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Paving work in Granada. Alfredo Aguilar
The craftsmen shaping the streets of Granada
Granada heritage

The craftsmen shaping the streets of Granada

Manuel and Jacinto are the fourth generation of artisans who specialise in designing the city's traditional cobbled mosaic-like streets

Monday, 4 December 2023, 19:39

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Kneeling on the sand, Manuel Pérez looks like an ancient philosopher. He is not dressed in a typical himation cloak, but his clothing, a fluorescent orange overall, is equally humble. Like ancient philosophers he is wise, but his wisdom is spoken through his hands. They glide over the ground with delicacy, producing circles, straight lines, ellipses, spirals, a whole galaxy of shapes that he will later engrave in stone for future generations to enjoy. This is his special skill, a unique form of art because he is, together with his brother Jacinto, the last crafstman of this kind in Granada. It is a traditional skill that has shaped the city's appearance for centuries and is still alive despite the difficulty of it.

San Nicolás, Calderería, Alhacaba, Boquerón... the most beautiful places in Granada have faces of stone, faces that are almost entirely crafted by the hands of the Picantes. This is the nickname given to this local family that has been shaping the cobbled streets of the city for almost a century. Manuel and Jacinto Pérez are its latest heirs to represent the family on the street. Both were trained under the tutelage of their father, who introduced them to a trade that is in the Andalusian DNA. "It used to be practised in all the provinces, but now it only exists in Cordoba and Granada, where it is the most popular," explained Manuel.

Both he and his brother quickly learned to distinguish the two provincial styles. In their childhood, during the school holidays, they joined the family's work crew in Granada. Through this they became immersed in this tradition that differs from the style used in Cordoba. The Cordoba style is different in that it does not use a template and is therefore much more original and complex. In Granada, it is all down to the craftsman's hand. It is he who decides what is painted and how it is done.

The craftsmen working on a recent pavement design. Alfredo Aguilar
Imagen principal - The craftsmen working on a recent pavement design.
Imagen secundaria 1 - The craftsmen working on a recent pavement design.
Imagen secundaria 2 - The craftsmen working on a recent pavement design.

The pomegranate is the most traditional icon to draw in the streets of Granada. Its design, however, is not without controversy. The debate lies in the shape.

"There are those who prefer it circular and those who prefer it square," said Manuel. He of course knows how to do both. On the pavement of Alhacaba, where he has been working for the last few weeks, he has been trying out both. The first one is done simply with a compass, it is crowned by three triangles and has a flower at the back where the typical stems with leaves emerge as ornaments. The second is somewhat more complex. Pérez makes it from a quadrilateral which he then uses as a starting point to freestyle projections. "The crown, in this design, goes inwards not outwards," specified Pérez as he finished off the stem and leaf decorations that can be seen in many of the city's streets.

Whatever the shape of the pomegranate, the drawing contains a secret, a detail that dates back to ancient Greece. "We always follow the golden ratio. It gives a better feeling to the drawing, it gives it a better appearance," he explained.

Anyone can test this for themselves. The pomegranate where Granada's Calle Azacayas joins Santa Paula, for example, follows the same relationship between the parts as the ceiling and columns of the Parthenon or the height and width of many of Leonardo da Vinci's or Michelangelo's works.

But Granada's stone pavements are not limited to drawings, they are three-dimensional and textured works of art. This is provided by the stone. In the past, when Manuel and Jacinto were learning the trade, the materials came from the Darro and Genil rivers themselves.

"When the mule drivers took the sand out of the riverbed, they were told to put aside the rounder pebbles and they were the ones that were used," he said.

Now it is banned by law. However, technology has evolved and machines have been created that recreate the erosive effect on many materials they use, such as slate or Macael marble, which are the ones commonly used in Granada's pavements and give them their trademark contrast between white and grey.

Granada's cobbled streets are not limited to drawings, they are three-dimensional and textured works of art

The laying process is relatively simple. First, the working area is flattened and a base of cement and sand is poured over it. The craftsman draws the chosen design on this layer: pomegranates, flowers, geometric designs or eight-pointed stars, in the Andalusian style, with a frame around them. Then comes the work of the rest of the crew, with three people who lay the slate pebbles - the grey stone - that give shape to the decoration. The marble, used to fill gaps, is then laid.

It is important to know that the stones are not just laid in any old fashion. There are also different techniques for this. The most common are herringbone patterns. "They are sunk halfway down and then placed in a row. If they are placed more in line, it gives the sensation of more detail and that is why we usually use them to trace the roughest parts of the drawing," he said. It is not a job for the impatient. Because it is so detailed, a normal crew of three workers can work on just eight to nine square metres in a day.

The best streets

Metre by metre, the best streets of Granada have been blessed by the hands of the Picantes in recent decades. "From the Mirador de San Nicolás, the old part of the Mirador, which my father and grandfather did, to the part of the little church square and the mosque, we have done them all ourselves. Also the Plaza de las Castillas, the Plaza de San Nicolás, everything from the Gran Vía to the Cathedral, the Carrera de la Virgen, the Royal Hospital...," said Manuel, who told us that, for both his brother and himself, walking around Granada is like flicking through an album of memories.

The demanding nature of the Picantes means that sometimes their job is not always pleasant. Sometimes, the rush to finish the works and open the streets to traffic prevents the base from setting properly and part of the ground sinks. Another problem comes with renovations that do not match the previous work. The craftsman acknowledged that he recently went to remedy a stain he left at one street in San Nicolás.

"It was a work I did 20 years ago and it was beautiful, but recently they removed a signpost and put a cement slab on top of it. Every time I passed it, it drove me crazy. So one day I stopped and fixed it. The town hall said to me 'but has anyone asked you to fix that?' I said no. It hurt me to see it...," he admitted, very seriously.

The craftsman also works regularly in countries such as France, Canada and Saudi Arabia

The craftsman, while he also works regularly in countries such as France, Canada and Saudi Arabia and has designs in royal palaces, has his favourite work in his home city. Last year he was working in the Calderería area.

"I am very demanding and I am never completely satisfied, but if I have to pick out one piece of art, I would have to choose the part of the street that goes uphill," he said.

This is the legacy of the Picantes, the artists who have been drawing the face of the streets of Granada for four generations.

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