Long before the Muslims crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711, Romans controlled Andalusia. Regrettably, not a lot remains of their architecture or monuments. An exception is Itálica, the "noble ruins" of a Roman city founded at the end of the 3rd century B.C. by the Roman general, Scipio Africanus. The site is 9km (5 1/2 miles) northwest of Seville near the town of Santiponce.
Itálica was the birthplace of two of the most famous Roman emperors, Hadrian and Trajan. Still impressive, the major achievement here was a colossal amphitheater that held 25,000 spectators screaming for blood. At one time this amphitheater was one of the largest in the Roman Empire.
You can still see classic Roman architecture -- or at least the foundations -- of the Hadrianic baths in addition to a well-preserved Roman theater. At the peak of its glory, Itálica was the third-largest city in the world, surpassed only by Rome and Alexandria. Over the centuries, seemingly everyone in the area, including the invading Duke of Wellington during the Peninsula Wars, went digging for Roman treasures at Itálica, including statues, rare marbles, and sculpture.
Moorish Architecture (8th-15th c.)
After the Muslims subdued Andalusia, following the departure of the Romans and Visigoths, these new conquerors began to influence the landscape with their Islamic architecture, including aqueducts, baths, alcázares (palaces), and alcazabas (fortresses).
Although there was an earlier "pre-Caliphal period" (notably A.D. 710-929), the true glory of Moorish architecture came under the Cordovan Caliphate (929-1031). Begun in 785, the Great Mosque of Córdoba was lavishly and dramatically extended with horseshoe arches and ornate decoration. The most distinguishing feature of the architecture, the arch, reached its apogee here in both the decorative multifoil arch and the horseshoe arch -- although, the former rulers, the Visigoths, created the latter. The ornamental use of calligraphy and elaborate stuccowork are other distinctive and important aspects.
Even today many architectural influences are visible at the Great Mosque of Córdoba, in such features as its Mihrab (a richly ornamented prayer niche), and its Puerta del Perdón (a Mudéjar-style entrance gate that was built during Christian rule). In the 16th century a cathedral was built in the heart of the reconsecrated mosque. Part of the Islamic architecture had to be destroyed to make way for this cathedral with its Italianate dome.
The Caliphal era ended to be replaced by the brief Taifa era (1031-91). It quickly gave way to new rulers, the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties (1091-1248). These austere Islamic fundamentalists brought a purer, less fanciful style of architecture, which can best be seen at La Giralda in Seville. This minaret, which still graces the skyline, was completed in 1198. At the time of the Reconquista, the Muslim bronze spheres crowning it were replaced by Christian symbols, a bronze portraying Faith.
The Almohads did not eschew adornment completely; their artisans created the artesonado ceiling (paneled wood ceilings that were painted and intricately carved) and azulejos (glazed tiles beautifully painted with patterns). Although still using the horseshoe arch of the Visigoths, the Almohads introduced the narrow, pointy arch. To this day the Giralda remains the most beautiful structure in Seville.
The flowering of Muslim architecture in Andalusia occurred during the Nasrid era (1238-1492), the last Moors to hold power before the Reconquista by the Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand. These Sultans created one of the most magnificent palaces ever built: the Alhambra at Granada. Al-hambra means "the red one," referring to the colored clay used to construct the fortress. In 1238 Muhammad ibn el-Ahmar ordered construction to begin on this impressive fortification. The site was developed over both the 13th and 14th centuries, so it represents a medley of styles. It is a vast complex of mosques, palaces, gardens, walls, towers, and residences. Restored after its discovery by writers and artists, including Washington Irving, in the 19th century, the palace is filled with architectural wonders, such as the Patio de los Leones. Its arcades are supported by 124 slender marble columns, and at its center a fountain rests on 12 proud marble lions. The salons are stunning achievements, especially Salón de Embajadores, the sumptuous throne room from 1334 to 1354, its ceiling representing the seven heavens of the Muslim cosmos. For the various caliphs of the Nasrid dynasty, this palace represented an earthly paradise, even though modest materials -- tile, plaster, and wood -- were used.
Mudéjar or Post-Moorish Architecture (mid-14th to late 15th c.)
After the Muslims were ousted from power, Andalusia continued to mount churches on the sites of former mosques. Original architectural motifs -- ornamental brickwork in relief alternating with stone, archways, and even roof tiles -- were often incorporated into these Christian churches. Muslims who stayed on after the Reconquista created a new style of architecture called Mudéjar. Since they were better builders, these mudéjares -- the word literally means "those who were permitted to stay" -- were employed to build the new churches and palaces in the reconquered territories.
Their architecture was a hybrid style, one of the best examples of which is the Salón de Embajadores in the Alcázar at Seville. This Room of the Ambassadors forms part of the palace of King Don Pedro in the Alcázar. It's topped with a wood dome and flanked with double geminate windows, a stunning achievement. Dozens of churches and palaces in Andalusia still retain Mudéjar architectural motifs. And the Mudéjar tradition lives today in pottery made in Granada and Seville that still reflects Moorish design.
