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Visions of an “Arab” Monument

At the beginning of the 19 th century, the erudite traveller Alexandre de Laborde had the opportunity to make a stop at the baths on his way through Valencia. Not even in Orellana's manuscript, which predated the Frenchman's visit by just a few years, was any special commentary made when mentioning this "ancient" bath house that was still in operation at the end of the seventeen-hundreds, under the name of the broken down alleyway where it was found: "del Almirante". Therefore, the first appreciation of the building's monumental singularity comes from Laborde's book Voyage pittoresque et historique de l'Espagne. This book, published in 1806, included a brief description and, more importantly, several interesting engravings illustrating the ground plan, two sections, two perspectives and three architectural details.
The French traveller identified these "Baños de Valencia" as an "Arab" monument through a truly paradoxical reasoning: by recognising that the building had a similar structure to the ruins of the baths in Barcelona and Girona—with a vestibule and three perpendicular steam rooms—which were not "Arab" either, as we have seen. At the time, the vestibule, on the northern half of the ground floor, was furnished with a peristyle, which no longer exists, whose arches were depicted in the horseshoe style in the engravings. These arches were supported by cylindrical columns, thicker than those in the damp part of the bath.
However, Laborde's images should be interpreted with care. In one illustration, he deliberately left out the separating partitions of the bath cubicles that the new owner, Vicente Plancha, had built in 1800, with the idea of updating the baths and installing bathtubs. In the words of Laborde himself, this had "disfigured" the structure. The engravings try to offer a faithful restitution of the original baths, but they idealise and Orientalise details that could not have been clearly visible due to the renovations and masonry—not reflected in the drawings—which had covered the archways. The research conducted in 1991 showed that the corner arches of the cold and warm rooms were not, in fact, made in the horseshoe style. It was also not true that the arches were supported by pilasters or columns attached to the walls; in reality, the arches rested directly on the walls.
In fact, neither Zacarés (1849) nor the Marquis of Cruïlles (1876) mention any arches separating the chambers of the damp rooms in their descriptions of the baths: they simply were not visible. As for the peristyle in the vestibule, demolished in 1874, we can see in Laborde's own drawing that the openings had been covered almost entirely. On this point, Carles Boigues made a comment recently noting the "imprecision in Laborde's drawing concerning the way the horseshoe arches were supported on columns".
The descriptions later made by Zacarés and Cruïlles were more succinct. In 1923, Elías Tormo spoke of those "Morisco ruins" as an Arab bath from the 13 century, and dated them slightly before the conquest. This date was stated again by the same author in the report that preceded its second declaration as a Historic-Artistic monument in 1944 (the first declaration was made by the Republican government in December, 1937).
More recently, the catalogues of monuments in the city of Valencia (M.A. Català,1983) and the Valencian Community (D. Benito, 1984), as well as in the study by Basilio Pavón (1990) also assume the building originated in the Muslim era. All of them agree that the construction of the baths must date from the late 12 th century or the early 13 th century.
The publication of the general study on Arab baths in the Valencian Region ( Baños árabes en el País Valenciano , 1989) made new contributions to this issue, without substantially revising what had already been said. In some cases the date is pushed back even further, in spite of the lack of direct documentation to support these claims. Boigues analysed the compositional units and types of arches depicted in Laborde's figures, and pointed out that the arches of the peristyle could be associated with the period before the Caliphs, that those of the warm room with the period of the Caliphs, and those of the cold room, with the Almohads dynasty. The author attributed these differences to "renovations made during the Islamic era or [to] the use of different styles in each room... for aesthetic reasons." Pedro Lavado stated that the bath is within the "Taifa typology" [post-Caliphate] and that it seemed to have been constructed between the 11 th and the 13 th centuries. Nonetheless, he pointed out elsewhere (doubtlessly taking into account its alleged name of "Baño de cAbd al-Malik"), that it must have been the work of the taifa era, therefore from the middle of the 11 th century.
The typological classification made in the aforementioned book by Rafael Azuar is, without a doubt, the most accurate. Paying close attention to the composition of the floor plan, he shows its affiliation with the type that Gómez- Moreno classified as "Late Granada Period". This is characterised by the slight differentiation of the central warm room from its sides, and dates from after the 13 th century. However, the traditional identification of the Baño del Almirante with the bath called cAbd al-Malik –mentioned time and time again in the Repartiment of the city–led Azuar to accept that "it already existed at the moment of the conquest" (1238). This allowed him to formulate the hypothesis that its floor plan was the "intermediate link between those with a large, square warm room as the focal point of the bath... and the simpler ones from the 13 th century and afterwards." But its identification as the bath cAbd al-Malik–which has greatly influenced its chronotypological assessment—is absolutely false, as it was argued by other authors.