A Palace for an emperor between Italy and Spain

One of my favorite spaces inside the palatine complex of the Alhambra has always been the palace of Charles the Fifth. Although it is one of the best palaces of late-renaissance, it has always been vilified by public opinion for being a kind of “UFO”. It is a palace that clearly does not follow the canons of the Islamic palatine architecture to which it is connected. And this, obviously, involves decisions diametrically opposed to those that the Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra have. However it is a palace not only canonical in terms of the language of its time, its a wonderful example of sensitivity to the surroundings of the overwhelming Alhambra.

The history and descriptions of the palace can be found in the most varied articles in addition to academic books from around the globe (you can find some of them in the official Alhambra bookstore). Unfortunately most of the great mass of articles that can be found on the internet are mere copies and pastes of the previous ones with pieces of wikipedia.

Even with that I am going to try to contribute with some grains that I will develop in different posts speaking about the virtues of this space

Why a palace here?

We are in the recently conquered palatial space of the Alhambra. The Catholic Monarchs a few years before had already done some some restoration works here. However, they had never used these spaces for long periods, so they did not need to carry out any work adapting the palaces. It was their grandson Charles the Fifth, who became fascinated with the Alhambra in 1526, who decided that this was the ideal place for his new palace. The construction of this palace of Charles the Fifth made following a manierist style can be summed up in two main factors: the will of the new Emperor to make Granada one of its capitals through the construction of a contemporary palace and the will to use a language according to what a Holy Roman Emperor deserves. The works would begin in 1528

Palace of Charles the fifth. Manu Barba. Tracing of a photograph of a plan of Carlos V's palace
Tracing of a photograph of a plan of Carlos V’s palace (based on a plan by Pedro Machuca) found in the Library of the Royal Palace (Madrid). Draftsman: Manuel López Reche ©Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife


This is a copy of one of the oldest plans preserved, dated by Earl Rosenthal around 1527. As you can see, the original project not only included the more than recognizable palace of Charles the Fifth, also two large squares. in front of the main façades. It would also end up including a triumphal arch in the southwest corner of the palace.

The grand premise of this palace is clearly visible on this plan, because the first thing that catches your attention is the introduction of a circular patio inside a square shaped palace. It is the resolution of a canonical Renaissance problem: squaring the circle

Is this a new problem? Was it unsolved? Of course not.

Because it is possible that among the multiple influences of Pedro Machuca appeared the only building that had already solved that geometric problem: Andrea Mantegna’s house in Mantua. In this small house built in 1476 with an approximately square floor plan, a small circular patio divided into three heights gets manifested. The ground and first floor appear as a circular patio on which a third body is erected in a square plan. Raising your eyes you can see a square inscribed in a circle.

The Palace of Charles the Fifth-Manu Barba. Patio inside Mantegna's House in Mantova. flickr: ©franceschinik
Patio inside Mantegna’s House in Mantova. flickr: ©franceschinik

Pedro Machuca was born in Toledo fourteen years after the construction of this house. Furthermore, it is likely that during his stay in Italy as an apprentice to Michelangelo until 1520, he probably knew the city of Mantua, including of course the pictorial and architectural work of Andrea Mantegna, one of the Renaissance masters at the service of the Gonzaga family. But Mantegna was not the only one who had work in that area of ​​Italy. Precisely on the opposite sidewalk in Mantova, the church of San Sebastian stands, a work of a crushing exterior rotundity. San Sebastian is a work of Leon Batista Alberti.

Among these, apart from Miguel Ángel or Rafael were Peruzzi, Sansovino or Giulio Romano, who was in that time Rafael’s disciple.

And Giulio Romano is the author of one of the brightest buildings in Italian mannerism. The palazzo te in Mantova. A palace that diserves its own post. Although the plan of this palace and the palace of Charles the Fifth are absolutely different, they share many stylistic resources and they are totally contemporary. The palazzo begins to be built in 1524-1525. and soon after being finished it had an illustrious visitor. Did you know who was here in 1530 and 1532? Exactly, Charles the Fifth. This makes many authors such as Manfredo Tafuri, see Giulio Romano as the architect while Machuca is the construction manager.

Te Palace, Giulio Romano. Similar to the Palace of Charles de Fifth in Granada ©Manu Barba
Te Palace, Giulio Romano (Mantua) ©Manu Barba

The Palace of Charles the Fifth is Pedro Machuca’s only architecture work, so this puts his authorship in doubt.

Either way, a good teacher once told me that not everything is written in the chronicles. There is no doubt that just as we are hanging out with friends, these people could meet, speak or share ideas. Machuca may have got the idea from Romano, or perhaps from Michelangelo or Rafael himself, who knows. Maybe it was not obtained from anyone and all these conjectures are unnecessary. Maybe one of those incredible bar chats are happening right now. Who knows?

But whether or not he is the author of this palace, the gigantic residence that Charles the V wanted for the Alhambra is a little piece of Italy in the interior of Granada, a jewel that diserves a visit from time to time.

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