As you drive through the Las Alpujarras region of Granada province, the final bastion of the Moriscos (Muslims who were forced to convert to Christianity), you'll see the flat-roofed houses that evoke the Berber dwellings of the Moroccans living in the Atlas mountains across the Straits of Gibraltar.
Not all Reconquista architecture was Mudéjar. The first major style used by Catholic Andalusia was Romanesque (the term had not come into vogue at the time). For its inspiration, this style of architecture drew upon the rounded arches from the classical days of ancient Rome. Romanesque churches were dark and somber with small windows and large piers. There are few remnants of Romanesque architecture in Andalusia.
Gothic (13th-16th c.)
Somehow the French Gothic style of the Cathedral of Seville seems ill suited to the hot plains of Andalusia with its almost desertlike landscape. The rounded arches of Romanesque gave way to pointed arches that could carry far more weight, as in a cathedral. Windows became larger and were filled with stained glass depicting scenes from the Bible. Peasants who could not actually read the Bible could see biblical scenes depicted in the glass panels.
Seville's cathedral also showed the Renaissance influence. It is characterized by massive column shafts that hold up mammoth arches. Its vaulting is splendid, constructed in the Flamboyant Gothic style and rising 56m (184 ft.) over the transept crossing. The bulk of this structure was constructed between 1401 and 1507. As styles changed, an altar was added in the late Gothic style (1496-1537). The Capilla Real (Royal Chapel; 1530-69), was actually Plateresque .
By the end of the 15th century, Spain had developed its own unique style of Gothic architecture, calling it Isabelline in honor of the Catholic queen (1474-1504). This style's exuberant decoration covered entire facades of buildings, its rich, even lavish, ornamentation taking the form of lacelike carvings and heraldic motifs. Foreign artists, such as Juan Guas, labeled it "a fantasy."
Although the cathedral at Seville is the most outstanding Gothic building in the whole province, there are dozens of other Gothic -- or at least partially Gothic -- churches in Andalusia. Some town mansions and small castles, many of which still survive, were also built in this elaborate style.
The Renaissance (16th c.)
When the Renaissance finally came to Spain, it wasn't always known as that. The very early Renaissance in Spain was termed Plateresque because its fine detailing evoked the ornate work of a silversmith, or platero in Spanish.
The best example of the Plateresque style preferred by the architect Diego de Riaño is the Ayuntamiento (town hall) in Seville. Begun in 1527 and completed in 1534, the Plateresque style is best seen on the east side of the town hall opening onto Plaza de San Francisco.
A new style of Renaissance architecture arose in Spain at the end of the 16th century. Called the Herreran style, it was named for Juan de Herrera (1530-97), the greatest figure of Spanish classicism. The favorite architect of Philip II, Herrera developed a style of building that was grand but austere as well as geometric in its effect. His greatest achievement was El Escorial, that mammoth royal palace outside Madrid. In Andalusia his work can be seen at the Archivo de Indias in Seville. Built between 1584 and 1598, the facade of this structure remains even today one of the most harmonious and classic in all of Seville.
Plateresque eventually gave way to what became known as the High Renaissance style, as exemplified by the Palacio de Carlos V in Granada. Begun in 1526, this palace was incongruously -- even scandalously -- placed in the heart of the Alhambra. Its elegant and grandiose style evokes the king's power as Holy Roman Emperor. If you can forgive where it was placed, the palace is a perfect architectural specimen with purely classical lines. Dignified in appearance, its layout was "a circle within a square." In Andalusia this palace is the crowning achievement of the High Renaissance style.
Baroque (17th-18th c.)
Baroque suggests flamboyance, but early Spanish baroque was more austere in the 17th century. A family of architects led by José de Churriguera (1665-1725) pioneered the Churriguesque style, a type of architecture noted for its sumptuousness and dense concentrations of ornaments covering entire facades of buildings. This style was later copied by his brothers, other Churriguera family members, and leading architects of the day. The best example of the Churriguesque style in Andalusia is the flamboyant, baroque sacristy of the Monasterio de la Cartuja in Granada.
Andalusia was the one province of Spain where the baroque blossomed most brilliantly. Seville has more baroque churches per square kilometer than any other city in the world, notably Iglesia de San José, one of the world's most beautiful examples of a baroque church.
With the arrival of neoclassicism and modernism, devotees of architecture turned to other parts of Spain, including Bilbao and especially Barcelona, to indulge their passions.
Modern (20th c.)
Modern architecture received a boost when Seville hosted Expo '92. Many innovative designs were introduced at this time, none more notable than the five bridges spanning the Río Guadalquivir. The most exceptional of these are the Puente de Chapina, with a geometrically designed canopy; the Puente del Alamillo, with a single upward arm holding its weight; and the Puente de la Barqueta, a suspension bridge held by one overhead beam.
The most dramatic modern structure in Andalusia is the deliberately leaning Pabellón de Andalucía, which today houses a movie theater and a 3-D laser show.
In Seville's Parque Científico y Tecnológico (Science and Technology Park), Calle Leonardo da Vinci, you can take in some of the spectacular pavilions that are still standing. The buildings are owned by the Andalusian World Trade Center and used by private companies, but their architecture can be admired from the outside.
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