At first glance, the exterior of Palacio Borrell might not take your breath away. Not instantly perhaps. But it will sure catch your eye. Its bright green façade and ornate iron work on the windows and balcony balustrade, painted in the whitest white, do indeed draw attention, especially when it’s been restored to immaculate perfection and positively gleams under the sun.
You might say that its dimensions (not that they´re modest in any way, nor can this house be described as small in any sense) and one-story structure (with the exception of a small tower extension on the left-hand corner) don´t make it look much like a palace per se, but rather a grand mansion, and you´d be right. It is an exquisite mini-palace, so special in fact that it was carefully restored time and time again by its successive owners.
But it´s also been subject to a number of dubious speculations, dark rumours and abundant hear ‘say throughout the years. Here we re-tell its turbulent past.
Wealth, opulence and the devil´s work
Don Jose Mariano Borrell y Padron, the Marquis of Guaimaro, was one of the most prominent figures in Cuban aristocracy of the 18th and 19th century. He struck gold in Trinidad during the booming years of Cuba´s lucrative sugar industry and after amassing a fortune as one of the great sugar barons of the turn of the century, his son, the Marquis Mariano Borrell y Lemus stood to inherit his legacy and his wealth. The title of Marquis he earned himself after becoming the most powerful man in the city. It was given to him by the Spanish crown on 5th June, oddly enough the same month and day as his death (minus the year). He died only four years later at 51 years old, only three years after writing his will.
So wealthy were the Borrell, that they were also behind the construction of grander mansions in Trinidad like Palacio Cantero (now housing the Museo Prinicipal de Trinidad) and Palacio Brunet (known today as Museo Romantico), without a shadow of a doubt the city´s two most exquisite architectural time pieces. Only the Palacio Iznaga (currently under renovation) can be compared to these beauties in terms of size and design. Oh, and the first Borrell didn’t just stop at that, he also owned the Plaza Mayor (yes, all of it) and all other properties that derived from the building of the church “Iglesia Parroquial Mayor”. How did he come to be so exorbitantly rich as to be able to buy entire squares, and almost an entire town? His sugar plantation (a.k.a. Ingenio Guaimaro) was the highest producing in the world in 1827 and by 1830 (the time of his death) it was valued at 459,527 pesos.
Getting back to the affluent Borrell family, after the first Borrell´s passing in 1830, the opulent Palacio Cantero came to be in the possession of his eldest son, also named Jose Mariano after his father, but he wanted a home of his own, one built by himself, according to his taste and specifications. Hence, the idea for the new Palacio Borrell was born. Borrell bought a house on the corner of Calle Media Luna and transformed it into his very own mini palace. He upgraded its exterior and enriched its interiors with exquisite murals painted by Daniel Dal´Aglio y Graude, a distinguished Italian architect and painter of the times, whom he brought down to Cuba specifically to complete the works on his new house.
Admired by the Trinitarian society as well as far and wide in the island, such murals made headlines in local newspapers and were the talk of town. Simply put, there was nothing quite like it in the city. Sadly, not all the murals stand today, as some could not be rescued during various renovations works that took place many decades after, especially not one infamous painting, as the wall where it once stood was demolished before anyone could photograph its paranormal qualities.
I´m talking about a depiction of the devil, a wall painting allegedly commissioned by Borrell himself and the source of spooky tales. It was said that he had made a pact with the devil and ordered a painting of its liking in one of the house´s rooms. Upon his death, his descendants and the house´s subsequent owners unsuccessfully tried to paint over it, to no avail it seems, as the diabolic image would resurface time and time again.
Betrayal, retribution and oddly enough…compensation
Maybe that pact with the devil worked well for Borrell, at least for some time. One day as he rode his horse through his sugar estate a slave shot him five times, failing to hit any of his vital organs. It seemed the devil had his back, for once at least, because even after receiving five bullets (four on the chest and one on the left arm) he still managed to shoot the slave in the knee and drag him to Trinidad, where, in the presence of witnesses, he made him confess that his wife and second son, Federico Eduardo, (oddly enough his firstborn renounced to his title in favour of his younger brother) were behind the attack and had paid the slave to murder him. Upon the slave´s confession Borrell disinherited his son and imprisoned his wife, eventually adding a clause to his will that would forbid his children to have any form of contact with their mother for as long as they were minors as he feared she could plot to kill them to inherit the fortune.
He became so distrustful of others and of their coveting of his money (he was after all the town’s wealthiest man) that after this event legend goes that he decided to bury his fortune in “botijas” full of ounces of gold and distribute then in various of his rural and urban properties. It was said that during these treasure burials, after entering his bounty he also killed off and buried the two slaves that dug the hole in order to keep the place a secret that no one could pass on. A story dripping in blood indeed.
But it seems Borrell wasn´t as evil as many thought, or not wholly evil at least, his vindictiveness against his wife was justified to say the least. She did plot to assassinate him after all. And he made up for the alleged killing (no one can say this was true) of slaves by leaving generous amounts of money to some of them in his will, as well as setting others and their children free.
Now, regarding the buried bounty, an incident in the 1920s added fire to the speculation when someone dug out a gold-filled "botija" after lifting some bricks in the kitchen of Don Mariano´s slaves, in a house adjacent to his former residence. So, it appears that ever since this astounding discovery the legend lives on and to the day there are some people in Trinidad who still believe that parts of Borrell´s treasure still lies around the city, waiting for someone to dig it out.
The mansion – what to look out for in Palacio Borrell (devil´s marking aside)
Carefully refurbished to return it to its former glory, the Borrell mansion is not an easy one to overlook in its street. It started off as the residence of Agustin Bustillos who built it between 1805 and 1820 when the boom of the sugar trade kickstarted the urbanisation of the area of "Calvario Viejo" in Trinidad. During the second quarter of the 19th century it was remodelled and expanded by priest Don Tomas Jose Munoz. A few years later, around 1850, the heir to the Borrell fortune bought it to transform it into his very own family palace, to some very specific details.
The most astounding feature of his home, as mentioned earlier, were the impressive mural works carried out on the walls of his spacious living room. These exquisite paintings were commissioned to a famed Italian artist of the times, and took almost a decade to complete. The paintings took over the entire main hall with murals work adorning every wall, from floor to ceiling, with European-style neoclassical and romantic themes. His was, hands down, one of the country’s most beautiful living rooms.
Most of these murals can still be admired today, others were lost with the passage of time and the demolition of some walls (namely the one that the devil refused to vacate) but Borrell’s infamous house remains as entrancing and captivating as ever, its murals stoically defying the erosion of time and astonishing restorers for their amazing conservation next to arches and staircases.
You’ll find it on Media Luna, 18, esquina Galdos, a cobblestone passage that’s as charming as they get in time-warped town. Drop by during your next stop in Cuba’s and feel the energy, secrets and haunting power of the former mansion of the Marquis of Guaimaro, Knight of Catalunya, Military Colonel of the Four Villas and Great Cross Order of Isabella the Catholic. He died died young at 51, not knowing how long his estranged wife, the first Marquise of Guaimaro would remain imprisoned within the thick walls of the "Antiguo Cuartel de Dragones", which nowadays stands as Trinidad’s Academy of Arts.