Imagine walking into a French palace back in the 16th Century, the golden age of leatherwork, and coming upon a dancehall lined with brightly shining polychrome gilt-leather panels with the most amazing intricate botanical and geometrical designs. The decor appears to be something out of 1001 Arabian Nights or a magical fairy tale, but in fact these wall coverings are imported from Andalucía.
Spain is world-renowned for its fine leatherwork, but there is one place that still and always will stand out from the rest – Córdoba. So let us take a visit to the city with the world-famous mosque and learn more about Córdoba’s leather art, both in the past and present.
Leather has been used by mankind since time immemorial, but the Arabs introduced more sophisticated artistic leather work to Spain in the 7th Century AD. The oldest form of Córdoba leather art, called Guadamecí or Omeya, was developed in the city during the Muslim Caliphate of the 10th Century.
Many such ancient art forms have been lost, but thanks to a couple of Córdoba leather artist families, the Guadamecí leather art techniques and the later Cordobán leather embossment techniques, have managed to survive.
Guadamecí Omeya – 10th Century Islamic leather art
José Carlos Villarejo García (www.josecarlosvillarejo.com) may currently be the only person in the world who dedicates his life exclusively to studying and making Islamic Guadamecí leather art. He was taught by his uncle Ramón García Romero, who through archival material managed to discover and reconstruct the city’s ancient Caliphal techniques that had been lost for centuries.
“I have the honour of being the only remaining artist to continue this splendorous artistic expression, maintaining the original beauty, philosophy, luxury and refinement of the art,” says the award-winning artist. “Guadamecí creations transport us back in time while reflecting the appreciation of beauty in all its forms, above all geometrical. Other designs represent nature and allows us to imagine our entry into the Eternal Garden.”
Guadamecí leather art is made from only the highest quality naturally tanned sheep hides. The technique requires applying a thin film of silver or vermillion onto the leather, before polychrome paint is applied with microscopic accuracy. Since this type of art is clearly aesthetic, it is mostly used for luxury items, like decorative wall hangings, upholstery and screens.
To really appreciate Guadamecí art, stop at the Casa del Guadamecí Omeya in Córdoba’s historic centre. The museum and store display both historical and recent pieces made by José Carlos Villarejo García. Amongst the most amazing pieces on show are several small chests and an absolutely sublime guest book that combines both Guadamecí and Cordobán embossment arts.
For more information, go to www.artesobrepiel.com
The development of ‘Cueros de Córdoba’
After the Reconquista of Spain in the 14th and 15th Centuries, some of the trained Spaniards and converted Muslims continued producing Mudejar style leather craft. Later, Western art movements such as Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles influenced Spanish leather art, which became simpler and more utilitarian with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution.
The ‘Cueros de Córdoba’ spread across Europe and into the colonies of the Americas, but the most prestigious artists and best products still came from the city of Córdoba, which was universally also famed for producing the best shoes that money could buy. As early as 1578, the Córdoba City Council forbade anyone outside their guild to work with leather. The decree was approved by the King, and guild members had a stamp with the city’s coat of arms that they applied to mark the leather to stop the production of inferior imitations.
Cordobán leather art
The other type of Córdoba leather art is called Cordobán. Which is closer to the style we generally associate with the Spanish leather art of today. The technique usually uses high-quality goats hide, for its flexibility, suppleness, strength and durability. The hides are tanned with sumac, which gives superior results than tanning with oak or pine bark.
Demonstrations of the Cordobán process can be observed at another local leather workshop and museum near Córdoba’s famed Mesquita. Meryan leather art is a third-generation family business with a workshop dedicated to producing handmade and traditional Córdoba leather.
“The hides are always worked when they are humid. The techniques are essentially the same as in the past, and everything is still done by hand,” explains Carlos, one of their leather artists. To create a pattern or a picture, a drawing is traced onto a piece of leather. Then the real work begins – the painstaking carving, pushing and shaping the leather through various techniques such as 3D embossing, using iron stamps and bevellers, colouring, making incisions, metallizing, mosaic work, casting or branding of the leather with a heated object.
Besides observing the artists and being able to purchase some of their fine work, do not miss Meryan’s impressive museum, with rooms and courtyards displaying a wide selection of classic decorated leather furniture, a leather chess board and some ancient leather tapestries that probably belonged in a fort or a palace of the past.
Meryan’s leather art have received numerous awards and been featured in international media, such as the New York Times and National Geographic. For more information, please go to www.meryancor.com
The beauty of the crafted leatherwork is timeless and is yet another incentive to visit the historic and vibrant city of Córdoba.