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Brique et architecture dans l’Espagne médiévale (xiie-xve siècle)

Philippe Araguas

Résumés, tables et index


Texte intégral

1This book is derived from a doctoral thesis defended at the Sorbonne in 1996 and based on a catalogue of almost 500 monumental buildings. The catalogue, which is updated annually, can be accessed by way of the website of the Ausonius research centre, University of Bordeaux III ( → Membres → Araguas). The synthesis presented in this book takes as basis a remarkable upsurge in the use of brick in mediaeval Spain, especially during the 12th and 15th centuries. This fact and the analyses of the spatial and temporal evolution of the phenomenon have produced an abundance of maps, which are collected in an annex, built up using a geographical information System (GIS) to regroup all the data. Specific observations on the use of brick as both a structural and a decorative element have been used to illustrate the text, including a set of topographically-arranged colour plates at the end of the book.

2The first part of the book examines brick manufacturing conditions using historical studies and on-site observations, which raise the question of the existence –alongside fixed establishments on the periphery of urban areas identified in a period of strong demographic growth– of itinerant brickworks which are less easy to identify. Different manufacturing methods are discussed; dimensions and modules are analysed, and on that basis it is possible to distinguish fairly clearly between two concurrent sets of proportions. The nature and the behaviour of the material used in brickworks is examined to highlight certain specific aspects of brick construction. On the basis of these observations, a number of common assumptions about brick architecture are questioned; as it turns out, despite being bulkier than stone material, brickwork offers a number of undeniable advantages thanks to its high résistance to traction, especially when the brick is associated with plaster.

3The second part, based essentially on on-site observations, identifies types of bricklaying procedure in walls, roofs and decorative work. These patterns have been identified fairly exactly with different places and times thanks to the use of the GIS. The result is a diachronic cartography revealing areas of correspondence which considerably enrich the texture of historical reflection. In analysing the data in this way we find three broad differences in the use of brick; from these it is possible to build up a geography of brickwork which, far from being static, matches the political and economic evolution of mediaeval Spain. Some “topical forms” appear and vanish, while others spread to become virtual national modes of construction. Among the latter we would highlight the aparejo toledano and the bóveda catalana, known in France as the Roussillon vault. There is a long section devoted to this way of building vaults and ribbed vault arches in brick and plaster, using the bricks not in the traditional way –that is, radially to the curve of the vault, but at a tangent to it Research into the origin of this building technique suggests that it was “invented” in Valencia in 1382; what is not certain is whether a new mode of construction was fortuitously discovered by a mason in the service of Pedro IV of Aragon or whether a vault surviving from the Muslim period was discovered in a palace. Whatever the truth of it, it is now clear that the Roussillon vault, at least in the West, was of Catalan origin, even although the Catalonia referred to is in fact Valencian and its first sphere of influence was essentially Aragonese.

4The third part examines the way that the material relates to stylistic categories whose definitions are essentially based on stone-built monuments. Very rarely used in pre-Romanesque architecture, brick was almost entirely absent from Muslim architecture of the Emirates and the Caliphate; it really only came into use in Almohad architecture in the late 12th century. At the same time, in association with the purely Western patterns of Mediterranean Romanesque architecture, it was a characteristic feature of a broad architectural trend concentrated chiefly in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula. Románico de ladrillo –which seems a more appropriate term than románico-mudéjar to designate 12thand 13th-century architecture in Castile and León– can be classified according to various regional forms which all fit within a single definition of Romanesque style. Nonetheless, the Romanesque architecture of Toledo may be singled out as the only kind to use Western Christian structures with decorative elements borrowed from Muslim architecture. It seems fairly clear that in Toledo, which in 1085 was taken from the Muslims who had been there since the early 8th century, the weight of the Mozarabic Christians, a community strongly attached to its liturgical traditions –and almost certainly its architectural traditions as well– was surely a key factor in the choice of decorative motifs. Mudéjar toledano therefore suggests that the Catholic clergy more or less grudgingly came to accept, in structurally “Latin” churches, decorative elements that had been “whitened”, “Christianised” and “exorcised” there by centuries of Mozarabic culture; it would therefore be more accurate to speak of a románico-mozárabe rather than a románico-mudéjar style, as the latter term induces a false notion of the artistic heritage of Toledo. On the other hand brick Gothic, both in Andalusia and in Aragon –two regions that differ fundamentally in terms of the brickwork techniques used– clearly falls into the broad category of Mediterranean Gothic. The parallels between features of Aragonese and Andalusian buildings and those of this or that church or palace in Languedoc or Provence betray more northerly influences, from Aquitaine, Poitou or the Loire area. Especially in Aragon, such purely Gothic edifices of the 14th century and later present many decorative elements borrowed from Muslim architecture; accompanied in some cases by minaret-like structures or roofed by bóvedas agallonadas or bóvedas de nervios entrecruzados, these are most generally described as “Mudejar”. Without wishing to reject this long-standing usage, it is nonetheless essential to highlight its ambiguity if we are to fully understand Spanish Gothic architecture. Hence, by detailed examination of regional disparities we can escape the homogenising tendency of common stylistic labels (Romanesque, Gothic, Mudejar and so on) which blind us to the originality of an architecture rich in local peculiarities, when it is precisely these peculiarities that bind regional architectures together in the long view.

