The humble jute-soled shoe seemed headed for a museum shelf when Isabel Sauras and her husband took over the family espadrille business, Castañer, in the Catalonian town of Banyoles.
It was 1959, and a wave of belated industrialization was sweeping agrarian Spain. Farmers had abandoned their small hilly plots for stable factory jobs in the cities. They no longer needed those cheap, ankle-tie sandals to work the fields in the summer heat.
Many espadrille factories in Catalonia and the French and Spanish Basque regions cut their final braids. But Isabel Sauras and her husband, Lorenzo Castañer, clung to their rope and, with the help of Yves Saint Laurent and other designers, turned the traditional peasant shoe into a fashion statement.
“It was like when the refrigerator did away with the ceramic water jugs,” recalls Ms. Sauras, 85, now retired. “We saved the espadrille from a museum future and kept it alive in a very contemporary way.”
Today, the Castañer factory, founded in 1927, creates luxury, high-heeled espadrilles for 15 designer labels, including Lanvin, Hermès and Christian Louboutin, and it crafts its own collections for 17 Castañer boutiques in Spain, France and Japan. Their star model, “the peasant”, is a fixture at Spain’s outdoor cafes. It has sold over eight million pairs to date.
The Castañer factory is Spain’s sole survivor of the jute-soled heyday of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, when Salvador Dalí would shuffle about his native Figueres in a white canvas pair bought at the local Castañer store.
Few of the factory’s original clients would be able to toil in, say, the thigh-high, black leather model that Castañer created for a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show in the late 1980s. And a small-time farmer probably couldn’t afford the new Manolo Blahnik range created last year to mark Castañer’s 90th anniversary.
Manolo Blahnik range comprises of two lines – Manolo By Day and Manolo By Night, each including three models in six different colourways and a stiletto style in lieu of an espadrille’s traditional wedge.
More than 40 specialized seamstresses still hand-stitch the uppers — decorated with everything from zebra prints to Swarovski crystals — to the coiled jute soles. And the factory uses the same jute braiding machines that its founder, Luis Castañer, employed to supply footwear to Republican soldiers during the Spanish Civil War.
“It was cheaper to give each soldier two or three pairs of espadrilles than to give him one pair of shoes,” says Antonio Castañer, the firm’s financial director. The sandals were so strategic that the army nationalized the factory in 1938.
Spain has long been known for making fine shoes, but few shoemakers themselves are recognized abroad. That’s because the industry is composed of small, family-run workshops and factories too tight on cash, or too set in their ways, to worry about building a brand, according to Josep Maria Galí, a professor of marketing at ESADE Business School in Barcelona. Competition from China has put many of those shoemakers out of business.
But Castañer is now one of several family-run Spanish shoemakers who are capitalizing on traditional craftsmanship to carve an international niche. For these artisans, perhaps their greatest problem will be continuing to find skilled workers willing to wield a 15-centimetre needle.
“I don’t know what we’ll do in 20 years, but we’ll manage,” says Felix Fuster, a fourth-generation espadrille maker who exports his hand-made men’s styles from a workshop in the eastern province of Castellón. He relies on a legion of seamstresses who work from home. “The average age is 70,” he quips.
Amid the towering jute wedges on display at a Castañer boutique, a modern shopper might have trouble recognizing the original canvas flat, worn mostly by men in only one color combination: white with black ribbons. In 1930, a pair cost two Spanish pesetas, or about a cent.
That ankle-tie look, born in ancient Mesopotamia, might seem chic in pictures of Ancient Greece, but the espadrille traveled the Mediterranean no thanks to fashion. It owed its popularity to the practical properties of the soles, made of esparto grass, hemp and later jute, according to Luis Castañer, the founder’s grandson, who oversees production at the Castañer factory.
“Jute isolates the feet from cold, humidity and heat,” he says.
In Spain, the espadrille became a wardrobe staple in the 14th century throughout the so-called Crown of Aragon, a region that included Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic islands. Each town would give their espadrilles a unique signature — a wider ribbon here, a thicker sole there, an extra crisscross at the back of the ankle. These regional varieties are still worn at town festivals.
But how did those lowly scuffs morph, Cinderella-like, into a fashion staple?
“The struggle to stay alive,” Ms. Sauras says. “We had 130 people working for us in a small town and we felt terrible to put all those people in the street. But it wasn’t just altruism, we wanted to do something different.”
So in the 1960s they turned the peasant shoe into a back-to-roots statement for the Catalan middle class and a beach-vacation look for northern Europeans who had recently discovered the Spanish coasts. They also started traveling to trade fairs in Paris.
That’s how, in 1970, Ms. Sauras met Yves Saint Laurent. He asked her to make him a satin pair with a 5-centimetre wedge.
“He said he had tried espadrille factories in France, but nobody could interpret his ideas,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it, but I understand what you’re looking for.”’
Soon Ms. Sauras and her husband managed to produce a model with gold satin ribbons, red satin uppers and gold thread mixed with jute coils. Yves Saint Laurent set them sauntering down the runway. It was a sensation.
She gave shape to his jute-braid fantasies for the next 15 years. She also worked closely with designers at Christian Dior, Armani and Louis Vuitton.
Now the Castañer family tracks their espadrilles around the globe. Their list of celebrity feet includes Grace Kelly, Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Sometimes they seem to view the world from the ground up.
Like the time in the 1970s when Ms. Sauras followed a woman in “perfect white slacks and a navy blazer” for blocks in Manhattan, staring at espadrilles she was certain were Castañer. A security guard finally shooed her away. The owner of the suspect shoes was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“She must have thought I was crazy,” Ms. Sauras laughs.
It’s hard to imagine how the Catalan peasants of yore might react to the espadrille’s modern mutations. But at least some traditional clients don’t mind if their beloved symbol of regional identity now dangles from manicured toes in Saks Fifth Avenue.
“My mother and I enjoy seeing them as fashion shoes”, said Emma Guardiola, a government worker who laces on espadrilles each year to dance the “baile rodado” in the main square of her town, Cinctorres, in Castellón, Valencia. “It’s something you’ve seen all your life taking another form. And to keep producing the simple version we wear, you have to have demand of another type.”
She and her dance partners stick to the classic look, however: white canvas uppers, red laces and a flat, braided sole.
Name dropping aside 🙂 the one thing that got us interested in the Castañer espadrilles is… obviously… cherries! The 2018 range includes cerezas 🍒
There is even a little handbag.
Never had so much trouble trying to get hold of a 🍒 something, but today the cherry espadrilles finally arrived!
A farmer wants to cross a river and take with him a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage. There is a boat that can fit himself plus one more, either the wolf, the goat, or the cabbage. If the wolf and the goat are alone on one shore, the wolf will eat the goat. If the goat and the cabbage are alone on the shore, the goat will eat the cabbage. How can the farmer bring the wolf, the goat, and the cabbage across the river?
Why would a farmer want a wolf?
Hmmm, let’s try a puzzle with lollies.
There are three opaque boxes containing lollies. One box contains only chocolate lollies, one contains only pink lollies, and the third box contains a mixture of both lollies. The three boxes are labelled Chocolate, Pink and Mixture, but none of the boxes are labelled correctly.
You can take one candy out of each box (without looking directly into the box) and see what you get. What is the minimum number of boxes you have to open (and take one candy out) to assign correct labels to all boxes?
All the puzzles are out of Fermat’s Room, an intricately conceived, ingenious and devious thriller.
The opening credits of Fermat’s Room are suggestively superimposed on a gloved hand arranging the doll’s house furniture of a comfortable room: chairs, a table, book-lined shelves, a blackboard. The image suggests a manipulative puppeteer at work. It is in a full size version of this room that most of the action will take place.
A math genius who calls himself ‘Fermat’ sends out a math riddle to various mathematicians and scientists around and adds a message that only those who manage to crack the puzzle would get to share a grand dinner at a gathering with other true geniuses. At this dinner, Fermat would interest all these bright people with ‘one of the greatest enigmas ever’ that he has planned for them to solve. Only four people manage to crack Fermat’s code and end up at the place of the meeting following the cryptic clues laid out for them. The real names of these people are never revealed; they are given pseudonyms by Fermat; all these pseudonyms being names of former mathematicians.
Once at the venue they discover that the very room they are in IS in fact the enigma… it is a meticulously designed ‘shrinking room’ that is slowly closing in on them. The only way to escape being crushed by the walls and preventing the room from becoming their tomb is by solving some puzzles sent to them on a sole PDA that has been given to them.
The PDA is connected to the system that controls the shrinking. Solving each puzzle correctly in the stipulated time would prevent the house from shrinking and only then would they be able to save themselves.
Once the walls start to move, there’s barely a moment to catch your breath as sharp editing, clever camera angles and good use of sound, as furniture in the room begins to splinter, squeeze the tension of every moment. Even scenes outside the room feature puzzles and tricks of their own. Recalling the sort of cleverly plotted drawing room devices used by Agatha Christie mysteries, you race to unravel the whys and wherefores before the final reel. The addition of the extra puzzles which the mathematicians are trying to work out – tricky, but easy enough for the most part to give viewers a fighting chance of trying to solve them – is nothing short of genius, since they too grab the attention and offer a workout for the audience’s little grey cells. One or two leaps of faith are required, but with the action moving this swiftly, you’ll be more interested in holding on tight for the ride than in picking holes.
Islamic art emerged as a manifestation of religion: singing and music, sculpture and architecture, poetry and prose, all have their genesis in the religious life of man. Islam not only fostered these artistic talents but also influenced their direction. Fearing that man might lapse into his old habits of attributing to statues heavenly authority, it prohibited the portraying of live objects in stone and even, according to some scholars, on canvas. The development of Muslim art, therefore, followed a different direction from that of its Western counterpart. The visual expression of beauty was manifested in geometrical designs of an exceptionally beautiful and intricate nature. It was also manifested in magnificent Islamic buildings that have influenced the development of architecture throughout the world. Calligraphy was a rich substitute for pictures and drawing as known in the West.
Another aspect of Muslim culture is the art of landscaping and gardening. Just as Muslim architecture is unique, so is Muslim gardening and landscaping. Muslim building emphasizes light and space, the Muslim garden celebrates the sound of water flowing from various directions, and shrubs and trees are scattered with studied carelessness to beautify nature without violating it, to emphasize its spirit rather than suppress it. It is this spirit of harmony with nature that is the most obvious characteristic of the Muslim garden.
Islamic gardens were fully sensory environments, delighting the eyes, nose, ears,” Dr Dede Fairchild Ruggles says. “The fleeting sensations made by a fountain’s spray or the scent of a rose do not last in the body or in the garden — both living entities — but they leave traces in poetry, visual images and architecture.”
These are Dr Ruggles’ notes on Islamic gardens for Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain, an exhibition held at the Alhambra and the Met in 1992.
The Alhambra gardens represent the culmination of a long line of gardens and garden estates that began in Cordoba in the middle of the eighth century with the founding of al-Rusafa by the first Umayyad ruler of al-Andalus. Such estates, in which agricultural enterprise was combined with the cultivation of nature for the sake of its beauty, proliferated throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, and the Umayyad kingdom of al-Andalus reaped the benefits of their fruitfulness.
