Finding What We Lost… Or Nearly.

in Essays

Gaudi Cathedral 300x201 Finding What We Lost... Or Nearly.Elizabeth Bishop sug­gests in “One Art” that “The art of los­ing isn’t hard to mas­ter” which may work with keys, wal­lets, even pass­ports; but the ques­tion is more seri­ous when we lose cul­tural mon­u­ments because of the pas­sage of time.

This for­get­ting nearly hap­pened to two of the cul­tural mon­u­ments in Spain that now seem cen­tral to the coun­try and its his­tory: Gaudi’s cathe­dral in Barcelona, and the Alhambra in Grenada.

The fierce strug­gles and dis­rup­tion of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury that nearly tore Spain apart are cer­tainly part of the rea­son for this near neglect, but another cause may be the utter strange­ness of Gaudi’s vision and the fact that the Alhambra is the great palace of the Moorish kings, dri­ven from Spain cen­turies ago.

As to the Gaudi, its fero­cious weird exte­rior, still being worked on, and its lumi­nous inte­rior are unlike any­thing I’ve ever seen; Gaudi said the work was for gen­er­a­tions to come, resigned to leav­ing the cathe­dral unfin­ished, and unfin­ished it remained, and sel­dom vis­ited, until a Japanese tour­ing com­pany in 1992 used a pho­to­graph on a brochure. The Japanese began to come, and soon after that, the work recom­menced and will con­tinue for the next thirty years—or until the cathe­dral in fin­ished, a sign of the sig­nif­i­cance the Spanish allot to their cul­ture even in the midst of high unemployment.

The Alhambra is strange in its own way, to us mod­erns, because of its empha­sis on tran­quil­ity. Even a crowd of tourists can’t drown out the sound of water run­ning in chan­nels through its lush gar­dens, or the view of a shady court­yard from the Sultana’s bed­room, open on three sides. But the Alhambra, too, was neglected for hun­dreds of years and might have tum­bled down from its pin­na­cle, even­tu­ally, if not for the American writer, Washington Irving, who spent a year liv­ing in an aban­doned wing when he was the U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

Alhambra 300x183 Finding What We Lost... Or Nearly.

His Tales of the Alhambra,” writ­ten in 1822, was widely trans­lated; its author’s renown—he’d already writ­ten his roman­tic epic of the head­less horse­man of Sleepy Hollow—brought read­ers and then trav­el­ers to Granada, and long-term restora­tion of the palace and its gardens.

Irving’s touch is so del­i­cate, his humor so charm­ing in these tales, which he col­lected on site, that no reader could fail to want to see his magic palace. My favorite tale is “Legend of the Prince Ahmed Al Kamel, or the Pilgrim of Love,” in which a prince and a princess of the Alhambra, sep­a­rated by pol­i­tics, are united through the efforts of an owl and a parrot.

These crea­tures offer to help the prince with his quest, but the going is not easy: “They trav­elled much more slowly than accorded with the impa­tience of the prince, but the par­rot was accus­tomed to high life and did not like to be dis­turbed early in the morn­ing. The owl, on the other hand, was for sleep­ing at mid-day and lost a great deal of time by his long siestas…The prince had sup­posed that he and the par­rot, being both birds of learn­ing, would delight in each other’s soci­ety, but never had he been more mis­taken. The one was a wit, the other a philoso­pher. The par­rot quoted poetry, was crit­i­cal on new read­ings and elo­quent on small points of eru­di­tion; the owl treated all such knowl­edge as tri­fling and rel­ished noth­ing but metaphysics.”

In spite of the prob­lems of their asso­ci­a­tion, the owl and the par­rot were able to arrange the essen­tial meet­ing, through a series of dis­guises, and the prince and princess were married.

The tale con­cludes, “Almed grate­fully requited the ser­vices which they had ren­dered on his pil­grim­age. He appointed the owl his prime min­is­ter, and the par­rot his mas­ter of cer­e­monies. It is need­less to say that never was a realm more sagely admin­is­tered or a court con­ducted with more exact punctilio”—surely Ambassador Iving’s dream of his tenure in Spain, with an allure that placed the Alhambra back on the tourists’ map, lead­ing to its splen­did restoration.

James Voyles, John Hancock liked this post

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add your own }

jim voyles July 12, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Beautifully done. All the more astonishing in view of Spain’s financial crisis. Imagine 21% sales tax.


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