Gold in the Alhambra: study of materials, technologies, and decay processes on decorative gilded plasterwork


  • This article is part of the special issue of the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy entitled “Raman in Art and Archaeology 2013” edited by Polonca Ropret and Juan Manuel Madariaga.


A complete study of the decayed gilded decorations of the stalactite vaults in the Hall of the Kings in the Alhambra complex (Granada, Spain) has been carried out for the first time. Preliminary investigations were carried out in situ using a portable Raman spectrometer and enabled the identification of tin (II) oxide in the black areas nearby the golden flakes. This suggested the presence of an altered tin foil. Then, a comprehensive characterization of these decorations was achieved through the use of complementary nondestructive techniques working on microsamples. Two main metallic structures were identified by means of scanning electron microscopy coupled to energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy: (1) a thin (1–2 µm) gold leaf (probably original), and (2) redecorations with a laminated structure formed by a gold leaf placed over a thicker (10–15 µm) tin foil. Synchrotron Fourier-transform infrared microspectroscopy revealed the use of proteinaceous glue to fix the gold leaf directly on the plasterwork, whereas in the case of the laminated structures, either glue or a natural resin was found. Raman microspectroscopy provided insight into the main decay processes affecting the gildings: the detachment of the metals due to the alteration of the organic materials employed as adhesives (forming calcium oxalates) and the oxidation of the tin foil. In addition, two technologies of false gilding have been encountered. One was based on a tin foil tinted to look like gold by means of a varnish (composed of a drying oil and a natural resin), and the second was made up with a tin–copper alloy (bronze) that appears severely degraded to copper oxalate and tin (II) oxide, as revealed by Raman microspectroscopy. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.