Just to the north of the A-2 motorway, now surrounded by Madrid's eastern sprawl, there is a jewel of a romantic fantasy garden, a remarkably preserved monument to 18th-century taste, the Capricho de la Alameda de Osuna. Within its 14 hectares is an artificial river leading between lakes, woods, rose gardens, mock temples and a whole range of cool, surprising corners. The gardens were begun in the 1780s for the Duke and Duchess of Osuna, the most cultivated couple among the Spanish aristocracy of their day, enthusiastic promoters of the ideas and enquiring spirit of the Enlightenment and great patrons of the artists, writers and musicians of their day. The Capricho was their country estate, and under the direction of the Duchess became a special combination of salon and pleasure garden. In the 1790s an invitation to spend a day there was the hottest ticket in Madrid, for both the aristocracy and the intelligentsia.
The Capricho has been called 'the essence of a feminine garden', and its design closely reflected the Duchess's personal taste. Her main architect was Jean-Baptiste Mulot, a French gardener who had previously worked for Marie-Antoinette, although much of the Capricho is in the English style, with simulated natural landscapes between smaller formal gardens. An Italian theatre designer, Angelo Maria Borghini, was brought in to construct many of the Capricho's fanciful buildings. Wandering visitors were to be surprised and delighted by a succession of different ambiences: from secluded alcoves to broad vistas; from the tranquillity of boat rides on the lakes out to tiny artificial islands to sampling the simple life at the Casa de la Vieja, a mock peasants' cottage. Also waiting to be discovered were replica Greek and Egyptian temples, a ballroom, an open-air theatre and the Abejero and even an ornate beehive in the shape of a classical temple. Within the Capricho the Osunas' aristocratic friends, men and women, could mingle with artists and intellectuals and talk freely, whether of gossip or great ideas, in an atmosphere that was very different from the paralysing etiquette of the royal court. New poems were read, and operas and music performed: Haydn was a favourite composer. This liberal informality encouraged by the Duchess - already deeply suspect for her 'French' ideas - also soon led to unstoppable rumours that far more illicit activities were going on among the Capricho's intimate arbours than just chat.
The Duke and Duchess of Osuna were also among the first important patrons of Goya, and their support played a major part in winning him acceptance among high society. Among the several paintings that Goya produced for the Osunas' house at El Capricho were two oddities, the Aquelarre ('Witches' Sabbath') and Escena de Brujas ('Witchcraft Scene') - both now in the Museo Lázaro Galdiano - precursors of his later macabre, sensual paintings, which could indicate a more decadent taste in the Duke and Duchess alongside their more celebrated Enlightenment rationalism. The Capricho is also famous as the place where Goya, then aged 40, met the 23-year-old Duchess of Alba, in 1786, and so where his obsession with her began. Scandalous and impulsive, known for breaking whichever social conventions suited her, dressing as a Madrid maja or street girl and having a string of male escorts from aristocrats to bullfighters, the Duchess of Alba was nevertheless a good friend of the high-minded Duchess of Osuna, and a frequent visitor to El Capricho.
The gardens were badly knocked about by Napoleon's troops - who also shot the head gardener, the French émigré Pierre Prévost - but were later reclaimed by the Duchess of Osuna, who lived on there until her death, aged 82, in 1834. El Capricho then suffered decades of decay and occasional destruction - during the Civil War - before it became the property of the city of Madrid, in the 1970s.