Spain renaissance architecture: THE RENAISSANCE IN SPAIN. The Architecture, Part 1 – The Artistic Adventure of Mankind

THE RENAISSANCE IN SPAIN. The Architecture, Part 1 – The Artistic Adventure of Mankind

At the end of the 15th century Spain was invaded by foreign artists. The Catholic Monarchs, as well as magnates and great ecclesiastics called for Dutch, Burgundian, German, and French architects, sculptors, and carvers. This migration of artists was a general phenomenon in Europe at the time. Until the middle of the 16th century Flemish and Italian artists went to the courts of England and France, as numerous as they were in Spain.

Only one artistic tradition with ancient peninsular roots remained intact during those years: the Mudéjar art and its application to architecture, the so called “white carpentry”, in which Moorish craftsmen continued to display great activity, particularly in the construction of coffered ceilings and doors. The treatise by Diego López de Arenas entitled “Breve tratado de la carpintería de lo blanco y tratado de alarifes” (1633 – ‘Brief treatise on white carpentry and treatise on master builders’, reprinted in 1727), with abundant engravings of Mudéjar tracery, gives an idea of ​​how deeply rooted Mudéjar forms were in the south of Spain. During the rule of the Catholic Monarchs, when artists still fluctuated between old and new styles, this neo-Muslim hybrid art obsessed them with its application reaching a high point in the restoration efforts of the Alcázar of Seville and the Aljafería of Zaragoza and, above all, in the ceilings of the Palace of the Dukes of El Infantado in Guadalajara.                                               

The ‘Ambassadors Hall” at the Alcázar of Seville (Spain). Its original Arabic name was al-Qasr al-Muriq (“The Verdant Palace”). It was built by Castilian Christians on the site of a Muslim residential fortress after it was destroyed during the Christian conquest of Seville in 1248. The ‘Ambassadors Hall’ is the ancient throne room built during Muslim reign in the 11th century.North side halls of the Moorish Taifal* Palace at the Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza (Spain). This fortified medieval palace was built during the second half of the 11th century. The Aljafería in Zaragoza, with the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba and the Alhambra, are the three best examples of Hispano-Muslim architecture of Spain.Mudéjar style in the ceilings of the Hall of the Lineages (‘Salón de Linajes”) of the Palace of El Infantado in Guadalajara (Spain).

At the end of the 15th century coats of arms and heraldic names acquired enormous importance, mainly as architectural decorative elements, this lasted until well into the 16th century. Large coats of arms flanked by Herculean figures and supported by the eagle of Saint John in the time of the kings, or by the imperial eagle (with outstretched wings) under the time of Emperor Charles V, are present on the facades to which they stamp a seal of majesty. At first the decorative repertoire was completely Gothic as were the moldings, although they were combined within sinuous lines which departed from the forms of the Flamboyant Gothic and then acquired an almost ‘baroque’ significance. We can see this in the large, ornate facades of the old Iglesia Conventual de San Pablo and in the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, attributed to Simón de Colonia and Gil de Siloé respectively.

The Iglesia Conventual de San Pablo (Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain) is a church and former convent of Isabelline style. It was built between 1445 and 1468 and later expanded and refurbished until 1616.Facade of the Iglesia Conventual de San Pablo (Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain). It was designed by Simón de Colonia and completed in 1500. The stars in the background allude to the coat of arms of the Sandoval y Rojas family, of which the Duke of Lerma was a member, he funded the renovation program of the church and is buried inside.The facade of the Colegio de San Gregorio (Valladolid, Castile and León, Spain). The Colegio was founded as a teaching institution as the College of Theology for Dominican friars. Built in Isabelline style, the building now houses the Museo Nacional de Escultura. The Colegio de San Gregorio is one of the best examples of the Isabelline architectural style characteristic of the Crown of Castile region during the Catholic Monarchs’ reign (late-15th century to early-16th century). The facade includes refined decoration, elegant proportions, and a wide array of symbolic elements.

In other essays when dealing with the last stage of Spanish Gothic, we discussed several foreign architects, carvers, and sculptors that worked in Castile during the early years of this period. They included also artists like Juan de Colonia, Juan Guas, Enrique Egas, the French sculptor Felipe Bigarny, etc. Alongside them, or collaborating with them, were Spaniards such as Juan de Badajoz and his son and namesake (who worked in León), Juan de Alava, Lorenzo Vázquez, Juan Gil de Hontañón, father of Rodrigo Gil de Hontañón who alongside Pedro Machuca shared the glory of having established a clearly Spanish Renaissance style way before the rigorist style later established by Juan de Herrera.

Enrique Egas, son of Annequin Egas from Brussels, was the advisor and inspector of the works paid for by the Catholic Monarchs. His work was largely anonymous; although he played a part in everything, little works can be attributed to him. It was he who designed the layout of the last great Gothic cathedral in Spain, the old cathedral of Salamanca begun in 1512 and whose construction was interrupted several times to be continued until 1560, when the cathedrals of Granada and Malaga were already built in Renaissance style.

Exterior view of the Old Cathedral of Salamanca (Spain). The old cathedral was founded in the 12th century and completed in Romanesque/Gothic style in the 14th century. The crossing tower of the old cathedral is seen to the right of the picture.View of the central nave of the Old Cathedral of Salamanca (Spain) towards the main altar and apse.

The foreign origin of the brothers Enrique and Juan Guas is doubtful. They were thought to be the authors of the Palace of the Mendoza (or of El Infantado) in Guadalajara, today attributed to Lorenzo Vázquez. From the legend of their sepulcher we know that Juan Guas designed San Juan de los Reyes, the vast royal chapel for the Franciscans of Toledo, a place that the Catholic Monarchs had destined for his burial before deciding that they wanted to lay rest in Granada, a city so dear to them. But posterity has to admire San Juan de los Reyes as a royal pantheon. Its interior decoration filled with the crowned figures of Fernando and Isabel, with their mottos and enormous coat of arms held up by gigantic eagles, remained with the white color of the stone without any sign of polychrome or gilding. With the exception of the cathedrals of Granada, Salamanca and Malaga, this was not a time when great churches were built in Spain. The old cities in the center of the Iberian Peninsula already had their enormous Gothic cathedrals and they were more than enough. The kings only focused on building chapels next to monasteries, which they visited frequently.

