Granada’s Grisly Gate: A Moorish Survival Gets Restored

I haven’t been to Granada yet, but ever since reading Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra” when I was little, I have longed to go. Nearby the Alhambra Palace is the Puerta de Bibarrambla, an enigmatic structure in the middle of a forest that surrounds the mountain where the Alhambra sits. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for a massive gate like this to be located in the woods, where hardly anyone can see it, and that’s because how it ended up here is a rather unfortunate tale of local bad decisions trumping architectural history and preservation.


Originally, the gate was built in the 11th century, as part of the city wall that surrounded Granada. Its nickname is the “Arch of the Ears”, but there is a dispute as to why it bears this name. Both stories, I’m afraid, have somewhat grisly aspects to them.

One story is that this was where the official city weights and measures were used, to weigh sacks of flour coming into the marketplace. If the sacks were shown to weigh more or less than they should, because a miller or trader mixed sand into the ground flour or wetted down the flour to make it weigh more, the penalty was having part or all of the miscreant’s ear cut off for attempted fraud. This was not uncommon in Spain during the Middle Ages, and this visual scarring of a thief is still practiced in some societies.

Another story concerning the origin of the gate’s nickname is that during the 17th century, a wooden viewing platform that was built atop the gate during a festival collapsed, killing a number of people. Taking advantage of the fracas, thieves went among the bodies and removed valuables, to the point of cutting the earrings from dead women at the accident site. To me, this seems less likely to be the source of the name, since the penalty for manipulating the flour sacks seems much more specific and of longer duration, but we’ll probably never know for certain.


What we see of the gate today is something of a pastiche, since the original structure was torn down in the late 1800’s, despite having been listed as a National Monument of Spain, thanks to some bad decision-making by local officials. It was only partially reconstructed in the forest surrounding the Alhambra in the 1930’s, thanks to the efforts of the lead architect in charge of the Alhambra complex, who wanted to find a place to rebuild the gate fragments being held in museum storage. As a result, although it was certainly good to rebuild the gate so that it could be seen, there’s nevertheless something slightly false about the structure, because it’s neither in situ nor as it originally appeared.

Restoration and conservation will, apparently, involve incorporating some more original elements, which have only recently been rediscovered, and making the site of the gate more accessible to visitors, but the structure will be staying where it is: there is no talk of it ever being moved back to downtown Granada to function as a gate again, which seems a pity. In essence, it’s little more than a garden folly, at this point. That being said, there is something rather admittedly romantic about this ruined structure, out in the middle of nowhere, that would make me want to seek it out.

In any case, you can read more about the interesting history of the gate by reading this rather lengthy article concerning the preservation efforts surrounding it. If your Spanish is not quite up to that, and you don’t want to suffer through Google Translate, briefer information in English is provided on the official Alhambra website, including about some of the other gates and structures around the complex. I note, from the latter site, that I particularly like the look of the Gate of the Pomegranates (“Granadas”) built for the Emperor Carlos V, even though there is absolutely nothing Moorish about the structure. Both gates are definitely now on my bucket list.


Art News Roundup: Generalissimo Franco Is Still Dead Edition

While it is always difficult to predict whether or how the Spanish government will do things, there’s a strong possibility that tomorrow, the country’s Council of Ministers will meet to begin the legal process for exhuming the remains of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) from the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), the massive underground Basilica and Abbey outside of Madrid where he is buried. The complex contains the remains of roughly 40,000 people killed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, from both sides of the conflict. Even if and when Franco’s coffin is removed, however, there remains a longer-term question about the Basilica itself which, while architecturally quite impressive, has a rather controversial history to it.

I visited the Basilica for the first time a little over a year ago, and while it’s certainly quite an engineering achievement, I have to say that it left me somewhat cold. I have mixed feelings about Franco, which certainly contributed to this impression, but I’ll take the risk of offending both sides in this long-standing argument by saying that, perhaps if the Generalissimo had been buried in a side chapel, rather than inside the sanctuary, directly behind the high altar, the campaign to remove him might have been more muted. Franco himself never wanted to be buried there in the first place, but his family and successor government agreed to put him in the Valley of the Fallen despite the obvious anachronism that he (obviously) did not die during the Civil War.

Given that the Socialists are currently in power in Spain, it’s more likely than not as they seek to rewrite Spanish history in the way that they prefer, the exhumation will take place over the objections of the Franco family and the opposition or abstention of some conservative parties from the process – a process which, to be honest, I still don’t entirely understand, even having followed this story for quite some time now. The Archdiocese of Madrid is not opposed to the move, and since this church falls within its jurisdiction, it would seem that remaining legal arguments are few. Still, Spanish politics are highly unpredictable, and there doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan as of yet regarding what to do with this funeral complex, so keep your eyes on Chevy Chase.

And now, on to some less funereal art news.

