History in the Making: The Ornament of the Alhambra and the Past-Facing Present

By Eggleton, Lara | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2012 | Go to article overview

History in the Making: The Ornament of the Alhambra and the Past-Facing Present


Eggleton, Lara, Journal of Art Historiography


The Alhambra, a palatine fortress perched on a mountainous outcrop above the city of Granada, has held a unique place in the historiography of Islamic architectural monuments, owing both to its European location in modern-day Spain and to the character of its 'rediscovery' by European travellers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Originally constructed under a succession of Nasrid rulers between 1232 and 1492, the exceptionally well-preserved palace complex later became archetypal to Western scholarship of 'Moorish' architecture and ornament, despite its many subsequent alterations under the Catholic monarchs.1 Like all residential monuments with long histories of continuous use, the Nasrid fortress had been occupied and altered numerous times following its capture in 1492; after the conquest by monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I (who ruled as joint sovereigns of Aragon and Castile from 1479 until Isabella's death in 1504), the site was occupied by their grandson, Emperor Charles V (r. 1516-56), and later by a motley crew of Napoleonic troops, Spanish Romany residents, prisoners of war, and travelling artists and writers.2 During each of these stages, alterations to the monument's structure and surface decoration, as well as the gradual decay occasioned by extended periods of disuse in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, have reflected changing attitudes towards Spain and its history from both within and beyond its borders. Framed as the final chapter of Muslim rule in the region, and geographically removed from larger historical developments in North Africa and the Middle East, the art of the Nasrid sultanate became 'a stepchild of history, receiving unsteady attention from both the Islamic world and the European land it had once inhabited'.3 The symbolic weight of the Alhambra, imagined both a relic of the lost golden age of al-Andalus and a war trophy of the Reconquista, has further ensured it a liminal position within the history of Islamic art.

Changing perspectives on Nasrid ornament

Within the Alhambra, those interiors of the Nasrid palaces which remain largely intact date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (these have been retrospectively named the Lions, Comares, Partal and Generalife palaces; see figure 1), and are to greater or lesser extents surfaced with wood, ceramic and carved plaster ornament,4 exhibiting an extensive design vocabulary based on geometry and foliation interwoven with epigraphic inscriptions (figures 2 and 3). The general plan of the palace-complex itself is typologically indebted to the tenth-century Spanish Umayyad complex Madinat al-Zahra?, near Córdoba. D. Fairchild Ruggles suggests that in adapting the palatial design of the fallen caliphate, the Nasrids were able to differentiate themselves from their immediate predecessors, the Almohad dynasty (1130-1269), and to propagate 'a legitimacy that was sorely needed as they balanced themselves politically between Christian Castile and the Merinids of Morocco'.5 The wide vocabulary of decorative patterns and design formats applied throughout the Alhambra, however, grew and developed from stylistic models leftbehind in the region by the Almohads, and contains important distinguishing elements that are specific to the Nasrid period.

Despite the many regional and dynastic innovations that characterize its palatial decoration, the Alhambra has historically been viewed as a culmination of past achievements disconnected from the contemporary conditions from which it gradually emerged. This article will examine the impact of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European art historical perspectives on the study of the architectural interiors of the Alhambra. While I do not wish to suggest a simplistic causal connection between nineteenth-century perspectives and twentieth-century art historical interpretations, it is important to point out the unusual circumstances under which the monument was introduced to Western audiences and the subsequent impact which early encounters appear to have had on the development of Alhambra scholarship. …

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