The Palace of El Infantado (Guadalajara, Spain) from the 15th century also features a Isabelline architectural style. The building used to be the seat of the Dukes of El Infantado.The central courtyard of the Palace of El Infantado (Guadalajara, Spain), 15th century. Exterior view of the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain). It was build in Isabelline style by order of the Catholic Monarchs between 1477–1504. The monastery commemorated both the birth of King Fernando II of Aragon and Queen Isabel I of Castile’s son, Prince Juan, and their victory at the Battle of Toro in 1476.View of the cloister’s halls and cross vaulting of the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain).The church of the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain) features an impressive decoration scheme which includes large coats of arms of the Catholic Monarchs held by eagles a symbol of St. Jhon, a favorite of Queen Isabel I of Castile.

Some magnates, without commissioning special buildings destined for pantheons, built sepulchral chapels in the apses of the old cathedrals with a superb display of decoration. This is the case of the chapel that Cardinal Mendoza commissioned by transforming two old chapels with royal sepulchers in the apse of the cathedral of Toledo. The tomb of Cardinal Mendoza occupies the center of the space, while the royal remains were placed in grandiose niches cut into the wall, reason why the cardinal’s pantheon continued to be called the ‘Chapel of the Old Kings’. Its profusion of moldings and reliefs is surpassed by those at the Chapel of the Constable in Burgos Cathedral, whose construction was overseen by Doña Mencía de Mendoza during the years that her husband, Pedro Fernández de Velasco Constable of Castile, spent in the war of Granada. This construction projects out from the floor plan of the cathedral, as if it was a separate monument, and its dome constitutes one of the external characteristics of the enormous church. Its author, Simón de Colonia, was the son of Juan de Colonia a German and director of the works of the cathedral by 1466. The Chapel of the Constable of Burgos Cathedral brings together the sumptuousness of the Mendoza chapel and the ostentatious taste of the Burgundian and German Flamboyant. In this chapel two sepulchers are placed in the center, like rich sarcophagi, on which the reclining effigies of the constable and his wife rest. The general composition is also much more orderly than that of the chapel of Mendoza in Toledo; the walls are decorated with grandiose coats of arms carved in stone and on top runs a huge and highly decorated ambulatory. Its stone altarpieces were by Gil de Siloé (perhaps also the author of the dome), to who Queen Isabel had entrusted the construction of the sepulchral chapel of her parents, Juan II and Isabel of Portugal in the charterhouse of Miraflores.

The monument to the Sepulcher of Cardinal Mendoza (“Chapel of the Old Kings”) at the Toledo Cathedral (Toledo, Spain). As it is located in the presbytery, a space exclusively reserved for the monarchs, the structure of the choir had to be altered and the royal tombs moved to accommodate the sepulcher. This monument was the first Castilian Renaissance sepulcher.Exterior view of the Chapel of the Constable or Chapel of the Constables in the cathedral of Burgos (Burgos, Spain). The construction is a funerary chapel with a centralized floor plan built in the ambulatory of the cathedral in flamboyant Gothic style and an incipient Spanish Renaissance style. It was built by artist Simón de Colonia between 1482 and 1494.The openwork* starry vault of the Chapel of the Constable in the cathedral of Burgos (Burgos, Spain). The vault’s design was intended to illuminate the centralized space thus exalting the light of Christ. Interior view of the Chapel of the Constable in the cathedral of Burgos (Burgos, Spain). The interior space was designed to convey a formidable display of power of the Velasco-Mendoza couple (patrons of the chapel), whose coat of arms showcase prominently on the walls with evident ostentation.The sepulcher of the constables with the reclining effigies of Pedro Fernández de Velasco and Manrique de Lara and 
Mencía de Mendoza y Figueroa, the patrons of the Chapel of the Constable in the cathedral of Burgos (Burgos, Spain), a work by Felipe Bigarny ca. 1492, a sculptor from Burgundy (France) but who made his career in Spain and became one of the leading sculptors of the Spanish Renaissance.

Whoever that carefully contemplates these monuments will notice that they have little or nothing of the classical forms that the Renaissance had already restored in Italy. However, the momentum with which they were built was already Renaissance in its ambitions. Contemporary to this ostentatious late Gothic that today tends to be called the Isabel style or Isabelino* (‘Isabelline’ architectural style), it appeared an architectural formula inspired by the Bolognese or Lombard Renaissance. This ornate Renaissance style is what we now know as Plateresque*, a term coined in the 17th century by the Andalusian scholar and treatise writer Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga, because this new style seemed to apply the forms of goldsmiths or silversmiths to the great architectures made in stone. It is still somewhat an obscure point in the history of art to know how this style originated. It has been argued by some scholars that it was Enrique Egas himself who learned this decorative grammar from Italian marble workers, mainly Lombards, who came to Spain to sell tombs or to sculpt reliefs, and later applied these decorative motifs to his own compositions but with Burgundian lines. According to others, it was always Egas who was enthusiastic about the technique of a German silversmith, Enrique de Arfe established in Castile at the beginning of the 16th century, whose fame and skill led to countless crosses and monstrances being commissioned for the great cathedrals and collegiate churches of that region.

