Night Visit to Venerables Hospital

It seems that 2016 is to be the Summer of the Night Visit in Seville, as a number of important historic buildings open their doors as darkness falls for unique experiences in some of Seville’s special places. I’m planning on doing several of these, and last Tuesday was the first, a night visit to the Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes, in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz. The visit, conducted by our guide Sergio Raya, was to be partly by “candlelight” (battery-powered) to better recreate the atmosphere of the hospital’s early days.

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Central Patio

Those early days were in the 17th century, a time of both great wealth for some, great poverty for many, scarred by general economic decline and repeated outbreaks of plague. The relief of hardship fell partly on the church, but mainly on the religious brotherhoods (hermandades) that are now better known for their role in the Semana Santa celebrations. One of these was responsible for founding the forerunner of los Venerables in what is now the Calle de Jesus de Gran Poder in 1627. It moved to Calle Amparo in 1659, and in 1675, while under the direction of Justino de Neve y Chavas, it was granted some land and houses on its present site in the heart of the Santa Cruz by Don Pedro Manuel Colón y Portugal (a descendant of Christopher Colón/Columbus), Conde de Gelves and Duque de Vergara. Building work took twenty years to complete, with Neve himself dying in 1685, but in 1698 the Hospital was formally blessed by the Archbishop of Seville.

The hospital is laid out in two stories around a central patio-courtyard, one of the most unusual in Seville as the central area is below the level of the surrounding colonnaded gallery, and the circular fountain is sunk still lower. Although visually pleasing, the primary reason for the unusual design was apparently the problem of drainage.

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Church and High Altar

Our first stop was the Hospital’s most important building, the Church (tending to men’s souls being more important than tending to their bodies). Although not large, the Church is densely furnished and decorated, with works by Valdés Leal, Juan de Oviedo, and others making it one of Spain’s most important Barroque church interiors. The symbolism of the paintings and sculptures was intended to reinforce the idea of the centrality of the Church and Clergy in the moral life of the nation and the source of all moral authority.

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Ceiling of the sacristy

From the Church we went on through the sacristy, which has a remarkable painted ceiling intended to make the room appear much higher than it is, to the sacristy patio, one of the areas of the complex not normally open to the public. This was in fact where the hospital’s first patients were housed before the completion of the building. At one end is “the back door” which gives access to Calle Consuelo, and at the other a door leading into another small patio with a fascinating history of its own. This was once the Corral de Comedias (a type of small theatre, similar in artistic and social function to the contemporary Globe Theatre of Shakespeare) de Doña Elvira, in its day (1578-1632) the most popular in Seville. It took its name from Doña Elvira de Ayala (born 1377), whose Palace was in the nearby Doña Elvira Square, the theatre being in the palace gardens. Theatrical luminaries of the day whose works were performed here include Tirso de Molina, Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega.

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Patio of Corral de Comedias

Next stop was the hospital ward on the lower floor (there was another on the floor above), a large open room with a high ceiling supported by a row of arches down the centre. The patients’ beds would have been arranged along the walls on either side, a model common to hospitals almost until modern times. From there we went up the main stairway with its ornate cupola with the Papal tiara and Saint Peter’s keys to the upper gallery. On the side next to the church a door leads to a screened balcony inside the church. Further on is the library, created in 1981, and housed in the original refectory, from the far end of which a narrow stairway leads up to our final stop, the Torre Mirador (watchtower), which has a mudejar style ceiling and views over the Santa Cruz, which looks very different from this height.

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Cupola of main stairway with Papal tiara and keys.

Thanks are due to both Focus Abengoa and Engranajes Culturales for the organisation of this fascinating tour, and more about other night tours and cultural experiences can be found here.

