Romantic Castles and Palaces

The Alhambra

Edmond deAmicis


WE arrived before a great gateway that shut in the street; Gongora said to me, "Here we are!" I entered.

I found myself in a great grove of trees of immeasurable height inclining towards each other on both sides of a wide avenue that ascends the hill and is lost in the shade; they are so close together that a man can pass between them with difficulty and wherever you look, you can see nothing but trunks so thickly set that they seem to shut in the road like a continuous wall. The trees interlace their branches above the avenue; not a ray of sunlight can penetrate the wood; the shade is dense, and from every side the rivulets murmur and the nightingales sing. You breathe here the freshness of spring.

"We are already in the Alhambra," Gongora said to me, "turn around and you will see the towers and the embattled walls of the enclosure."

"But where is the palace?" I asked.

"That is a secret," he answered, "let us walk on at random."

We advanced by an avenue parallel to the great central road, and one that wound towards the summit of the hill. The trees above our heads formed a roof of verdure that hid the sky; and the grass, the brushwood and the flowers made on both sides two charming espaliers of brightness.

"Here is the gateway!" cried Gongora.

I turned around as if I had been pushed, and I saw a few steps before me a large square tower, of a sombre red, crowned with embattlements, and its door surmounted by a horseshoe arch upon which you saw sculptured a key and a hand.

My guide told me that it was the principal entrance to the Alhambra, and that it was called the Gate of Justice, because the Arab Kings were accustomed to pronounce their sentences beneath that arch. The key means that this door is the key to the fortress, and the hand is the symbol of the five principal precepts of Islam: Prayer, Fasting, Benevolence, Holy War, and Pilgrimage to Mecca.

We passed under the gate, and continued to ascend by an embanked road: finally we came to the top of the hill, in the middle of an esplanade surrounded by a parapet and set with bushes and flowers. I was standing before a great palace in the style of the Renaissance, half in ruins and flanked by some small and miserable-looking houses.

We entered through a little doorway, crossed a corridor, and found ourselves in a court. We were in the patio de los Arraynes (Court of the Myrtles), which is the largest in the building, and which presents at once the appearance of a court, a hall, and a garden. A large rectangular basin, full of water, surrounded by a hedge of myrtle, extends from one side to the other of the patio and mirrors the arches, the arabesques, and inscriptions of the walls. To the right of the entrance are two rows of Moorish arches, placed one upon the other, and upheld by light columns; and on the opposite side of the court rises a tower with a door, through which may be seen the half-dark interior halls and the tiny twin-windows, and beyond the windows the blue sky and the peaks of the distant mountains. The walls are ornamented up to a certain height with splendid mosaics, and from the mosaics upward to the ceiling with arabesques of the most delicate design, which seem to scintillate and change at every step; and here and there between the arabesques and along the arches, Arabic inscriptions comprising salutations, sentences, and proverbs wind about and interlace like garlands.

Near the entrance one reads in Kufic characters: "Salvation eternal! — Benediction! — Prosperity! — Felicity! — Praise be to God for the welfare of Islam!"

In another place you see written: "I seek my refuge in the God of the Dawn." Elsewhere: "O God, to Thee we owe eternal thanks and undying praise!"

In other places there are verses from the Koran, and entire poems in praise of the caliphs.

We entered the tower called the Tower of Comares, or vulgarly, of the Ambassadors.

The interior of the tower forms two halls; the first is called the Hall of the Boat: some persons say because it is shaped like a boat; others, because it was called by the Arabs Hall of the Baraka, or benediction, a word which the ignorant have corrupted into that of boat (barca). This hall does not seem of human workmanship; it is nothing but a stupendous interlacing of embroideries in the form of garlands, rose-work, branches, and leaves that cover the ceiling, the arches, the walls, on all sides, and in every way, crowded together, twisted, in net-work, one upon another, and combined in such a manner that they are all seen in a single glance and present an astonishing magnificence and an enchanting grace. I went up to one of the walls, I fastened my gaze at the beginning of an arabesque and tried to follow its twistings and windings: impossible! the eye loses itself, the mind becomes confused, and all the arabesques from the pavement to the ceiling seem to move and commingle to make you lose the thread of their inextricable net-work. You may make an effort not to look around you, concentrate your attention upon one little place of the wall, put your very nose in it, and trace the design with your finger: it is useless; in one minute the patterns become involved, a veil spreads between the wall and yourself, and your arm falls. The wall seems to you to be woven like a textile, crinkled like brocade, of open-work like lace, and veined like a leaf; you cannot look at it closely, you cannot fix the design in your mind, — that would be like counting the ants in an ant-hill.

