History of Zaragoza, Spain

A first-century Roman theater sits in the heart of Zaragoza (Lori Erickson photo)

Zaragoza has a rich tapestry of historic sites that stretch back more than two millennia.  Walk its streets and you can see remnants of its Roman, Moorish, and Christian history.  Founded as an outpost of the Roman Empire in 24 B.C., its original name of Cesaraugusta eventually became Zaragoza.  The most significant remaining Roman landmark is a first-century amphitheater that sits in the middle of the city’s historic district.  An adjacent museum tells the story of how the 6,000-seat theater was once the bustling center for Roman life in the city, as well as how it was laboriously excavated in the 1980s.

The next culture to leave its mark on Zaragoza was that of the Moors, who conquered Zaragoza in 714 and ruled for three hundred years.  Their greatest legacy is the Aljaferia Palace, a castle both formidable and elegant that now houses the regional government parliament.  Considered one of the most important Islamic monuments in Spain, its highlight is a light-filled courtyard surrounded by graceful arches, creating an airy and delicate oasis in the midst of stark battlements.

When the region was claimed by Christian forces in 1118, the kingdom of Aragon was created and Zaragoza became its capital.  The main mosque in the city became La Seo Cathedral, today a World Heritage site that blends Gothic and Baroque elements with a uniquely Spanish architectural form called Mudejar.  Characterized by rich ornamentation in brick, plaster, and ceramics, Mudejar buildings were created by Muslim artisans working under Christian rule.  Zaragoza has some of the finest Mudejar structures in the country, including La Seo and the Magdalena Church.

Francisco de Goya (Wikimedia Commons image)

Zaragoza is also well-known because of its association with Francisco de Goya, one of Spain’s most influential artists. He is considered both the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns, an artist who dazzled the world with a wide range of media, styles, and subjects.

Goya was born in the nearby village of Fuendetodos in 1746 and received his artistic education in Zaragoza.  His first works were produced here, including religious murals that adorn two of the cupolas in the Pilar Basilica.  He became a painter for the Spanish court (despite his unwillingness to flatter his subjects) and in his later years turned to increasingly macabre and dark themes, a reflection of his descent into mental and physical illness.

The Zaragoza Museum houses the city’s largest collection of Goya’s work, including his masterful portraits of Fernando VII and his minister, the Duke of San Carlos.  Equally important are the Goya engravings housed in the Ibercaja Camon Aznar Museum, which show both his mastery of technique and his use of biting social and political satire.

Main page for Zaragoza, Spain

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