Enrique de Arfe’s works were admirable: his monstrances, more than jewels, are small buildings in gold and silver. The Toledo monstrance weighs 200 kilograms and has more than 260 statuettes within its buttresses and openings. It is understandable that these small ‘buildings’ executed by a silversmith could be of interest to an architect like Egas, who was very prone to transforming his excessively decorated buildings into stone jewels. But it seems something strange, however, that an artist alone came up with a brand new style; at least it goes against all the laws of art, since a new repertoire of artistic forms always appears by evolution. What it is certain is that one of the first and most characteristic works of the Plateresque style was the facade of the Hospital de la Santa Cruz in Toledo, begun by Enrique Egas in 1504 and completed by Alonso de Covarrubias. The door, framed by pilasters that curve into the archivolt, has a top in the form of a temple with figurines and candlesticks, just like a piece by a silversmith. The two upper windows also appear to be composed of applied pieces, small metallic elements twisted and refined by the chisel, which have been joined to form a miniature stone frame.

The great monstrance of the Toledo Cathedral (Toledo, Spain) was the work of the metalworker Enrique de Arfe, born Heinrich von Harff, originally from Jülich or Harff near Cologne (Germany) and made between 1517-1524 in late Gothic design. The monstrance is used in the annual feast of Corpus Christi of Toledo. The monstrance was made with the finest silver and gold of the time: 18 kilograms of 18 karat gold and 183 kilograms of pure silver were used in its fabrication, and it is said to contain the first gold brought by Columbus from the New World.The Plateresque Renaissance facade of the Hospital de Santa Cruz in Toledo (Spain). The building is from the 16th century and now houses the Museo de Santa Cruz. The hospital was founded at the end of the 15th century to attend orphan kids in the city. The plateresque facade is the work of Alonso de Covarrubias. Detail of the facade of Hospital de Santa Cruz in Toledo (Spain). Above the tympanum is a ‘pediment’ representing the “Betrothal of the Virgin”.

The facade of the University of Salamanca was also attributed to Egas (or more recently to Juan de Talavera), which resembles a stone tapestry totally sculpted with coats of arms and set within ornamental motifs whose author or authors are actually unknown. The lower double door has lowered arches, still Gothic in its outline and moldings; its low curves increase the effect of the magnitude of the upper relief divided into squares by friezes and pilasters. At the top there is a crest interrupted by candlesticks and drawn like the miniature metal crest that a silversmith might carve for a monstrance. The reliefs also appear to be embossed on a silver plate.

The facade of the University of Salamanca (Spain) dates from 1529 and was carved in Plateresque style, a style that flourished during the first 30 years of the 16th century.  This facade is considered as the masterpiece of Spanish Plateresque. The decorative program was divided into three bodies; i) the most basal, right above the doors, contains the medallion of the Catholic Monarchs holding a scepter; ii) the following level has three shields, the central and largest has representations of the kingdoms of the Hispanic Crown; iii) the third un uppermost includes in the center an image of a pope. The authorship of the facade has been attributed to Enrique Egas, or more recently, to Juan de Talavera.Detail of the plateresque facade of the University of Salamanca (Spain) from 1529. 

In Plateresque architecture, the decorative themes are mainly Lombard in origin with clear influences from the style of decoration used around Milan in the late 15th century. At first we see columns with wider shafts and collars, like those used in the Carthusian monastery of Pavia and in other Milanese monuments. The grotesques or arabesques are more easily reminiscent of the Lombard than of the Roman decoration. The niches with pendentive-shaped vaults, the pedestals and the frames, and above all the decorative candlesticks are all profusely distributed on the crests and crown the pilasters. It is wrong to say, then, that the forms of this Plateresque art (which depended more than any other on the forms of the Lombard art of the Quattrocento) were produced in Spain by the work of a German silversmith, such as Enrique de Arfe who, moreover, used in his monstrances Gothic forms. Forms that he and his son Juan de Arfe called modern work, as opposed to ancient or Renaissance work. There is, therefore, the need to assume an Italian or Lombard influence to explain the production of the Spanish Plateresque.

Who was this Italian artist who came to Castile or what Castilian artist went to Lombardy to learn the Milanese style in the first half of the 16th century before Herrera and Berruguete came with their miguelangelesque Roman techniques? Currently, the role of Lorenzo Vázquez, almost unknown until recently, is seen as important to understand this. He was an artist who produced his most important works for members of the Mendoza lineage. In addition to the palace of the Dukes of El Infantado in Guadalajara, the Palacio de Santa Cruz in Valladolid, and the Medinaceli Palace in Cogolludo, are attributed to him. This last construction, built between 1402 and 1502, shows a decidedly Italian style and must be placed at the base of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Indeed, the facade of the Hospital de la Santa Cruz in Toledo was begun by Enrique Egas only in 1504 and its Italian style appears more seasoned inside, which today is known to be the work of Lorenzo Vázquez.

Exterior view of the Palacio de Santa Cruz in Valladolid (Castile and León, Spain). This is an Early-Renaissance palace begun in 1486 and completed in 1491. This is considered as the earliest extant building of the Spanish Renaissance.Exterior view of the Palace of the Dukes of Medinaceli (Cogolludo, Spain). Built between 1402-1502, this Renaissance palace is a perfect example of the Spanish renaissance architecture.View of one of the inner courtyards of the Hospital de Santa Cruz in Toledo (Spain). The floor plan of the Hospital de Santa Cruz was conceived with six corridors that intersect to form four courtyards. In general, there is a symbiosis of Moorish tradition with flamenco art.

Other buildings in which the plateresque shines with splendor, and which seem influenced by the works of Vázquez, are the Castle of Pañaranda de Duero, which was erected by the Viceroy of Navarre Don Francisco de Zúñiga y Velasco, and the so-called Casa de Las Conchas in Salamanca, residence of a high ecclesiastical figure.

View of the castle of Peñaranda de Duero (Peñaranda de Duero, Spain) built in Gothic style. The castle originally dates from the 10th century but was reformed in the 15th century. This castle was an important point on the fortified line which existed between the medieval Christian Kingdom of Castile and the Moor state of Al Andalus during the 10th century. Exterior view of the Casa de las Conchas (Salamanca, Spain). The ‘house’ was built between 1493 to 1517 by Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado, a knight of the Order of Santiago de Compostela and a professor in the University of Salamanca. Its most peculiar feature is the facade with a late Gothic and Plateresque style, decorated with more than 300 shells, symbol of the order of Santiago, as well as of the pilgrims performing the Way of St. James, and with four windows in Gothic style each one having a different shape. It currently houses a public library.View of the inner courtyard of the Casa de las Conchas (Salamanca, Spain). The lower floor of this courtyard is characterized by arches supported by square pilasters, while in the upper bays they are supported by shorter columns in Carrara marble.

