Plaza Mayor is the name of the main square in many Spanish cities and towns.
Madrid's Plaza Mayor is a redolent of Hapsburg Madrid. It was originally called Plaza del Arrabal, one of the most important commercial centres in medieval Madrid, though it was outside the city walls in those days.
Juan de Herrera, architect to Philip II (also responsible for the massive El Escorial), was the original designer of the plaza. Its construction was directed by Juan Gómez de Mora under Philip III, and it was to become the architectural and urban centre of Madrid under the Hapsburgs.
From its inauguration in 1617, it had a markedly different character from other major city squares in Europe, a far more popular and municipal feel. It was the site of public spectacles of all sorts: from gruesome autos de fe (burnings of heretics and others, especially under the Inquisition) to bullfights and popular games. Important executions took place here, such as that of the Marquis de Siete Iglesias, as did fiestas marking the canonizations of San Isidro, Santa Teresa, San Ignacio, San Francisco Javier and San Felipe Neri.
The Plaza Mayor of Madrid is surrounded completely by high houses, giving it a cozy atmosphere. Curiously, the owners of the houses with balconies overlooking the plaza had no rights to them, but were obliged to make them available to royal guests or to allow the Town Hall to sell tickets for them. The houses were originally six storeys high and the plaza had nine entrances.
Three spectacular fires have marked the Plaza's history: those of 1631, 1672 and 1790. Each reconstruction brought the plaza up to date to meet the needs of the times. Some apartment buildings reached a height of eight storeys, which was extraordinarily high for that time. These remained the tallest buildings in Madrid until the 20th century.
The Plaza Mayor was completely redesigned after the last fire into the square it is today. It is extremely symmetrical and the streets that give access to the Plaza pass under the buildings by way of arches, such as the Arco de Cuchilleros, designed by Gómez de Mora.
A large car-park was constructed under the square in the late 1960s. The fine equestrian statue of Philip III in the centre of the Plaza Mayor is the work of Juan de Boloni and Petro Tacca (1616).