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The Moors brought with them an Arabic architectural style that changed over the centuries but kept many features that give their remaining buildings, especially in Andalusia, a distinctly Eastern flair. The Moors built three major structures: mosques, alcázares, and alcazabas. Mosques, Islamic religious buildings, were connected to minarets, tall towers from which the muezzin would call the people to prayer. Alcázares were palaces built with many small courtyards and gardens with fountains and greenery. Alcazabas were fortresses built high atop hills and fortified like any defensive structure.

The early Caliphate style of Córdoba lasted from the 8th to the 11th centuries, replaced by the most austerely religious Almohad style in Seville in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba is the best-preserved building in the Caliphate style. Of the Almohad period, the best remaining example is Seville's Giralda Tower, a minaret but little altered when its accompanying mosque was converted into a cathedral; the mosque and tower at Zaragosa's Palacio de la Aljafería have survived from the era as well. The crowning achievement of the Nasrid -- of all Spanish Moorish architecture -- is Granada's Alhambra palace and the adjacent Generalife gardens.

Romanesque (8th-13th c.)

The Romanesque took its inspiration and rounded arches from ancient Rome (hence the name). Romanesque architects concentrated on building large churches with wide aisles to accommodate the pilgrims.

Although the great Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, the undisputed masterpiece of the style, has many baroque accretions, the floor plan is solidly Romanesque. Other good examples include Sangüesa's Iglesia de Santa María and Iglesia de Santiago.

Gothic (13th-16th c.)

Instead of dark, somber, relatively unadorned Romanesque interiors that forced the eyes of the faithful toward the altar, the Gothic interior enticed the churchgoers' gazes upward to high ceilings filled with light. The priests still conducted Mass in Latin, but now peasants could "read" the Gothic comic books of stained-glass windows.

The French style of Gothic was energetically pursued in Spain in the early to mid-13th century, first in adapting the Romanesque Catedral de Santa María in Burgos, and then in Catedral de Toledo and Catedral de León, the most ornate. Fourteenth- and 15th-century Gothic cathedrals include those at Avila, Segovia, Pamplona, Barcelona, and Girona. (The last is a peculiar, aisleless Catalan plan, although the interior is now baroque.) The best of the Isabelline style can be seen in Valladolid in the facades of Iglesia de San Pablo and Colegio San Gregorio.

Renaissance (16th c.)

The rules of Renaissance architecture stressed proportion, order, classical inspiration, and mathematical precision to create unified, balanced structures based on Italian models. The earliest -- and most Spanish -- Renaissance style (really a transitional form from Gothic) was marked by facades done in an almost Moorish intricacy and was called Plateresque, for it was said to resemble the work of silversmiths (plateros).

The best of the Plateresque decorates the facades of Salamanca's Convento de San Esteban and Universidad. Charles V's Summer Palace, built in the middle of Granada's Moorish Alhambra, is the greatest High Renaissance building in Spain. The most monumentally classical of Renaissance structures was Phillip II's El Escorial monastery outside Madrid, designed by Juan de Herrera (1530-97), who also started Valladolid's Cathedral in 1580, although the exterior was later finished in flamboyant baroque style.

Baroque (17th-18th c.)

The overall effect of the baroque is to lighten the appearance of structures and add movement of line and vibrancy to the static look of the classical Renaissance. Soon the Churriguera family of architects and their contemporaries gave rise to the overly ornate, sumptuously decorated Churrigueresque style.

Madrid's Plaza Mayor is the classic example of the restrained early baroque. Churrigueresque masterpieces include Granada's Monasterio Cartuja and Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. The baroque was largely used to embellish existing buildings, such as the fine, ornate facade on Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

Neoclassical (18th-19th c.)

By the middle of the 18th century, Bourbon architects began turning to the austere simplicity and grandeur of the classical age and inaugurated the neoclassical style.

The primary neoclassical architect, Ventura Rodríguez (1717-85), designed the facade of Pamplona's Cathedral and Madrid's grand boulevard of the Paseo del Prado. On that boulevard is one of Spain's best neoclassical buildings, the Museo del Prado.

Modernisme (20th c.)

In Barcelona, architects such as Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923) and the great master Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) developed one of the most appealing, idiosyncratic forms of Art Nouveau, called modernisme. This Catalan variant took a playful stab at building with undulating lines and colorful, broken-tile mosaics.

Identifiable features of modernisme include:

  • Emphasis on the uniqueness of craft. Like Art Nouveau practitioners in other countries, Spanish artists and architects rebelled against the era of mass production.
  • Use of organic motifs. Asymmetrical, curvaceous designs were often based on plants and flowers.
  • Variety of mediums. Wrought iron, stained glass, tile, and hand-painted wallpaper were some of the most popular materials.

The best of modernisme is in Barcelona, including Gaudí's apartment buildings along Passeig de Gràcia, and his massive unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Família.

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