Seville: Alcazar is more than just a pretty face

An index to blog posts from our Spain trip can be found on the first entry.

December 28, 2018

We had a slow start to our Friday, and so Natasha and I came to Seville’s premiere tourist destination just after 10AM. The Sevilla Alcazar draws a lot of attention, and we were sad to see a line extending across the entire length of the wall separating the palaces from Plaza del Triunfo. Why hadn’t we purchased our tickets in advance?

We shivered our way forward in the wall’s shadow, a few steps at a time. After the line turned toward the entrance, we broiled in the sun for another 20 meters. Over those three hours, we had plenty of time to talk to three South Americans in front of us and a pair from central China behind us. We watched with envy as tour groups and pre-purchased ticket visitors entered through the short line to our left. The site operators only allow a small batch of people to enter at predefined intervals.

Alcázar de Sevilla. Planta baja (2000)

Medieval history is a bloody book

Alcazar at Sevilla is one of the world’s cultural treasures. (Throughout this post, I will not write “The Alcazar” because it feels redundant to me.) It would be easy to be swept away by its graceful lines and elegant tracery, but it is important to remember the history that led to its creation. Abd ar-Rahman III, the Caliph of Cordoba, faced a revolt in the first year of his reign (913 AD), and he decided it was time to build a castle to control Sevilla (alcazar means the Moorish fortress or palace– many cities in Andalusia feature alcazars). This early Alcazar would have carried a red and white design like the one we saw at the Cordoba Mezquita. While the Caliph’s structure was extended by Al-Mutamid in the eleventh century, this fortification was later completely destroyed, with only fragments available to later historians. During the Abbadid dynasty, the structure was expanded significantly, and this Palace of Good Fortune formed the bones of the structures we know today as the Palace of Pedro I and the Gothic Palace.

We liked the doors and tapestries, but the Gothic Palace is not why we came to Alcazar.

In 1248, Seville fell to the forces of Fedinand III of Castile (who died four years later). From this time, Sevilla became a royal city, with Alcazar serving as the royal household. The son of Ferdinand III, Alfonso X the Wise, launched construction of the Gothic Palace, but the pace of change slowed for many years until Alfonso XI won the Battle of Rio Salado in 1340. The king celebrated this victory by creating the Hall of Justice next to Patio del Yeso as his throne room, and he did so in a new architectural style called Mudejar (from the Arabic word mudajjan, meaning “domesticated” or “tamed”). By using a highly ornate style stolen from his enemies, Alfonso XI was making a statement about his might: “such appropriations were signs of triumph in which Christianity expressed its domination over a subjugated al-Andalus.

The Pedro I Palace facade. Mudejar design is how Alcazar captivates tourists.

Alfonso XI’s successor, Pedro I, brought Mudejar architecture to astonishing heights in Alcazar, but he did so for completely different reasons. Just nine years into Pedro’s reign, Muhammad V (the Nasrid ruler of Granada) was forced into exile, and he was housed in the Seville Alcazar. Pedro assisted Muhammad V to return to power in Granada, quite unlike his father, who had gloried in his battle victory over that kingdom. Pedro developed strong relationships with the Jewish community, as well, with a rabbi serving as his personal physician and a financier Samuel Levi as his chief treasurer. Today, when people gush about the Alcazar, they are doing so because the Palace of Pedro I is an architectural marvel of sublime art. It might surprise you, then, to know that Pedro of Castile is known to history as “the Cruel.”

Pedro inherited a sizable problem in that Alfonso XI had ten children with his mistress, Leonor de Guzman (ironically, Pedro created problems for himself through his fascination with his own mistress, Maria de Padilla). After the death of Alfonso XI, Pedro’s mother ordered the death of Leonor de Guzman through Pedro’s chancellor, Juan Alfonso. After that, Leonor’s sons by Alfonso XI were sworn enemies of Pedro. Pedro responded with a bit of a bloodbath, but he never managed to kill Enrique Trastamara, his eldest illegitimate half-brother, though he did kill many of Enrique’s siblings. Castile had begun a war against Aragon early in Pedro’s reign, but Enrique managed to trigger a civil war by bringing French troops home with him when he returned from exile. He gained popular support by massacring Jewish communities in several cities, taunting Pedro as the “King of the Jews.” Through a ruse, Enrique was able to catch Pedro away from his army, and Enrique stabbed his half-brother to death. Enrique then became Henry II, the first of a new royal dynasty. As we wandered Alcazar, I marveled that such a bloody reign could have been accompanied by such artistry!

