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Experiencing the Alhambra, An Illusive Site of Oriental Otherness

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Two travellers, the French romantic poet and novelist Thophile Gautier (1811–72) and the Finnish naturalist painter Albert Edelfelt (1854–1905), both visited the Alhambra palace in Granada: Gautier in 1840, Edelfelt in 1881. Their accounts of the palace are strikingly similar, although forty years separate their travels; written several years later, Edelfelt's narrative is imbued with a romanticism related to Gautier's. The aim is to show that the ambiguity of Gautier's and Edelfelt's statements of the Alhambra is due to their romantic preconceptions. I will compare their experiences by analysing what they saw during their journeys and how it was expressed in their texts; Gautier published his Voyage en Espagne in 1843, while Edelfelt's impressions are recorded in his letters to his mother. The result is that the Alhambra represented a dream world, which in many senses did not live up to the visitors' expectations. While Gautier was in constant search for the authenticity of the place, Edelfelt was deeply touched by the magnificence that met him in a labyrinth of fabulous beauty. However, the preconceived mental image they both held resulted in an experience that in many ways fell short of the idea they had formed of it in advance.
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Keywords: Albert Edelfelt; Alhambra; Théophile Gautier; authenticity; mental image; nineteenth century; travels

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Åbo Akademi University

Publication date: 14 February 2012

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  • The International Journal of Islamic Architecture (IJIA) is intended for those interested in urban design and planning, architecture, and landscape design in the historic Islamic world, encompassing the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia, but also the more recent geographies of Islam in its global dimensions. The main emphasis is on detailed analysis of the practical, historical and theoretical aspects of architecture, with a focus on both design and its reception. The journal is also specifically interested in contemporary architecture and urban design in relation to social and cultural history, geography, politics, aesthetics, technology, and conservation. Spanning across cultures and disciplines, IJIA seeks to analyze and explain issues related to the built environment throughout the regions covered. The cross-cultural and interdisciplinary nature of this journal will significantly contribute to the knowledge in this field.

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