La Plaza de la Virgen de Los Reyes

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Plaza Virgen de los Reyes

Behind the cathedral in Seville you can find one of the prettiest and most iconic squares in the world, the Plaza Virgen de Los Reyes. With the fountain and baroque street light in the centre, and surrounded by exceptional buildings – the Cathedral and Giralda Tower, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the old Hospital of Santa Marta, it’s a hub of activity and a principal meeting place for both residents and visitors. During the day this is the main departure point for the horse drawn carriage rides; at dusk, come here to enjoy the deep, dark blue of the evening sky behind the Cathedral, and the wheeling and crying of the hunting swallows. Later, come to look at the Giralda lit up at night, a sight you won’t want to miss, and which never fails to take my breath away.

As you might expect, this place has a long, complex and fascinating history. The Phoenicians, sailing from their home cities of Byblos, Tyre and Sidon to trade with lands as distant as the British Isles, established a small settlement just up the hill close to three thousand years ago, probably mooring their boats in the river channel that then ran along what is now the Avenida de la Constitución. Hercules, credited with being one of the founders of the city, is the Greek name for one of the Phoenician gods. The Romans conquered the city in 206 BC, and by the middle of the 1st century BC it had grown enough for Julius Caesar, then governor of Spain, to build its first stone walls, for which he is credited as the city’s second founder. These walls actually ran along the edge of what is now the square, just in front of the Cathedral. Under the corner of the Archbishop’s Palace there are still some remains of the Roman baths, positioned so that the waste water would drain outside the walls, though it’s not possible to visit them.

Time passed. The Roman empire tottered and fell, and after six centuries as a Roman city, Seville (and the rest of Spain) were left to their own devices. Some of the Germanic tribes who had helped destroy Rome crossed the Pyrenees and headed into Spain. One of these, the Vizigoths, seduced by promises of endless sunshine and undeterred by the lack of towels, set up their own kingdom. Shortly afterwards Christianity arrived, and before long the Vizigoths were involved in civil wars fuelled by a heady mix of personal rivalry and religious differences. The disunity paved the way for the conquest of Spain by the Moors, newly converted to a militantly expansive Islam.

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The Giralda Tower

Their first arrival, in 711, was probably intended as a raid, but after the Vizigothic king was killed and his army routed the following year, Spain lay open to invasion. For most of the period to the early 11th century Seville was under the control of the Caliphate of Cordoba. The first administrative buildings on the site of the Alcázar fortress palace were built in the 8th century, as was the little mosque (now the chapel of the Encarnación convent) at the entrance to Plaza Santa Marta, but with the collapse of the Caliphate Seville gained its independence, its first Royal Alcazar, and rebuilding of the city walls. The biggest changes, though, came in the 12th century. In order to accommodate a growing population the new Almohad dynasty needed both a new Grand Mosque, and more living space. A new western wall was built closer to the river, and on the site of the modern cathedral the Moors built a new Grand Mosque and a minaret, now the Giralda Tower, that is the square’s (indeed Seville’s) best known and best loved building.

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The Archbishop’s Palace

1248, and the Christian conquerors led by Ferdinand III entered the city. At first there was probably little outward change in appearances. The mosque was reconsecrated as a cathedral, and some houses on the north side of the square were given to the new Archbishop as a residence. Over the next 500 years these would gradually be transformed into the grand Palace we see today, with the impressive entranceway, the last part to be built, being added in the 18th century. In fact, until this time, the square as an open space did not exist, being occupied by a number of buildings belonging to the church and used for administration. The enclosure around these buildings was known as the Corral de Los Olmos, the Courtyard of the Elms, after the Virgin of the Elms who can still be seen in a little niche on the side of the Giralda Tower. This is the name by which Cervantes referred to it, as can be seen by the plaque on the wall behind the statue of the Pope.

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The Virgin of the Elms

Also founded at the time of the Christian conquest was the Jewish quarter, separated from the rest of the city by a wall that ran along the back of the square. The wall was probably destroyed after the great Pogrom of 1391, as the Hospital of Santa Marta (now the Convent of the Encarnación) was founded here in 1404. In 1401 the decision was taken to demolish the old mosque and build a new cathedral on the site, which was to be so grand that “when people see it they will think we were mad”, in the words of a member of the Cathedral chapter. It was finally completed in 1526, and is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Shortly afterwards a campanario (belfry) and weathervane were added to the minaret.

