Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2019
Olga Bush Reframing the Alhambra: Architecture, Poetry, Textiles and Court Ceremonial Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. 344 pp.; 94 color ills.; 21 b/w ills. €95.00 (9781474416504)

The Alhambra has long been an accessible entryway into a powerful kind of Orientalist romanticism, capturing the minds and words of writers, rulers, artists, and art historians alike. Constructed at the end of the ninth century, expanded as a palace in the twelfth and thirteenth under the Nasrid dynasty (1230–1492), before falling into disrepair from the Reconquista until the nineteenth century, the Alhambra inspired Europeans with its arabesque ornamental scheme and poetic Arabic epigraphy. But as Olga Bush points out in Reframing the Alhambra, the records and descriptions from such sources often tell us more about the authors themselves than the palace on the hill. For example, the Alhambra famously served as the setting of Washington Irving’s set of descriptive semi-fictional essays, Tales from the Alhambra (1832), which introduced the palace complex to an audience of European armchair travelers in a lament for a lost courtly paradise. Far too often, the Alhambra has served as a receptacle for notions of luxury and decadence without asking, as Bush does, what it is that invites such reflections. Her exploration of what she calls a “poetical fullness” to describe the reciprocal relationships between ornament, ritual, and text forms the basis of her book. She deftly interweaves theories of optics, poetry, and aesthetics—rooted in Ibn al-Haytham’s eleventh-century Kitab al-Manaẓir (“Book of Optics”)—with architectural analysis to come to a more profound understanding of the Nasrid palace as an occupied space.

From the outset, Bush situates her study as the latest entry into the history of art historical scholarship attempting to sift through centuries of additions, renovations, and reconstructions of this palatial complex. Notably, Bush does not neglect the value of earlier twentieth-century scholarship spearheaded by figures like Leopoldo Torres Balbás (1888–1960), whom she credits with establishing a general history of construction inasmuch as one can be established given the sporadic sources. She also recognizes Oleg Grabar for his work on the Alhambra’s ornamental program as the key mediator of the space’s aesthetic experience. Bush’s work builds upon Grabar’s by addressing how these diverse ornamental modes—chiefly vegetal, geometric, and epigraphic—speak not only to the viewer but to each other, building a coherent and subtly complex aesthetic vision. By approaching such intermedial dialogues as part of a common visual intention, Bush avoids the isolating tendencies of many academic studies of the Alhambra, which zero in on one particular element (most commonly the vegetal ornament) at the expense of fully expressing the Alhambra’s complex decorative organization. Bush also extends her definition of media to include textiles and furniture, emphasizing the Alhambra as an inhabited space with an ornamental program that must have engaged with objects that filled it. Though cautious about the substantial methodological challenges facing this kind of work at the Alhambra, namely the distinct lack of archival documentation and furnishings in situ, Bush carefully contextualizes comparative examples—such as the use of textile panels to delineate space within the architecture—to describe the Alhambra’s multilayered and interrelated aesthetic atmosphere.

The study itself is divided into five chapters, each of which uses a given room within the palace complex as a lens through which to develop an underlying aesthetic principle. Her examples are spaces that served as scenes of highly mediated interactions between the ruler and his court, such as throne rooms and entrance halls. The exception to this is chapter 1, which gleans ornamental examples from throughout the palace with the aim of collecting a survey of schema that reveal the Alhambra’s startling use of color. Much of the palace’s current monochromatic appearance, alternately helped and hindered by various restoration projects, has focused academic attention on the building elevation’s underlying geometry. However, as Bush illustrates, the Nasrid-era Alhambra consciously employed elaborate polychromy for its harmonizing and kinetic effects, creating a layered and complex kind of geometric organization beyond what has been heretofore recognized. Drawing upon Owen Jones’s color plates of the Alhambra decoration, Bush notes that to accept Jones’s geometric measurements as accurate while rejecting his use of color is an arbitrary distinction that casts doubt on Jones’s draftsmanship and scientific analysis of design principles. To do so neglects the affinities between Jones’s color plates and the visual hermeneutics found in Ibn al-Haytham’s treatise. Connecting the Alhambra’s use of color to its medieval theorization, she convincingly argues that this was a deliberate and sophisticated process that enlivened the space, blurring the boundaries between one ornamental scheme and another by encouraging visual movement. Chapter 2 explores another well-studied aspect of the Alhambra’s ornamental program: its poetic epigraphy. As evidenced in the Sala de la Barca’s inscriptions, the epigraphy’s signature prosopopoeia goes beyond mere mimesis to position “the imagination as the necessary bridge between perception and cognition” (74). Opposing the dynamic aesthetics of the Alhambra’s polychromy, epigraphy here functions to halt optic motion in an invitation to reflection.

