One of the recurring themes of my interest in Seville is the visual imagination of how the city has changed over the centuries. Because Seville has such a well-preserved centre, with many buildings of great antiquity, it is easy to forget that it didn’t always look the way it does now. Even a bit.
Stand, if you will, at the end of the Avenida de la Constitución, with the Plaza San Francisco on your right, and the Plaza Nueva in front of you, and imagine the scene a thousand years ago. The first thing you notice is that the city walls are behind you, and that there is a small lake in front of you, fed by a branch of the main river running down what is now Calle Sierpes and on into the Arenal. Down to the river is just fields and trees, subject to surprisingly frequent floods. Not for another 150 years will the walls be extended to where we think of them today, much nearer the river. In the space inside the walls behind us, the new Grand Mosque and its minaret, which will later become the Giralda Tower, appear. After the reconquest of 1248, it will be replaced in turn by the Christian cathedral.
There are other changes going on too. Houses have been built to your left, and the lake has been drained. In its place monks have started work on what will become the “Casa Grande” of the Franciscans, which will soon give its name to the open space in front of it – the Plaza San Francisco. The monastery itself will come to occupy the whole of what is now Plaza Nueva and the streets beyond and to either side.
1492, and Columbus has discovered America. With a monopoly on trade with the new world, Seville is rapidly becoming rich. As symbols of its wealth the city acquires a new civic centre around the Plaza San Francisco. A new town hall (ayuntamiento) is built in front of the Casa Grande (the archway on the end of the town hall is the original main entrance to the monastery), followed a few decades later by the Antigua Audiencia (the justice house, now the Cajasol bank building). If you’re unlucky you may see the autos de fé of the inquisition during this and the following century.
The Casa Grande, badly damaged by a fire and general neglect in the Napoleonic era, is finally demolished in the 1840s, the resulting space becomes the Plaza Nueva, and the town hall is given a new facade. But even now there are big changes to come. What is now the Avenida de la Constitución, is still a typical narrow Seville street, but in the early years of the twentieth century it is widened into the modern wide, straight street we see today, familiar buildings like the circular “wedding cake buiding”, the Adriatico, and the Banco de España are built and the first cars and trams appear.