In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…
This was the pivotal moment in the history of one of Europe’s oldest cities which would propel it from modest national importance to being the richest city in Europe, a position that it would maintain for the next two centuries thanks to the monopoly of the Americas trade granted to the city by royal decree in 1503.
This monopoly was regulated and enforced by the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade), which collected a 20% tax (the quinto) on all goods entering Spain, as well as other taxes and levies, and had to approve all voyages of trade and exploration, trade routes and the like. This information was updated and preserved in the Padrón Real, the official, and secret, map of the networks of Spanish trade and empire around the world, a major undertaking that employed Spain’s best cartographers. The casa also trained and licensed captains and navigators. From 1543 it worked in conjunction with the Consulado de Mercaderes, the Merchant Guild of Seville, through which most of the wealth from the New World was channelled.
As the money flowed in the city began to acquire the trappings of wealth. The Cathedral, by some reckonings the largest church in the world, was completed in 1526, and the 1560s saw the addition of a belfry and a statue, the Giraldilla, representing Faith, to the Moorish minaret. In the Plaza San Francisco the city’s secular authorities were housed in a new town hall, the Casa Consistorial (1527-1564), usually known as the Ayuntamiento, with its ornate plateresque decoration and the arcade that gave access to the Franciscan friary which occupied the whole of what is now Plaza Nueva. In the later years of the century the Real Audencia, a court of the Castilian crown, was built on the other side of the Plaza San Francisco, with the Royal Prison on the corner of Sierpes street (the site is now occupied by a bank). Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, was for a short time “a guest of His Majesty” here. From the same period are the Archivo General de Indias, built originally as the Casa Lonja or commodities exchange, and now the third of Seville’s World Heritage buildings, the Casa Moneda (Royal Mint), where silver from the New World was minted into coin, and the Hospital de Cinco Llagas (the Five Wounds), which is now the home of the Andalucian Parliament. At the same time many churches, monasteries and convents, as well as private palaces of the aristocracy and merchants all over the city were built or elarged.
With that kind of money came not only lavish building projects, but patronage of the arts. Seville’s Golden Age came to its full fruition in the 17th century Baroque School, among whom were such luminaries as Francisco Herrera, Diego Velazquez, Bartolomé Murillo and Francisco de Zurbarán, as well as sculptors like Pedro Roldán and Juan Martinez Montañes (the God of Wood). Many of their works can be seen in the Fine Arts Museum and other museums around the city.
Although work actually started on it before the discovery of America, Seville’s university, which grew out of the Dominican schools of the previous century, also belongs to this period, with Papal authorisation for its courses being granted in 1505. It was installed in buildings near the Puerta Jerez, where the street named for its founder, Maese Rodrigo, can still be found. All that remains today is the little Mudejar chapel at the end of the Avenida de la Constitución. In 1771 the university moved to another of the important buildings of the time, the College of the Annunciation of the Professed House of the Society of Jesus, and the Church of the Annunciation next door, on the corner of Plaza de la Encarnación, were both built in the 1550s.
This explosion of wealth and culture has left a lasting mark on the modern city, as many of its buildings and artworks are still preserved, and can be seen on a walk around the city. For me, it’s possibly the most beautiful, fascinating, and culturally rich cities in the world.
“Who has not seen Seville has not seen a marvel.”