While magnates built such sumptuous mansions, the monarchy didn’t have a royal residence in Castile where the Court could settle with dignity. The Catholic Monarchs almost always resided in castles, such as La Mota near Medina del Campo, or in apartments, such as the convent of San Juan de Huila and the one next to the Royal Hospital in Santiago. It is easy that during their stays in Granada they lived in the Alhambra itself, at least it is known that they allocated some funds to its conservation and restoration.

Charles V Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t be content with this lack of a Royal domicile. His first initiative was the construction of the new palace within the gardens of the Alhambra, next to the old Muslim fortress. The architect in chief was a Spaniard educated in Italy called Pedro Machuca, who had learned in Rome from Bramante and Raphael and who returned to Spain in 1520. Its layout was intended to imitate that of the Roman school: it has a square floor plan with a central circular courtyard and two floors with columns. Therefore, it reminds us of the layout of the semicircular courtyard of the villa of Pope Julius II in Rome and that of the Farnese Palace in Caprarola. This great building commissioned by Charles V in the Alhambra remained unfinished. The upper bay was never covered. Pedro Machuca forgot, in Granada, that he was in Spain: not for a single moment was he impressed with the wonders that the Arabs left a few steps from his new construction in the Alhambra palace itself. He was a convert, he only thought of Italy and the models he had seen in Rome.

West facade of the Palace of Charles V inside the Alhambra (Granada, Spain). The palace was built in Renaissance style started in 1527 but was left unfinished after 1637. Today, it houses the Alhambra Museum on its ground floor and the Fine Arts Museum of Granada on its upper floor.Aerial view of the Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra (Granada, Spain) showing the square floor plan enclosing and inner central and circular courtyard.

When he died towards the middle of the century, there was still a long way to go to complete the imperial palace of the Alhambra. Luis Machuca, his son, continued the work following his father’s plans, but the colossal building was destined never to see its completion. The exterior wall is also very regular and monotonous, with the windows all the same; but there is a body in the facade, flat, with a large door and windows that has some dignity.

Vies of the Southern facade of the Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra (Granada, Spain). The inner patio of the Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra (Granada, Spain). This circular patio has two levels. The lower includes a Doric colonnade supporting a classical entablature with triglyphs and metopes. The upper floor is formed by a stylized Ionic colonnade supporting a entablature with no decoration.

The Palace of Charles V in the Alhambra was the first Italian-style monument from the 16th century that was built in central Spain. Such was its novelty and its contrast with the traditional Spanish Plateresque, that there was a need to give it a name. In consequence, the Castilian treatise writers who saw in this building something more Classical in its forms than any other thing that was build in the Iberian Peninsula at the time, described it with the name of ‘Greco-Roman style’, an unfortunate denomination.


Taifa: (From Arabic meaning “a party, band or faction”). Term that refers to the independent Muslim principalities and kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Portugal and Spain), referred to by Muslims as al-Andalus, that emerged from the decline and fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba between 1009 and 1031. The taifa courts were renowned centers of cultural excellence in which poets, scientists, and other scholars were able to thrive.

Openwork: A term in art history, architecture and related fields for any technique that produces decoration by creating holes, piercings, or gaps that go right through a solid material such as metal, wood, stone, pottery, cloth, leather, or ivory.

Isabelline: (Also known as Isabelline Gothic or Castilian Late Gothic). An architectural style dominant of the Crown of Castile during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs in the late-15th century to early-16th century in Spain. The Frenchman Émile Bertaux named the style after Queen Isabel I of Castile. It represents the transition between late Gothic and early Renaissance architecture, with original features and decorative influences of the Castilian tradition, the Flemish, the Mudéjar, and much less the Italian architecture.

Plateresque: (From the Spanish meaning “in the manner of a silversmith”). An artistic movement, especially architectural, developed in Spain and its territories, which appeared between the late Gothic and early Renaissance in the late 15th century, and spread over the next two centuries. It is a modification of Gothic spatial concepts and a blend of Mudéjar, Flamboyant Gothic, and Lombard decorative components, as well as Renaissance elements of Tuscan origin. It reached its peak during the reign of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, especially in Salamanca, but also flourished in other such cities of the Iberian Peninsula as León, Burgos, Santiago de Compostela, and also in the territory of New Spain, which is now Mexico, and in Bogotá (Colombia). The style is characterized by ornate decorative facades covered with floral designs, chandeliers, festoons, fantastic creatures, and all sorts of configurations. The spatial arrangement, however, is more clearly Gothic-inspired. In New Spain the Plateresque acquired its own configuration, showing more its Mudéjar heritage and blending with Native American influences.

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Spanish Renaissance | Design History

Spain During the Renaissance

During the 16th century, Spain dominated the world both politically and economically. Spanish design was a unique blend of Renaissance and Moorish design.

Spain’s Islamic heritage began with the Moors. The Moors were people from North African tribes. Its Islamic heritage helped to shape its history, culture, and design. For 800 years, the Moors and Christians struggled for dominance. By the 15th century, Christians had conquered the most territory and drove most of the Moors out. Spain’s present borders came about in the late 15th century. In the 16th century, Spain led the world in trade, exploration, and colonization. By the 1550s, Spain controlled most of South and Central America, Florida, Cuba, and the Philippines. Gold and silver discoveries in America brought wealth to Spain. In 1588, the English defeated the Spanish Armada, and brought an end to Spanish domination.  Political ties with Italy brought the renaissance to Spain in the late 15th century.