The Umayyad gardens were representations of landscape as well as actual landscape – essential parts of the surrounding environment. On the one hand, the garden was acted upon by that environment, for gardens are shaped by current agricultural technique, plant species, soil, water, and climate. On the other hand, the environment was acted upon by the garden, for the increase in available cultivars and botanical knowledge in the first two centuries of Umayyad rule in al-Andalus was facilitated by royal patronage and gardens, which were repositories for exotic plant species and testing grounds for new techniques that in turn stimulated agricultural expansion into hitherto unarable areas.
The earliest recorded mention of the acquisition and deliberate transplantation of exotic plants into Andalusian soil is in a reference to the palace of al-Rusafa, named after one outside Damascus built by the grandfather of Abd al-Rahman I, where he had been brought up. Dating to the beginning of Abd al-Rahman I’s reign (756-788) and built three kilometres northwest of Córdoba in the area known even today as Arruzafa, al-Rusafa was the first garden state in al-Andalus. The historian Ibn Said praised its beautiful irrigated gardens, saying that Abd al-Rahman had sent a messenger to foreign parts in order to obtain special plants, so that “al-Rusafa became famous for the excellence of its plant varieties”. Among the introduced plants were the date palm and the pomegranate, the latter now being the emblem (if not the source of the name) of Granada.
Al-Rusafa contained within its extensive gardened grounds a superior pomegranate that had been sent especially from Syria by Abd al-Rahman’s sister. The courtier Safar planted its seeds in an experimental garden near Malaga and, when the young tree grew and bore fruit, he brought the pomegranates to Abd al-Rahman. Ibn Said noted: “The Emir admired his discovery, appreciated his efforts, thanked him for the work he had done, and recompensed him generously. He then planted that pomegranate in al-Rusafa and in his other gardens. That pomegranate species spread and the people planted groves of them.” This is the first reference to a botanical garden in al-Andalus where exotic species could be cultivated in a controlled manner and acclimatized. It not only demonstrates the precocious interest in botany and practical agronomy that existed in the eighth century, but also indicates that royal patronage promoted the spread of improved plant species.
The concept of the garden continued to develop in Córdoba for the next two centuries, a particularly important expression of which was realized in the palace city of Madinat al-Zahra. Al-Zahra emerged from the Córdoban tradition of building farm and recreation estates in the agricultural zone surrounding the city, yet it was an architectural type new to al-Andalus. Like al-Rusafa, Madinat al-Zahra was built well apart from Cordoba in a landscape made green and fertile through the introduction of water from the mountains for irrigation and through the planting of gardens and orchards for both enjoyment and profit. However, Madinat al-Zahra was larger and more architecturally complex than previous estates, for it unified the typology of the Córdoban garden estate with the sophisticated palace architecture of the Abbasid court in Samarra in Iraq, which was more cosmopolitan than that of the Umayyads.
Madinat al-Zahra was built in a series of stepped levels cut into the southern slope of a mountain, the highest level being roughly sixty meters above the lowest. Because of the site’s steep incline, the elevated position of the upper structures afforded views onto the palace gardens, and from these gardens toward the landscape beyond. Both the topographic situation and the design of the architecture itself were new, for the gardens and countryside were seen through the controlled lenses of miradors – literally places for viewing – in the form of terraces, framing windows, and pavilions.
Aerial photography of Madinat al-Zahra reveals a perfect enclosure surrounded by a double wall on the east, south, and west, and fortified by square towers, wider at the corners, except on a section of the north, which is bounded by a single, partially excavated, wall (Frontis).
Only three of Madinat al-Zahra’s gardens are known from archaeological remains: the Prince’s Garden, the Upper Garden and the Lower Garden. On the highest level is the so-called Prince’s Garden, a small, elegant residence that was conceived on an intimate scale and probably served as a private dwelling for the heir apparent, the wife of the caliph, or another important member of his family. Rectangular in plan, it is contained at its east and west ends by halls stretching almost the entire width of the garden and on its south side by a blind wall. The northern wall has steps leading to structures on higher ground. A paved walkway bordered by water channels forms a longitudinal axis that divides the garden into two almost equal parts, and an axially aligned square pool occupies the space in front of the western hall.
On the middle level, facing the Hall of Abd al-Rahman III, or reception hall, is the Upper Garden, an enormous enclosed space in the form of a four-part composition. The garden’s axes are determined by paved walkways bordered by water channels used for irrigation. This is the earliest surviving quadripartite garden in the Maghrib and al-Andalus, predating the Castilleja of Monteagudo by two hundred years. The north arm of the crossed axes was made up of a small pavilion surrounded by rectangular pools. Although the elevation of the pavilion is not known, it almost certainly had windows on all four sides so that to a viewer looking out of the building would seem to be surrounded by water. This was a remarkably early instance of a floating pavilion in Islamic architecture.
The word of the luxuries of Madinat al-Zahra echoed around the Mediterranean. Abd al-Rahman III purportedly used quicksilver to fill the central pool of the hall in which he received ambassadors. This hall is presently known as Salon Rico (Rich Hall) because of the extravagant decoration of the walls. It is said that the walls of the room were of marble inlaid with gold and on each side eight doors of ebony and gold were set between piers of coloured marble and crystal. While the caliph entertained – perhaps displaying the room’s chief ornament, a huge pearl presented by Leo, ruler of Byzantium – he would signal a slave to disturb the pool, at which all the walls of the room became a kaleidoscope of reflected colour, dazzling the kings of Leon and Navarre when they sought an audience, and even impressing the emperor’s ambassadors from Constantinople. Workmen from Byzantine Constantinople, who had recently completed the extension of the great mosque, were said to have built the central pavilion.
The Hall of Abd al-Rahman III is the centrepiece of a large architectural complex that includes the Upper Garden. The relative formal simplicity of the plan maintains a rigorous sense of proportion and design that ties the hall with the garden, so that both form a unifying concept that has as its objective the magnification of the caliph.
The Lower Garden, located approximately fourteen meters below the Upper Garden, was an extensive walled quadripartite garden with paved walkways and pools marking the termini of its axes. A rectangular expansion of pavement along the southern arm may have been the foundation of a garden pavilion, but this attribution is speculative because the area has not been thoroughly excavated.
The position of the spectator in Madinat al-Zahra’s gardens was fixed in three points. The first was the central pavilion in the Upper Garden, from which there were four possible views of the surrounding water and vegetation. The second was the presumed mirador in the west wall of the Upper Garden, from which one looked toward the Lower Garden, another large quadripartite garden approximately twelve meters below, and across to the fertile cultivated plain of the Guadalquivir River valley. The third was the Salon Rico, which overlooked the Upper Garden from an elevated position. Cut into the stepped terrace, this hall was windowless on three sides but opened through the south wall to the garden, with five arches framing the view. According to medieval descriptions of the court ceremonies and feast days celebrated in the Salon Rico and Upper Garden, on formal occasions of state, the caliph sat on a raised throne in the middle of the hall; family, government officials, palace staff, and members of the military were positioned in rows, diminishing in rank as they radiated away from him, out of the hall, and across the garden terrace. The uniqueness and primacy of the caliph’s person were asserted by this enactment of social hierarchy. Likewise, the hall’s focused space and dominant position over the garden in which the event took place underscored the centrality of the viewer, who was the caliph.
At all three of the Upper Garden’s viewing points, the placement of architecture in landscape emphasized not just the view of nature but also its view from a particular location. The mirador, whether a pavilion or a projecting window in an enclosure wall, fixes the direction of vision and dictates what is seen. For this reason the mirador is invariably located at the intersection of two crossed axes or at one of the axes’ terminal points, and it is always elevated, directing the gaze downward to the garden. The mirador, as the origin of seeing, denotes the beholder – who is understood to be the caliph or king – and the view is seen from his perspective. Landscape panoramas, especially, were seen through the ruler’s eyes, for in the medieval period, the all-encompassing view of landscape and domain was the ruler’s exclusive prerogative because he alone was responsible for conceptualizing and shaping the structure of the kingdom.
Madinat al-Zahra became the model for subsequent palace estates built in Cordoba until the civil war of 1010 to 1013, when the Umayyad-Amirid government was overthrown. Thereafter, in the period of the muluk al-Tawaif, the idea of the garden was disseminated to the capital cities and royal palaces of the Taifa kingdoms in the rest of Spain. The largest and most powerful of these kingdoms was Seville, which had a palace zone that sprawled on either side of the city wall, as well as a number of suburban palaces. In the 11th century, the Taifa ruler al-Mutamid (r. 1069-91) ordered the planting of the area of Seville called the Buhayra, today the Huerta del Rey. He placed a pavilion in the center of the Buhayra’s orchards and gardens, so that their productive aspect was commingled with the enjoyment of their aesthetic qualities. In 1171, the Almohad ruler Abu Ya’qub Yusuf added a magnificent group of palaces to the Buhayra, supplying them with water via a renovated Roman qaniit (underground aqueduct). According to Ibn Sahib al-Salat, in the 12th century:
The Caliph commanded Abu al-Qasim Ahmad ibn Muhammad, the qadi, and Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya, the imam of the mosque, because of his trust in their knowledge of surveying, soil preparation, and cultivation, to design for him everything concerning his palace constructions, and with respect to the barren land surrounding them, to use treasury money to plant olive trees, fig trees, vineyards and fruit trees of all the most delicious and rarest species… He charged the people of the Aljarafe to dig up roots of a variety of select olive trees which were bought with treasury money, and to take them to the Buhayra to be planted. They were brought from miles away, a task in which the most qualified folk assisted. The shoots were planted in rows in order to facilitate tending them. The Caliph used to ride out from his palace in Seville with his principal followers for the enjoyment of watching the olives being planted. Ahmad ibn Basu, the foremost architect in al-Andalus, had no equal in his work on these palaces of the Buhtayra.
The description of men skilled in the surveying and cultivation of the land is particularly significant because it is the first medieval Hispano-Islamic reference to a landscape architect.
Rebuilding in the Almohad and Christian periods erased most of the original fabric of al-Mutamid’s al-Mubarak Palace, which stood within the city walls, but we have some idea of its gardens from verses that praised the variety of its colorful flowers: roses, narcissus, lilies, anemones, jasmine, stock, violets, poppies, daisies, and other flowers that “attract the gaze and make the eyes dally with delicate buildings that seem like spider webs”. A small portion of one of al-Mubarak’s courtyard gardens was discovered by Rafael Manzano in the course of excavating a 12th century garden. The latter, called El Crucero, follows a cross axial plan formed by walkways dividing the space into four sunken quadrants that are approximately five meters deep. A third garden, also of the 12th century and probably built by the Almohads, has been thoroughly excavated by Manzano’s team. This garden is almost square, measuring 12.25 by 11 meters, and is divided by walkways into four quadrants that are two meters deep and decorated with stucco and intersecting blind arches of brick. Pollen analysis has determined that orange trees were planted in the corners of each sunken quadrant. At one end of the courtyard, there still survives the façade of a brick portico consisting of central arches flanked on each side by additional arches. At the other end were excavated three sunken flower beds from the al-Mubarak Palace.
