Golden Age Architecture. Charles V’s Palace in the Alhambra.
Overwhelmingly visitors to Granada go there to visit the famous Alhambra palace complex. Yet the largest and most imposing building within the Alhambra complex is Charles V’s 16th-century Renaissance palace; it looms over the most famous and evocative part of the Alhambra, the 14th-century Nasrid royal residence.
The decision to build a Renaissance palace within the Alhambra was made when Charles V stayed there on a honeymoon trip following his marriage to Isabel of Portugal in Seville in 1526. The pair, accustomed to the luxuries of royalty, found the accommodation in the Nasrid palace cramped and cold, so much so that Isabel immediately moved with her retinue to a convent down in the lower town.
Despite these discomforts, Charles admired the Alhambra and is reported to have commented, when in the Nasrid throne room (i. e. the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Tower of Comares): “Ill-fated the man who lost all this”! [The allusion is to Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of the Kingdom of Granada.] He was also sufficiently taken with the city of Granada that he intended it to be a permanent residence for his court and even expressed a desire, before he left in 1527, to be buried in the cathedral then being erected in the town centre. [It never happened; he was first buried in the Monastery of Yuste, where he died, and later transferred to the Royal Pantheon in the Escorial, north of Madrid.]
Why build a Renaissance Palace in the Alhambra?
Charles’s decision to erect a new palace was probably prompted by four considerations. 1. He evidently liked both the Alhambra and the city. 2. Granada was a city with a royal pedigree, having been capital of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada for over 250 years. 3. Although the design of the Nasrid palace, with its small, intimate rooms and modestly sized throne room, was to his mind unsuitable to receive ambassadors and inadequate for court ceremonials, the beauty of the complex and its dramatic location made it an appropriate setting for a royal residence. 4. Erecting a European style palace with its Christian association in the middle of a Muslim palace complex not long after the conquest of Granada (1492) was a statement that the Christian kingdom of Castile-Aragón was there to stay. It was part of a widespread and rapid conversion of a Muslim city into a Christian stronghold, with churches and convents springing up in the old town and mosques being converted to Christian needs. The most notable example was the large cathedral begun in Gothic style in 1521 before changing to Renaissance in 1528.
Compared to the lyrical qualities of the Nasrid Palace, Charles’s palace evokes epic grandeur and complemented the imperial title of Holy Roman Emperor that Charles V had won in 1519. An imposing new palace, whose classical design paid homage to the greatness of the Roman empire, it can be seen as an appropriate metaphor for the new Spain under the youthful Charles … bold, determined, unmovable… Under Charles, Spain was forging an empire (although contemporaries called it a monarquía) surpassing even that of Rome. Just as Italian culture served as model and inspiration for other European countries, so too was Rome the imperial standard to emulate and even surpass.
Although often condemned as an intrusion on the unity of the Alhambra complex, Charles’s palace is a fine piece of architecture in its own right, and as a contrast to the Nasrid palace it offers visitors a unique opportunity to compare how royal power was viewed and transmitted by the two different cultures that had shared the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries.
The palace is an immense granite square, enclosing a large, circular courtyard, a design that was ahead of its time. Of the four facades, only the southern and the western (where the main entrance is located) are completely decorated; the eastern and northern are only partially so because the are joined directly to the Nasrid palace.
The building is structurally imposing, as befits Charles’s imperial title. Its enormous façade connotes power, dignity, solemnity; it is majestic, aloof. The heavy-looking, rusticated stones of the lower half of the façade settle the building solidly on the ground.
The impression of solidity is inescapable. Straight vertical and horizontal lines predominate; square and rectangular windows are larger and more prominent than the small circular ones. On the southern façade, the single doorway right in the middle and the large glass window above it stand out boldly to impress visitors. Even more imposing is the central arrangement on the western facade topped by three decorative medallions with military insignia celebrating Charles’s victories.
The double arcaded courtyard is simple to the point of austere. Its columns –Doric on the lower level, Ionic on the upper– are solidly grounded and powerful. There is no colour to speak of; it is a formal space, somewhat forbidding, even under the Andalusian sun.
Nowadays, the palace is the home to two museums. On the ground floor is the Museo Nacional de Arte Hispano-Musulman (National Museum of Hispano-Moorish Art) with Moorish artefacts from the Alhambra, including a famous blue amphora, and on the upper floor is the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) with Christian paintings and sculptures from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Jacobs, Michael Alhambra London 2000
Jacobs, Michael A Guide to Andalusia London, New York 1990
Irwin, Robert The Alhambra Cambridge, Mass 2004
Image of Western facade: By Rose Selavy https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palacio_Carlos_V_west.jpg
Image of Southern facade: By Ingo Mehling – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37545228
Image of patio/ courtyard: By Ra-smit – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3149886
Image of vase: By Diego Sánchez Sarabia – GQFusVUeoF-Zwg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29824014
For an excellent discussion on the construction and significance of Charles V’s palace, see https://introtorenaissance2015.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/fragile-buildings-the-alhambra-and-the-palace-of-charles-v-ahana-maitra-ug-ii-roll-no-01/#_ftn35