1-photo 1 (1)Mateos Gago Street

At the beginning of the 18th century the demolition of the church buildings in front of the Palace and the hospital created something approximating the square we know today, a process completed by the remodelling and widening of the entrance to Mateos Gago street, and the addition of the fountain and street lamps in the centre of the square as part of the preparations for the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition.

There can be few places as apparently timeless as the Plaza of the Virgin of the Kings, yet with so much change and history.

The Footsteps of Saint Teresa of Ávila in Seville

Entrance to Las Teresas convent
Entrance to Las Teresas convent

In the heart of the Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Seville, leading up from the Plaza Santa Cruz towards the cathedral, is the little winding street of Las Teresas. If you live in Seville, or have visited as a tourist, you will certainly have walked along it. You will quite likely also have stopped in at its best-known landmark, the delightful Bar Las Teresas, with its rows of jamón Iberico hanging from the ceiling. But diverting though it is, this is not our topic for the day and reason for being here, which is across the street and a couple of doors down. Here you will find yourself in front of a truly impressive wooden door in an ornate portal set in a rather blank and forbidding wall, with just a few barred windows set high up near the roof. It’s the entrance to the Convent of San José, better known as Las Teresas after its founder Saint Theresa of Ávila.

Santa Teresa is one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent saints and theologians, a mystic, writer and reformer of the Carmelite nuns, and the current interest in her is because next year is the 500th anniversary of her birth.

She was born in 1515 in Ävila, a small town between Madrid and Salamanca most famous for its virtually intact city wall. Her grandfather had been a Jewish convert to Christianity, and had been investigated by the Spanish Inquisition for allegedly returning to the Jewish faith (remember that the last of the Moors had only been expelled from Granada in 1492, and Christianization of the newly created kingdom of Spain set in motion by Ferdinand and Isabela). Her father, however, had successfully integrated into the new order, and Teresa’s mother was a pious Christian who read Teresa stories from the lives of the saints as a child. After her mother died, when Teresa was 14, she developed a romanticised and sentimental obsession with the Virgin Mary and works of popular fiction about mediaeval knights.

Not long afterwards she was sent to be educated by the Augustinian nuns of Ávila, after which, now aged 20, she entered the Carmelite Monastary of the Incarnation, an order enjoined to contemplation and devotion, supposedly founded on Mt Carmel in the 12th century. It was here in the quiet of the cloister that she experienced the ecstatic religious trances for which she is most famous, and developed the mysticism which was her inspiration. At the same time she became increasingly concerned by the lax observance of the Carmelite order in Ávila, and despite some initial opposition set up a reformed Carmelite (the discalced, or barefoot Carmelites) convent in Ávila, the beginning of twenty years of reform and founding of new convents which bring us back again to the starting point of our article.

On May 26, 1575, Teresa arrived in Seville with a few nuns, for the purpose of founding a convent (her eleventh). To begin with they rented a house on Calle Zaragoza, where they stayed for ten years, but the location was never satisfactory. In those days (Seville’s Golden Age at the height of the America’s trade) Zaragoza was one of the main streets leading down to the port, a noisy place full of taverns, sailors and traders. Eventually, with the help of San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), they were able to buy the property in Teresas Street which has been their home ever since. Although not open to the public, it included among its possessions the only known portrait of Teresa painted during her lifetime, and the original manuscript of her best known work, Las Moradas, the Dwellings of the Interior Castle.

Teresa herself never saw the order’s new home. In 1582 while travelling in northern Spain she was taken ill and died. By one of those strange quirks of fate or history she died on the night when the Church was switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, with the removal of the dates October 5-14 that year. Teresa died either late in the evening of October 4 (Julian), or in the early hours of October 15 (Gregorian). She was beatified in 1614 and canonized in 1622, and remains one of the Catholic church’s most popular and important saints.