There were other important palaces with gardens in al-Andalus, some of which have been excavated. The Aljaferia of Saragossa was organized around a central gardened courtyard, but all of its plantings and pavements visible today are modern. The Castilleja of Monteagudo, Alcazaba of Malaga, and Alcazaba of Almeria, like Madinat al-Zahra, were built on elevated sites. All of them had interior views of gardens with water channels, pools, fountains and colourful flowers. Additionally, the hilltop locations of the Castilleja and the Alcazaba of Malaga yielded vistas of an irrigated landscape of productive fruit orchards. The Alcazaba of Almeria, which was situated in arid terrain, included interior gardens with axial walkways, a central pavilion, and irrigation channels. Its exterior prospect, however, was not of landscape but of the sea, which made possible the trade that was the basis of the port city’s economy.
Like Cordoba and Seville, medieval Islamic Granada was situated in a fertile landscape irrigated by streams and rivers that provided abundant water for its palace and agricultural estates. According to the historian Ibn al-Khatib, called Lisan al-Din, the Alhambra, as well as Granada itself, was densely planted with so many verdant gardens that the light-coloured stone of the palaces’ many tall towers shone like bright stars in an evening sky of dark vegetation.
The Alhambra is a complex layering of Zirid, Nasrid, baroque, neoclassical, and modern conceptions of nature and landscape. Although the extant palaces at the Alhambra date largely from the Nasrid period, they probably followed the foundations of the 11th century palaces of the Zirid rulers’ influential vizier, Samuel ibn Naghralla. Samuel, whose family had fled Cordoba in 1012, brought Córdoban artistic taste to Granada in the 11th century. Descriptions of the vizier’s sumptuous residence on the Alhambra hill mention gardens and fountains, as well as theatrical effects achieved with water and vegetation. When Samuel died in 1056, his son Yusuf inherited the post of vizier as well as the father’s penchant for dramatic garden and architectural effects, and he built a magnificent palace on the hill where the Alhambra now stands. The parallels between Yusuf’s palace and Madinat al-Zahra are many – each sat on an elevated site overlooking a flat plain and was embellished with luxurious materials and adorned with flower gardens and fruit trees. Moreover, the emphasis in Yusuf’s palace complex on water in the form of large tanks, fountains that were like natural springs, and channels that traversed the courtyards reflects the Córdoban prototype. The poet Ibn Gabirol wrote:
There is a large pool, similar to the Sea of Solomon, but it does not rest on bulls; such is the expression of the lions, at the pool’s edge, that the cubs seem to roar through their jaws; and like springs, they spill their guts through their mouths, flowing like rivers. Next to the channels are sunken hollows so that the water may be decanted to spray the plants in the garden beds with it and to sprinkle the stems with pure water and to water the garden of myrtles with it.
These 11th century lions, which were moved to the Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) when it was built in the 14th century, are not the first animal figures used in fountains. One of Abd al-Rahman III’s Córdoban palaces had a golden lion fountain with sparkling jewel eyes that spewed water through its mouth; and the Zahira palace, built by al-Mansur in 978 to supplant the caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra, included a lion fountain of black amber with a necklace of pearls. Furthermore, in the hills well above Cordoba, there is a fountain in the form of a large stone elephant that may have been part of the irrigation system of a 10th century agricultural estate.
The Alhambra became the Nasrid seat in the second quarter of the 13th century and was continually augmented and embellished throughout the 14th. The Patio de los Leones, the Generalife, and most of the other constructions visible today date to this period. At the Alhambra, as at Madinat al-Zahra, Monteagudo, and the alcazabas of Malaga and Almeria, the eye is constantly invited to look through and beyond the garden walls. Although spaces such as the Patio de los Leones and the Generalife’s Patio de Ia Acequia (Court of the Channel) are enclosed by architecture, their walls are pierced with miradors that overlook the palace gardens on the lower slopes of the Alhambra hill and the more distant landscape of the Albaidn hill. Such vistas are often framed by arched polylobedwindows, as in the Salon de los Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors) or the elegant Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room). The windows of the latter look outward to the hills and streams of the “natural” exterior countryside and inward toward the enclosed paved courtyard, where the only reference to nature is a single water basin at the centre. The all-encompassing vistas of garden and landscape at the Alhambra belie the traditional conception of the Islamic garden as an entirely self-contained private space; instead they show that different visual perspectives were incorporated into garden design by manipulating the direction of the gaze and the distance it traversed.
Inscribed on the walls and fountains of the Alhambra are verses referring to the gardens and land scape. In the Patio de los Leones and the Sala de las Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters), for example, verses by the poet Ibn Zamrak celebrate the watercourses and vegetation, the architecture and space surrounding the garden, and the view onto the more distant countryside, as well as Emir Muhammad V, for whom the garden was built. A verse in the Mirador de Lindaraja reads: “In this garden I am an eye filled with delight and the pupil of this eye is none other than our lord.” The statement is absolutely clear in its identification of the viewing place – the mirador – with the viewer /king, and the art historian is extraordinarily fortunate to have it. Although the architecture at Madinat al-Zahra, Monteagudo, Almeria, and Malaga makes evident the conflation of power with view, the Alhambra is the only palace in al-Andalus with an inscription explicitly articulating the relationship. Indeed, it is the only palace in al-Andalus known to have been inscribed with an epigraphic program that accompanies and explains its architecture and gardens.
The Patio de los Leones is a quadripartite garden divided axially by paved walkways and surrounded by a columnar arcade on all four sides. Pavilions projecting from the middle of the courtyard’s east and west sides contain water jets; likewise there are basins in the Sala de las Dos Hermanas on the south side and the Sala de los Abencerrajes on the north. The water from these jets and basins flows in channels toward the central fountain, uniting the disparate spaces. Although the garden’s original plantings are not known with certainty, a visitor in 1602 observed six orange trees in each quadrant. The surface of the soil was initially eighty centimetres below the level of the pavement.
The Alhambra contains several post-Islamic gardens, such as those of the Patio of la Daraja, below the Mirador de Lindaraja, and the Partal. The former was originally an open garden with views from a projecting mirador called the Ayn Dar Aisha (Eye of the Sultana’s Palace), but it was enclosed when it was converted into private quarters for Emperor Charles V. The Torre de las Damas (Ladies’ Tower) in the Partal also functioned as a mirador, with windows on the ground floor and a tower on the left side providing far-reaching views across the exterior landscape to the Albaidn hill. Although the orientation of the Partal pavilion to the landscape outside the walls of the Alhambra remains exactly as it was conceived by the Muslim builders of the palace, the Partal gardens themselves are 20th century restorations.
The Generalife Palace was built in terraces on the slope of a hillside on the side of the ravine opposite the Alhambra. When the Generalife’s Patio de la Acequia was excavated and restored in 1959 following a fire, a 13th century Islamic garden was discovered with both its original soil level, half a meter below the surrounding pavements, and its original irrigation system intact – neither of which was retained in the restorations. The garden is organized along a central axial watercourse, the water for which is supplied from mountains via the same aqueduct that serves the Alhambra. The water channel is bordered by plant beds and intersected by a short, narrow walkway. The north and south ends of the garden are each marked by a longitudinal pavilion; both offer pleasant views of the garden and watercourse below, and from the southern pavilion panoramic views of the Alhambra and surrounding countryside can be enjoyed. The west wall is pierced by arches and a projecting mirador that looks over the lower gardens, which are modern restorations, and across the ravine to the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada in the distance. Although this mirador appears to be an alteration made by Isabella and Ferdinand, it is likely that it replaced an Islamic mirador from the late 13th or early 14th century. The gardens on the elevated terrace above the Patio de la Acequia were largely redesigned after 1492.
The Patio de los Leones and the Generalife’s Patio de la Acequia constitute two distinct types of gardens. The Patio de los Leones is of the expansive four-part kind (an early example of which was Madinat al-Zahra’s Upper Garden), and the Patio de la Acequia is of the self-contained, longitudinal type (like that of Madinat al-Zahra’s Prince’s Garden and domestic house courtyards in al-Andalus). However, the typologies are inverted: The cross-axial plan of the Patio de los Leones is realized in a contained domestic space, whereas the Patio de la Acequia is expanded literally, as well as visually, through its vistas onto the gardens and hillside below.
The skilful manipulation of topographical elevation and vision that took place in al-Andalus began at Madinat al-Zahra and was developed further at Monteagudo, Malaga, Almeria, and the Alhambra. Architecture, garden and landscape were united by the mirador so that they gave structure to the relationship between nature and humankind. Although the meaning of the landscape and the way it was perceived changed considerably from the time of the Umayyads and Madinat al-Zahra to the time of the Nasrids and the Alhambra, the formal typology of the garden became a fixed element in royal palatine architecture, an indispensable aspect of the language of luxury and prestige. Even after the reconquest the Islamic taste for architecture oriented to landscape and for elevated views was continued in the carmenes (villas) and aristocratic palaces of Granada and elsewhere in Spain.
The crowning achievement of Islamic art in Spain is the Great Mosque of Córdoba.
It’s impossible to overemphasize the beauty of Córdoba’s great mosque, with its remarkably serene (despite tourist crowds) and spacious interior. One of the world’s greatest works of Islamic architecture, the Mezquita hints, with all its lustrous decoration, at a refined age when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side and enriched their city with a heady interaction of diverse, vibrant cultures.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba was the most important public project of Abd al-Rahman I, the last surviving Umayyad. When his family, which had held the Caliphate, was deposed and murdered during the Abbasid revolution, Abd al-Rahman escaped and came to the Iberian Peninsula with an army supplied by his maternal grandfather in North Africa. This mosque, which would represent the first established Islamic rule on the peninsula, appropriated the city centre; and inscribed the public meeting space with architectural forms that proclaimed a new order with its open sprawling hypostyle plan.
Arab chronicles recount how Abd al-Rahman purchased half of the Hispano-Roman church of San Vicente for the Muslim community’s Friday prayers, and then, in 784, bought the other half on which to erect a new mosque. Around 785, work got under way on the new building, which the sovereign sited on the west side of his palace complex. Construction was based on longitudinal naves perpendicular to the wall used for prayer, a style imported from Syria, from where the ruling dynasty had emigrated. This was actually a continuation of the early-Christian basilica tradition, with a markedly wider and taller central nave. Continuity was also observed in the arrangement of arcades, with elevations revealing a deliberate relationship between Islam and the Roman legacy.
