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View of the Alhambra's Torre de las Damas at the beginning of the 20th century Ideal
The German banker who had part of Granada's Alhambra palace in his living room
History

The German banker who had part of Granada's Alhambra palace in his living room

The ceiling from the Torre de las Damas mirador has been in Berlin’s Pergomanmusuem since 1978

Amanda Martínez

Granada

Tuesday, 29 August 2023, 17:02

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El Partal is one of the most evocative places in Granada’s Alhambra palace. From its small viewpoint (mirador) the beautiful image of the Albaicín – Granada’s old quarter – and Sacramonte – can be seen on the other side of the city’s Darro river and the beautiful porticoed gallery is reflected in the pond.

El Partal means portico in Arabic, is also one of the most abandoned parts of the Alhambra. It is one of the oldest parts of the palace, but to find out about its more recent history we need to find out more about one Arthur Gwinner Dreiss, a German banker who, at the end of the 19th century and attracted by the exotic Alhambra, wanted to live there. He bought the Torre del las Damas and took the ceiling of its mirador back to his own country, where today it can be seen Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum.

Who was Arthur Gwinner?

…and how did a piece of the Alhambra end up in his living room in Germany? My research begins with Wikipedia (don’t be alarmed, I will make it up to the reader later with more illustrated information). But as well as allowing me to learn a little more about Herr Gwinner, the online encyclopaedia also offers a few anecdotes about his story. For example, his grandfather was the last mayor of the free city of Frankfurt and it was in that city that in 1856, the protagonist of our story was born. Another thing we learn is that he was named after the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was a friend of the family. And yes, Wikipedia also mentions that Gwinner took the cupula of the Alhambra tower home with him.

Arthur Gwinner IDEAL
Imagen secundaria 2 - Arthur Gwinner

Arthur Gwinner first heard about Granada in London. “London was in the grip of a fever about the Alhambra” according to Anna McSweeney, a professor at Trinity College Dublin and author of the book From Granada to Berlin: the Alhambra Cupola (Verlag Kettler, 2020) and in an article 'Arthur von Gwinner und die Alhambra-kuppel, which are the documents I have based my research on (I did say so earlier). McSweeney believes that the replica of the Patio de los Leones made by Owen Jones in 1854 in Crystal Palace, London, was built at the height of that obsession for the exotic among London’s bourgeoisie. The Alhambra in Granada was of course much closer to home than Damascus.

Unsurprisingly perhaps then when Arthur Gwinner moved to Madrid in 1880 to work for in the branch of a French bank (he also acted as honorary consul for the German government), his itinerary included a trip to Granada. While in Madrid he met the architect Anton Widmann, who told Gwinner that the Torre de Damas was for sale.

Marriage

Despite the worn remains of the Partal’s interior, it was still one of the most beautiful parts of the Alhambra in its time, before it was damaged and then abandoned by the people who had lived in it during the 19th century who "reduced to scattered shreds an artistic ensemble so beautiful and rich that the sight of its ruined splendour is still admirable", writes Villar Yebra about the Mirador del Partal in one of his Estampas de Granada. In 1885 a former opera singer, Modesto Landa Lluch, was the owner of the tower and it would seem that Widmann leased it from her. He died there from cholera in 1886, the same year as Gwinner bought it, along with the hanging gardens.

However, the German businessman had little time to look after his beautiful property. He married in the same year, spent his honeymoon in Granada and then moved to Berlin. On 12 March 1891, he handed over the towers to the Spanish government, who hung a plaque to thank the German magnate for his generosity.

But Herr Gwinner took with him to Berlin a very special souvenir: he had the original wooden copula which covered the mirador taken down and installed in his apartment in Berlin. "The plausible fact that Mr Gwinner donated the tower to Spain, which he owned because the government had sold it to him, is recorded on a stone that has been affixed to the portico and which, to be fair, in praising the donor's generosity, should say that the roof he tore off the mirador and took to Frankfurt is worth, if you put a price on it, five hundred times what he paid for the building.

Such a stone is not only unfair, but indiscreet, as it perpetuates the shameful memory of there having been a government capable of selling this jewel of Andalusian Islamic art and another that consented to having the roof ripped off", writes Seco de Lucena in the book "La Alhambra. Como fue y como es' (The Alhambra. As it was and as it is), published in 1935. The stone was removed in the middle of the last century.

The cupola in Germany

Arthur Gwinner ordered the roof to be installed in his apartment in Rauchstrasse and then later dismantled, moved to and installed in an apartment in Sophienstrasse where the family moved in 1928.

McSweeney has published various photographs in her study, taken at the time in the Gwinners’ house. One reflects two parts of the house linked by a door. The first room is decorated with tiles and plasterwork in the style of the Alhambra and crowned by a wooden dome from which hangs an oriental-style lamp. In the background is a painting depicting the Partal.

Dr McSweeney says that Gwinner himself is the artist behind the painting, which he painted in 1882 'without knowing that three years later the Torre de las Damas would be mine', the German banker wrote in Spanish on the back of the photograph. The other photo shows a different view of this room with a window that brings the atmosphere of Al-Andalus into a Berlin living room.

Arthur Gwinner died in 1931. His daughter Charlotte inherited the dome, which had to be moved during World War II because of the threat of bombing raids on Berlin. The roof of the Torre de las Damas was dismantled again and stored in the family's country house in Osterburg in Saxony. After the war, Charlotte took it home to Bavaria. On her death in 1972, her nephew, Wolfgang Klingler, inherited the treasure, but... what was he going to do with a roof from the Klingler family? What was he going to do with a ceiling from the Alhambra? Sell it.

Pergamonmuseum

He contacted the director of heritage at the Alhambra, Antonio Fernández Puertas, who asked the Spanish ministry of culture for funds to buy the cupola. But Spain’s finances were in no position to buy back the ceiling from the German family. In 1978 the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin bought the work for 500,000 German Marks. The octagonal copula of the Torre del las Damas is one of the museum’s jewels and finest examples of Islamic art.

In 1992 the ceiling was once again dismantled and moved. This time it was for an exhibition about Al Andalus in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Alhambra also asked for it to form part of its exhibition on Islamic art which took place the same year, but it was not as lucky as The Met.

Before he had the cupola dismantled, Arthur Gwinner had some plans drawn up and asked for the copula to be drawn in detail. These drawings were left at the Alhambra and have been used by the furniture maker José Romera Baena to reproduce the ceiling and the Torre de las Damas, a copy which would look perfect in Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum, should the museum every decide to return the original to its rightful home in Granada.

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