Monday, 28 July 2014

La Alhambra

While on holiday in Spain I visited La Alhambra to get some pictures and notes to use for my dissertation. We were taken around by a very lovely Spanish lady called Maria; and with our dodgy tour earphones in tow that worked on a when-I-feel-like-it basis this is what we saw...

 We met our tour guide and while she walked us to the official entrance we saw this. Water is not an uncommon sight in this part of Andalucia as it is within a close proximity to Sierra Nevada - Snowy Mountain - that means this area has always been water rich. One of the first things pointed out to us was the fact that the site itself was chosen because of this. A very habitable area of southern Spain in what is otherwise very hot and dry! It allowed for the site to have a very sophisticated underground water system from very early on.

This is a terrible photo of the Santa Maria church. It was a Mosque to begin with but was converted once under Christian rule. The church is immediately on your right as you enter the complex which is known as Santa Maria Square. You do not get to see it on the tour unfortunately. Without the tour guide I would have had little to no information given to me but on the other hand I didn't get to have a proper look at things like this. The church incorporated some of the original architectural features of the Mosque which makes for an interesting facade. Looking at it you can clearly tell its not the image of a church you'd expect around 17th century Europe.

Pretty view from the edge of the square.

These are left over from the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in the 19th century. These cannons were used in warfare and unfortunately this warfare lead to the destruction of what was once a citadel within the fortress (obviously not in use by the 19th century but would have once had 2000 inhabitants).

This is the Charles V Palace. It dates to the 16th century and is purposefully large and impressive to hammer home the fact that the Spanish had taken control over the Nasrid dynasty that ruled before them.

Details of a column in the collonade that surrounds the theatre space in the Palace of Charles V. It doesn't truly belong to any classical order of columns but instead it is a mix of Doric (the really plain order) and Ionic (the little decoration on the capital is that of an Ionic column but without the volutes). A very early Mannerist style because the architect is messing with the Classical Language of Architecture. The columns are made out of stone because they could be sourced from relatively local places. It supposedly has great acoustics.

The exterior of the palace. Again it is in Mannerist style. We've got some pointless pairs of pilasters that sit on a...metope? With entablature that is stopped in its tracks by rustication either side of the entrance and a pediment below it (instead of above it!). The architect was a man named Pedro Machuca. He is largely believed to have been connected to Michelangelo and was the only Italian architect that worked in Spain at the time. His connection with Michelangelo would explain his Mannerist experimentation. Weirdly though, the palace was called a Renaissance Palace by our tour guide which I imagine to be a nod to the period rather than the style. Unfortunately the palace was never finished because Charles V, the grandson of Fernando y Isabel or otherwise Los Reyes Católicos, died. His successor Phillip II then decided to move the royal residence away from the Alhambra and thus it was never completed. 

The overall theme of this Palace is one of victory. The portico is an echo of a triumphal arch in that it is a space divided into three. More specific yet the incorporation of three main segments could represent the Holy Trinity.

I like the window detail. It goes without mention that it is a remnant from the Alhambra's time as a Nasrid fortress. This became the Christian wine gate, whereby soldiers could buy and consume tax free wine. 

These images show in a very subtle way the relationship between Nasrid/Christian decoration. The latter photo is a detail of the courtyard within the pavilion pictured above it. The latter is clearly of eastern influence. The former has also kept its Nasrid roots in that the Christians held off on decorating the outside and left it bare (as per the guidance in the Qu'ran that states decoration must be kept for the interiors). However, the subtle feature that infuses the two traditions are the windows - a Christian Renaissance addition. If the new owners of the Alhambra were rude and unholy when they converted a Mosque then they were certainly more reserved when they came to alter this building. From an art historical point of view I find it respectable that they added windows purely to make it a practical space and did not damage the architectural and historical integrity of the space. 

You walk through the courtyard and come to this door. This is the first instance of the tour whereby you enter what was a room in the original fortress. It was built in 1330 by the Nazaritas (from Nazarí which basically refers to the Nasrid dynasty which were the last Muslim dynasty to be present in Spain from 1238 to 1492).

As I briefly said earlier the decoration was reserved for the inside, so that it was only the holy and important that could appreciate it. This is some beautiful marquetry on the ceiling. This room was where the Imam would listen to the problems of his people and also where he would pray. Granada under Nasrid rule was a tolerant place whereby all of the Abrahamic faiths lived side by side.

I like to take pictures of columns and their pretty capitals. Notice more marquetry behind it as well, and the extremely ornate carving on the upper right hand side. They really made up for the lack of decoration outside. It is INSANE to see in person.

Mosaics everywhere. Not limited to standard marble or stone either. They made mosaics of ANYTHING they could get their hands on. I cannot remember whether it was this in particular or another but there were certainly mosaic walls that had each little compartment made out of a handful of precious materials that were painstakinly applied separately.

You might think I'm not really within my rights to describe anything as painstakingly difficult to do if I hadn't done it myself. However whilst I would love to be talented enough to do it myself, I did have the opportunity to watch restorers at work. I was watching a lady restore an area like the above. Those random patterns are in fact verses of the Qu'ran.

We didn't get to enter this room but it was attached to the first room we entered and because of the masses of Qu'ran verses plastered all over the wall I imagine that this is the area within the room that the Imam would pray.

Another capital...

Another ceiling with impressive marquetry.

Fountains were often found in the courtyards - in all sizes - because water is important to the Muslims as they originate from a dry country.

The Hall of Ambassadors - the Seat of the Sultan as the representative of God on Earth. The Sultan and a handful of important figures would convene here to discuss official matters. The room possesses a character which is impossible to describe and terribly difficult to capture with a camera. Try and imagine that the pictures above form part of a room three times the height of your entire house covered in this beautiful stucco work (or carving, I'll have to check). This is 80% restored. A sacred, diplomatic space. The mosaics that adorn the bottom are made up of gems and were made possible by the sophisticated understanding of algebra, geometry and maths that they had.

The floor of the hall - and the ceiling - is completely original.

This is outside the room where all the official stuff goes on. Notice the building has 7 arches. That is to represent the 7 heavens in the Muslim faith.

The other end.

This decoration on the ceiling as you move from the more public area of the complex to the private area (as you approach the Hareem). This here was a Christian modification representing the amalgamation of the houses of León and Castilla when Fernando and Isabel were married.

The images above are of the Hareem where the Sultan and his concubines would stay. A private space and because of this it was also more ornate. The favourite woman would live in the apartment with the Sultan and another 3 Sultanas would live in a quarter nearby with a balcony. The level of decoration is incredible especially seeing as the representation of humans and animals was prohibited because it was seen as adulterous. 

These images are images from the Christian apartments. Spain had become one nation and at the same time had eradicated the enemy. This was cause for celebration but at the same time to assert power. Therefore, it was only fitting that the new monarchs should have an appropriate place for a Christian King or Queen to live. Some important things to note are that Charles V ordered a fireplace to be made because the Nasrid Dynasty did not use fire unless heating charcoal to cook and a famous figure called Washington Irving spent a lot of time here and was inspired by it (he wrote one of the most important books on the Alhambra).

Some buildings we didn't go in.............. Immediately to the right of the photo was a similar building covered in scaffolding and being restored.

We left the pavilion and Christian apartments to walk towards the 'summer house'. Before that though we had the pleasure of walking through what felt like miles and miles of gardens - the Generalife Gardens.

I had come here once before when I was 10 years old. I am now 20. The only thing I remembered properly from my trip was walking through here! This marks the end of your tour (although there's still a long old walk to exit).

If you're ever in Andalucía make sure to pay this place a visit because it is lovely.

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