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A History of the History of Spanish Architecture

Carlos Sambricio
, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow, spring 2013


Diego de Sagredo, Medidas del Romano (Toledo,
1549), frontispiece

During my four months at CASVA I finished the first two chapters of my book “A History of the History of Spanish Architecture.” In the first chapter I take as a point of departure the history of Spanish architecture in the fifteenth century, when, following the return of the papacy to Rome after the schism, the crowns of Castile and Aragon sent ambassadors to that city. There they were exposed not only to Petrarch’s ideas concerning the value and glories of Roman antiquity but also to humanists’ understanding of imperial Rome as a site rich in architectural examples rather than as a city that had previously been understood (by those who came to know it on their way to Jerusalem) as merely a place to venerate relics and the remains of earlier periods of Christianity.

The re-evaluation of Roman antiquity also coincided with a debate that arose in Italy in the writings of Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), in France (Guillaume Budé [1467–1540]), and in Spain (Antonio de Nebrija [1441–1522]) over the benefit of using Latin as a national language. Nebrija developed his first Castilian grammar precisely when the discovery of a new continent prompted the appropriation of Virgil’s Aeneid in retellings by Spanish humanists who sought to supplant Rome as a cultural referent, proposing Spain’s architectural past as a point of origin. Spanish literati identified in classical texts the names and locations of Roman settlements and described their remains, trying to demonstrate that Spain was as rich and unique as imperial Rome. In identifying the vestiges of Roman antiquity in Spain, these authors proposed them as paradigms, and they were used, for example, in the ephemeral architecture that Ferdinand of Aragon had constructed for his entry into Valencia upon his return from Naples in 1503, when he decided to adopt these new classical references. And in this same context, Diego de Sagredo’s Medidas del Romano, published in 1526 and in subsequent editions and translations, was intended as a text for Spanish humanists that explained not only the syntactic elements of classical architectural language but also how to construct and compose them.

It is important to clarify that one way of valuing architecture did not immediately replace another; rather, it was a centuries-long process. Charles I of Spain (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) thought of Roman architecture as the model for the court, while the Catholic church, looking to conventional modes of designing buildings, maintained the tradition of Gothic architecture until the middle of the sixteenth century (for example, in the cathedral of Segovia).

In the second chapter, I detail the complex developments of the second half of the sixteenth century, when three lines intersected. In the first place, the rejection of paganizing architecture by the Council of Trent forced the decision of Philip II to adopt the architecture that, according to the Bible, God gave to man, understood in the mid-sixteenth century to be Solomon’s Temple, the form of which was a subject of debate. If Solomon achieved religious peace between Judah and the northern Israelite tribes, Philip II’s mission should be to achieve peace between the reformist Protestants and the Catholic church. As early as 1549, when, by order of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, his son Prince Philip visited Brussels and later Ghent and other cities in the Low Countries, the ephemeral architecture that adorned the entrances repeatedly glorified a prince who wanted to be known as wise and prudent, following the example of King Solomon. For almost fifty years there was a debate about whether the architect Juan Bautista Villalpando’s understanding of the description of Solomon’s temple in the book of Ezekiel was accurate, and, as a consequence, whether the unornamented architecture he proposed for the Escorial was the correct interpretation sought by the monarch.

Parallel to this, in a Spain where Italophobia existed side by side with Italophilia, Philip, in his attempt to appear not as continuing in the line of the imperial Caesars but rather as the legitimate successor of the Visigoth monarchy, asked his chroniclers to locate in the north of Spain—where the Muslims had not penetrated—the remains of the earliest medieval architecture, in other words, a national architecture. The valorizing of the local soon gave way not just to the study of “Gothic” remains but also to exceptional works of Muslim antiquity, and to the publication of texts that praised the Alhambra of Granada and the Córdoba mosque.

In the face of these options, classicism, reclaimed for a time as a court style, gained new meaning after the publication in 1552 of Francisco Villalpando’s translation of books 3 and 4 of Sebastiano Serlio’s work on architecture, which detailed not an architectural grammar such as Sagredo’s but the forms of the architectural orders (as they were termed and described in book 4) based on ancient buildings  (the subject of book 3). The publication of these two books provided a standard for those who wished to adhere to the principles of classical architecture.