The Alhambra discovers the original mediaeval techniques used in the roofs of the Royal Baths in the Palace of Comares

The Alhambra never ceases to surprise us, this time with the restoration work in the Royal Baths in the Palace of Comares in the very heart of the Monument, where work has begun on its vaulted roofs.

The Alhambra never ceases to surprise us, this time with the restoration work in the Royal Baths in the Palace of Comares in the very heart of the Monument, where work has begun on its vaulted roofs. This morning the Director-General of the Council of the Alhambra and Generalife, María del Mar Villafranca, made a visit to the site to supervise the state of the vaults covering this fourteenth century hammam or Royal Bath built by the Sultan Ismail I (1314-1325) and continued by Yusuf I (1333-1354), the only bath of its kind that remains intact in the western world today.
The restoration work on the vaulted ceilings has revealed a number of original decorative details and craft techniques. According to Ms Villafranca, “the Alhambra keeps disclosing new secrets. We have uncovered the original lining on one of the vaults that form the roof of these baths. This finding is very interesting because of the master craftsmanship evident in the finish on the ceiling, with original decorative details that demonstrate the excellent standard of craftsmanship of the men who worked on these pieces. It also gives us a new insight into the construction techniques used at that time”.
For his part the technical director of the restoration process, the architect from Granada Pedro Salmerón, explained that the object of this work is to resolve the conservation problems of the vaults, caused above all by rainwater leaking in through the roof: “the project is going to focus on the roof system and the inner lining of the vaults, before continuing down to the level of the tile panel that decorates the lower part of the walls, which will be restored later by personnel from the workshops of the Council of the Alhambra and Generalife”. He mentioned particularly the work to be done on the skylights, “to ensure that they work better, to protect them and to improve the controlled ventilation of the Bath”.
The job will be completed with an “exhaustive process of documentation about the materials used in the Bath, which will include the analysis of previous restoration works and of the materials and products used in the past that may have affected or damaged the vaults. We will also be performing laboratory analyses to discover whether the materials used were in fact the most suitable and the period in which they were used. This will be done by comparison with information we have from other restoration work conducted in the Monument and our knowledge of the criteria applied by the different restorers in each period” Salmerón explained.
The restoration work is scheduled to last 26 months and has an estimated cost of 1,257,304.47 Euros. The work will be done by the Alhambra’s Conservation and Restoration Department together with a multi-disciplinary team of experts in which in addition to Pedro Salmerón, a further 20 specialists will be taking part. These include the architect, Diego Garzón Osuna; the surveyor, María Cullel; the art historian. Rosa María Pérez de la Torre; the archaeologist, Ana Palanco; the Head of Restoration at the Council of the Alhambra and Generalife, Elena Correa, and the Construcciones Dávila building company.
The Director of the Monument also stressed that, given that the Bath has a “very complex but balanced” set of colour tones, this team is going to study the colours on the interior finishes in order to facilitate their replacement: For this purpose, numerous colour samples have been installed. These were made in situ with watercolours taking into account the different light entering the Bath at different times of the day which creates very striking changes. This study will offer us an insight into the distribution of the different mortars that cover the vaults”.
The roofs of the Baths of Comares are made up of brick vaults, finished on the inside with a coloured mortar (originally lime), which has been restored several times during its history. According to Francisco Lamolda, the architect concentrator of the Alhambra, these vaults have “ceramic skylights closed with glass oculi that were executed in different styles in successive repairs or replacements”.
During her visit to the Bath, the Director of the Alhambra admitted that it had been “exciting to feel the weight of history in this Royal Bath, the only one of its kind that survives almost intact in the Western world. The Muslims borrowed the idea from the ancient Roman thermae and it soon became an essential part of the Islamic world”.
In terms of chronology, the vaulted rooms are thought to date from the time of Ismail I (1314-1325), while the Room for Rest, otherwise known as the Chamber of the Beds, was built during the reign of Yusuf I (1333-1354). The Sultan would have entered the Bath from the Court of the Myrtles through the door that still survives today. The entrance to the boiler room was through a separate door. 
The Royal Bath of Comares is one of the most complete and most ancient set of buildings in the Alhambra. It is also an exceptional example of an exclusively royal bath given its private nature and its links to the Palace. 
The Bath, which would have been used for washing and for pleasure, is a direct descendant of the Roman balnea, except that in this case there was no frigidarium or swimming bath, as they were not part of Muslim customs. In essence this is a steam bath made up of the following rooms: the room for dressing and massages (bayt al maslaj – Chamber of the Beds), the room that comes before the central bathing area (bayt al-barid), which contains a large basin of cold water; the warm room or bayt al-wastani (tepidarium) and the hot room or bayt al-maslaj (caldarium).
The roofs of the Royal Baths have been restored on many occasions over their long history. In the first half of the 16th century, white and coloured glass panels were installed in 1538 by Arnao de Vergara, a master craftsman who also worked in the Cathedral of Granada. Documents from the period show that other work was performed to treat the delicate situation of the roofs. Perhaps the most curious job was the one that had to be performed in 1590, as a result of the shock waves produced by the explosion of a gunpowder workshop near the Church of San Pedro in the Darro Valley. 
In the centuries that followed, leaks, stagnation and damp all contributed to the poor state of conversation of the roofs of the Bath. The architect Leopoldo Torres Balbás, often considered the ‘father’ of the modern Alhambra, centred his restoration work in 1926 on the alcove, the toilet and the staircase leading down to the Chamber of the Beds, as well as on the roof. At the end of the 20th century the roof was cleaned and repair and maintenance work was carried out and in 2003 the skylights were restored. This involved the replacement of a large number of the metal frames that supported the glass panels of the skylights.
Recently the ceramics in the Chamber of the Beds have also been restored by staff from the Alhambra’s restoration workshops.
For more information, please visit www.alhambra-patronato.es 

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