The Magic of the Alhambra

lewis Alhambra-2

This Romantic spirit that led Irving to travel “in true contrabandista style” was crystallised in his famous work Tales of the Alhambra (1832) that included historical accounts, legends, traditions and the author’s own in situ picturesque descriptions of the magnificent 13th century Moorish palace of the Alhambra, where Irving spent several months as guest of the governor.

About the renowned Court of Lions, the author wrote: ‘There is no part of the edifice that gives us a more complete idea of its original beauty and magnificence than this, for none has suffered so little from the ravages of time. The alabaster basins still shed their diamond drops, and the twelve lions which support them cast forth their crystal streams as in the days of Boabdil. The court is laid out in flower-beds and surrounded by light Arabian arcades of open filigree-work, supported by slender pillars of white marble. The architecture, like that of all the other parts of the palace, is characterized by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste and a disposition to indolent enjoyment. When one looks upon the fairy tracery of the peristyles and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war and the quiet, though no less baneful, pilferings of the tasteful traveller, it is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition that the whole is protected by a magic charm.’

‘The peculiar charm of this old dreamy palace is its power of calling up vague and picturings of the past, and thus clothing naked realities with the illusions of the memory and the imagination. As I delight to walk in these “vain shadows”, I am prone to seek those parts of the Alhambra which are most favourable to this phantasmagoria of the mind, and none are more so than the Court of Lions and its surrounding halls.’

The view of the interior of the Tower of Las Infantas shows a typical everyday life scene in a modest private apartment framed by elegant yet decadent architecture and wall decoration.

Again Irving offers us his own view of this place: ‘I was struck by the Romantic appearance of a Moorish tower in the outer wall of the Alhambra, that rose high above the tree-tops and caught the ruddy rays of the setting sun. A solitary window at a great height commanded a view of the glen and, as I was regarding it, a young female looked out with her head adorned with flowers. She was evidently superior to the usual class of people that inhabit the old towers of the fortress, and this sudden and picturesque glimpse of her reminded me of the descriptions of captive beauties in fairy tales.

The Tower of the Princesses was so called from having been, according to tradition, the residence of the daughters of the Moorish kings. I have since visited the tower. It is not generally shown to strangers, through well worthy of attention, for the interior is equal for beauty of architecture and delicacy of ornament to any part of the palace. The elegance of the central hall with its marble fountain, its lofty arches and richly fretted dome, the arabesques and stucco-work of the small but well-proportioned chamber, though injured by time and neglect, all accord with the story of its being anciently the abode of royal beauty.’