Seville | Don Juan

After Cervantes knight errant Don Quixote, Spain’s most famous literary figure is surely Don Juan de Tenorio. The protagonist of countless poems, books and most famously of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, he is normally portrayed as a heartless womaniser and bragadoccio, and it as a notorious libertine that his name has passed into the popular imagination. In most versions of the story he comes to a much-deserved bad ending, being dragged away to hell by the statue of the father of one of the women he had tried to seduce, who he had killed in a duel.

But was there ever any such person? The Don is often said to be modelled on the historical Miguel de Mañara (1627-1679), and both his birthplace in Calle Levies and the Charity Hospital La Caridad, where as senior brother he made his name for charitable work among the city’s poor, feature in Seville City of Opera’s Ruta de Don Juan. However, since Tirso Molina’s The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, the first known literary work about Don Juan, appeared in 1630, when Mañara was just three years old, this connection has to be dismissed as a later fancy, possibly intended to discredit the brotherhood.

don juanStatue of Don Juan in the Plaza de los Refinadores

There is a more likely candidate. In the 14th century a prominent noble family with the name de Tenorio lived in Seville (their house was on the site of what is now the Convento de San Leandro). During the reign of Pedro I “The Cruel” one Juan de Tenorio supported Henry of Trastámara in his bid to seize the throne, but was discovered and forced to flee. Beyond the name, there is nothing to suggest that the later stories were based on the personality or activities of the original, though they may have been intended to blacken the name of an opponent of the king, and to be a morality tale of the consequences disloyalty.

Beyond doubt, though, the character of Don Juan is Sevillano through and through. The connection is celebrated with a commemorative statue erected in 1975 in the Plaza de los Refinadores. The Hostería del Laurel, which features in Zorrilla’s 1844 play, is in the Plaza Venerables, and nearby is the Plaza Doña Elvira, named for the only woman who truly loved him. In some versions she is called Doña Ines de Ulloa, and a family of that name is known to have lived in the Plaza in the 16th century. The tomb of the original Don Juan is said to have been in the Franciscan Monastery, which formerly occupied what is now the Plaza Nueva.

The Spanish Inquisition

I bet you didn’t expect that! Okay, so I’m probably showing my age a bit, but I thought I’d start on a light note before delving into one of the darker aspects of the history of Spain and particularly of Seville.

san jorge model

The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, to give it its proper title, was established in 1480 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, whose marriage in 1469 had effectively unified Spain for the first time, shortly before the surrender of the last Moorish stronghold of Granada in 1492. As well as the Islamic Moors, Spain had for a thousand years played host to a large Jewish population, and the primary purpose of the Inquisition was to enforce the unification of the country through a rigid Catholic orthodoxy, although it also conducted investigations into blasphemy, clerical misconduct, and, occasionally, witchcraft. Although the numbers are not precise, it’s thought that between 3,000 and 5,000 people were put to death before the Inquisition was formally disbanded in 1834.

In Seville, the Inquisition almost immediately established it’s headquarters in the Castillo San Jorgé, whose ruins can now be seen below Triana market and house a Museum of Tolerance which is well worth a visit.

Plaza del Altozano s/n
Tel 954 332 240
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 11.00-18.30 / Sat-Sun 10.00-15.00
Entrance free

The castle itself is certainly much older than this, and was certainly already there in 1171, when the Moors built the “bridge of boats” where the Puente Isabella II (usually known as Triana Bridge) now stands.

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The Inquisition’s first victims in Seville are closely connected to a well-known local folk-history, that of Susona ben-Suson (the basic story is history, the embellishments are various and not guaranteed). Susona was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker, who, as harrassment of the Jews mounted in the late 1470s, started meeting in secret with other influential local Jews. It’s not known for certain whether actual sedition was being planned, but Susona made the mistake of telling her Christian boyfriend about them, and he in turn reported it to the authorities. The group were duly summoned by the Inquisition and later executed. Overcome with remorse, Susona never again left her house, and when she died her head was hung outside, by her own command, as a warning to others, and in Calle Susona in the Barrio Santa Cruz, the street named after her, you can still find a small tile plaque of a skull on the wall.

