Alhambra - Palace of Carlos Quinto

Palace of Carlos V

Palace of Carlos Quinto. © Lawrence Bohme
Palace of Carlos Quinto, part of the Alhambra complex.

by Lawrence Bohme

The granadinos have always called it the Palacio de Carlos Quinto, but its real name is the Casa Real de la Alhambra - the Royal Manor of the Alhambra. It is, well... big, and solidly built, much bigger and more solid than the earlier Moorish palaces which it was set down among. The 16th-century palace has the distinction of being one of the first Renaissance buildings created outside of Italy, modelled on Florence's equally massive Palazzo Pitti, and its architect, Pedro Machuca, was a student of Michelangelo in Rome.

The design is monotonous and massive, much like many ministerial buildings one sees throughout the world. It is mainly distinguished by its circular courtyard, in the majestic Roman tradition. Note the the huge bronze rings, which from their height above the ground seem to have been made for giants to tie up their horses.

Palace of Carlos Quinto. © Michelle Chaplow
Palace of Carlos Quinto.

Who was Carlos V?

"First of all", asks the curious traveller, "Who was Carlos Quinto?" Before answering the question, I must increase your confusion by specifying that in Spain, although he has always been known as Carlos Quinto (Charles the Fifth), his real title was King Charles I of Spain. He was the grandson of Isabel and Ferdinand, who expelled the Moors, masterminded of the Inquisition, and financed Christopher Columbus- voyages. Their daughter Juana married the Hapsburg prince Philip, whose home was in Ghent, where Charles was born in 1500. Philip came to live in Castile with his wife, Queen Juana, but many disliked the idea of a foreigner inheriting the throne, which may well have been the cause of his sudden death in 1506...

Whether the handsome Philip was assassinated or not, Juana went mad with grief (she was known thereafter as "Juana La Loca") and had to be shut away for the rest of her long life. Her son Charles was brought up by his grandparents in Ghent, and when he reached the age to ascend to the throne, he was sent to Spain to take his mother's place as Charles I of Castile in 1516.

But, soon after, he also inherited from his grandfather the throne of the Holy Roman Empire (which was the rather pretentious name given to Germany), as Charles V, in Spanish "Carlos Quinto". Charles always used this title second, as in political terms it was inferior - Spain was then the first world power - since while his poor insane mother lived (even though she was hidden away in the cell of a monastery, sleeping on the floor in her own excrement) she continued to be the Queen. Charles, therefore, although recognized as King, was in reality the Regent until she died in 1555, just several months before his own abdication.

The young King married his cousin Isabel of Portugal, in Seville, and then brought her, with a huge following of courtesans and dignitaries, to Granada for their honeymoon in 1526. Charles fell in love with the city, which still resembled the Arab medina it had been before the conquest, and decided to have a great palace built for himself, next to the bucolic patios and gardens of the Moorish kings,which he planned to use as a recreational area for outdoor events.

Palace of Carlos Quinto. © Lawrence Bohme
Palace of Carlos Quinto's majestic circular courtyard.

But he wanted his palace to have the modern European comfort befitting a man of the Renaissance, with amenities such as doors,windows and fireplaces, for those winter nights when the wind blows down from the sierra. This was quite understandable, since the Moorish palaces, if one considers them as everyday living places, are more similar to desert tents than effective shelters in a region which for half the year, at least at night, is quite cold. To finance the construction,which required the importation of architects and craftsmen, the King decided to levy yet another tax on the city's beleaguered moriscos, who agreed to pay rather than face further repression.

Palace of Carlos Quinto. © Michelle Chaplow
Palace of Carlos Quinto.

Even though we may find the palace, in these surroundings, rather obtrusive, it is historically important for several reasons: not only was it the first great building in the Renaissance style built outside of Italy, but it was also the first full-fledged royal palace ever to have been built in Spain, given that Charles' forefathers had all lived in uncomfortable, rugged fortresses in the north. But the project proved to be ill-fated from the very beginning.

First, during the otherwise idyllic summer the Monarchs spent in Granada, there was an earthquake which frightened Isabel so badly that she could not later be persuaded to return. And once the work began, the tribute of the moriscos soon proved to be insufficient to finance a building of that scale, as a result of which the pace of the work had to be geared to the collection of the tax. The construction ended up taking no less than 110 years, twice that of Notre Dame Cathedral! The man who was to be the occupant of the house, Charles, died when the work was still "only" in its thirtieth year... and in its fortieth year, just when the workers were going to lay the beams for the roof, the main source of funds dried up with the expulsion of the moriscos, in reprisal for the rebellion of 1568.

Nevertheless, the work moved forward unstoppably, swallowing up generation after generation of workers. It is awesome to read the account of the construction: the first architect, Pedro Machuca, devoted his whole life to one part of the palace,and after his death was replaced by his son, until he also died of old age and was replaced by another, who continued until his death... until the whole thing was abandoned during the economic decline of the 18th century, slowly collapsing into a great ruin. It was restored and completed under the Franco dictatorship, not as a palace but a national museum. In fact, no king of Spain ever lived there at all." from "Granada, City of My Dreams"

 

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