The mosque was constructed using columns, capitals and stone from Roman and Visigoth buildings in Spain, Europe and even Africa, making the early section a veritable archaeological museum. The hall is a hypostyle (the roof is supported by arcades of pillars). The roof was flat, decorated with gold and multi-coloured motifs. The arches rested on, eventually, 1293 columns (of which 856 remain today) made of stones such as jasper, onyz, marble and granite. The double arches allowed higher ceilings and are formed from a horseshoe arch at the lower level and a semi-circular arch on the upper level. The voussoirs (wedge stones in the vaults of the arches) in red brick and white stone are suggestive of a forest of date palms. They evoke Umayyad hegemony in Damascus – alternating voussoirs in Damascus and Jerusalem were made in the Late Roman way with Opus Sectile (inlaid marble into the arch), in Córdoba they were constructed of alternating stone and brick.
The Muslim building emphasizes light and space, and the arches were superimposed in order to heighten and lighten the building and to make it possible to illuminate it from the courtyard. This innovative element seems to have taken its inspiration from Roman aqueducts. Umayyad oneness reflects local identity and tradition: horseshoe arches, which derive from the architecture of the Visigothic period; Corinthian capitals, which are part of the continuous classical tradition shared by the Umayyads and the indigenous Spanish Roman culture. Islam in Spain overlaid a previous Christian civilization, and earlier still a Roman culture, with, later, strong Jewish overtones as well. In its usual way, Islam absorbed these separate cultures to produce a refined society with no contemporary parallels in Europe, and very few since.
Due to the constantly increasing population of the city, the mosque was successively extended to the form seen today. The first extension (833-852) was carried out by Abd al-Rahman II and was the section most affected by the later construction of the cathedral. Al-Hakam II undertook the second, and richest, extension between 961 and 966, and is considered a fine example of Caliphal art. Like Abd al-Rahman II a century earlier, Al-Hakim II in the 960s lengthened the naves of the prayer hall, creating a new qiblah wall (indicating the direction of Mecca) and mihrab (prayer niche) at the south end. The bay immediately in front of the mihrab and the bays to each side form the maksura, the area where the caliphs and courtiers would have prayed. The mihrab and maksura are the most beautifully and intricately decorated parts of the whole mosque.
Above the mihrab, is an equally dazzling dome. It is built of crisscrossing ribs that create pointed arches all lavishly covered with gold mosaic in a radial pattern. This astonishing building technique anticipates later Gothic rib vaulting, though on a more modest scale.
The greatest glory of Al-Hakim II’s extension was the portal of the mihrab – a crescent arch with a rectangular surround known as an alfiz. For the portal’s decoration, Al-Hakim asked the emperor of Byzantium, Nicephoras II Phocas, to send him a mosaicist capable of imitating the superb mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus, one of the great 8th century Syrian Omayyad buildings. The Christian emperor sent the Muslim caliph not only a mosaicist but also a gift of 1600kg of gold mosaic cubes. The gold tesserae create a dazzling combination of dark blues, reddish browns, yellows and golds that form intricate calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran and flower motifs that adorn the arch and give the mihrab portal its magical glitter. Inside the mihrab, a single block of white marble sculpted into the shape of a scallop shell, a symbol of the Quran, forms the dome that amplified the voice of the imam (the person who leads Islamic worship services) throughout the mosque.
The arches of the maksura are the mosque’s most intricate and sophisticated, forming a forest of interwoven, lavishly decorated horseshoe shapes. Equally attractive are the maksura’s skylit domes, decorated with star-patterned stone vaulting. Each dome was held up by four interlocking pairs of parallel ribs, a highly advanced technique in 10th century Europe. Another outstanding features of this section are the cusped arches forming the entrance and boundaries to it and the ‘courtyard of columns’ characterised by its alternating colours with simple Corinthian capitals in the blue marble shafts and compound capitals in the red marble shafts.
The third extension, in 987, is the work of Al-Mansur. This was the most solemn of all and almost doubled the total area of the mosque.
For three centuries, this building was the focal point of Muslim life in the city and inspired countless artists and intellectuals. The poet Muhammad Iqbal, for example, described it as having “countless pillars like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria”, while the people of al-Andalus said that its beauty “was so dazzling that it defied description”.
The Mezquita is often compared architecturally to the Great Mosque of Damascus, which appears to have served as a model. However, structurally speaking, the mosque was a revolutionary building for its time. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus placed an emphasis on verticality, but the Mezquita was intended as a democratically horizontal and simple space, where the spirit could be free to roam and communicate easily with God – a kind of glorious refinement of the original simple Islamic prayer space (usually the open yard of a desert home). The naves, though now closed, were open to the courtyard, and their forest-like pattern of pillars is repeated in rows of orange trees planted across the courtyard. Today, out of the 19 doors along the north side of the mosque, only one door sheds light into the dim interior, dampening the vibrant effect of the red-and-white double arches.
In 1236, Ferdinand III of Castile reconquered Córdoba and had the Mezquits reconsecrated as a church. Alfonso X oversaw the construction of the Capilla Villaviciosa and the Capilla Real, both located within the mosque. The minaret was converted to the cathedral’s belltower, and at one stage its bells were those taken from Santiago de Compostela. The most significant – and deplored – alteration to the mosque was, however, the building of a Renaissance nave in the middle of the structure. Permission was given for this by Charles V, but he is said to have repented of it when he saw the final result. Legend has it that when the king saw the result he was horrified, exclaiming: ‘You have destroyed something that was unique in the world.’ The cathedral took nearly 250 years to complete (1523–1766) and thus exhibits a range of architectural fashions, from plateresque and late Renaissance to extravagant Spanish baroque. Among the later features are the Capilla Mayor’s rich 17th century jasper and red-marble retable (altar screen), and the fine mahogany stalls in the choir, carved in the 18th century by Pedro Duque Cornejo.
Today it is impossible not to lament the destruction of the mosque’s original integrity, but it must be conceded that if the building had not been converted to a cathedral, it would not have been spared the destruction of the Spanish Inquisition, which hunted down “heretical” structures as well as people and saw to it that they were eradicated. The tinkering that went on at the Mezquita until the 18th century undoubtedly saved it.
The Patio de los Naranjos is a lovely courtyard, with its orange, palm and cypress trees and fountains, and forms the entrance to the Mezquita. Sources indicate that the mosque courtyard was planted with fruit trees at least as early as the 9th century. Moreover, there are clear signs that from the very beginning, the mosque was built with hydraulics in mind, both to fill the ablution fountains and to nourish the courtyard plantings. Water was collected first by a simple catchment system that collected and funnelled water from the roof gables into the courtyard, unseen from the ground. During the dry season, water was also brought by aqueduct that was an extension of a Roman aqueduct network, repaired in the Umayyad period. Through its intelligent harvesting of water, the mosque was linked to the larger environment of mountains, plain, river and city.
The principal entrance to the mosque is the Puerta del Perdón, (The Gate of Forgiveness), a Mudejar style portal from the 14th century located on the north side of the Mezquita. This is one of the most important doors in the ceremonial life of the Cathedral as it sees the passing of some of the most important religious solemnities. Completed in the year 1377, it has since undergone various reforms, such as that of 1650 by the architect Sebastián Vidal. On it we can see the remains of some mural paintings which, attributed to Antonio del Castillo, represent Our Lady of the Assumption, flanked by Saint Michel and Saint Raphael.
You don’t have to spend long in Seville to see why so many operas have been set there. A sense of drama pervades the Andalusian capital, from its Moorish royal palaces to the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, from the extravagant Catholic festivals to the way the strum of a guitar tends to send a whole room into syncopated clapping. Seville is a city of passion where matadors and cantadors still make their mark. Maybe it’s this penchant for pomp that keeps the city dynamic in lean times.
Seville has provided inspiration to famous writers, artists and musicians over the years to produce some of the pieces that most define Spanish culture today. The famous Renaissance painter Diego Velázquez was a through-and-through “Sevillano”. Antonio Machado, the Manuel brothers and Joaquín Romero Murube were all influential Sevillian poets. Miguel de Cervantes conceived the idea for his most famous book “El ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha” whilst imprisoned in the Royal Prison of Seville, and the story of George Bizet’s opera “Carmen” was written and set in Seville by the French writer Prosper Mérimée.
Then there is the food… Food in Seville is not just about what you eat – it is about how, when and where you eat it too.
A day in this Andalucían city starts slowly. If you are an early riser, go back to bed or if you must get up, dive into the nearest cafe and gulp down a cup of eye-wateringly strong coffee with the early shift workers at the bar (take outs are rare). For something more substantial, drop in with the second wave of breakfasters between 9 and 10am.
After breakfast, it’s time for sightseeing – the city has enough churches, art galleries, monuments and museums to fill several mornings – but do not even think about lunch before 2pm. It may be the main meal for many Sevillanos, but it is also not a faux pas to tapea (go for tapas) and delay the feast until evening. Many bars and restaurants make the choice easy by offering both tapas and full meals during lunch. Local specialties to look out for include huevos a la flamenca (eggs baked with chorizo and tomato sauce); seafood, especially squid, from nearby Atlantic waters; and gazpacho, a cold tomato-based soup made with bread, garlic and olive oil.
With so much sightseeing to do, keep going after lunch, or, like many Andalucíans, find somewhere horizontal for a siesta between 3 and 5pm. If you go for the siesta, be sure to wake up for the merienda, a life-saving snack break around 5pm that promises to give an energy boost with heavy doses of caffeine and sugary cakes 🙂
Tourists are often used having to their main meal in the evening, but it is far more usual to start bar-hopping around 8:30pm, grazing on tapas and sipping glasses of locally brewed Cruzcampo beer or dry fino sherry, made in the nearby city of Jerez de la Frontera. We are, of course, partial to cherry sangria 🙂 In Seville, dinner is rarely a single-setting affair; a meal can stretch all the way across town and well past midnight.
While you are bar-hopping, you’re bound to stumble on a touristy flamenco show. Seville is the birthplace of the flamenco, that severe stomping dance and haunting song. And flamenco is in Seville’s blood.
Infusing Spanish folklore with sounds from the Levant, North Africa and India, flamenco music was popularised in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries in western Andalucía. One of its hotbeds was Seville’s working class district of Triana, a bastion of Andalucía’s Roma people who sang evocatively about their lives and struggles in solemn but sensuous laments.
During the music’s Golden Age, from the 1860s to the 1910s, Seville spawned some of Spain’s finest performers. And with Unesco listing flamenco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage (culturally important traditions, practices, and rituals) in 2010, the city continues to stand at the vanguard of the vital and precious art.
Along with the nearby cities of Jerez and Cádiz, Seville is a perfect place to see flamenco in the land of its genesis. But, with an abundance of venues, finding the right show can be a tricky business for the uninitiated.
Tablaos are flamenco’s biggest venues, offering spectacular, highly choreographed extravaganzas of music and dance in specific locales where drinks and sometimes dinner is served. While the professionalism and musicianship in these places are of a high standard, tablaos often get an eye-roll from flamenco purists who claim they lack the crucial elements that make flamenco unique, namely, spontaneity, grit, passion and perhaps, the odd fluffed note.