Spanish Renaissance Architecture

Hispano Moresque reflected the Moorish architecture and decoration of Spain during Islamic domination. Mudejar appears after the conquest of the Moors by the Christians. Many Christian buildings used Moorish details. Mudejar was a decoration that combined Spanish and Islamic characteristics. Plateresque describes the transition from Gothic to Renaissance. Its low relief resembles silver work. It had two phases: Gothic and Renaissance. Isabelline or Gothic Plasteresque was the early phase. its form and motifs are determined buy gothic characteristics. Renaissance plasteresque was the later phase. It had more classical motifs. Classical Desornamentado or Herrean style demonstrates an understanding of classical design principles and order. Decoration was symmetrical and carefully proportioned. Decoration emulates high Renaissance forms. It dominated Spanish architecture in the 17th century. Churrigueresue or Baroque Rococo was named for the Churriguera family of architects. The style highlighted architectural ornament such as the inverted obelisk, stucco work, and twisted columns. Moorish motifs are geometric shapes, interlaced arabesques, and ogee arches. Gothic motifs include heraldic symbols, crockets, pinnacles, and pointed arches. Plasteresque motifs include decorated pigments, pilasters, baluster columns, and grotesques. Classical style decoration copied Italian Renaissance motifs.

Renaissance style began in Spanish architecture as plasteresque. It was a transition between Gothic and Renaissance. Its decoration was a combination of Moorish, Gothic, and Renaissance elements. Ornamentation was used on doors and sometimes windows. It is often complex and is layered within a grid. Decoration extends to the rooflines around portals. The Spanish Renaissance entered a more Italian like phase in the 16th century. Characteristics include symmetry, order, and proportions. Most structures reflected human scale. Spanish buildings include civic buildings, universities, churches, hospitals, palaces, townhouses, and rancheros. Most structures are designed for hot weather. They have small windows, flat or low pitched roofs, and patios. Churches were the dominant structure in the city. The front of most buildings were on narrow streets. Some public buildings and palaces faced squares or plazas. Most churches have Latin cross plans. Palaces and houses, however, were centered on patios for privacy. Rooms generally opened to outdoor spaces. Rooms are often long and narrow. Building materials include granite, limestone, glazed ceramic tile, sandstone, and brick. Classical style was marked by grey granite and white stucco. Wood was scare. The Spanish are known for wrought iron window grilles, handrails, and other decoration. Walls and openings are usually divided into bays and are symmetrical. Surfaces were plain until the classical period. Plasteresque or Classical decoration usually surround rectangular or arched windows that have one or two lights. Some windows have rejas or wrought iron grilles. Rectangular doors have carved wood panels. Roofs are flat or low pitched.

Interior ornamentation concentrates around openings. The most important rooms in private buildings are the entrance hall, main salon, dining area, and the bed chamber. Rooms had few furnishings. Colors were highly saturated. Colors used were reds, greens, blues, and yellows. Color appears primarily in tile work, textiles, and decorative objects. Plasterwork was usually white. Furnishings and ceilings could be a combination of natural wood, color, and gilt. Floors were made of brick, tile, or stone. Wood was used for upper floors. Woven mats and knotted pile rugs were used to cover floors. Walls were smooth white plaster. Earthenware tiles were used to highlight dadoes, door and window facings, window seats, stair risers, and interiors of wall niches. Dining rooms often have lavabos made of copper, pewter, or pottery that hang on the wall or are in a niche faced with tiles. A lavabo is a wall fountain that consists of a washbasin with flaring sides and an upper portion to hold and distribute water. Grand stairways were elaborately decorated. Aristocratic houses had wall hangings of silk, damask, and velvet. Some were embellished with embroidery or braid and fringe. Painted, tooled, and gilded leather were also used for wall coverings, because Spain is a leading center for leatherwork. The main wall of important rooms is usually dominated by large scale mantels. Occasionally, plasterwork is used to decorate chimneys. Portable braziers made of brass, copper, or silver are used to supply heat or supplement fireplaces. Yeseria or plasterwork can be used to frame windows and doors. Shutters and doors could be plain, carved, or painted. Occasionally heavy lambrequins and draperies were used on doorways of important rooms. Window curtains were rare. Ceilings were the focal point of most interiors. Most ceilings were pine. Ceilings in important rooms had elaborate geometric shapes. Beams and coffers could be plain or decorated.

Spanish interiors used textile wall coverings, upholstery, and bed hangings. Bed hangings were made of silk, linen, or wool. Velvet and damask were used on the walls of important rooms. Armchairs and side chairs had leather, velvet, and damask seats and backs. Some chairs, benches, and stools were covered completely in fabric. Textile treatments of important beds were trimmed with lace, embroidery, fringe, or braid.

Torcheres or torch stands, hanging lanterns, braccios, candelabra, and chandeliers were common in all room types. Designs could be plain or elaborate. They were made of either wood or iron.

Renaissance furniture was simple in design and construction. Spanish furniture was much heavier than Italian or French. Ornamentation showed Moorish and Classical influence. The most important types of furniture were seating, chests, cabinets, tables, and beds. Walnut was the most used wood. Oak, pine, and chestnut were also used. Luxury furniture was made from exotic woods such as ebony and mahogany. Decoration includes inlay, carving, painting, and gilding. Bone and ivory inlays showed Moorish influence. Silver was also used for inlay and applied details. Seating includes the frailero, X-shaped chairs, the ladder-back chair, stools, and benches. Chairs were less common than benches and stools. Most chairs had medium-to-high backs with ball or leaf finials and spiral, baluster-turned, or quadrangular legs with stretchers. Trestle supports were more common than legs on benches and stools, and they could also have iron braces. Many rooms had built-in seating, and sometimes women would sit on cushions on a dais in the Moorish fashion. Most tables were constructed simply and were covered with carpets or cloths. Chests, built-in cupboards, the sacristy cupboard, the armario, and the fresquera were used for storage. Spanish beds had four plain wood posts and elaborately carved headboards. Some posts had spiral carvings. Other beds were made of iron and bronze. Small leather covered chests and boxes were used for decoration on tables.