Chapter 3 integrates both modes of architectural decorative analysis—ornamental and epigraphic—in its examination of the Qalahurra (a fortified residential tower). Rather than viewing the complementary imagery proffered by the tower’s multilayered visual forms as excessive, Bush argues that the nature of the forms’ repetitiveness recalls similar motifs in badi‘ poetry, the genre of Arabic poetry known for its figurative and allusive imagery. Harmony and synchronicity are well-attested elements of badi‘ poetry, which echo on both the metaphorical and structural levels. In the case of the Qalahurra’s ornamental program, poetic compositions from Ibn Zamrak (d. 1393) and Ibn Jayyab (d. 1349) reflect shared etymological roots with the surface decoration and act as connective tissue between different ornamental elements, creating an aesthetic complexity that mirrors the rhetorical principles of the badi‘ poetic genre. By embedding this particular genre within the decorative program of the Qalahurra, the rhetorical device is extended to include its architectural setting.

Chapters 4 and 5 turn to the less tangible elements of the Alhambra’s aesthetic analysis, namely textiles and ceremony, respectively. Bush proposes that our understanding of the southern facade of the Cuarto Dorado, the vestibule entrance to the Palace of Comares, is incomplete without also considering the role “textile architecture” played in framing the space and dictating movement through it. Silk production under the Nasrids, concentrated around Málaga and Almería, is well attested in the historical sources. Although no piece can be specifically attributed to the Alhambra, it is reasonable to assume that they were as highly valued by the Nasrid court as by their foreign consumers. Using a textile from the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a heuristic example of Nasrid-era silk, Bush demonstrates the kind of relatedness that could have enhanced the viewer’s experience of the Cuarto Dorado, in which the proportions of various decorative elements reverberate in both carvings and cloth. Furthermore, the textiles’ functionality in shaping and controlling sight lines and access through space encourages this notion of intermediality in which textiles can act as architecture and architecture can act as cloth. Chapter 5 turns to the final element in this equation—the figure for whom this elaborate and layered mode of viewing has been developed. Drawing upon Ibn al-Khatib’s descriptions of courtly ceremony, Bush connects the rhythms of movement through the space as dictated by the ritual of courtly audiences with the invitation to contemplation and meditation extended by the visual program.

Bush’s decision to tackle the topic of the Alhambra ornamental program is a bold one considering the subject’s long historiography, renovation history, and general dearth of primary sources. Yet this study subtly and deftly pushes academic understanding of the palace complex forward by extending the Alhambra’s visual rhetoric to those objects and rituals that enlivened it. Not only does Bush demonstrate the strong probability of textiles installed in the space as well as the architecture’s role in dictating movement through it, she goes on to anchor these claims through a conscious, deliberate theoretical framework. Ibn Haytham’s treatise on optics serves as a guiding thread throughout the work, granting agency to the Alhambra’s ornamental luxury beyond its illusory and allusive effects. Scholars of Islamic art and architecture have long contested that the aesthetic complexity of premodern ornamental programs like the Alhambra’s was the result of a sophisticated theorization of beauty, but as Bush notes in her introduction, this concept has received little acknowledgment from those outside the field. This has resulted largely from an absence of primary texts that explicate such a philosophy, a genre of writing which abounds in the European discourse of art historical theory. Bush’s work goes a long way toward correcting this misperception through her detailed interdisciplinary approach, using optics and color theory to demonstrate a complex understanding of aesthetic principles in the medieval era. Bush is on firmer ground with her philological analysis of the Alhambra’s epigraphic program, turning to the rich Arabic corpus of poetic rhetoric. By drawing parallels between the meditative, repetitious quality of the badi‘ genre and the recurrent visual cues instigated by the architecture, she is able to push her analysis beyond mere formal symmetry to a more meaningful dialogue between media. The book also makes excellent use of the Alhambra’s well-documented renovation history which, although not always entirely historically accurate, has made a profound impact on present-day perceptions of the site and must therefore be addressed in any study attempting to uncover the Alhambra’s “original” form. In conjunction with the focus on color and optics, these sources help to bring the impressionistic descriptions of decoration into sharper focus.

More pressingly, Bush’s work shows the efficacy of truly interdisciplinary methodologies to develop topics resistant to more straightforward approaches, such as those with limited primary source material. Elevating more undervalued historical resources, like the scientific and poetical treatises that underlie her analysis, helps to reconstruct the intangible, atmospheric quality of discussing aesthetics in an academic setting. Additionally, the profusion of color photography, much of which is Bush’s own work, brings the Alhambra vividly to life within the text, a kind of intertextual meta- “intermediality” in line with her argument. The appendix, which supplies a full translation of Ibn Zamrak’s and Ibn Jayyab’s poems discussed in the work, is also exceedingly useful for the complete Arabic transcriptions accompanying them (rather than the more common use of transliterations). Well researched and clearly organized, this volume will be valuable to any future study of the Alhambra or indeed any study of architecture and ornament in the Mediterranean.

Abbey Stockstill
Assistant Professor, Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University