The city of Granada, an ancient Iberian settlement where Roman and Arab cultures successively established, is born on one of the hills of the landscape, on the right bank of the River Dauro. The Roman city spread, occupying the current Albayzín. Then, Visigothic Municipality gradually replaced the Roman one. Some of the characteristics that would later define Granada were already present: important urban center, commercial center of interest, episcopal seat and place of settlement of a large and influential Jewish community. The Arab Granada had its origin in the Alcazaba, and then spread out over the hill of the Alhambra and towards the plains, without crossing the limits of the walls.

Ibn al-Ahmar is considered to be the founder of modern Granada. He is also the one who started the construction of the Alhambra, which constitutes the largest palatial-defensive complex of the world. Parallel and, to a large extent, the cause of the development of the Alhambra and its defenses is the development of the city of Granada. Throughout the 13th century, Granada does not cease in its expansion and transforms its physiognomy; a physiognomy which will be held up until the conquest. What most characterizes Arab Granada is its landscape, the surroundings of the city, its characteristic urbanscape.

16th century Granada is distinguished by the attempt to modify the urban structure inherited from the Arabs and the strong tendency to inhabit the lower part of the city, which will exceed the perimeter of the walls. The vast majority of new churches settle on the old Arab mosques; the city undergoes numerous internal transformations.

As far as the Alhambra is concerned, Charles V and Isabella of Portugal introduce the most spectacular transformation with the construction of its Renaissance palace. The palace designed by Machuca as a representative and residential building for the Emperor Charles constitutes a singular and exceptional piece of the Spanish Renaissance. The Renaissance palace of the Alhambra is a reflection of the history of the city, since it poses the complex relationship, evident throughout the city, between the medieval world and the new renaissance world. It is a paradigm of transformations based on a preexisting formal structure. The result is obvious; it is the possible conjunction of two architectural cultures of the highest quality. The new “roman style” palace is conceived to be at the service of the Alhambra interpretation and, as in other architectures of the city, it is the result of transforming a medieval space and architecture with the modern codes of classical tradition.

In the 18th century, José Hermosilla will embark on the study the Alhambra through its decorative elements, recomposing the ideal image of the palace instead of analyzing its existing remains. It will be an American writer, Washington Irving, in 1829, who will enhance the evocative value of that same architecture. The subjective and disparate interpretations of the architectural images arise in time, mainly coming from numerous artists, mostly French and English, who visit Spain attracted by the exoticism of a “mysterious and impenetrable” nation. The 19th century is, therefore, a key period to interpret the overlapping of these architectures. The city will be visited by artists, writers and other scholars with more subtle culture, alternating images of the city, its plastic value and its exceptional landscape, as well as its stratified architectural vision. The magnificent drawings by Lewis, Grange de Prangey, Owen Jones, Goury will have an influence on the theories and restoration criteria of the time; criteria where the esthetic value prevails.

In Spain there is a precise parallelism with the debate raised about the restoration in Europe, although the latter is previous. During the first years of this century, the restoration was marked by the influence of French architects, more specifically, by the figure of Viollet-le-Duc. Vicente Lampérez will advocate in the Spanish monuments for the conservation of its “integrity and style”. The image of Spain is seen from the outside as represented by the photographies and drawings by Wittlesey. His Prentice publication would discover to his generation the special beauties of the Spanish Renaissance known as Plateresque.

“A través de la Alhambra” (Across the Alhambra, 1924) is the first article on the Granada citadel by Leopoldo Torres Balbás, already appointed architectural curator of the Alhambra in April, 1923. It constitutes an insightful work about the concept of time in monuments, so living groups they are: “The Nasrid monument has been living and transforming in the course of time; every year, every hour, time was leaving its mark. Even the very entrails of the building were stirred a hundred times…”. These words portray a world in constant transformation from its Arab past to the Renaissance, from its old uses to the new requirements of contemporary society.

(copyright © 2006 by Javier Gallego Roca)