Crafty China

A big hat tip to my friend M.P. for sending me this article, about a spate of art heists around the world targeting Chinese art and antiquities. To be honest, I have little or no interest in Chinese art, but the audacity of these thefts, which may have some relationship to the government of Red China itself, and the engrossing way in which this piece is written, kept me absolutely fascinated all the way to the end. Cheers to author Alex Palmer for doing a very thorough investigative job, and bringing together threads which, even for those of us who follow what is going on in the art and museum world, I suspect most of us would never have tied together. Palmer very effectively points out what may be the motivating philosophy here, which runs counter to how most Westerners think of concepts such as ownership. Whoever is ultimately responsible for these thefts, however, the article also addresses the phenomenon of the Chinese buying back their own works of art at unbelievable prices, which you may not have been aware of, like the cup pictured below which recently sold for $38 million.


Changing California

Truth be told, I’m not a fan of what we can loosely term “street art”, which encompasses things such as graffiti, of both the commissioned and vandalism varieties, conglomerations of junk which someone with an art degree and a subscription to Mother Jones deems to be “sculpture”, or exterior murals of at best uneven quality and execution. However, I was struck by this story touching on an aspect of street art involving the poorer segment of the Mexican population in Los Angeles which, like other communities around the country, is experiencing the effects both good and bad of gentrification. As artist Nico Avina explains, growing up in the barrio there were images of Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere. “It’s talking about the community that believes so much in la Virgen de Guadalupe,” he observes, and how images of her were put up as signs of respect. Mr. Avina’s art, depicting Our Lady reading an eviction notice, strikes me as borderline blasphemy, albeit not in an ill-intended way, but I will leave it to my readers to share their opinions on it.


Picturing Philadelphia

Speaking of changing urban landscapes, an exhibition underway in Philadelphia showcases how one British artist played a major role in the way that his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic pictured what was once America’s most important city. William Birch (1755-1834), who had successfully exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and received prizes for his work, decided to emigrate to Philadelphia in 1794. Upon his arrival in the bustling city – Philadelphia’s population exploded from around 100,000 people in the early 1800’s to nearly 700,000 by 1876, as I learned just last evening – he began drawing and engraving the sights of his new home, a task which engaged him for the next several decades as the city grew and prospered. Collections of his engravings featuring both the urban fabric of Philadelphia and the country houses of the people of means were popular in both America and in Britain, and his work chronicles the development of changing American architectural styles, from British Colonial to American Federal. I suspect that the exhibition catalogue itself will be of interest even to those who are not particularly curious about architecture or urban planning, but who may want to seek it out purely as a visual chronicle of an important, formative period in American history. “William Birch, Ingenious Artist, His Life, His Philadelphia Views, And His Legacy” is at the Library Company of Philadelphia through October 19th.


Pinnacles Are From Mars, Dumpsters Are From Venus?

I often complain, as someone who follows news from the worlds of art, architecture, and design, that in order to keep up with the news in these fields, I have to wade through dumpsters full of garbage stories, in which daft ideas and poorly executed, utterly stupid things are afforded the same level of serious treatment as, say, a Mozart piano concerto or a Georgia O’Keeffe flower painting. Safe to say, I’ve seen a lot of daft things in my time. But when it comes to the pinnacle – or, I suppose, the nadir – of daft things, this one is right up there.

In a piece published in Dezeen over the weekend, the painfully hip architecture and design magazine discusses a new digital tool created by a British architectural student, which “calculates the underlying gender bias in English architectural terms, to help create more gender-neutral environments.” Created as part of a master’s degree thesis, “Building Without Bias: An Architectural Language for the Post-Binary”, rates words that are used in architecture as being more male, female, or neither. This will (allegedly) be useful in the future for creating better computer programs for architecture, design, and urban planning, in which gender neutrality is to be the sine qua non.

Taking a stab at it, I typed some words into the algorithm to see the results on a few common, but important, architectural terms. The word “column”, perhaps not unexpectedly, leans male. For some reason not immediately apparent to this scrivener, the word “tympanum”, which is the flat area over an entrance porch, doorway, or window, as shown below, is considered extremely female. “Plinth”, on the other hand – which, along with “moist” is one of British comedienne Miranda Hart’s favorite words (as one can see in this sketch from her hilarious sit-com) – falls somewhere in the middle.

So what does all of this mean? Why, nothing, of course. It’s utter nonsense.

At best, I suppose one could use this “tool” as some sort of drinking game, in which a player is given a word related to building and design, and has to decide whether it is male, female, or neither. The player would then type in the word and, if they were wrong in their initial guess, be forced to drink a shot. The result could also spark a lively debate among the participants, as to why one would rate an architectural term like “stringing” as neutral, but “architrave” as female. Incidentally, while the program considers the term “Ionic” to be female, it apparently has no awareness of either the “Doric” or the “Corinthian”, which are the other two classical orders of Western architecture.

In any case, read the article for yourself, and feel free to share your own results in the comments section below.