Spain has traditionally imported its styles of architecture – Moorish from North Africa, Romanesque and Gothic from France and Renaissance from Italy. Each style, however, was interpreted in a distinctively Spanish way, with sudden and strong contrasts between light and shaded areas, facades alternating between austerity and extravagant decoration and thick walls pierced by few windows to lessen the impact of heat and sunlight. Styles vary from region to region, reflecting the division of Spain before unification. The key design of a central patio surrounded by arcades has been a strong feature of civil buildings since Moorish times.
Apart from Phoenician tombs (as at Almunecar) and megalithic dolmens (as at Antequera), the only significant pre-Muslim structures are Roman (notably at Italica near Seville with the largest of all amphitheatres, a bathhouse and a theatre). The Romans bequeathed to Andalucia the happy invention of the interior patio in houses and other buildings. An idea later taken up by the Muslims. The Visigoths left little lasting imprint and most of their churches have been built over.
Romanesque (8th to 13th Centuries)
Romanesque churches were mainly built in Catalonia and along the pilgrim route to Santiago. Their distinctive features include round arches, massive walls and few windows.
By the time the Reconqista reached Andalucia in the 13th century, the first major architectural style of Christian Spain, Romanesque, was just on its way out. One of the few Romanesque buildings in Andalucia is the Iglesia de la Santa Cruz in Baeza, the first significant Andalucian town to fall to the Christians. The church’s round arches and semicircular apse make it quite distinct from the later Gothic buildings.
Moorish Architecture (8th to 15th Centuries)
The Moors reserved the most lavish decoration for the interior of buildings, where ornate designs based on geometry, calligraphy and plant motifs were created in tiles or stucco. They made extensive use of the horseshoe arch, a feature inherited from the Visigoths. The greatest surviving works of Moorish architecture in Spain are in Andalucia.
Moorish cities had a main mosque (mezquita) at their heart and a large market (zoco), around which spread a tangle of narrow streets of the inner city (medina). Few Moorish buildings survived the Christian era intact but, in Andalucia, those that did include some of the greatest Moorish buildings in the world – including the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Alhambra palace in Granada and the Giralda minaret in Seville.
In addition there are numerous impressive Moorish castles and fortifications in varying states of repair such as at Almeria and Malaga. Many Andalucian churches are either converted mosques or were built on the sites of ruined mosques with church towers of retained minarets. In civil architecture numerous towns and villages incorporate portions of Moorish buildings and have labyrinthe street plans with white-washed buildings.
A very distinctive feature used throughout the Muslim period was the horseshoe-shaped arch. These are now incorporated into many Spanish buildings and villas. Another common Moorish feature was the use of beautiful decorative tilework and, from the 10th century, carved stucco forming intricate patterns.
Moorish architecture in Andalucia falls into two broad periods. First was the caliphal style emanating from Cordoba and brought by the Arabs from the Middle East. The Cordoba Mezquita is the pre-eminent example of this style with its double rows of arches supporting the roof. The second period was that of the Maghreb style, developed by Muslims in Morocco and neighbouring areas, and brought to Spain in the 12th century. The Giralda, built in 1184-98, with its beautiful proportions and trellis-like brick patterning is considered the finest of Maghreb minarets. Later the style became increasingly elaborate and decorative, culminating in the Alhambra’s Palacio Nazaries and Seville’s Palacio de Don Pedro.
Mozarabic & Mudejar
These are the names given to the derivatives of Moorish architecture developed by, respectively, Christians in Muslim areas and Muslims in Christian areas. There is much more Mozarabic architecture in northern Spain than in Andalucia, where the only significant remaining example is the church at Bobastro.
Mudejar architecture is much more common. Some Mudejar buildings are indistinguishable from Muslim buildings but they did evolve distinguishing features of their own. One was the use of brick for many churches and mansions. Another was extravagantly decorated timber ceilings, often ornately carved. Mudejar style is often found side by side with Christian Gothic in the same building. A great way to see examples of this style is to follow the Mudejar Route around the Axarquia.
Gothic (12th to 16th Centuries)
The Gothic style (nothing to do with Spain’s Visigoths), with its pointed arches, ribbed ceilings, flying buttresses and fancy window tracery, began to infiltrate Spain from France in the 12th century and was carried to Andalucia with the Reconquista in the 13th. It lasted until the 16th century. These technical innovations enabled much bigger buildings – notably large cathedrals. Seville’s cathedral is the biggest in Spain and almost entirely Gothic in structure. Spanish Gothic cathedrals differ in some ways from French and English. They are often wider (sometimes they were built on the site of square mosques), have their choir and high altar in the middle of the church, and usually have many side chapels off the aisles. They feature retablos – big, elaborate altarpieces – and frequently use star-patterned vaulting which arrived from Germany in the 15th century.
There are dozens of Gothic or part-Gothic churches in Andalucia. Many of the innumerable castles were built or rebuilt in Gothic times. Some buildings that were begun in Gothic times were finished or added to later, ending up as successful stylistic hotch-potches. Such are the cathedral at Jerez de la Frontera (Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical with a Mudejar belfry) and Malaga cathedral (Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque).
Renaissance (16th Century)
Around 1500 Renaisssance style was introduced to Spain by Italian craftsmen and Spanish artists who had studied in Italy. The Renaissance architecture was an Italian-originated return to disiplined ancient Greek and Roman ideals of harmony and proportion, with columns and classical shapes like the square, circle and triangle predominating. A fine feature of many Andalucian Renaissance buildings is elegant interior courtyards surrounded by two tiers of wide, rounded arcades.
The Renaissance in Spanish architecture can be broadly divided into three styles. Firstly, the Italian-influenced flavour of plateresque. This took its name from the Spanish for silversmith, platero, because its decorative effects resembled silverware. Facades were generally given round-arched portals bordered by classical columns and stone sculpture. Secondly, the pure Renaissance style as expressed in the Palacio de Carlos V in Granada’s Alhambra, designed by Spaniard Pedro Machuca who was trained in Rome. The last, most austere phase was Herreresque, after Juan de Herrera (1530-97), creator of the grand palace-monastery complex of San Lorenzo de El Escorial near Madrid and Seville’s Archivo de Indias.
Baroque (17th to 18th Centuries)
The reaction to Renaissance sobriety came in the form of the curved, coloured, dramatic and top-heavy Baroque, a movement which gathered steam in the late 17th century. Andalucia was one of the places where Baroque blossomed most brilliantly.
At root Baroque was classical but crammed with a great deal of ornament onto facades, especially portals, and interiors were stuffed full of ornate stucco sculpture and gilt paint. In this era the retablo reached its apogee of opulence. Seville has as many Baroque churches per square kilometre as any city in the world. Two of the most outstanding are the Iglesia de la Magdalena and the Capilla de San Jose.
Throughout Europe in the mid 18th century the cleaner, restrained lines of Neoclassicism came into fashion. This was another return to Greek and Roman ideals. Cadiz has one of Andalucia’s biggest Neoclassical heritages. However, the most notable building in the region is Seville’s very large Antigua Fabrica de Tabacos (old tobacco factory), built to house an early state-supported industry.