Tablaos got a particularly bad rap in the 1960s and ‘70s when watered-down operatic shows were lambasted for being insipid and decadent. More recently, however, the performances have started to reconnect with flamenco’s roots by focusing less on commercial songs and more on earthy Roma-derived music, and are particularly popular with tourists looking for a night of theatrical entertainment with a recognizable Andalucían flavour.
By far the best flamenco gigs in Seville are in its peñas, small private clubs conceived and maintained by aficionados dedicated to preserving the art. Tourist offices do not direct visitors towards these places primarily because they rarely offer a regular schedule of shows, but if you are lucky enough to stumble upon one, you will be experiencing flamenco at its unadulterated best – a raw, uncompromising, wonderfully uplifting spectacle where fervent artists uncover a piece of their soul in every stanza. To find a pulsating peña on any given night, you will have to rely on word-of-mouth, posters taped onto lampposts, or, even better, your own ears – simply wander Seville’s streets and let the music lure you in.
For something with a bit more grit, head across the Guadalquivir River to the old Gypsy district of Triana, which was a major hub for the development of the musical style. Join the line of locals outside Casa Anselma, the salon of a celebrated local dancer who works the door herself when it opens at midnight. Those who make it past her are then packed in for a wonderfully raucous unplugged back-room show of good old-fashioned, foot-stomping, booze-fueled flamenco.
Seville has been one of the most important cities in Spain since ancient times. The first settlers of the site have been identified with the Tartessian culture. The destruction of their settlement is attributed to the Carthaginians, giving way to the emergence of the Roman city of Hispalis, built very near the Roman colony of Itálica (now Santiponce), which was only 9km northwest of present-day Seville. Itálica, the birthplace of the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, was founded in 206-205 BCE. Itálica is well-preserved and gives an impression of how Hispalis may have looked in the later Roman period. Its ruins are now an important tourist attraction.
The long presence of the Moors, from 711 to 1248 CE, left permanent imprints on the city. The end of the Caliphate of Cordoba (11th century) brought about the splendour of the Taifa Kingdom of Seville, especially under the reign of al-Mutamid, the poet king.
The years of highest splendour in Seville happened after the discovery of America. During the 16th and 17th centuries its port was one of the most important in Spain, because it had the monopoly of the foreign trade by sea. Thanks to the trade carried out during that period in Seville, many mansions, stately homes, churches and convents were built.
The main monuments in town – the cathedral, the Reales Alcázares Palace and the General Archive of the Indies – have the UNESCO World Heritage designation. The Gothic cathedral stands in the white-washed Santa Cruz neighbourhood, built on the Almohad Great Mosque of Seville. Some of the Moorish elements still remain – the old minaret, which is the famous Giralda, and the Orange Tree Courtyard.
Next to the cathedral you can find the Reales Alcázares Palace, which is also built on the site of a 9th century Moorish fortress, but it was Pedro I the Cruel (14th century) who introduced the Mudejar decoration. Many rooms, magnificent halls and romantic courtyards are enclosed behind the walls. Vast gardens, with Moorish and Renaissance elements, surround the building.
The Reales Alcázares Palace is the chosen stage for the last season of “Game of Thrones”.
The other monument, the General Archive of the Indies takes us to Spanish Renaissance art. It is one of Europe’s most important document centres relating to the conquest of the New World. Another important Renaissance construction in the city is the Casa de Pilatos, a palace which combines Gothic and Mudejar elements with imported Italian Renaissance details.
In 1526, the marriage in Seville of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (Charles I of Spain) and his cousin Isabella of Portugal occasioned the construction of a building for the city government that would represent the power and importance of the city at that time.
Until then, the council, or cabildo, of Seville had its seat in some houses of the Corral de los Olmos, a location now occupied by the Plaza de la Virgen de los Reyes, behind the Cathedral of Seville. The new building was to be built at the Plaza de San Francisco, central to the city and its commercial district, behind the eponymous convent and in front of the Audiencia (judicial court).
The building was designed by architect Diego de Riaño, who supervised its construction from 1527 until his death in 1534. He was succeeded by Juan Sánchez, who built the arcade which now connects the building with the Plaza Nueva, and later on by Hernán Ruiz the Younger.
The building has a large façade divided into five modules, decorated by Plateresque reliefs; these include grotesque motifs inspired by Italian Florentine architecture, heraldry symbols, allegories of Justice and Good Government and depictions of mythological or historical characters such as Hercules, Julius Caesar and Charles V.
According to mythology, Hercules was the town’s founder. Certainly to the Romans it was a significant city, with the ruins of the aqueduct, a temple and other civic structures clearly visible. The city was walled during the time of Julius Caesar and the walls reconstructed during the Moorish period. These are the fortifications we see today.
The Vandals and Visigoths conquered the province in which Seville was located, Hispania Baetica, during the fifth and sixth centuries, but the most significant conquest of the city came in 712. The Moors made the city capital for the Umayyad Caliphate, and the Amoravid and Almohad dynasties, and it retained this privilege until the 13th century. In 1248, Seville fell to the forces of King Ferdinand III, a significant marker of the progress of the Reconquista. While the city is prized today for its Moorish aspect, it is nevertheless the case that much of Seville was constructed in the Mudéjar style, an Islamicising tendency of medieval Spanish Christians.
After the Castilian conquest, a number of important buildings were constructed: the cathedral, for example, was built during the 15th century in a Gothic style, and the royal family took over the Moors’ Palace as their residence. At the time of Pedro I, the monarchs moved their residence to the Alcázar and it is still used as the official royal residence of Seville. The process of converting the non-Christians was at times ruthless, whatever the effect of Moorish style on the rulers, and in 1391 all the synagogues were closed and some converted to churches. Many non-Christians were killed, others exiled and still others forced to convert. On 6 February 1481 Seville’s first auto de fé took place as part of the Inquisition, and six people were burned alive.
Seville certainly profited from the exploitation of the New World, however, with all goods imported to Spain passing through the city’s Casa de Contratacion before distribution. Sevilla’s port had the royal monopoly for trade with the colonies, and as Spain itself had the European monopoly, merchants came from other nations’ trade centres to do business through Seville. In the 16th century, the monopoly was broken with the opening up of Cádiz, and the Great Plague of 1649 reduced the population by half. It did not reach its previous levels again until the 19th century.
From the 18th century, Seville entered a decline, and as the Guadalquivir river silted up the city’s harbour the shipping and therefore economic bases of the city’s livelihood disappeared. But with the 19th century – unlike other cities of Andalusia – Seville entered a period of industrialisation and by the 20th century had re-established its regional importance. It fell very quickly at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
Seville’s economy is today centred on tourism – particularly during Holy Week when the city hosts an impressive and historic array of Easter parades and services – and on film production: its locations are often used for film sets.
Plaza de España has impressed several Hollywood movie teams and has been used for location shooting for scenes in Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
The Plaza de España (Spanish Square) is a massive semicircular plaza built in the Maria Luisa Park, right in the middle of Seville. The square was constructed in 1928 for the Ibero-Amrican Exposition that the city hosted in 1929, and was used to showcase Spain´s technology and industry exhibits. The building runs continuously along the half circle with a large fountain in the middle and a bordering lake. It is a prime example of the Renaissance Revival style and was designed by Anibal González. The details in every corner are spectacular and one of my personal favorites is the tiled alcoves along the walls of the square. Each alcove represents a different province in Spain with beautiful painted tiles. Today the buildings are used as governmental offices.
Real Alcázar is Seville’s royal residence, originally a Moorish fort built under the Almohades, who called it Al-Muwarak. All that remains of this section is, however, a section of wall and a cross-axially planned garden. The subsequent palace built by the Christians in the same location is a fine example of the Mudéjar style. Its lower levels, on the Patio de las Doncellas (the legendary 100 virgins demanded by the Moors as a Christian tribute each year), were built for King Peter I “the Cruel” and the inscriptions describe him as the city’s “sultan”. Here too are the sumptuous reception rooms around a large reflecting pool and its sunken gardens. In the mid-16th century Charles V added the upper story in an Italian Renaissance style, with designs by Luis de Vegas.
The block on the west side of the entrance courtyard contains the square, vaulted Hall of Justice. The interior of the Hall opens onto the Patio del Yesso (the “Court of Stucco”), whose name refers to the court’s decoration in carved stucco. The two spaces are connected by water – a shallow fountain basin in the Hall’s pavement flows into the pool of the Patio del Yesso along a shallow channel, much like the pavilion water features in the Alhambra’s Court of the Lions.
The Ambassadors’ Hall was the setting for the marriage in 1526 of Charles V and Isabel of Portugal. It has an Arabian Nights feel, resplendent with beautiful decoration, including painted plaster mouldings, Arabic writing and handmade geometric tiles. Four balconies, which are supported by dragons, are a later addition.
A permanent exhibition devoted to the Mudéjar style is open in the recently restored Palace of the Marquis of la Algaba, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Known as the Interpretation Center of Mudéjar Art, the modest English-translated exhibition puts the style into historical context, introduces the city’s main Mudéjar sites and includes pieces from the Archaeological Museum of Seville, as well as from several monasteries throughout the city.
The Barrio de Santa Cruz was Seville’s Jewish quarter, the judería. After Ferdinand III’s conquest, he relocated the Jewish population – then the peninsula’s second largest – into this neighbourhood. With the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the Barrio began to decline and underwent significant urban renewal in the 18th century; one of the synagogues was converted into the church of St Bartholomew. The entire neighbourhood takes its name from the church that once occupied the Plaza de Santa Cruz. The Iglesia de Santa Cruz was a Mudéjar church constructed over a synagogue and incorporated the floor of the Jewish building into its designs. It was demolished during the Napoleonic Wars but parts of the pavement remain. The church of Santa María la Blanca, just outside the Barrio, is a 14th century synagogue in the Mudéjar style.
The city’s Cathedral is a grand monument to the Gothic style, completed in little over a century (between 1402 and 1506), and probably designed by the French architect of Rouen Cathedral. It shares its large rectangular base with the mosque it was built over but it is certainly much higher and is the third largest cathedral in Europe after London’s St Paul’s and St Peter’s in Rome. (In terms of volume, however, it is bigger than both and covers 11,520 square metres, with a central nave of 42 metres.)
The mosque survives in the Moorish entrance (the Patio de los Naranjos) and in the Giralda, originally a minaret and now the bell tower. (A giraldillo is a weather vane, like that on the tower’s summit.) The minaret was built in 1184-96 under the Almohads. It was topped with four copper spheres and was an observation tower as much as a place from which to make the call to prayer. When it became clear to the Moors in 1248 that their city would be captured by the Christians, they reportedly wished to knock the Giralda down rather than see it destroyed by the Christians – but the leader of the latter, King Alfonso X, firmly forbade it. In the 16th century four more levels were added to the bell tower, along with a bronze sculpture representing Faith. Inside, there are no stairs: only a series of 35 gently inclined ramps, wide enough to allow two guards on horseback to pass. We walked up and down.