Sumptuous detail

That would be real gold.

As an appetizer for our visit to the palace, we enjoyed the Admiralty Room and the Contracting House. It felt strange to be walking in a room where Magellan planned his voyage to circumnavigate the Earth! Upstairs, we enjoyed a detailed mini-museum on the evolution of ceramic tile-making in Castile, culminating in the creation of ceramics that positively teem with color. I marveled that anyone would create tiles intended for royal use by incorporating real gold.

Apparently the carpentry talent was largely recruited from Toledo.

The woodcraft skills required to produce the ceilings and doors were out of this world. From time to time, Natasha would grab my arm and whisper “Look up!” It was always worth it.

…and then we entered the Pedro I Palace.

The Hall of the Ambassadors is absurdly rich.
My eyes could not really process this sight.

The rooms that are most frequently mentioned from this palace are truly wonderful: Patio de las Doncellas, Salon de Embajadores, and Patio de las Muñecas. They are also, however, filled with tourists (and clumps led by tour guides).

You will definitely want a wide-angle lens in the Courtyard of the Maidens!
The Court of Dolls is relatively small, but it is covered in beautiful design elements. It gets its name from the tiny faces at the base of the arch.

Scholars have put a fair bit of effort into recognizing phrases from Arabic and Latin that make their appearance in the delicate scroll-work of these walls. Much of the writing is so stylized that I did not recognize it as writing.

One should read “Plus Ultra” as “Charles the V wuz here.”

Of course, Carlos V reworked the adjoining “Gothic” palace and made some substantial changes even to the Pedro I palace. His motto “Plus Ultra” should have been visible in the updates, but the only place I saw it was in the glaringly obvious tiles celebrating his marriage to a Portuguese princess. He also made considerable changes to the Pedro I Palace, but I found it hard to discern them. I found this description of his alterations in an academic paper:

Between 1539 and 1556 Charles remodeled [Alcazar] in a way that was relatively respectful of the old fabric of the building and preserved its Islamic features. First of all, he had the corridors of the Patio de las Doncellas remodeled in the Spanish plateresque style. Above the original Mudejar decoration of 1369-79 on the lower level, he had Roman round arches constructed with his motto “Plus oultre” stamped on the upper-story columns and his device of the Pillars of Hercules on the lower-story portals. In the gardens, originally planted in the twelfth century with orange and lemon trees and surrounded by a boundary wall, Charles built a garden pavilion, La Alcoba (1543), with arched loggias around a central square.

The Renaissance Reception of the Alhambra: The Letters of Andrea Navagero and the Palace of Charles V
We felt transported when we emerged into these gardens!

I have not seen much mention of the Alcazar gardens, so I will just offer that they are stunning, even in midwinter. I liked the orange trees trimmed into cubes, and I had a little geek thrill to walk through the areas used to represent “Dorne “ in the HBO “Game of Thrones” series.

Some reflection

Given a three-hour wait to see the Seville Alcazar and a two hour journey through its grounds, it is reasonable to ask, “is it worth it?” Natasha and I were famished by the time we left, so arriving mid-morning without a ticket may not be the best scheduling. Still, we might have refueled at the on-site cafe. I can appreciate that the site tries to limit how many tourists are in the complex at once. The most popular chambers, though, are still so filled with people that photography is a challenge.

The fact remains that “Mudejar” art and design reached a high point in the Pedro I palace. I don’t know where else one could see such beauty (but you will want to compare with the upcoming posts from Granada!). I would like to think that the art produced in Pedro I’s reign can somehow take away the horrors of war that Castile endured under his rule. The Seville Alcazar is like a conflict diamond. It’s gorgeous, but try not to think of the suffering that brought it to you.

5 thoughts on “Seville: Alcazar is more than just a pretty face

  1. Pingback: Why did we honeymoon in al-Andalus? | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Seville: a Cathedral to the sky and the Giralda bell tower | Picking Up The Tabb

  3. Pingback: Granada: Encountering the Muslim past | Picking Up The Tabb

  4. Pingback: Granada: Multifaceted Alhambra | Picking Up The Tabb

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