A long section of an intricately carved wooden frieze looted from the Alhambra Palace in Granada has been returned by the descendants of the man who looted it 187 years ago. The panel is 7’5″ long and was part of the ornamental ceiling frieze in the main room of the Partal Palace. It was taken by Richard Ford, a travel writer and art collector who stayed in the Partal Palace for two summers during his sojourn in Spain between 1830 and 1833. His descendants, brothers Francis V. and Richard A. Ford, contacted the Council of the Monumental Complex of the Alhambra and Generalife in September and arranged for the repatriation of the long-lost piece.
Built by the Nasrid Sultan Muhammad III of Granada (r. 1302-1309), the Partal oldest remaining structure in the Alhambra complex. The Alhambra suffered for centuries after the fall of Granada to their Most Catholic Majesties in 1492. It was pillaged, neglected, subject to destructive renovations, damaged in wars and used as impromptu housing for invading armies, brigands and squatters. The openwork carving and stylized calligraphy on the frieze is characteristic of Nasrid Dynasty art in the time of Muhammad III.
After years of decline and abuse, the Alhambra’s return to glory began in the Napoleonic Wars. It was used as a barracks by French troops under the command of Count Horace Sébastiani during the Peninsular War. Sébastiani ordered repairs be done to the roofs, walls and gardens. The only problem was he also ordered several of its towers blown up on their way out the door in 1812. Still, the Duke of Wellington was captivated by the palace, even in its derelict condition, and his stamp of approval sparked renewed attention among Grand Tourists.
Washington Irving lived in the palace for a few months in 1829 and he wrote about it in his collection of stories, Tales of the Alhambra, published in 1832. Irving, who a decade later would go on to serve as US ambassador to Spain under President John Tyler, had already achieved internationally renown as an author thanks to the success of his short stories and romantic histories. Tales of the Alhambra was another bestseller and his high praise for its beauty vaulted the palace into refreshed prominence.
Richard Ford’s highly influential travelogue, A Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845), cemented the revival of interest in the Alhambra. He somehow failed to mention the bit about helping himself to eight feet of it by way of souvenir, however, and nobody had any idea where the missing section was or even if it still existed. The only documentation of the loss was recorded during a 1923 restoration when the presence of a plain, uncarved panel in place of the original frieze section was recorded.
The prodigal frieze was radiocarbon dated and the results confirm it was made in the early 14th century. Conservators in the palace’s restoration workshop with clean, analyze and stabilize it. The conserved panel will then be reintegrated with its brethren on the ceiling of the Partal Palace.