Christopher Columbus’s tomb is just inside the Puerta de San Cristóbal: originally buried in Havana, he was transferred to Seville in 1902 and a new tomb was carved in a late Romantic style by Arturo Melida. Doubts persist, however, about whether the remains inside do actually belong to Columbus. In the centre of the church is the choir, with elaborate 15th century choir stalls, opening up onto the Capilla Mayor. The sumptuous retablo or altarpiece here is the work of Pieter Dancart, a Flemish craftsman who was reputed to have worked alone on this project. The 45 carved panels show the life of Christ and their wood is covered in gold. This is the largest altarpiece in the world.
The Sacristia Mayor was designed in 1528 in the Plateresque style and houses the treasury. Among the displays are silver reliquaries and monstrances, artworks by Goya, Murillo, and Zurbarán, and a collection of skulls. Here too are the keys presented to Fernando by the Jewish and Moorish communities on the surrender of the city. An inscription in Arabic says “May Allah render eternal the dominion of Islam in this city.” In the northeast corner is the Capilla Real, with Ferdinand III’s holy body here. His wife, Beatrice of Swabia, and son, Alfonso the Wise, are also both buried in the chapel.
The Hospital de la Caridad is a 17th century building that showcases the Sevilian Baroque. Inside is a double patio, divided by arches, and the ornate facade was designed by Leonardo de Figueroa. The tiles were made in Seville according to Murillo’s drawings. Inside the building is richly decorated, with frescoes in the ceiling by Valdés Leal. The main altarpiece is a 17th century work by Bernardo Simón de Pineda and incorporates sculptures by Pedro Roldán. Murillo also contributed a number of paintings and a painted crucifix.
The hospital was originally designed as a poorhouse and it is still a retreat for the city’s poor and elderly.
Of course, everything that has traditionally made Seville so captivating survives – beauty and hospitality, colourful fiestas, lively street life, as well as the spirits of Don Juan (a legend born here) and Carmen (the operatic embodiment of Seville). We loved the houses and the cool courtyards…
Layered over traditional Seville is a new cultural and commercial role. Today a bullet train whisks travellers to Madrid in just over two hours, and there is a new international airport. Recreational and commercial boats once more ply Seville’s Guadalquivir River, until recently silted and practically unnavigable. Shopping streets bustle, and none is more delightful than the pedestrian Sierpes Street, crowded with small shops. There are many new hotels and deluxe restaurants, but casual tapas bars remain a quintessential Seville experience.
We stayed at Las Casas de la Juderia, Calle Santa Maria la Blanca, 5.
The hotel comprises of 27 houses from the city’s old Jewish quarter which are linked through patios and passageways. The remains of pedestals, Roman statues, amphoras, earthenware jugs, antiques and original furniture decorate all the corners and patios. Getting lost in this labyrinth of alleys, some of which were main roads, on the way to your own room, is guaranteed!
I feel like talking about maths. I’ve had this overwhelming desire since Sunday night!
Did you know this equation makes a lemon?
What happens if you add sugar?
This equation already has sugar in it, and makes a doughnut!
Mmmm, we’ll have some doughnuts while you tell us the story…
Back in April 2012, we were in Barcelona and we were lucky enough to see the Imaginary exhibition in the Santa Ágata Chapel, at the Museum of History of Barcelona (MUHBA) in Plaça del Rei. It was an interactive mathematics exhibition that inspired the imagination with beautiful images. It allowed anyone to step into the world of maths! That was very exciting! Maths is fun! You could create and play with beautiful mathematical surfaces using the Surfer software and explore the symmetry of tiling patterns with Ornamente.
Barcelona was the twelfth city that was showcasing the Imaginary exhibition in Spain. Each city had made the exhibition their own, relating mathematics to other subjects. In Barcelona, the exhibition related mathematics, art and patrimony, looking at the connections between mathematics and the art and architecture of the city, and was jointly organized by MUHBA, the Societat Catalana de Mathemàtiques (SCM) and Real Sociedad Matemática Española (RSME). The exhibition showcased the use of practical geometry in the architecture of three Catalan Gothic buildings – Pedralbes monastery, Santa Àgata Chapel and Tinell Hall, the early use of perspective in the frescoes of Saint Michael’s Chapel at the Pedralbes monastery, the use of mathematical calculations in the design and construction of the metro stations at Plaça d’Espanya and Plaça de Catalunya and the use of mathematical calculations in the design of the mechanical clock of the Barcelona Cathedral, the Great Clock of 1576. The photographic display of vaulted ceilings of cathedrals, corners of intersecting arches, minarets on modern towers with images of mathematical singularities, explained how mathematics and geometry are at the centre of art, architecture and technology.
Not in the exhibition, but a particularly striking Spanish example of mathematics influencing art is The Swallow’s Tail by Salvador Dalí.
The Swallow’s Tail was completed in the spring in 1983, the last in a series based of paintings based on catastrophe theory, and was Salvador Dalí’s last painting. Catastrophe theory, based on the thinkings of Rene Thom, posited that there are seven equilibrium surfaces: fold, cusp, swallowtail, butterfly, hyperbolic umbilic, elliptic umbilic, and parabolic umbilic. Dalí incorporated each one of these surfaces into his painting, alongside the gentle and elegant curves of the cello. Set against a gentle blue background, the painting is more than just a series of shapes and curves; it is a precise representation of Dalí’s understanding of and interest in mathematical theory.
The Surfer program draws pretty mathematical surfaces based on simple or very complex mathematical equations.
The Clebsch Diagonal Surface, or Klein’s icosahedral cubic surface, is one of the most famous surfaces in mathematics. It was described by Alfred Clebsch in 1871 and Felix Klein in 1873. It is a very special example of the so-called cubic surfaces which is highly symmetric and on which there are 27 lines in a very special position.
On Clebsch’s diagonal surface, all 27 of the complex lines (Solomon’s seal lines) present on a general smooth cubic surface are real. In addition, there are 10 points on the surface where 3 of the 27 lines meet. These points are called Eckardt points, and the Clebsch diagonal surface is the unique cubic surface containing 10 such points.
Rudolf Friedrich Alfred Clebsch, a German mathematician who made important contributions to algebraic geometry and invariant theory, died in 1872 at the age of only 39. He had met Felix Klein and supported his appointment as professor in 1872, at the age of only 23. Clebsch regarded Klein as likely to become the leading mathematician of his day. Over the years, some of Klein’s students included Adolf Hurwitz, Walther von Dyck, Karl Rohn, Carl Runge, Max Planck, Luigi Bianchi and Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro. Klein took over from Clebsch as the editor of mathematical research journal Mathematische Annalen. Together with Carl Neumann, Clebsch founded Mathematische Annalen in 1868. But it was only under Klein’s management that the Mathematische Annalen first rivalled then surpassed Crelle’s Journal (founded in 1826) based out of the University of Berlin. By the way, both journals are still being published.
In the 1800’s, mathematicians exploring the nature of surfaces in space began to construct physical models of those surfaces, as an aid to teaching and research. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the use of models for reasearch and teaching of mathematics began to spread and saw mathematicians of the highest caliber engaged in this effort. The mass production of such models began in the 1870s mainly in Munich when Felix Klein started teaching at the Technische Hochschule in 1875 and began his collaboration with Alexander Brill.
Klein also took over the direction of the mathematical models collection in Göttingen. Under his direction the model collection was systematically modernized and completed for the education in geometry and geodesy. This collection was considered so important that Klein exhibited the models on the occasion of the World’s Columbian Exposition 1893 in Chicago. The collection can
still be seen in the mathematical department in Göttingen. These models are of highly complicated surfaces yet they are incredibly precise. And no one knows how they were made with such accuracy, a trade secret that seems to have vanished. The forms of these surfaces appear, consciously and unconsciously, in the work of many sculptors.
We saw models of the mathematical surfaces made with the Surfer program. They make for cool toys!
The other software program, Ornamente, allowed visitors to explore the symmetry of tiling patterns. If you want to see a marvellous array of tile patterns, Alhambra is the place to visit. Some people say that tilings with all 17 possible “wallpaper groups” as symmetries can be found in the Alhambra, other people disagree. Whatever the number of wallpaper groups (or plane crystallographic groups) present at Alhambra, there is a lot of them. But not more than 17, since there are only 17 possible wallpaper groups.
The exhibition also showcased practical geometry and how it was applied in the design of architecture, specifically Catalan Gothic architecture. Based on an ad quadratum model, the plans and elevations characteristic of Catalan architecture adhered to combinations of that geometrical figure (the square), giving rise to marked horizontality with rectangular volumes in which buttresses were placed inside the walls and, when projecting upwards, tended to be stunted and rarely surmounted by pinnacles.
Churches of Catalan Gothic have a simple, though finely finished, exterior. The facades are barely distinguished, giving no hint that some of the most magnificent Gothic interiors ever built lie behind them. There is also considerable decorative restraint inside the church.
In interiors, the emphasis was on integrating all elements into a unitary whole, in which light played an important part. In the finest examples, the main characteristic of the interior was unfragmented space and marked decorative simplicity. Church plans consisted of one or three naves, while side chapels were designed as integral parts of a large hall. Octagonal, circular or helicoidal clustered piers were arranged so as not to impede a view of the whole, and the amplitude of the central nave was achieved through its vast width, rather than through any marked difference in height in comparison with that of the aisles. The negligible difference in height between the nave and the isles enabled large supporting arches to be erected over octagonal pillars and create a diaphanous interior and transparency of volume. Rib vaulting was quadripartite, while stellar vaults lacking any superfluous ornamentation were common in chapterhouses and major chapels. Buildings also have fewer windows because the Mediterranean light is much stronger than the rest of Europe. The overall result is a feeling of lightness.
The Pedralbes Monastery is one of the finest examples of Catalan Gothic in Barcelona, both for the church and the three-storey cloister, one of the most spacious and graceful of this style to be found anywhere. The name “Pedralbes” derives from the Latin Petras Albas (white stones), a white stone is the cornerstone of the apsis.
The church itself was designed by the same architects who built the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (another example of Catalan Gothic), and features the same polygonal columns and geometric, Cistercian simplicity that came to exemplify the best of Catalan Gothic. The monastic church of Santa Maria de Pedralbes was finished in just over a year, and as such it was not influenced by any other architectural style making it a fine example of particularly homogeneous gothic architecture in Catalonia. The three-story cloister was built beginning around the same time, and completed by the early 1400’s.
The church has a single nave, with rib vaults and a polygonal apse, and houses a Gothic retablo by Jaume Huguet, who was a highly sought after artist and who was commissioned by the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon to paint several altar pieces. Jaume Huguet’s death in 1492 also marked the demise of the age of splendour of Catalan Gothic painting.
The monastery houses a large collection of furniture and manuscripts from the middle ages. The former dormitory houses a permanent exhibition of painters such as Rubens, Canaletto, Tintoretto, Velázquez and Beato Angelico. Another highlight of the monastery is the Saint Michael’s Chapel which is decorated with a magnificent set of mural paintings, commissioned in the year 1346 to the painter Ferrer Bassa by the abbess Francesca Saportella, with a view to creating her own private cell. The paintings, inspired by the Franciscan Devotions, illustrate the Passion of Christ, the Joys of the Virgin and various figures of saints, and they are a masterpiece of the Italian style that prevailed in 14th century Gothic art.
