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Edith A. Browne

The Builders of Spain

The builders of Spain have given us one of the most complete and faithful histories of the country on record. Since they belong to many nations, that history is necessarily a series of chapters, dealing in various languages with various epochs; but each chapter is charged with the romance of life, and there is not a dry detail in the whole story.

In order to enjoy and appreciate that story, you must be able to follow each installment in its original medium of expression. Hence you must be prepared to study several building languages, but I shall do my best to make that task quite easy by teaching you the very simple ABC from which each is developed.

First, let me give you a comprehensive glance at all the buildings in Spain. Notice that the styles manifest powerful Roman, Moorish, and Viking influences, and at once you see that the old Romans, the Arabs, and the Northmen have played a very active part in Spanish history. There are, moreover, indications of a pre-historic race, who piled up enormous stones into monuments that resemble Druidical remains, whilst various modifications of Roman, Moorish, and Northern building principles combine to show how many different forces have contended for supremacy on the Spanish arena.

The Romans began to gain power in Spain as early as 900 b.c. ; they gradually acquired supremacy, and their domination lasted until a.d. 414. Spain was a favourite province of the old Roman Empire, as witness the magnificent cities which were founded on this conquered soil. Those cities, scattered far and wide, have been engulfed in other civilizations; but existing Roman buildings are so splendid, even in their ruinous state, that we are justified in concluding they must originally have entered into the design of remarkably beautiful and highly cultured centres of Roman civilization.


Segovia Aqueduct

The aqueduct at Segovia (see illustration) will give you a good idea of the science of Roman building construction. Columns and round arches form the working basis of all designs. Rigid strength is the guiding principle by which the parts are combined into a secure whole, every support being sufficiently massive to stand inert under its burden.

The principal types of Roman buildings in Spain are bridges, aqueducts, military roads, walls, towers, triumphal arches, and amphitheatres. Even if you did not know anything about ancient history, would not such buildings inspire you to conjure up a picture of the social, domestic, and military life of the Romans in Spain?

In 409 a number of Visigoths settled in the central regions of Spain. These Visigoths, or Western Goths, were a branch of the great Viking family, who played the most active part in the barbarian invasions by which the Roman Empire was eventually overthrown. Naturally you know quite sufficient about those vigorous Northern forefathers of ours to understand how it came to pass that the earliest Gothic settlers in Spain soon made themselves masters of the country.

The Gothic Empire in Spain lasted for three hundred years, during which time very little building seems to have been done; certainly there were not many monuments of an enduring nature erected. This is not surprising, seeing that the Goths had not yet settled down in the course of their career to a study of the peaceful arts, and that the particular period in question was the time when all Europe was a battlefield, on which the European nations were struggling, in the midst of dissension to be born from an alliance between conquering barbarians and conquered Romans or between different branches of the barbarian tribes. Under such circumstances, all the more remarkable are the few extant specimens of Visigothic buildings in Spain. The most perfect are the simply designed, primitively constructed little churches of San Roman de Hornija, near Toro, dating from 646, and San Juan de Banos, near Valladolid, erected about 661.

In a.d. 711 the Moors won the battle of Jerez, or of the Guadalete, and thus put an end to the Gothic rule in Spain. I have already pointed out to you the chief characteristics of the Moorish style of architecture, and shown you one of the most famous buildings erected by Moorish artists and craftsmen. I would like to explain to you now, however, that I chose the Alhambra Palace as a specimen of the style simply because I felt you must be already familiar with it by name, and for that reason you would be specially interested in it. As a matter of fact, much of the Alhambra Palace exhibits the decadent stage of Mohammedan architecture. The finest specimen of the pure Moorish style in Spain is the ninth-century mosque at Cordova. Toledo is also rich in a small mosque erected about the same time.

During the gradual Christian conquest of Mohammedan Spain many of the Moors continued to live in the captured towns. They worked for their Christian masters, and actually built some of the Christian churches. In adapting their style of architecture to meet the necessities of Christian worship they created a new building style, known as Mudejar, specimens of which are only found in the Spanish Peninsula. The conquered Moors worked for Jews as well as Gentiles, as witness some interesting synagogues in the Mudejar style at Toledo and Segovia.

The Moors were not expelled from Spain till near the close of the fifteenth century, but for some time previously they had only upheld their supremacy in the South. In the Northern districts, which had completely freed themselves from Moorish domination, Christian architecture was developed on the general lines that were being followed throughout Western Europe. The name "Romanesque" is given to the style in which Western European buildings were erected between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, because that style is generally considered to be founded on Roman building models and Roman methods of building construction. In reality, Romanesque includes the several styles of building practised by the newly-born European nations, all based on Roman art, but each with national characteristics, and all, again, striving to express new artistic ideals, and to develop an entirely new system of building construction. There are many beautiful examples of Romanesque churches in Northern Spain. Their characteristic features are highly ornamental doorways and central towers, and the situation of the choir in the centre of the nave, instead of in the more usual position to the east. The doorway of the cathedral of Santiago and the old cathedral at Salamanca are among the finest specimens of Spanish Romanesque, and the exquisite cloisters of Gerona and Tarragona are unrivalled.

