campo, in Castile. They were important in Florence in the golden days of the Medici. Another Montalvo inspired and rewrote one of Spain’s most famous novels, Amadís de Gaula. Finally, several Montalvos went to Cuba, where they were rich, influential and interesting in a country of which I once wrote a history.

Last year, I was walking in Florence in an easterly direction towards Santa Croce and its lovely Giottos. I was in the street known as the Borgo degli Albizi, which the guidebook describes as a “caracteristica strada fancheggiata da numerose belle costruzioni”. I had walked along this noble promenade some 50 yards before I came upon by chance a one-time palace of the Pazzi family, reconstructed in 1568 by the architect Ammanati for a favourite of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de’ Medici. And who was this favourite? A young Spaniard who had come to Florence as a page in the train of Eleonora di Toledo, the daughter of the viceroy of Naples, then under Spanish rule, who would marry the Grand Duke Cosimo. The page was Antonio Ramírez de Montalvo.

This young man was born in Arévalo, in Castile, in 1527, the son of Juan Ramírez and María Gómez Arévalo de  Montalvo. He probably began to work for the Cardinal de Toledo and then for his niece Eleonora, who became Grand Duchess of Florence and Tuscany after her marriage with Cosimo, the first Grand Duke. Antonio Ramírez de Montalvo was given the palazzo in the Borgi de Albizzi in the 1560s when the Grand Duke Cosimo was already quite elderly.

Other treasures fell to him: first a house just outside Florence near what is now Campi Bisenzio, now known as the Villa Montalvo, a handsome building on two storeys surrounded by a vineyard. It is now a public library. Then Montalvo was given a castle called Orlandi and land near Livorno in the tiny commune of Sassetta, where between 1563 and 1571 he built an ample palace. There he had in the end a large family, including Juan Anna, who became Duchess of Mondragone, and Garzia, a son who concerned himself with the education of the illegitimate children of the Grand Duke, such as Virginia and Pietro. Antonio himself died in 1581. The last Ramírez de Montalvo died in 1829.

Near Florence there is still a convent founded by a descendant of Ramírez de Montalvo, Eleonora, who died in 1659 (the Convento delle Montalve alla Quiete). This is close to Careggi, one of the finest Medicean villas. A friend of mine remembers hearing of “the little Montalvos”, girls from the convent school, being summoned thus by their teacher.

So courtiers and convents were the contribution of the Montalvos in Italy. What happened to them in Spain?

At some time in the late 1490s or just possibly the early 1500s a new edition of the old novel Amadís de Gaul was put together and published. The publisher in 1508 was Coci in Zaragoza, and the earliest edition which we have comes from there — it is in the British Library in London. I have read that edition myself. That romantic work of chivalry was one of the supreme literary successes of the 16th century, being published in all the main European languages, including French, German, Italian, English, Dutch and Portuguese and Spanish as well as Hebrew.

And what was the connection with the Montalvos? It is that, having probably been first written at the end of the 13th century, it was rewritten at the end of the 15th by a town councillor of Medina del Campo whose name was, yes, Montalvo — to be precise, Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo. This edition was the critical one because of the invention of printing. Montalvo’s was the first generation able to read it in a popular publication. After religious texts and scientific ones, chivalrous novels had swept the market in all European countries, Spain not least.

The book, I should say, introduced readers of the 16th century to a heroic knight, Amadís, a love child of the King of Gaul who has fallen in love with Oriana, a daughter of the King of Great Britain, Lisuarte. Great Britain, remember, not England; though in 1500 “Great Britain” was a fictional place of fantasy. Am I saying that the concept “Great Britain” was invented by a Montalvo? Why not? 

Amadís is not only the epitome of all the virtues but is very successful as a warrior. He kills everyone who opposes him, fighting both as a knight errant and as commander of an army. He is, of course, faithful to his delightful lady Oriana, to whom he eventually gives a son called Esplandián. Since Amadís’s birth was never acknowledged by anyone in authority, he has to travel the world and so prove himself — engaging in duels, carrying out rescues, killing monsters and evil knights as well as capturing enchanted islands.

Two houses of this author, in Medina del Campo, are plainly to be seen today. At that time, Medina del Campo was the centre of the most elaborate market or fair in Spain. There is a fine small museum dedicated to the theme of the fair. Rodríguez de Montalvo was a regidor or councillor of the city, and relatives of his were in similar municipal positions in nearby places. Another regidor in those far-off days was the father of another famous writer, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, author of one of the very best chronicles of the American conquests, whose family had a house in Medina del Campo within walking distance of the Montalvos.

The reconstruction of that immensely successful book Amadís de Gaul was surely the most remarkable achievement of this great Castilian family. But they had another triumph to their credit. In 1734, about 150 years after the emigration of Antonio Ramírez de Montalvo to Florence, another member of that great family went to Cuba. This was Lorenzo Montalvo, who had the office of commissar of the Navy. He bought for $33,000 a large property at Macuriges, about 20 miles south of the port of Matanzas. In 1755 he took over the so-called Havana monopoly company. In 1762, when Havana was captured by the British under Lord Albemarle and his brothers, Lorenzo Montalvo collaborated with the conquerors. This conquest led immediately to the arrival on the island of a large fleet of English merchants bringing grain, linen, cloths of different sorts and dealers in sophisticated modern sugar equipment (such as machetes, cauldrons and new ladles), not to speak of slaves, horses and food. Some 700 merchant ships entered the port of Havana during the 11 months of English occupation of that city. About 20 were slave ships. The Cuban oligarchy which had remained in the island during the British occupation of the western end of it became exceedingly rich. Several were ennobled. That included Montalvo, who became Conde de Macuriges in 1765.

One of the sons of the first Conde de Macuriges was Ignacio who was a pioneer of the so-called Jamaican Train. He was also a founder of the enlightened association named the Society of the Friends of the People; and he visited England. Ignacio, like his father, became a count, el Conde de Casa Montalvo, in 1779. A few years later, in 1788, with another enlightened merchant nobleman, Francisco de Arango, he went to England to discover how the English ran their slave trade so effectively. Then a daughter of this Ignacio, María Teresa, married Joaquín Beltrán de Santa Cruz, Conde de Jaruco, who was the first sugar planter to use a steam powered sugar mill in Cuba. Her daughter, a Montalvo by surname, in turn was the famous and charming María de las Mercedes who married a French general, the Comte de Merlin, and herself wrote a delightful book of memoirs, La Havana, published in Paris in 1844.

We find other Montalvos in 20th-century Cuba. They were ministers until the dictatorship of Batista, overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959. Juan Montalvo became Secretary of the Interior under President Menocal; Carlos Miguel Montalvo was Minister of Education under President Machado; Rafael Montalvo was Minister of the Interior under Batista; and María de la Esperanza Montalvo married Julio Lobo, the last of the great Cuban sugar millionaires. Is there a family who can beat this internationalism? I doubt it.

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