La Plaza de la Virgen de Los Reyes


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.


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.


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.

Seville’s Golden Age

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 1-01-photo 1 (4)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. 1-02-photo 2 (4)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.”

The Legend of Sierpes

Calle Sierpes (Serpent Street) is the main shopping and commercial street through the centre of Seville, connecting Plaza San Francisco and the Town Hall at one end with the Plazas Campana and Del Duque at the other, and it’s one of those streets whose name is almost synonymous with the city where it is to be found. This relationship is a product of the many literary references to the street, most notably in the works of Cervantes (who for a short period was “a guest of his majesty” in the Royal Prison, which once occupied the site of the Cajasol bank on the corner of Sierpes and Entrecarceles streets).

During Seville’s Golden Age (the 16th century, following Columbus’ discovery of America) Sierpes was notorious for the shady characters who gathered there, intent on making easy money from the riches generated by the trade with the new World.

In early mediaeval times the area lay outside the city wall, and a branch of the Guadalquivir flowed through what are now the Alameda de Hercules, Trajano, Sierpes and Constitución (a Viking longboat was discovered beneath the Plaza Nueva), most of which was drained to make way for the expansion of the Moorish city in the 11th century. One theory as to the origin of the name Sierpes is that it’s because the street follows the winding, serpentine course of this old river.

In the 15th century it was known as Espaderos (Swordsmith) street, for the great number of workshops of this type, only acquiring the name Sierpes afterwards, for reasons that are disputed. Apart from its winding course, the name may be derived from the Locksmith’s Cross, the Cruz Cerrajería, that once stood there, but is to be found today in the Plaza de Santa Cruz, which is embellished with snake-shaped ornaments. It is also said that it is named for one Alvaro Gil of Wurms, who had his residence here, or for a tavern called Wurm. Most popular, though probably not the most truthful, is the Legend of the Serpent.

It is said that in the late fifteenth century children in the neighbourhood began to mysteriously disappear without trace. After months of anxiety, a man who would not give his name promised to solve the mystery and identify the culprit, but only if his request to be released from prison was granted. Alfonso Cardenas, the ruler of the city at this time, accepted the terms, and sent his clerk to get the details.

The anonymous informant was one Argüeso Melchor de Quintana, a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Osuna, in prison for participating in a rebellion against the king inspired by the Duke of Arcos, who had later deserted him. Before the notary Quintana recounted how he had found the culprit. He had made a tunnel in order to escape from the prison, and stumbled on the Roman and Muslim underground galleries of Seville. In his flight, he ran into the child stealer, who he had killed before returning to jail because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a fugitive. He then took them to the place, where they found the murderer already dead, with a dagger buried in him to the hilt, and the bones of the children around him. But the culprit was not a man, but a huge snake, which was presented to the public in Espaderos street, which thereafter was also known as “Calle de la Sierpe “. Quintera obtained his promised freedom, settled in Seville and married the daughter of Cardenas.

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 Cervantes Plaques

If you are walking around Seville, and keeping your eyes open for the unexpected, you may see a plaque like this one.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is the Spanish equivalent of Shakespeare (and by one of those strange quirks of history, they both died on the same day, April 22, 1616), and everybody is at least aware of the tale of Don Quixote, and the images of the gallant knight tilting at windmills, his squire Sancho Panza and his bony horse. His other works are less well known, but many of the short stories in his Novelas Ejemplares were written while he was living in Seville, including a short stay as a guest of his majesty in the Royal Prison, and the plaques commemorate places around the city that were mentioned by him in the stories. There are seventeen altogether, mostly in the centre, but including one in Triana, and another in the gardens of the Buhaira.

How many can you find?

A full list (in Spanish) can be found here.