Ferrer Bassa introduced the Italo-Gothic style which is characterized by balanced forms and grave mannerism. Figures are painted against monochrome or gold backgrounds in a formula that barely hints at a third dimension.
They are also an example of use of perspective and minimal use of colour contrast to hint to a dimension of depth to the painting. This was before there was clear understanding of the rules of perspective, including the central vanishing point which appears to have been first used in 1423 by Masolino da Panicale.
The 14th century Saló del Tinell (Tinell Hall) was built for king Pere the Ceremonious. It has a parade of 15m arches (among the largest ever built without reinforcement) holding up the roof. It is another perfect example of Catalan Gothic. The hall is large (35 metres long by 17 wide and 12 high) and was used to receive ambassadors and hold banquets. It is said that the Catholic Kings, Isabella and Ferdinand, received Columbus here on his return from America. The hall was later used by the Inquisition. The Saló del Tinell, along with Santa Àgata chapel, forms part of MUHBA.
The exhibition also covered the innovative contributions to the design and construction of subway stations in Barcelona, of the mathematician, physician and engineer Esteve Terradas.
Esteban Terradas i Illa was a prominent Catalan physicist and engineer. He played a key role in the creation of a modern physics community in Spain during the first decades of the 20th century. He held doctorates in both physics and mathematics and also received two degrees in engineering. As a university professor in Barcelona and Madrid, he introduced students to relativity and quantum physics at a time when it was not common practice. He was also the driving force behind Einstein’s visit to Spain in 1923.
Terradas was also active as a consultant in the Spanish aeronautics, electric power, telephone and railway industries. He was involved in the project to build the metro stations at Plaça d’Espanya and Plaça de Catalunya. Both stations were opened in 1926.
On a side note, we used the metro on our first day in Barcelona and it was only sheer damn luck that saved us from falling victim to a pickpocket. After that we took precautions to ensure we didn’t have a repeat experience in Barcelona, or anywhere else. Unfortunately Barcelona is also known as the world’s pickpocket capital.
Not sure Barcelona was the world’s pickpocket capital in the 16th century as well, but it did have the largest mechanical clock in the world at the time. The Consell de Cent (roughly translated, the Council of the One Hundred, a governmental institution of Barcelona with one hundred members) wanted the biggest clock in the world and it commissioned the Grand Clock (or Flemish Clock) to be three times the size of the largest clock built to date, even though the clock was going to be inside the Tower of the Hours and nobody was going to see it. The clock was made of cast iron, weighed more than 5 tonnes and was six meters tall. The clock marked the time and the rhythm of the city for almost 300 years, until 1864 when it was dismantled. In 1985, the clock was transferred to the Santa Agata Chapel, in a room behind the altarpiece. It was a mechanical clock, with a balance wheel timekeeper, which was invented in Europe at the beginning of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656 by Christiaan Huygens. It doesn’t look like the Grand Clock has any dials, which would be consistent with the mechanical clocks that didn’t have any dial or hands; rather they used to strike the hours and produce sound.
All the doughnuts are gone!
You told a really long story! The digital clocks we have don’t make any sound to tell you’ve been talking too long! 🙂
We got it out of the box and plugged it in! It has lights and a moving train and it sings Christmas carols.
What about this one?
We supervised Jean Pierre Sancho when he made it. We made sure it has lots of decorations. They are all edible!
This reminds me of the city of ginger bread houses…
That’s where we had our first cupcake! So many cupcakes ago now…
The ginger bread houses were very pretty!
Park Güell was designed by Antoni Gaudí upon the request of Count Eusebi Güell, who wanted to build a stylish park for the aristocrats of Barcelona. The Count had planned to build a housing development that would take advantage of the area’s views and fresh air; however, only two show houses were completed. Gaudí himself inhabited one of them, designed by architect Francesc Berenguer in 1904. The house is now a museum showcasing some of Gaudí’s work. The park is a common tourist attraction in Barcelona, and is known for its famous terrace and iconic entrance, flanked by two Gaudí buildings.
The park was built between 1900 and 1914 and was officially opened as a public park in 1926. In 1984, UNESCO declared the park a World Heritage Site under “Works of Antoni Gaudí”.
Park Güell belongs to Gaudí’s naturalist phase (first decade of the 20th century). During this period, the architect perfected his personal style through inspiration from organic shapes found in nature. He put into practice a series of new structural solutions rooted in the deep analysis of geometry and its shapes. To that, Gaudí adds creative liberty and an imaginative, ornamental creation. Starting from a sort of baroquism, his works acquire a structural richness of forms and volumes, free of the rational rigidity or any sort of classic premisses. In the design of Park Güell, Gaudí unleashed all his architectonic genius and put to practice much of his innovative structural solutions that would become the symbol of his organic style and that would culminate in the creation of the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family (aka Sagrada Familia in Catalan).
Gaudí mixes his flamboyant style with nature to come up with structures that rise from the ground like trees but are identifiable as built elements never-the-less. The simultaneous accommodation of and respect for nature is one of the most beautiful qualities of this work, where Gaudí is said to make visual jokes, experimenting with the relationship between nature and architecture.
Gaudí built birds nests in the terrace walls. The walls imitate the trees planted on them.
Park Güell’s largest attraction is a terrace that overlooks the city of Barcelona, contained by a curved bench flowing around it. Mosaics, ceramic shards, and iron balustrades are all used to create this space, and the comfort of the rigid bench is remarkable. Throughout the project colorful tiling is used as well as playful mosaics and surface treatments. The architecture elegantly accommodates the qualities of the existing landscape, becoming an extension of the landscape itself.
The unique shape of the serpentine bench enables little bears sitting on it to converse privately, although the square is large. The bench is tiled and in order to dry up quickly after it rains, and to stop people from sitting in the wet part of the bench, small bumps were installed by Gaudí.
Another colourful mosaic work is the park dragon.
Doric columns support the roof of the lower court which forms the central terrace, with serpentine seating round its edge.
Don Eusebi Güell (from 1910 the Count of Güell) met the young architect, Antoni Gaudí, following a visit to the World Fair held in Paris in 1878, where he had seen Gaudí’s work at the Spanish Pavilion. Returning to Barcelona, Güell searched out the author of the design. From that time until Güell’s death in 1918, he and Gaudí became inseparable. Their friendship of almost 40 years was much more than a relationship between client and architect. In 1906, each went to live in his own respective house in Güell Park, and there they were in contact on an almost daily basis. Güell saw Gaudí as the man who could provide him with uniquely designed buildings and he allowed Gaudí to develop his ideas in absolute freedom. For Eusebi Güell, Gaudí designed the pavilions of the Güell Estate (1884-1887), the Palacio Güell (1886-1888), the Güell Cellars (1895-1897), the Crypt of the Güell Estate Church (1908-1917), the Park Güell (1900-1914) and other smaller works.
It says here that Antoni Gaudí’s unique, personal and incomparable architectural language defies classification. No it doesn’t! It’s the ginger bread house style! Look at the Casa Batlló and the Casa Milà!
The Casa Batlló and the Casa Milà were the culmination of Gaudí’s naturalistic architecture. The Casa Batlló, covered with pieces of coloured glass ceramic, and the Casa Milà, with its cliff-like aspect, seem to be symbols of sea and earth.
Casa Batlló, built between 1904 and 1906 in the heart of the city, is the most emblematic work of the brilliant Catalan architect. It is a masterpiece of shape, colour and light. Gaudí’s style encompasses all that defines the Art Nouveau, a School of French decorative artists from the 1890s who took influence from sinuous shapes in plants and nature. He explored his interests in flowing shapes, patterns and colors in the Casa Batlló, which was designed for the wealthy cotton baron Josep Batlló as a jolting contradiction to the rigid forms that surround it.
Gaudí gave Casa Batlló a facade that is original, fantastical and full of imagination. He replaced the original facade with a new composition of stone and glass. He ordered the external walls to be redesigned to give them a wavy shape, which was then plastered with lime mortar and covered with a mosaic of fragments of coloured glass and ceramic discs. The front facade reveals striking textures, colors, and imagery that work together to conjure thoughts of fairy tales and phantasmal dreams. The larger sculptural pieces that create the boundaries of the balconies and that frame the entrance resemble bones, suggesting a septum, eyebrows or clavicles, which keep to the anthropomorphic tone. The balcony railings in the shape of masks are made of wrought iron cast in a single piece and are secured by two anchor points in such a way that the balconies partly project outwards.
As a whole, the facade is a joyful and allegorical representation, full of organic elements and colours and charged with symbolism, a wonderful spectacle in the city which inspires the most sublime sentiments in all those who gaze upon it. The house is a dialogue between light and colour.
At the top of the facade, the roof is in the shape of an animal’s back with large iridescent scales. The spine which forms the ornamental top is composed of huge spherical pieces of masonry in colours which change as you move along the roof-tree from one end to the other.
The dramatic humpback mound “is clad on one side by armour plating resembling an armadillo’s, while on the other side it is covered with trancedis fragments producing a subtle white-into-orange sheen. The spine is dotted with bulbous green and blue vertebrae, suggesting that these might be organisms in themselves, while the flowing lines where roof meets facade are edged with other armatures of saurian bone and joint.”
The creaturesque resemblance is made strikingly apparent at night, when the facade glows and haunts with it’s bone-like skeletal structures and dramatic shadows. Antoni Gaudí worked closely with a textile manufacturer named Josep Maria Jujol who assisted primarily in the ornamentation and use of color on the surface treatments.
The interior is just as alive as it appears from the street; the knobbly spine lines the staircase through flowing wall forms of scale-like surfaces. The winding and twisting exhibited in the decorative features of doors, frames, peepholes, moldings and screens are all interpretations of the natural forms that inspired Gaudí’s art nouveau style. The long gallery of the main suite, the Noble Floor, overlooking Passeig de Gràcia, is composed of wooden-framed windows which are opened and closed by raising and lowering using counterweights. They are unusual in that there are no jambs or mullions, so that it is possible to raise all of the window panes and have a continuous panoramic opening running the full width of the room. The Noble Floor was the residence of the Batlló family.
From the entrance hall on the ground floor, a sturdy iron railing separates the private access to the Batlló family residence. A grand wooden staircase leads up from a hall with vaulted ceilings and skylights shaped like tortoises’ shells. The spine of some huge animal carved from fine hardwood rises up as a banister through impossible spaces, giving the whole space an underwater atmosphere, transporting visitors to the fantasy world of Jules Verne. Here, the idea of the depths of the sea is very believable, with colours and shades of the surface of the sea and sand, and other marine allusions.