Spanish forms traveled to the Americas in the 16th century as abstracted and simplified renditions of their Mudejar, classical, and Baroque precursors in Mexico, Central and South America, and the southwestern and southeastern United States. Spanish Colonial Revival, beginning in the early 20th century, featured plain walls, tiled floors, and dark-beamed ceilings of the earlier period, but with the addition of plasterwork, decorative tiles, and arches and more and varied furnishings.

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Spanish Renaissance architecture.

The history of Spain

Anna Borisova

In Spain, architecture was the first to plunge into the Renaissance. Here, original solutions, forms and ideas appear earlier than in the same painting or literature – already at the end of the 15th century. However, this was less related to urban planning, to a greater extent – to palace and temple complexes. The era of the power of the Crown and the Church erected monuments to the power of the Crown and the Church.

Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo

Large-scale work was not carried out in the cities, only separate buildings, architectural accents were erected. Planning of cities in the XV-XVI centuries. actually does not change, it is still a medieval network of crooked narrow streets leading to the market, the main square and the cathedral. And in the territories that were under Arab control for a long time, where the influence of Moorish urban planning is preserved, the network of streets is especially intricate, there are almost no squares.

These were Toledo, Seville, Valencia, Zaragoza. Something similar to the development of urban architecture is taking place at this time in the territories of the main industrial and commercial centers of Spain – in Barcelona and Valencia. The population and territory are growing here, new residential areas are emerging, public buildings are being erected. The cities of other Spanish provinces, especially the cradle of the Court – Castile, developed much more slowly.

The transfer of the capital to Madrid in the reign of Philip II (1560) makes little difference. The new capital for quite a long time still remains a second-rate town built up with one-story houses. The priority of the crown was precisely the change of the capital, and not its improvement. Insignificant Madrid turned out to be suitable for the role of a new center, since the authorities feared the strengthening of any of the old and powerful cities of the peninsula. The geographical location of Madrid in the heart of the country was an additional argument in its favor.

So, as we have already understood, the architectural Renaissance in Spain is not about urban planning. The Spanish Renaissance in architecture is palaces, monasteries, temples and monuments to the military victories of the Crown. At the same time, in palace architecture, isolated and fortified castles, the construction of which was forbidden by Ferdinand and Isabella, were replaced by city palaces. Their premises were usually grouped around a courtyard within the city.

Palace of Charles V in Granada – El palacio de Carlos V, Granada

The first large-scale palace construction dates back to the reign of Charles V of Habsburg (beginning of the 16th century). Then a large palace was built in Granada on the territory of the Moorish fortress of the Alhambra – El palacio de Carlos V.

Under Charles V, the heir to several European crowns and a representative of a powerful royal dynasty, Spain finally established itself in its role as a world power, which contributes to the deepening of the country’s cultural ties with European neighbors, primarily with Italy. Spanish architects studied in Italy, and Italian craftsmen worked in Spain.

The latter actively contributed to the acquaintance of the Spaniards with the order system and architectural ideas of the Italian Renaissance. The elements of the order begin to infiltrate Spanish architecture, at first exclusively with a decorative function, along with Gothic and Moorish forms, and this is considered to be the first step of the Spanish Renaissance in architecture.

This phase of development was later called “plateresco” (from the Spanish “plateria” – jewelry craftsmanship), a striking example of which is the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo.

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo – Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes

there is another trend that is distinguished by greater rigor and restraint of decor and goes back to the ancient classics. It is often referred to as “Greco-Roman”. The scientific writings of Spanish architects (for example, Diego Sagreda’s book The Essence of Ancient Architecture, published in 1526, or the works of Francisco Villalpanda) served as a theoretical justification for new ideas in architecture to a large extent.

In 1506-1517 the huge Cathedral of Granada, La Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana de la Encarnación de Granada, is being built, which reflects the main new architectural trends of that time.

Construction was started in the place where the main mosque of the city stood during the Arab rule. The drafting of the cathedral and the management of the construction were entrusted to the famous plateresco master Enrique de Egas. In 1525, the leadership passed to the architect Diego de Siloé.

After the death of Siloe in 1563, the construction of the cathedral complex was delayed. It was fully completed only in 1703. By the way, the facade of the Cathedral was made according to the project, already mentioned by us in one of the previous articles, by the Baroque artist Alonso Cano.

Granada Cathedral – La Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana de la Encarnación de Granada

One of the most mature works of the Spanish Renaissance in architecture is the Tavera Hospital in Toledo (El Hospital de Tavera, o Hospital de San Juan Bautista), named after its founder, Archbishop Juan de Tavera. The construction, begun in 1541, dragged on until the end of the 16th century.

El Hospital de Tavera (Hospital de San Juan Bautista), Toledo

At the end of the 15th – beginning of the 16th century. the grandiose Cathedral in Seville is being completed. At the same time, the cathedrals of Astorga and Placencia were built. And the construction of the beautiful cathedrals of Salamanca and Segovia stretches over the entire 16th century.

It must be said that the mixing of new Renaissance architectural forms with old constructive techniques lasts a very long time in Spain. Only in the second half of the XVI century. the cylindrical vault and dome are finally replacing the Gothic structures of the vaults and the Arabic type-setting ceilings.

In the second half of the 16th century, in the reign of Philip II, marked by a special impetus for dissent and the power of the Inquisition, Renaissance architecture slows down its development on Spanish soil. The nature of this reign could not but affect the nature of the buildings of those years. And, perhaps, the main architectural symbol of that era can be called Escorial. This famous monument surprisingly combines the ideas of the Renaissance with the glorification of the Crown, with asceticism and the severity of forms.

Escorial – Monasterio de El Escorial

Escorial became the largest building of the entire reign of Philip II. The fact is that after the victory over the French troops at San Quentino (1557), the king vowed to build a monastery in honor of St. Lawrence, a born Spaniard. In the course of construction, the original plan for the monastery expanded to a different scale. And near Madrid in 1563, a giant complex was laid, where the monastic buildings were combined with the tomb of the monarchs of the Habsburg dynasty and with the personal royal residence.

