In front of the Iglesia del Carmen, near the centre of Murcia City are the Floridablanca Gardens. It is well worthwhile simply walking through them if you are going to the city centre from the direction of the railway station, rather than just continuing along the roadside.
The gardens are not particularly extensive and are of a simple rectangular shape. They nevertheless form a very pleasant oasis in the urban environment and there are plenty of seats in them on which to sit if you wish. These were the first public gardens to be opened in Spain in 1848 (though there was a late 18th Century predecessor) and are said to exhibit the philosophy of a Moorish garden design with flower beds in line and the sound of running water. They are named after the politician, jurist and economist, José Moñino y Redondo, the Count of Floridablanca (note his 1849 statue in the gardens) who was a Prime Minister of King Charles III and King Charles IV and a promoter of the development of the Carmen district.
José Moñino was born on 21st October 1728, the son of a noble family by then in somewhat reduced circumstances. His father worked in the service of the Church and José Moniño was baptized in the Iglesia de San Bartolomé. He was subsequently educated at the Seminario de San Fulgencio and went on to the University of Santo Domingo in Orihuela. Orihuela was, in fact, a minor university which had been founded in the early 18th Century to educate students for the priesthood and Civil Service. These minor universities were intensely disliked by their grander, older counterparts and were dissolved in 1807. If this was not enough, the young José Moniño went to Orihuela as a student of acknowledged ‘modest means’ which would have marked him out among his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he obtained his legal qualification and went to Madrid in 1748, where he became a noted lawyer and established close links with a number of other reform-minded individuals who, however, had some influence.
By 1766 he had become the Chief Crown Prosecutor (or ‘fiscal’) of the Consejo de Castilla. This stood him in very good stead when he was able to take a leading role in the trials which followed the Esquilache Mutiny of that year, defending the King’s position. This mutiny is popularly regarded as having arisen as a result of the efforts by one of Charles III’s Ministers, the Italian Marquis of Esquilache, to enforce new dress rules banning certain traditional forms of Spanish dress (large hats and long capes). In fact, these new rules were not as strange as they may at first sight appear. There was a problem of banditry with weapons being commonly hidden under such apparel! Nor is this altogether the underlying reason for the uprising. There had been three years of bad harvests and, if the riots began in Madrid, they spread to a large number of other cities, but with the price of bread a prime factor, Esquilache was dispatched back to Italy! Thereafter, Floridablanca’s career took off. He became Ambassador in Rome to the Vatican in 1772 and was instrumental in getting Pope Clement XIV to suppress the Jesuit movement, for which Charles III bestowed the title of Count of Floridablanca upon him. In fact, the title of Floridablanca itself relates to José Moniño’s family estate in Murcia.
In 1776, the King appointed our famous Murcian to be his Secretary of State and took him into his close confidence. In this position, the Count, effectively became what we would now recognize as Prime Minister, a post which he held for 16 years (no inconsiderable feat!) during which time he introduced many innovative reforms in line with the Age of Enlightenment. One Spanish source describes the creation under Floridablanca of the Supreme Junta – a Council of Ministers – as the most important of all the administrative reforms. Of course, the Council reported to the King, but under Floridablanca’s leadership, it settled conflicts between Ministers and dealt with issues crossing individual responsibilities. It was clearly a forerunner of what we regard today as Cabinet Government.
As Prime Minister, it is said that Floridablanca, supported the building of over 2000 kilometres of roads, canals and irrigation systems as well as modernising the credit system, liberalising prices, reforming education and ending many restraints to trade. In 1782, he caused the forerunner of the Bank of Spain to be established. He was also very active in foreign policy and supported the American colonists in their rebellion against British rule in the American War of Independence, at the end of which Spain recovered Florida and Menorca from Britain. He even established diplomatic relations with Turkey.
Nothing, however, lasts for ever. Charles III died in 1788 and was succeeded by his son Charles IV, to whom he recommended Floridablanca. Charles IV, who has often been characterized by historians as lazy, took his father’s advice, but was unable to preserve Spain’s relative prosperity, though the effects of the French Revolution were undoubtedly a major influence. Floridablanca was also profoundly influenced by what was happening in France and, despite his reformist credentials, he determined to keep the Spanish public ignorant of events there through censorship of publications.
Unfortunately, time and the tide had now turned against Floridablanca and, after 16 years, in 1792, he was removed from his position. He was accused of corruption and abuse of power and was even imprisoned in Pamplona until 1795. Maybe also his past had caught up with him. At the time of his first appointment as Secretary of State in 1776, this man from a relatively humble background had overtaken the aspirations of the Count of Aranda and his aristocratic supporters to leave them without real power and representation in Government and he introduced what could be characterized as a lengthy period of bourgeois reform. Dominance now lay with a group known as the ‘golillas’ (a golilla is a magistrate’s collar or ruff). It was Aranda who finally had his revenge and replaced Floridablanca in 1792, albeit for only a short period.
Even so, despite having been at the head of Government for 16 years, having been imprisoned and already approaching 70 years of age, Floridablanca was not finished. Once released from prison, he returned to his native Murcia in retirement. Unfortunately, Spain’s history took a turn for the worse as the country became embroiled in French affairs and ultimately, after successive abdications by Charles IV and his son Ferdinand VII, in 1808 Napoleon placed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne. Spain was effectively now involved in a war of independence and, at the age of 80, José Moniño, the Count of Floridablanca, was summoned out of his Murcian retirement to take charge of efforts against the French invader. He had to travel to Seville. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, at his advanced age, such a journey in the winter was not particularly agreeable and he died in Seville on 30th December of that year. So ended a remarkable and long life. Initially, Floridablanca was buried in the Chapel of Kings in Seville with honours befitting a royal prince. Subsequently, his remains were returned to his native Murcia where he now rests next to his father in the Iglesia de San Juan. Sitting in the sun in the gardens which bear his name, it is easy to understand why he is so honoured by his native city.
Part taken from ‘Exploring Murcia – Murcia City’, by Clive and Rosie Palmer. Clive and Rosie have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia which are available, from www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com