Spanish Charm – the Plazas of Santa Cruz

Plaza Virgen de los Reyes The Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, or Virgin of the kings, is the beautiful and iconic square between the Cathedral and the Barrio Santa Cruz. In the centre is the fountain designed and built for the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition, surmounted by an ornamental farola (street light), and its periphery is formed by three of Seville’s most important historic buildings, the cathedral (including the Giralda tower), the Archbishop’s Palace and the Convent of the Incarnation. Although these buildings are much older, the square itself was only created at the end of the 18th century by the demolition of administrative buildings belonging to the Church, and has only had its modern form since the remodelling of its eastern side for the widening of Calle Mateos Gago in the 1920s. Enjoy the view and the comings and goings of the horsedrawn carriages from one of the benches in the shade of the orange trees.

Plaza Virgen de los Reyes

Plaza Santa Marta Santa Marta is the little square next to Virgen de los Reyes, reached by way of the little alley behind the statue of the Pope. Even though it’s so close to one of the busiest places in the city it’s a little oasis of peace and quiet. The cross in the centre dates to 1564, but was only placed here in the early 20th century. The door to the right is the entrance to the Monastery of the Incarnation.

Plaza Santa Marta

Plaza del Triunfo Alongside Virgen de los Reyes is the Plaza del Triunfo, surrounded by Seville’s three world heritage sites, the Cathedral, the Alcázar Palace and the Archivos de Indias, as well as the Casa de la Provincia. The small monument in front of the Archivos, which gives the square its name, celebrates the safe completion of the mass that was interrupted by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, whose effects were also felt in Seville. The modern appearance of the square, including the statue of the Immacualate Conception, whose steps are a popular gathering place, dates back to the early twentieth century.

Plaza del Triunfo

Patio de Banderas Going through the archway beside the square brings you to the Patio de Banderas (Flags), where the Kings of Spain once greeted foreign ambassadors. Notable for its rectangular promenade formed by two rows of orange trees, and its fountain, it was recently the site of archaeological investigations which brought to light some of the earliest stages of the Palace’s history.

Patio de Banderas

Plaza de la Alianza This charming little square with a length of the old wall on one side and a simple central fountain, was once called the Plaza del Pozo Seco (the dry well).

Plaza de la Alianza

Plaza Doña Elvira Possibly the most picturesque little square in Seville, and one of the most frequented by tourists, it’s supposedly the birthplace of Doña Elvira, the impossible love of Don Juan. The square was actually created as part of the redevelopment of the barrio for the Spanish-American exhibition, and owes much of its beauty to the symmetry of its orange trees, ceramic benches and central fountain.

Plaza Doña Elvira

Plaza Alfaro Plaza Alfaro is the little square at the entrance to the Murillo Gardens. Look for the Moreton Bay fig trees just inside, the water pipes in the exposed end of the old wall, and the ornate entrance to the Casa Palacio de la Marquesa de Pickman a few steps up Calle Lope de Rueda.

Plaza Alfaro

Plaza Santa Cruz Once the site of one the Jewish quarter’s three synagogues, and after the pogrom of 1391 of the parish church of Santa Cruz, the square was created by its demolition by Napoleon in 1811. The church was the burial place of the artist Bartolomé Murillo, as attested by the plaque in one corner of the square. The rather strange metal structure in the centre is the Cruz de la Cerrajería, once located at the corner of Calle Sierpes and Calle Cerrajería, and moved here in 1921. Notice the serpents and the little figures on the top corners.

Plaza Santa Cruz

Plaza de los Refinadores Los Refinadores (the refiners) is another of the charming squares that are such a feature of the Santa Cruz. The circular benches around the five palm trees make a quiet and shady spot for a few minutes tranquil contemplation. The statue is of the legendary Don Juan Tenorio, and was erected in 1975. Also of interest is the Casa para Luis Prieto, which is the one on the corner with the big glassed-in balcony, designed by Aníbal González, who also designed the Plaza de España.

Plaza de los Refinadores