Sunday, March 27, 2011

Alcazar Real: 1000 years of art and architecture in one building

The Maiden's Patio

You’ll need at least a rough outline of Spanish history for this one. I’ll be brief:

Early history: Iberian and Celtic inhabitants; the Greeks reached the Iberian Peninsula; then the Romans; and after the Fall of Rome, the Visigoths (who brought with them the horse-shoe arch: hold that factoid).

Horse-shoe archways
8th Century: the Moors from North Africa arrive, conquering most of the Peninsula (but not the northern bits).

10th Century: The Caliphate of Cordova was a time of great splendour as the Moors dominated the Peninsula.

12th – 13th Century: The Almohads, a Moroccan caste, invade around 1147 and Seville becomes the capital.

1248: Ferdinand III takes Seville from the Muslims as the reconquista (Christian reconquest of Spain) advances. Gothic architecture comes into vogue. His son is Alfonso X (“The Wise”).

The Doll's Patio
14th Century: Alfonso XI and Peter I (“The Cruel”) are kings of Castile (modern Spain doesn’t exist yet). Lots of in-fighting goes on between competing nobles. Peter the Cruel had to assassinate his father’s lover, six of his step-brothers and numerous other rivals. Eventually the reconquista comes to an end (the Alhambra in Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall, in 1492). Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, Spain’s ultimate Power Couple, decide that it would be more prudent to marry and unite their kingdoms rather than fight. Their joint rule begins what is present-day Spain. Isabella sends Christopher Columbus off on what others thought was a wild goose chase, and he returned to give her the gold-rich New World (we skim lightly over what happened to the Mayans and Incas).

1526: The grandson of Isabel and Ferdinand, Carlos I of Spain (and Carlos V of Germany – it’s complicated) marries in the Seville Alcazar to Isabella of Portugal. About now Spain rules great swathes of the known world – from Seville.

Alcazar Real

16th Century: Spain’s Golden Age (literally and figuratively). This was the century of the reigns of Carlos I and Phillip II – Phillip II moved the Royal Court to Madrid and the big gloomy Escorial. Italian renaissance splendour is the fashion, with marble from Carrara and Ionic and Corinthian columns. (Sidebar: one of Carlos I’s cousins was Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry XIII of England. Through her – another long story – the Spanish kings claimed the throne of England at one time).

1717: loss of the monopoly of trade with the Americas, gradual decline begins....

1800s: Intermittent civil wars, with various ‘Carlist’ contenders for the throne.

Early 1900s: The reigns of Alphonso XII and his son XIII (16 years old when he came to the throne in 1902). 19th century Romanticism is the style of the day. Later followed the Civil War, Franco, and much bad stuff.

OK – got all that? You want to know more? Check here.

Each of these disparate fluctuations in the fortunes of Spain and Seville can be seen reflected in the marvellous building that is the Royal Alcazar of Seville. The oldest parts of the building were built in the 11th Century by Al-Mutamid, and it was known as the Alcázar bendito (al-qasr as-Mubarak). The Almohads in the 12th century added more great works to the palace (and built the Seville bastion on the river known as the Torre del Oro or Gold Tower).

Dome of The Ambassador's Hall
Alfonso the Wise moves in during the 12th Century and adds some magnificent (although architecturally completely different) Gothic additions, including a great dining hall and a tapestry room. As the 13th century wore on and the reconquista stalled, the Castilian kings continued to occupy the Alcazar. The Alhambra was built in neighbouring Granada, and the Castilian kings were much impressed by the Mudejar architecture. Great swathes of it were added to the Alcazar. Carlos I married his Portuguese bride in the Alcazar. With the moving of the court to Madrid, the Alcazar languished, but remained the ‘summer home’ of the monarchs – as it still is. The early 20th century interest in the palace by the various Alfonsos of the fin de scièle saw some restorations in the British Mannerist style, especially to the gardens.

Apricot trees in bloom
But what is the Alcazar really like? I hear you ask. Like most Moorish palaces, it is unprepossessing on the outside of the formidable walls which enclose it. You enter through arched gateways, into a maze of courtyards and patios, rooms, halls and gardens. In the Moorish style, many rooms, even in the private quarters, don’t have doors, to allow the cooling breezes to circulate. For privacy, then, the corridors leading to these areas often have a dog-leg in them. But once within the suite of rooms, all gorgeously decorated with stucco plasterwork, carved wood (mostly cedar) and ceramic tiles, you look through long vistas, through ornate Asian archways, to cool patios or lush gardens.

The patios are quiet, with only the sound of trickling water. The strong sunlight is shaded by the cool porticos, greenery fills the centre, and small pools are dotted about everywhere.

Sunlight on tiles
Then you may come upon one of the great state rooms. In the Mudejar style, these often have great domed ceilings of almost unimaginable decorative style: carved and gilded, dripping with pendulums of decoration, adorned with stars and symbols, evoking Heaven itself. Then through a window you’ll find the strong sunlight streaming; or through a triple-horseshoe-arch you’ll find another cool tiled room, its original purpose long since forgotten.

The gardens are enclosed by walls, watered by trickling irrigation or spouting fountains. When I was there the apricot trees were in full snowy bloom, tufted with white blossoms like brides. The orange trees still hung with fruit. Clipped box hedges of myrtle gave fragrance.

Tapestry: Upside-Down World
In the great Gothic Halls the walls are tiled to head-height with what look like 15th Century attempts at humour; in the Tapestry Hall Spain’s largest and most precious tapestries show scenes from the conquest of Tunisia, and an extraordinary map of the then-known world – upside down: the African Coast is on top. This, of course, appeals to an Antipodean. Isidoro told me that a figure of Carlos I was represented in each of the battle scenes tapestries. I believed him. The next day, wandering through the same beautiful halls with mi amigo, I pointed out the figure of Carlos rowing a small boat with a keg of, not the king? That Andalucian liar, Isidoro!

Lovely stucco work decoration

I can’t resist a comparison. The Alcazar of Seville was built before the Alhambra in Granada, and has had the benefit of being continuously occupied by the ruling monarchs, whereas the Alhambra stood in Romantic dereliction for many years. The Alcazar is thus in much better condition, and has much more of its fabric intact. On the other hand, for the same reasons it has been extensively changed and restored over the centuries. However, I thought the blending of the eras of 1000 years of history through the building were part of its enthralling attraction.

The Doll’s Patio, The Ambassador’s Hall, The Phillip II Ceiling Room...evocative names. It is an evocative place – the full panoply of Spain’s glory years spread before you, if you care to look.

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