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Plácido Zuloaga: How the medieval art of Alhambra inspired one of Spain’s greatest modern masters

The Nasrid dynasty was the last Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula, ruling the Emirate of Granada from 1230 until 1492. Today, the most visible evidence of the Nasrid dynasty is the Alhambra palace complex which has influenced generations of creators

Plácido's portrait painted by his son Ignacio Zuloaga
Waqas Ahmed (opens in new window) (The Khalili Collections)

Placido Zuloaga

The most notable example of Nasrid inspiration in the 19th century was to be found in Spain itself – namely in the art and craft of Spanish damascene metalwork.

This highly specialised art form involved the decoration of oxidised iron or tempered steel with gold, silver and occasionally copper. The damascener would heat an iron object, cut lines into it, then lay fine silver and gold wire over this striated surface using a variety of manual punches. Other stages of the process would include shading (sombreado) where fine details would be accomplished, and beading (perleado) where a band or border would be introduced featuring small ‘beads’ made from winding the fine silver wire. The results were breath-taking.

The undisputed master of this art form was Placido Zuloaga. He came from the most distinguished family of artists and artisans in Eibar – his grandfather was Chief Royal Armourer and his father Eusebio was himself Lieutenant Armourer and Honorary Gunmaker to Queen Isabel II and won medals at the 1851 World's Fair in London.

A portrait of Placido Zuloaga painted by his son Ignacio Zuloaga

But it was Plácido who perfected the art, took it to new heights, thereby transforming Eibar into the European epicentre for damascene metalwork. Initially commissioned by Queen Isabella, following her death, Zuloaga reached out to British patron Lord Alfred Morrison, who would go on to commission masterpieces such as the Fonthill Casket.

Iron Cascone

Inspired by Nasrid Design

In addition to holding the world’s most comprehensive collection of Islamic art and artefacts, the Khalili Collections also holds the most significant collection of Spanish Damascene metalwork by Zuloaga and other masters in Toledo. This allows for an unprecedented opportunity to see the nature and extent of the influence of one on the other.

Firstly, the sheer intricacy of Spanish damascening in itself mirrors that demonstrated by Nasrid artisans some five centuries before. The tradition of immaculate attention to detail and the flawless application of symmetry were most certainly continued by the damasceners.

Moreover, ornamental elements from Islamic art and particularly Nasrid art such as particular geometric (the eight-point star) and vegetal (ataurique) motifs are also to be found in abundance in works coming out of Eibar and Toledo.

Perhaps the most vivid connection is the appearance on so many of the damascene masterpieces of the Nasrid motto wa la ghaliba illa Allah ‘Only God is the Victorious’ in Arabic script, together with its official shield. Not only was this a nod to the Islamic tradition in Spanish history, but also an appreciation of the universal beauty of the Arabic calligraphic script. Whether or not the motivations were secular or spiritual is not known, but it certainly opens up an interesting narrative for discussion on interfaith relations in the history of Spain.

Domed and Footed Casket

There are also ornamental designs specific to Alhambra that clearly inspired Zuloaga, most obviously visible in his pair of urns (also commissioned by Morrison) that almost identically follow the designs of the famous Alhambra Vases. The large wing-like handles, the monumental size (over a metre tall), the Islamic motifs and the distribution of the damascene ornament of the Zuloaga urns all show how familiar he was with the Alhambra counterparts. Moreover, his use of Arabesques in damascening would inspire other damasceners from Toledo to follow suit.

A pair of large urns (over 1m tall) made by Zuloaga. Their purpose seems to have been purely decorative, their ornament painted in copper lustre glaze over a white glaze, to which cobalt blue was added in their later period.  Their large wing-like handles serve simply to provide greater surface for decoration.
Dagger of Jambiya Form with relief ornament, consisting of palmettes, arches, an eight-pointed star, and other conventional Islamic motifs.
Parasol handle with decorative motifs that are Islamic

Plácido Zuloaga became one of Spain’s great modern masters, who in producing so many works of cultural significance, became a national treasure in his own right. By the time of his death in 1910 at the age of 76, he had won many honours, including Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel the Catholic and Knight of the Order of Charles III. But his most unique contribution is how he leveraged Spain’s Islamic cultural heritage to take the art of damascening to a level never before – and never since – achieved.

This blog is part of a two series on Nasrid art and its influence on European art. Read about how the medieval art of Alhambra inspired European art.

medieval art Islamic Art Placido Zuloaga