After having looked around me a little, Gongora pushed me into the great Hall of the Ambassadors, which occupies the entire interior of the tower, for the Hall of the Barca in reality belongs to a little building, which although joined to the tower, is not a part of it. The Hall is square, very spacious, and lighted by nine large arched windows, in the form of doors, which present almost the aspect of alcoves, so thick are the walls; and each one of them is divided in two by a little column of marble that supports two elegant little arches, surmounted in their turn by two little arched windows. The walls are covered with mosaics and arabesques of an indescribable delicacy and variety of form, and innumerable inscriptions that are spread out like broad, embroidered ribbons over the arches of the windows, in the corners, upon the friezes, and around the niches where they placed vases filled with flowers and perfumed waters. The ceiling, which is very high, is composed of pieces of cedar wood, white, gilt, and blue, united in the form of circles, stars, and crowns; it forms a number of little domes, cells, and tiny arched windows from which a soft light falls; and from the cornice that joins the ceiling to the walls hang bits of stucco cut in facets and worked like stalactites and bunches of flowers. The throne stood in the centre before the window and opposite the door of entrance. From the windows on this side, you enjoy a magnificent view of the valley of the Darro; so deep and silent that it seems as if it must be fascinated by the majestic Alhambra; from the windows of the two other sides you see the walls of the enclosure and the towers of the fortress; and from the side of the entrance, in the distance, the light arches of the Court of Myrtles, and the water of the basin reflecting the azure of the sky. We left the tower with rapid steps, crossed the Court of Myrtles, and came in front of a little door opposite the entrance.

Lion FountainLion Fountain

We went about fifteen steps and stopped. We were in the Court of the Lions. If at this moment I had been forced to leave just as I had entered, I do not know if I could have described what I had seen. A forest of columns, a labyrinth of arches and embroideries, an indefinable elegance, an unimaginable delicacy, a prodigious richness, and I don't know what that was aerial, transparent, and undulating, it was like a great pavilion of lace; the appearance of a building that would fall by a breath, a variety of lights, perspectives, mysterious shadows, confusion, a capricious disorder of little things, the majesty of a little palace, the gaiety of a kiosk, an amorous grace, an extravagance, a delight, a phantasy of a young and passionate maiden, an angel's dream, a madness, a thing without a name; such is the first effect of the Court of Lions.

Lion FountainThis is a court larger than a great ball-room, rectangular in form, with walls as high as one of the little Andalusian houses of one story. A light portico runs around it supported by graceful little columns of white marble, grouped in symmetrical disorder, by twos and threes almost without a base so that they seem to be starting from the earth like the trunks of trees, and adorned with varied capitals, tall and delicate, in the form of little pillars upon which curve tiny arches of the most graceful form. These arches seem not leaning upon, but suspended over the columns: one might call them curtains arranged upon the columns like ribbons or floating garlands. From the centre of the shortest sides, there advance two groups of columns that form two kinds of little square temples, each of nine arches, surmounted by a little cupola of many colours. The walls of these little temples and the outside wall of the portico are a veritable lace-work in stucco; they are ornamented, embroidered, bordered, cut and perforated from one side to the other, transparent as a web, and changing in design at your approach; here, flowers are nestling in the arabesques; there, stars; and farther away, bucklers, squares, and polygonal figures covered with ornaments of an infinite delicacy. All this ends in jagged points, in festoons, in ribbons fluttering around the arches, in species of stalactites, fringes, pear-shaped drops and acorns, that seem to undulate with the least breath of air. Long Arabic inscriptions run the entire length of the four walls, above the arches, upon the capitals, and upon the walls of the little temples. In the centre of the court there rises a great marble basin, upheld by twelve lions, and surrounded by a paved canal, from which gush four other small canals, that, describing a cross between the four sides of the court, cross the portico, dart into the neighbouring halls and unite with the other conduits cutting through the entire edifice. Behind the two little temples, and in the middle of the two other sides, there open suites of halls with immense open doorways, that allow you to see the dark background upon which the little white columns gleam as if they stood before the mouth of a grotto. At every step one takes into the court, this forest of columns seems to move and disarrange itself to arrange itself in a new way; behind a column that seems to stand alone, two, three, or sometimes a file of them, will show themselves; others will disappear, others will approach each other, and others will separate in looking into the depths of one of these halls, you see everything change: the arches on the opposite side seem to be far away; the columns seem out of place, the little temples assume another form; you see through the very walls, you discover new arches and new columns, here in the bright sunlight, there in the shadow, elsewhere half illuminated by the soft light that passes through the perforations of the carving, and farther away they are lost in the darkness. Here is a continual changing of perspectives, distances, deceptions, mysteries, and optical illusions made by the architecture and the sunlight and your own over-excited and burning imagination.