5The fourth part illustrates this discourse in a presentation by regions and provinces that seeks to review these common features –with at least a minimum degree of objectivity and sensitivity– without their disappearing under the weight of an interpretation dominated by the stylistic concept of “Mudejar”, In this way we become aware that the phenomenon cannot be reduced to a single architectural System valid for the whole of Spain and the four centuries considered.

6The fifth part proposes an interpretation of the observed phenomena and explains the different reasons for choosing brick as a building material; by identifying and combining these reasons, one can then build up an explanatory system type by type, region by region, period by period and even monument by monument.

7Thus, the choice may be a “passive” one if it is governed by geological considerations, which are often but not always decisive. In the case of mediaeval Spain, the reason frequently adduced and almost always implicit for the use of brick is the Mudejar tradition; developing a line of argument first presented in an article in the Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez in 1987 and more recently buttressed by a historiographic approach that reveals the nationalist implications underlying the carefully-cultivated confusion between brick architecture and Mudejar architecture, the author deals systematically with the issue of the use of brick in Hispano-Muslim architecture. Here again, periods, geographical nuances, and distinctions between structure and decor are ail essential to a good understanding of the phenomenon, which suggests that the Mudejar populations were no more influential than their Mozarabic or Latin counterparts in the adoption of brick as material of preference in the building of churches.

8Another explanation commonly adduced to justify the choice of brick is its low price (baratura) which seems on the face of it to be too obvious to require justification. The hypothesis is examined as systematically as possible on the basis of the existing documentation. Here again, the disparities appear too numerous to admit of a sweeping acceptance of the economic explanation. Moreover, such an explanation must take into account not only the price of the material but also the cost of transportation and use, which must then be compared with the cost price of contemporary masonry. This is no easy task, but it does give some orders of magnitude from which it is possible to establish a kind of parangone between the two prime mediaeval building materials. An exact comparison between two comparable monuments from the end of the period considered –the cathedrals of Zaragoza and Barbastro– is used as an experiment in full-scale modelling of cost price calculations; it confirms that the relative cheapness of brick construction had nothing to do with the basic price of the material and everything to do with the economies of scale in brickwork and labour that could be achieved when brick was used in a more subtle way than as a simple substitute for stone.

9Having relativised these elements of “passive” choice, one can quite effectively envisage the “active” reasons that prompted mediaeval masons and owners to opt for brick. The association of brick with Roman grandeur in the mediaeval mind was most certainly a factor in its continued use in some monuments of the Asturian monarchy, even before numerous other features of ancient architecture were taken up by Umayyad builders; however, the use of brick in these cases was never more than sporadic. The relative ease with which brickwork could adapt to the desire of nascent administrations for standardisation and to the needs of town organisation is surely one of the most compelling explanations for the large-scale spread of brick and its use in minor architecture; and this is not confined to mediaeval Spain, or a fortiori to Muslim Spain. The same phenomenon is found north of the Pyrenees and south of the Alps, to the extent that there are very close links between Spanish building practice and that which was promoted throughout Europe by clerics in the service of the Papacy. Contemporaneous with the Cistercian movement, the expansion of brick in Spanish architecture clearly points to deliberate aesthetic choices in which it became a variant of the success of the severe style favoured by the reforming prelates of the 12th century. In this way we transcend the bounds of purely geographic ethnic or economic explanations to place this architecture in the highly complex realm of artistic creation, where aesthetics becomes an ideological or even a political issue. From this standpoint, there is no doubt that far from being a simple matter of taste, in mudéjar de cour –to take up an extremely useful concept proposed by Élie Lambert– brick was a “political” material through which the enormous complexity of artistic language was harnessed to express the ambiguity of the relations between the Christian monarchies of Spain and the fragile but sumptuous Nasrid kingdom.

10It is very obvious that the extraordinary ductility of brick, its pliability to designs of varying and contradictory natures, is a virtue not of the brick in itself but of the genius and the technical inventiveness of its users. In the final analysis, it was the ingenuity and artistic skills of the master masons that overcame the natural handicap weighing on a material that was costly to produce and was definitely viewed as “ignoble” in Latin Christendom. This handicap, which is expressed with preconceptista subtlety by the enigmatic epigraphic decor of the Seo del Salvador of Zaragoza, was overcome in masterly fashion by the late mediaeval masons, in admirable Andalusian doorways of ladrillo limpio and in brick and plaster sail vaults of the flamboyant cathedral at Zaragoza or Mudejar Gothic churches in Aragon.

11Thus, a study of relationship between brick and architecture in mediaeval Spain demonstrates the utility of a historical approach to Mudejar architecture centred on the use of brick: far from leading to a positivist cul-de-sac, an approach based upon the material nature of brick provides a strong central guiding line from which it is possible to explore the intricacies of the creative spirit of mediaeval Spanish masons without risk of becoming lost but without ignoring any byways.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2003

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