The name of the monument echoes the original name of the area where it was erected – near the village of El Escorial (famous for slag piles from ancient copies – el escoria). The place attracted by its proximity to the new capital – Madrid, as well as the abundance of water and building stone.

Philip II himself supervised the construction. This king, in principle, got used to personally control everything that happened in his country. It is not surprising that the complex was the personification of an era of special royal power and special Spanish power. Epoch, alas, receding into the past. Strict and severe grandeur is at the same time characteristic of the architecture, sculpture and painting of Escorial. For example, paintings by El Greco were not accepted into the palace, since, according to the king, an excess of feeling could distract the viewer from a concentrated religious mood.

Escorial – Monasterio de El Escorial

Escorial can be hardly attributed to the Spanish Renaissance. Connoisseurs point to the severity, monumentality, asceticism of its structures, which conflict with the ideas and aesthetics of the Renaissance. However, the frescoes of the Escorial were carried out by invited Italians, those same “bearers of the ideas of the Renaissance.” And the construction of the Complex was headed by the architect, philosopher and mathematician Juan Batista de Toledo, who studied with the masters of the Italian Renaissance, and personally took part in the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome under the guidance of Michelangelo himself.

Construction began in 1563, and in 1567 Juan Batisto de Toledo dies. He is replaced by Juan de Herrera. It was he who completed the construction of one of the greatest buildings in Spain. Basically, the complex was completed in 1584. To this day, it impresses with its grandeur, grandiose scale, and power. The huge size of the structure is complemented by a giant dome.

Escorial – Monasterio de El Escorial

Thus, on the example of the Escorial, one can see how the great era discovered by Ferdinand and Isabella, with the language of its structures, speaks of the strength and power of royal power, of the military victories of Spanish weapons. The Cathedral in Granada is a monument to the liberation of the city from the Moors, the Escorial was founded after the victory of Philip II over the French, and the church of the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo reminds us of the glorious battle with the Portuguese at Toro …

Like any living cultural process, the Spanish Renaissance in the architecture of the XV-XVI centuries. undergoes constant change and development. Plateresco becomes its most striking and original phase. The next period is the mature Renaissance, when architecture gropes for new forms, bolder retreats from the usual medieval decisions and Moorish influence. But the late stage of the architectural renaissance proceeded already in the extremely difficult situation of the reign of Philip II. This explains the limited total number of buildings at the end of the 16th century. and the fact that it is difficult to unconditionally attribute them to the works of the Renaissance.

In general, the whole Spanish architecture of that time is somehow characterized by eclecticism. Here the traditions of medieval Christian and Arabic art were combined with the influence of the Italian Renaissance, and from the 17th century. – baroque. Much more clearly the national Spanish originality manifested itself in sculpture, especially in wooden plastic. We will talk about this next time

Renaissance in Spanish architecture: Baroque and Renaissance style

By Pablo Gonzalez Read 8 min Views 262 Published


  • 1 Early Renaissance buildings
  • 2 Author’s facades
  • 3 Features of the Renaissance in Andalusia
  • 4 Severe Renaissance of the Spanish Baroque 9010 9010
  • 6 Kings of architectural dramaturgy: Churriguera architects
  • 7 The best works of Spanish architecture
  • 8 Baroque palaces in the French style
  • 9 New direction neoclassicism


  1. Early Renaissance buildings
  2. Author’s facades
  3. Renaissance features in Andalusia
  4. Severe Renaissance
  5. Spanish baroque features
  6. 109 The best works of Spanish architecture
  7. Baroque palaces in the French style
  8. New trend Neoclassicism

Early Renaissance buildings

In its homeland (Italy), the Renaissance received at an early stage all the signs of impassive classicism. But in Spain things were completely different.

One of the directions of the Renaissance was the formation of the Plateresque architectural style, in which many styles of architecture found their definite continuation: Moorish heritage, elements of post-Gothic Isabelino and sculptural detailing. This direction of architecture, which was formed in the 16th century, became characterized by many features of the Renaissance: decorative motifs, order elements (certain forms of columns and candelabra). Such elements brought order to the chaotic splendor of Gothic.

In most cases, new ideas did not affect the design of buildings, but facades. The façade of the University of Salamanca can be considered the most famous of the blooming plateresco, where there is a huge number of images of Ferdinand, Isabella, fruits, curls. Many tried to use the image of a frog when decorating facades, it was believed that it was it that brings good luck. In Salamanca, almost all buildings are decorated in the described style.

Author’s facades

Despite the fact that the name of the author of the facade of the University of Salamanca is not known, it was with the advent of the Renaissance in Spain that a tradition arose to associate architectural work with the names of the masters who performed them. Thanks to this, the following architects gained their fame:

  1. Juan de Badajoz, who designed the façade of the San Marcos pilgrimage site (c. 1514) in León.
  2. Alonso de Covarrubias, who led the construction of the Cathedral of Toledo in the 1630s. A little later, he began to adhere to a less pretentious style of the Renaissance.
  3. Rodrigo Gil de Ontagnon, who designed the façade of the University of Alcada de Henares and received the title of Spain’s leading architect of the 16th century. His works are characterized by restraint and balance in harmony with a wide variety of elements and forms.

Features of the Renaissance in Andalusia

Photo: Cadenas Palace

In Spain, a huge number of buildings that were based on the principles of the Gothic, and some of them have all the elements characteristic of Italian buildings. But still you can find a huge number of examples of the academicism of the Renaissance. Such buildings stand out for their restraint in composition.

Beginning in 1520, in Spain, more and more preference began to be given to the symmetry and solemnity of Antiquity, which led to the strengthening of the High Renaissance on the peninsula.

Plateresco was mainly implemented in Castile and Leon, but in Andalusia, architects preferred the classical direction. A striking example of Late Renaissance architecture can be considered a palace that is located in the center of the Alhambra. It was designed in 1527 by the architect Pedro Machuca (a student of Michelangelo). It is a palace with a circular courtyard and a two-story rotunda. More striking examples of Late Renaissance architecture can no longer be found.