"What must this patio have been," said Gongora, "when the interior walls of the portico were glistening with mosaics, the capitals of the columns gleaming with gold, the ceilings and vaults painted in a thousand colours, the doorways closed by hangings of silk, and the niches filled with flowers; and when beneath the temples and in the halls perfumed waters flowed, and when from the nostrils of the lions dashed forth twelve jets of water that fell back into the basin, and when the air was impregnated with the most delicious perfumes of Arabia! You should come here at sunrise; you should also come here at sunset and at moonlight to see the marvels of colour, light and shade! It would turn your head!"

We went to see the halls. On the eastern side there is one called the Hall of Justice, which you reach by passing under three large arches, each one taking the place of a door opening into the court. It is a long and narrow hall, of rich and bold architecture, the walls of which are covered with very intricate arabesques and precious mosaics, with points, bunches, and protuberances of stucco hanging from the arches, which crowd together, drop, spring from, press upon, and are superimposed upon each other, as if they disputed the very space, and showing even now traces of ancient colours which must have given to this ceiling the semblance of suspended fruits and flowers.

On the northern side of the court there is another hall called de las Hermanas (the Two Sisters) from two large slabs of marble that are found in the pavement. It is the most gracious hall of the Alhambra. It is small, square, and domed with one of those vaults in the form of a cupola which the Spaniards call half-oranges, sustained by little columns and arches arranged in a circle, all cut to resemble a grotto of stalactites with an infinity of points and holes, coloured and gilded and so light that they seem to the eye as if hanging in the air: you would think that they would tremble like a curtain, at a touch, or evaporate like a cloud, or vanish like a lot of soap-bubbles. The walls of stucco, like those of the other halls, and covered with arabesques, of an incredible delicacy, are among the most astonishing productions of human fancy and patience.

We returned to the Court of the Myrtles, and visited the halls on the other side of the Tower of Comares, most of them half ruined, others transformed, some of them half bare, without either pavement or roof, but all worthy of being seen because of the memories they awaken, and also in order to understand the construction of the building. The old mosque was converted into a chapel by Charles V. and a large Arabian hall into an oratory; here and there you noticed the debris of arabesques and ceilings of carved cedar; the galleries, the courts, and the vestibules seemed the remains of a palace devoured by fire.

At this point I truly thought that there was nothing more to be seen, and I committed the fresh imprudence of saying so to Gongora. At this blow he could no longer contain himself, and, leading me into the vestibule of the Court of Myrtles, before a plan of the building that hung upon the wall, he said: "Look around you, and you will see that all the halls, all the courts, and all the towers that we have visited up to now, only occupy the twentieth part of the space enclosed by the walls of the Alhambra; you see that we have not yet visited the remains of three other mosques, the ruins of the Hall of the Cadi, the Water-Tower, the Tower of the Infantas, the Tower of the Prisoner, the Tower of Candil, the Tower of the Pico, the Tower of the Poignards, the Tower of the Siete Melos; the Tower of the Captain, the Tower of the Sorcerer, the Tower of the Heads, the Tower of the Weapons, the Tower of the Hidalgos, the Tower of the Chickens, the Tower of the Dice, the Tower of Homage, the Tower of the Vela, the Tower of the Powder, the ruins of the house of Mondejar, the military quarters, the Iron Gate, the interior walls, the cisterns, and the promenades; for you must know that the Alhambra is not solely a palace, but a town, and that it would take a lifetime to search for arabesques, to read inscriptions and to discover each day some new view of the hills and mountains, falling into an ecstasy once at least during the twenty-four hours!" And I thought I had seen the Alhambra.

Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, Edited and Translated by Esther Singleton. 1901.
The Alhambra by Edmond deAmicis. Note: From original text; may contain OCR errors.