The distressed, time-worn colour palette on view at the Alhambra is right on trend (although, dare I say it, a waning trend). Traces of the once rich, vibrant paint colours create a sense of faded grandeur throughout the royal palaces.
Thanks to the work of British architect Owen Jones (1809-74) and French architect Jules Goury (1803-34), as well as others, we can see what the interior colour schemes likely were during the Nasrid dynasty.
In 1834, Jones and Goury visited the Alhambra, studying and making extensive sketches of its tile patterns, stucco-work and architectural features. Six months after arriving in Granada, Goury died from cholera. The grieving Jones immediately travelled back to England. He returned to the Alhambra in 1837 and completed the research. Jones published the work in a set of volumes called Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra. They were the equivalent of today’s shelter magazines, with newly developed techniques in colour printing exposing the Alhambra’s beauty to all. The meticulously coloured lithographs attest to the artistry of Jones.
The first volume, issued in 1842, generated a great deal of debate in Victorian society about the virtues of Moorish design (the lifestyle of the Moors was thought to be rather risque). Given the deep colour schemes that became popular during the era, it seems to me, that they at least embraced the colours preferred by the Moors.
With a few exceptions, the prints do not depict the colours that Jones, Goury and others actually saw when they visited the Alhambra. Rather, what their research indicated the colours would have been during the Nasrid dynasty. This new information added to the buzz created when the prints were issued. Describing the harmonious colour scheme illustrated above, Jones writes,
“On molded surfaces, they placed red, the strongest colour of the three, in the depths, where it might be softened by shadows, never on the surface; blue in the shade and gold on all surfaces exposed to light; for it is evident that by this arrangement alone could their true value be obtained.” – The Grammar of Ornament, p.72
The soft teal and green remnants that decorate the stucco today, were once brilliant blues. The colour transformation is the result of metals in the blue pigments oxidizing. Jones also concluded that under Catholic-rule, decorative elements were repainted in purple and green. For the most part, visitors today see only ivory-coloured walls, as layers of whitewash added over time conceal all but traces of the original primary colour-scheme.
From an aesthetic perspective, the Alhambra’s colourfully tiled and stuccoed rooms must have created quite an impression on visitors to the Nasrids’ courts. Imagine the utter opulence of rooms filled with the luxurious hand-loomed silk fabrics and magnificent hand-woven carpets of that time.
Today, even in her faded glory, the Alhambra is still a lady with a lot of soul.
Added to My Reference Library Wish List:
- The Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones. (not a reprint, so will likely remain on the wish list for a long time)
- The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Maria Rosa Menoca.