By the end of the thirteenth century the European Pointed style of architecture, commonly known as Gothic, had won for itself a firm position of favour in Northern Spain. This is the style embodying the ideals which the Romanesque builders strove so hard to put into practice.

The keynote to the science of Gothic building construction is balance, and to Gothic art, individuality. The old system of insuring stability was to let every support have the maximum strength necessary for bearing its special burden of a dead weight; by the new Gothic system, weights were distributed in such a way that they did not bear down with their whole force on the supports, but helped those supports to hold them in position. The pointed arch was the main factor in helping the Gothic builders to realize the dreams of their Romanesque predecessors. Spain has some magnificent buildings in the Gothic style, which is characterized by lightness, elasticity, and loftiness; pointed-arch windows, doorways, and vaulted roofs; and sculptured ornamentation, which manifests individuality of thought and feeling. The finest Gothic cathedrals in Spain are those of Toledo, Leon, Burgos, and Segovia, together with the cathedral at Salamanca which is known as "La Nueva," to distinguish it from its old Romanesque companion.

The Renaissance movement in Europe struck a blow at Gothic architecture through the new enthusiasm which sprung to life for all things classic. The Spanish builders, however, did not fall under the spell of classic models, classic methods, until the sixteenth century, some considerable time after the builders in other parts of Europe had forsaken the Gothic style. When, however, they did begin to adopt the Renaissance style, they were particularly active, with the result that Spain is one of the best countries in which to study the revival of the classic science and art of architecture. Nearly all the important towns are rich in specimens of Renaissance buildings, and it is in the midst of a keen competition that the monastery of the Escorial has won fame as the leading Spanish example of the style.

The gigantic granite edifice known as the Escorial is regarded by the Spaniards as the eighth wonder of the world. It stands among the pine-clad slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama, about one and a half hours' journey by rail from Madrid—an isolated pile that at first sight strikes wonder into the mind by its vastness, but which leaves the heart cold, since it speedily breeds oppression by its general gloominess and prison-like appearance.

The great building, which includes a palace, a church, and a monastery, was erected by Philip II., partly in compliance with his father's desire to have a royal tomb-house for himself and his descendants, and partly in fulfilment of a vow made in gratitude after a battle fought on San Lorenzo's Day, victory being ascribed to the aid lent by that saint in answer to a special petition. The reasons for founding the Escorial are stated fully in a document written and signed by Philip, which runs thus:


Escorial from the East.

"In acknowledgment of the many and great blessings which it has pleased God to heap on us and continue to us daily, and, inasmuch as He has been pleased to direct and guide our deeds and acts to His holy service, and in maintenance and defence of His holy faith and religion, and of justice and peace within our realms; considering, likewise, what the Emperor and King, my lord and father, in a codicil which he lately made, committed to our care, and charged us with, respecting his tomb, the spot and place where his body and that of the Empress and Queen, my lady and mother, should be placed; it being just and meet that their bodies should be most duly honoured with a befitting burial-ground, and that for their souls be said continually masses, prayers, anniversaries, and other holy records, and because we have, besides, determined that whenever it may please God to take us away to Him, our body should rest in the same place and spot near theirs . . . for all these reasons we found and erect the monastery of St. Lorenzo el Real, near the town of El Escorial, in the diocese and archbishopric of Toledo, the which we dedicate in the name of the Blessed St. Lawrence, on account of the special devotion which, as we have said, we pay to this glorious saint, and in memory of the favour and victories which on his day we received from God. Moreover, we found it for the Order of St. Jerome, on account of our special affection and respect for this Order, and that which was also bestowed upon it by the Emperor and King, my father."

The foundation-stone of the Escorial was laid in 1565, and the building was completed in 1584. Since it is a lengthy and depressing undertaking even to glance at the numerous details of this vast structure, I do not propose showing you all round, but will take you straight away to see the great sight of this showplace—the Pantheon.

Far be it from me to speak irreverently of such a solemn spot as a burial-ground, but the whole garish aspect of the royal tomb-house conveys the idea of an elaborately staged spectacle. Philip II. is not responsible for this incongruous chamber of death; although he built the Escorial as a tomb-house for his father, he designed a plain vault for the actual tomb. The Pantheon was a later addition, originated by Philip III., and completed by Philip IV. in 1654. The upper entrance is a confusion of coloured marbles and gilded ornaments. A flight of polished marble steps leads down to a little octagonal apartment, the burial place of nearly all the Kings and Queens of Spain since its erection. Shining marbles and gilt bronze enter ostentatiously into the decorative scheme. The wall-space is almost wholly devoted to a series of niches, in which stand black marble urns, all alike, nearly all occupied, one or two waiting for . . . the grim suggestiveness of these empty urns makes you shudder. Well may your blood run cold as you think upon death amidst such theatrical surroundings.