A 16th-century plan sheds new light on the palace of Carlos V in the Alhambra

In 1526, during Emperor Charles V’s honeymoon with Doña Isabel de Portugal in Granada, it was decided to build a new palace in the heart of the Alhambra, next to the old Nasrid palaces. An original building with a square floor plan was then designed, with a large circular patio and classical facades with portals, as an outstanding exponent of a new Renaissance architecture.

Despite the abundant bibliography available, there are many mysteries that still exist about this singular work of architecture. Its unknown authorship is still the subject of debate among palace scholars. We are in front of one of the first buildings of the Spanish Renaissance, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Aerial photograph of the palace of Carlos V in the Alhambra, unfinished at the beginning of the 20th century.
Particular collection, Author provided

In 1912, two important anonymous plans from the 16th century with the palace of Carlos V and its surroundings were located, today preserved in the library of the Royal Palace of Madrid. Around 1940 another anonymous plan appeared, kept in the National Historical Archive (Nobility Section) in Toledo, which included only the plan of the palace. This plan is the object of this investigation. Its proper interpretation within the design and construction process, as well as its dating and possible authorship, are crucial to understanding the origins of this unique palace.

Recently, we have published a scientific article in the EGA magazine. It explains that, based on a precise digital reproduction, all his incised lines have been transcribed for the first time with a punch, a common graphic technique in the 16th century. This has allowed us to learn about the geometric design process of the palace, an issue that has generated many speculations and hypotheses of little graphic and scientific rigor.

Incised lines and drawing process

At that time, architectural drawings with a punch on paper were used as a basis for subsequent ink drawing. They served as barely visible auxiliary lines to compose the geometric drawing. In our case, it has been found that these layouts were relatively simple, ruling out the complex design processes that many authors have assumed.

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Graphic transcription (red lines) of the geometrical layouts included in the plan of the Palace of Carlos V of the National Historical Archive.
AJGO / AGG, 2022, Author provided

The layout of this palace clearly stands out for the roundness and symbolism of two geometric shapes, the square on the outer perimeter and the circle on the patio. Both figures keep a simple and little-known proportion: the diameter of the patio measures half the side of the square. This decision would be crucial as a starting point to later complete the layout of the chapel, the patio gallery, the halls, the main staircase and the rooms.

In the octagonal chapel, a geometric procedure has been detected that was used in Gothic architecture to draw and dimension walls. Therefore, the architect of this palace, who was innovative with his Renaissance forms, also used medieval layouts and knowledge. This issue is of great interest for the debate on possible authorship.

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Hypothesis of the process of drawing up the plan of the Palace of Carlos V.
ADJGO / AGG, Author provided

The size of the plant with respect to a façade plan and the missing model

During this investigation, an important dimensional relationship has been revealed between the plan of the National Historical Archive, a missing model and a plan of the façade of the palace that is now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of New York: the so-called “Burlington” plan, considered as a copy of the lost original elevation, drawn years later.

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‘Burlington’ elevation of the palace of Carlos V in the Alhambra.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

It has been detected that said elevation would have a similar size to the missing model of the palace that was commissioned in 1528, whose measurements are known from later documents. In addition, it has been verified that the plan analyzed here was drawn with half the size of the façade and the model. These simple relationships confirm for the first time the close link between this plan, the elevation and the model. All of them would serve to formalize the initial design of the palace, before the start of the works in 1532.

On the dating and possible authorship

The analysis of historical documentation of the building has allowed us to estimate that the plan of the National Historical Archive would be drawn between 1528 and 1532. Therefore, it is one of the first plans preserved from the Spanish Renaissance. We are before a very important graphic document of the European architecture of the 16th century.

There has been considerable speculation about its authorship among various Italian architects of that time, and among other Spaniards such as Luis de Vega, who was a royal architect, or the painter Pedro Machuca, trained in Italy. The new evidence provided now allows us to assume that the author of the plan was the great architect of Granada Cathedral, Diego de Siloé. He had Italian Renaissance training, knew the Gothic drawing procedures and appears in payment documents for the works of the Palace of Carlos V. This would reaffirm a hypothesis already raised by some researchers.

The links detected between the plan and the model of the palace also suggest its leading role. We know that at that time he was commissioned a wooden model of the cathedral of Granada, so he could also be commissioned for the palace in the Alhambra. Could this be the reason that led you to participate in its layout and subsequent construction?

file 20221105 1597 z21gmn.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Southern façade of the Palace of Carlos V.
AGG / AJGO, Author provided

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