Later, the creator of the Golden Staircase (Elcalera Dorada) in the Cathedral of Burgos began the restoration of the Cathedral of Granada. The old building was supplemented with columns, a semicircular arch and a dome. Anderes de Vandelvira at one time decorated the entire city of Ubeda with buildings in the Renaissance style. He was engaged in projects of buildings on the preliminary order of wealthy citizens. It is his work that is the monumental hospital of Santiago and the Cadenas Palace (Palacio de las Cadenas). These two buildings have become a wonderful addition to the collection of architectural monuments of the Renaissance period in Spain.

Severe Renaissance

Photo: The Palace-Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial

Spanish architects did not give a long time to the classical direction in the architecture of the Renaissance, very soon there was a sharp turn. At the third stage of the Renaissance, restraint unusual for Spain began to be observed in architecture.

The new strict ascetic style became the complete opposite of the solemnity of plateresco. The ceremonial buildings of Machuca, Vandelvira and de Siloé are a thing of the past. The founder of the new direction was the lover of antiquity Juan de Herrera. His best example of architecture was the palace-monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. This is a huge complex, it can only be seen in its entirety from a height, it was a rectangular structure with a huge number of courtyards, a basilica, a palace and a mausoleum.

Outwardly, the building exudes real academicism. In this complex, the naked Renaissance is vividly represented, stripped to the very foundations. It exudes military power and spiritual asceticism, which was characteristic of Spain in the 16th century.

The project was first developed by Juan Buatista de Toleda, but completed by Herrera in 1584. The construction took only 21 years. In addition to the architect Herrera, other young artists used unadorned austere simplicity in their work, for example, Juan Gomez de la Mora, who was involved in the project of Mayor Square in Madrid.

Features of the Spanish Baroque

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Spanish architects again returned to the trends of Italian architecture. Instead of classical rigor, pomposity and sophistication began to appear again. It is worth noting that the appearance of the Baroque did not lead to the emergence of a huge number of new architectural buildings.

Sophistication and pomposity were realized in the decoration of existing buildings and structures. Also, the features of this style began to be observed in the works of sculptors. It is worth noting that the reason that the baroque did not fully take root on the peninsula can be considered the originality of Spain. If certain elements of the Baroque were used, then only within the traditional rigorism of local, ethnic and religious tastes.

Kings of architectural drama: the architects of Churriguera

Photo: Piazza Mayor in Salamanca

The style pioneered by Herrera slowly gave way to a new direction. In the construction of new buildings, as before, there was a certain restraint and moderation even at an early stage of the Baroque. But Alonso Cano introduced a little variety into the construction when, in 1667, he took up the design of the facade of the Granada Cathedral. In his early works there was a certain restraint that still prevailed over the pomp and magnificence of the Baroque. After all, the architect was guided by the canons of strict architecture.

In the 18th century, the Churrigueresque style of architecture, which was named after two Churriguera architect brothers, began to dominate the peninsula.

The features of this style were determined by the elder brother José Benito de Churriguera, who began to use juicy effective decorativeness in his creations. To some extent, he can be called a sculptor, guided by his work in creating a collection of dizzying altars for the church.

The most famous is the altar made for the monastery of San Esteban in Salamanca (1692 d). The creation of the older brother, as an architect, is less known. By order of one of the bankers, he completed the project of the small town of Nuevo Bastan in 1709, where he gave the church, palace and glass factory a very unpretentiously classical look.

But the architectural works of Alberto Churriguera are characterized by great solemnity and pomposity. His main creation, thanks to which he went down in history, can be considered Mayor Square in Salamanca. However, the best representatives of the Churriger style are considered to be architects who were not engaged in direct construction, but in decorating portals with floral patterns, angels, and spiral columns. An example is the portal of the building of the Museum of the History of the City (Museo Municipal) in Madrid.

The best works of Spanish architecture

Photo: The Cathedral of Murcia

The best work of the Spanish Baroque can be considered the design of the western facade in Santiago de Compostela, which is called El Obradoiro. Its design was carried out in 1740 by the famous architect Fernando Casas i Novoa. A whimsical, eye-catching composition was formed from a harmonious combination of thin columns, statues of St. James and his disciples, and other traditional set of elegant panel decor.

Spanish architects often worked on existing buildings and decorated them according to new styles. Such a mixture of directions often violated the overall harmony of the composition, but in the case of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, a real architectural miracle turned out.

Another successful work of that time can be considered the facade of the Cathedral in Murcia. It was decorated with gargoyles and cherubs made of light stone. It is worth noting that the Churrigueresco style, which was formed in Spain, received an even more chic and pompous incarnation in Latin America.

Baroque palaces in the French style

Photo: Royal Palace of Madrid

In the Baroque era, the Spanish monarchs did not resort to the services of their architects, they wanted French pomposity. Therefore, they went far from the Churrigueresco style that existed in Spain at that time. The architects who were called from France and Italy were far from Spanish traditions.

According to the design of Giovanni Battista Sacchetti, on the orders of Philip the Fifth, the Royal Palace (Palacio Real) was built in Madrid. This is a very elegant building, in which there were about 2800 rooms, in its architectural composition it was very reminiscent of the Louvre. In one of the halls of the palace, the walls were finished with porcelain panels. Only by this it can be understood that the king did not skimp on funds during construction.

Another grand building of this time can be considered the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso (La Grania de San Ildefonso) in Segovia, which was built on the model and likeness of Versailles.

A new direction of neoclassicism

Photo: Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar in Zaragoza

Already at the end of the 18th century, Spanish architects, like the architects of Europe, began to lean towards a more rational and mature. Now they preferred neoclassicism, in which the imitation of ancient noble architecture was considered the right direction. The influence of this direction did not become a rich rhyme and was limited to only a few buildings that were commissioned by King Charles III in order to ennoble Madrid.