The building atrium is an extremely important part of the refurbishment. Gaudí enlarged the light well and covered the walls entirely in relief glazed tiles in varying shades of blue, which are darker in colour at the top and lighter towards the bottom, thus achieving an even distribution of the light. The windows are smaller higher up where more natural light can enter, whereas they get larger as you move further down. Below the windows there are wooden slits which can be opened and closed to ensure good ventilation. In the middle of the light well he installed the lift, with its fine original wooden cabin which still functions today.
The vast central skylight is composed of huge pieces of iron and glass panes, and it spans the large building well which was widened by Gaudí. It is this huge skylight that allows a cascade of light to enter and illuminate the whole building well.
The work as a whole is a marvel of ornamental design thanks to its use of emerging trades. Gaudí worked with the most highly skilled craftsmen in every profession. He had a great advantage over other architects. He came from a family of craftsmen, especially copper and iron smiths, and as a child he was trained to be an iron smith. Later he became familiar with carpentry, iron casting and modeling in plaster. This training enabled him to direct his workmen in logical ways that were easily understood. The transformation of wrought iron, in which curves are not only for rhetorical and aesthetic purposes, but also provide structural support; undulating works in wood such as three-dimensional doors with surprising embossed patterns; colourful stained-glass windows which filter the natural light; raised ceramic tiles; decorative pieces of masonry made from Montjuic sandstone: all of these elements are testament to the skill of the craftsmen of the period.
The loft, which is an area of well-ventilated sweeping spaces reminiscent of Mediterranean architecture, stands out on account of its arrangement of arches. From the main room of the loft, visitors can observe Gaudí’s wonderful and organic world. In it, you can appreciate the structure of ribs and breastbone which create the parabolic arches, the latest in modernist design, which support the roof terrace. The spiral stairs leading to the roof terrace, with their structural minimalism, are also very striking. The iron handrail, with its simple lines, is a 20th century sculpture in its own right.
Moving through the house, visitors are constantly surprised by the details which they discover with every step. The doors of each apartment are labelled in a modernist script specially designed by Gaudí for Casa Batlló. The massive windows on the landings of the communal stairwell, which are translucent rather than transparent, allow light to pass through selectively, while at the same time, depending on how you look at them, distort the shades of blue of the building well into beautiful waves of the sea. The shapes of the door handles, banisters, skylights, etc., are all ergonomically designed. It is the definitive work of art, with the artist encouraging everything to work together: design, space, colour, shape and light.
As can always be anticipated in the works of Gaudí, there is a recurring religious imagery which is achieved almost subliminally. There are embedded and semi-concealed religious images and texts planted in the upper levels of the building, as well as in the small details around the facade. The very tip of the tower sits one of Gaudí’s signature pieces, a four-pointed transverse cross. Gill suggests that the goal was to point out that “religion can embrace humour, fantasy and the absurd.” It can also be interpreted as a message to God that he was building in His name, instead of for fame or glorification of wealth.
Gaudí did not like to draw his designs, but rather to build models. He always used traditional techniques and achieved surprising results with them. In many of his buildings he made use of the bóveda tabicada, or Catalan vault, a timbrel-vault construction system that had been in frequent use since the 15th century, a slender shell vault formed by only two or three layers of brick joined with plaster or mortar at their small faces. Using this method he constructed vaults in the forms of hyperbolic paraboloids or hyperboloids, but also created a sculptural three-dimensionality that was totally new. The chimneys and ventilators as well as the stairways exits of the Casa Milà were built in this way, as were the roofs of Bellesguard and the Casa Batlló.
With its undulating façade and surrealist sculptural roof, Casa Milà, popularly known as ‘La Pedrera’ (the stone quarry), appears more organic than artificial, as if it were carved straight from the ground.
Constructed in 1912 for Roser Segimon and Pere Milà, the building is quite unique. It rode roughshod over any architectural dictat previously laid down. The curves, patterns and spires of Gaudí’s unusual buildings did sit within the Victorian spirit of decoration, but cannot be put into a single style. Casa Milà exemplifies the excitement in architecture around the Victorian period and represents architectural creativity at its finest. A ginger bread house!
The building is divided into nine levels: basement, ground floor, mezzanine, main floor, four upper floors, and attic. The ground floor acted as the garage, the mezzanine for entry, the main floor for the Milàs, and the upper floors for rent. The building surrounds two interior courtyards, making for a figure-eight shape in plan.
On the roof is the famous sculpture terrace. Practically, it houses skylights, emergency stairs, fans, and chimneys, but each function’s envelope takes on an autonomously sculptural quality which has become a part of the building itself.
Structurally, the building is divided between structure and skin. The stone façade has no load-bearing function. Steel beams with the same curvature support the facade’s weight by attaching to the structure. This allowed Gaudí to design the façade without structural constraints, and ultimately enabled his conception of a continuously curved façade. The structure holding up the roof, too, allows for an organic geometry. Composed of 270 parabolic brick arches of varying height, the spine-like rib structure creates a varied topography above it.
Formally, the façade can be read in three sections: the street façade, spanning the ground floor; the main façade, including the main and upper floors; and the roof structure, which houses the attic and supports the roof garden. Made of limestone blocks, the curve of the main façade has a weighty and textured quality of the organic. Above it is a curvaceous mass on which surrealist anthropomorphic sculptures perch. Their presence contributes to the almost flowing dynamism of the building’s aesthetic.
This looks like our kind of room…
The Casa Milà, which was ultimately a controversial building, contributed greatly to the Modernista movement and modernism as a whole. It pushed formal boundaries of rectilinearity and, as Gaudí intentionally drew from natural and organic forms for the building’s shape, significantly inspired practices of biomimicry. Gaudí was a genius of structure and form, and the Casa Milà attests to that.
Gaudí constructed a building integrally, from its foundation and structural framework to the smallest decorative and ornamental detail. He designed furniture, windows, wrought iron accessories and every type of auxiliary element, never repeating any model. Each Gaudí building has its own special characteristics and looks like none of the others. Each was conceived in its integrity and constitutes a unity in which all of the elements are perfectly coordinated and exclusive to that building. You’ll remember that Victor Horta did the same, and he took the design as far as attempting to design the outfits for the family so they could fit in better with the house before the client said enough already! Gaudí also had points of friction with his clients, but not over outfits. Mrs Milà complained that there was no straight wall to place the Steinway piano, which Roser Segimon played often and quite well. Gaudí’s response was blunt: “So play the violin.”
This has been a looooong trip! Very nice of them to make chairs available for little bears to rest…
The last stop is La Sagrada Familia.
Construction of the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família began in 1882, more than a century ago. The temple is still under construction, with completion expected in 2026. It is perhaps the best known structure of Catalan Modernisme, drawing over three million visitors annually. Gaudí worked on the project until his death in 1926, in full anticipation he would not live to see it finished. If you think you might not live to see it finished either (there is no guarantee of completion in 2026) this video attempts to show you what La Sagrada Familia will look like when completed.
Gaudí was appointed architect in 1883 at 31 years of age, following disagreements between the temple’s promoters and the original architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. He maintained del Villar’s Latin cross plan, typical of Gothic cathedrals, but departed from the Gothic in several significant ways. Most notably, Gaudí developed a system of angled columns and hyperboloidal vaults to eliminate the need for flying buttresses. Rather than relying on exterior elements, horizontal loads are transferred through columns on the interior.
Gaudí was never able to understand why architects based their buildings on the simple geometry of line and plane and on regular solid forms, since such forms either do not exist, or exist only rarely, in nature. Nature by contrast, makes extraordinary structures with fibrous elements that constitute bone, wood, muscle and tendon – a geometry of straight lines in space forming four types of surfaces: helicoids, conoids, hyperboloids and hyperbolic paraboloids. The full development of Gaudí’s greatest geometric refinement occurs in the church of the Sagrada Familia. He reached this stage between 1916 and 1926, working with plaster models to a scale of 1:25 for the entire building and 1:10 for the structure of the naves. The reconstructed models are exhibited in the church museum.
The complex shapes of hyperboloids, parabolas, helicoids and conoids allow for a thinner, finer structure, and are intended to enhance the temple’s acoustics and quality of light. Apart from the plaster models, Gaudí also devised a system of strings and weights suspended from a plan of the temple on the ceiling. From this inverted model he derived the necessary angles of the columns, vaults, and arches. This is evident in the slanted columns of the Passion facade, which recall tensile structures but act in compression.
Gaudí embedded religious symbolism in each aspect of La Sagrada Familia, creating a visual representation of Christian beliefs. He designed three iconic facades for the basilica, the Glory, Nativity, and Passion facades, facing south, east, and west, respectively. The sculpting of the Nativity facade recalls smooth, intricate corbelling and was overseen by Gaudi. The Passion Facade is characterized by the work of Josep Maria Subirachs, whose angular sculptures extend the modernist character of the temple. The sculptor Etsuro Sotoo is responsible for the window ornaments and finials, which symbolize the Eucharist.
The central nave soars to a height of 45 meters, and is designed to resemble a forest of multi-hued piers in Montjuïc and granite. The piers change in cross-section from base to terminus, increasing in number of vertices from polygonal to circular. The slender, bifurcating columns draw the eye upward, where light filters through circular apertures in the vaults. These are finished in Venetian glass tiles of green and gold, articulating the lines of the hyperboloids.
Once completed, La Sagrada Familia will feature eighteen towers composed to present a unique view of the temple from any single vantage point. Four bell towers representing the Apostles crown each facade, reaching approximately 100 meters in height. At the north end, a tower representing the Virgin Mary will stand over the apse. The central tower will reach 72 meters in height and symbolize Christ, surrounded by four towers representing the Evangelists.
Even as construction continues, older portions are undergoing cleaning and restoration. The temple has relied entirely on private donations since its inception, and has seen many delays due to lack of funding. A particularly significant setback occurred during the Spanish Civil War, when Gaudí’s workshop was destroyed, including much of the documentation he left behind.
Subsequent generations of craftsman and architects have relied on the remaining drawings and plaster models to advance the project, adhering to Gaudí’s vision as closely as possible. As a result, the design of the temple is a collaboration spanning centuries. Gaudí himself viewed the project as the collective work of generations. “I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.”
Gaudí died on the 10th of June 1926 after being knocked down by a tram while making his way, as he did every evening, to the Sagrada Família from the Church of Sant Felip Neri. After being struck he lost consciousness, and nobody suspected that this dishevelled old man who was not carrying any identity papers was the famous architect. He was taken to the Santa Cruz Hospital, where he was later recognised by the Priest of the Sagrada Família. He was buried two days later in that very church, following a funeral attended by throngs of people: most of the citizens of Barcelona came out to bid a final farewell to the most universal architect that the city had ever known.
When Gaudí died in 1926, the new Bauhaus building designed by Walter Gropius had just been erected. This was the culminating movement of rationalism, of Le Corbusier, Siegfried Giedion and the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne. This architecture of simple geometric form, of purely abstract conception, was at odds with the work of Gaudí, which was considered baroque and irrational. The next generation of architects continued to understand Gaudian thought in a similar way, and it was not until the Gaudí exhibition of 1952, on the centenary of his birth, that critics and scholarly writers began to discover the value of his architecture.