Color and Geometry in the Alhambra
and What Got Lost in the Alhambresque
The dissemination of Owen Jones’ studies of the Alhambra and his color theory has been increasingly well understood as a cornerstone of the later Alhambresque style. And yet, curiously, Jones offers at once an accurate appreciation of the Alhambra and a basis for a striking divergence from Nasrid design in Alhambresque interiors. This article examines that discrepancy. It begins with a review of the aesthetics of the Alhambra in view of the eleventh-century optics of Ibn al Haytham, supported by conservation work that has confirmed Jones’ vibrant colors. The aesthetic key to the Alhambra is not color alone, however, but a principle of visual harmony integrating color and geometry. The Nasrid builders applied color in conjunction with principles of proportionate geometric relationships and measurable visual properties—height, distance, size, depth—in the architectural and decorative design. They also manipulated color through their consideration of the materiality of the polychromed surfaces, whose reflective and refractive potentials allowed for differing optical effects. By balancing attention between color, as transmitted through the innovative technique of chromolithography, and the drawings of plans and elevations, this article strengthens the understanding of Jones’ grasp of the visual harmony of the Alhambra. Second, it demonstrates the ways in which Jones’ plates of various ornament were often privileged over, or simply divorced from, his architectural drawings in Alhambresque interiors: e.g., the Salón árabe (1847-1851) in the Royal Palace of Aranjuez (Spain), the Salotto Turco in the Villa Mimbelli (1865-1870) in Livorno (Italy), and the Moorish Bath (1850-1854) at Schloss Albrechtsberg in Dresden (Germany). In conclusion, this article proposes that, in contrast to the Alhambra, a loss of visual harmony is a significant characteristic of the Alhambresque, or, otherwise stated, that the Alhambresque interiors feature a disproportionate emphasis on color, consistent with the ideological burden of Orientalism.
Copyright (c) 2022 Olga Bush
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