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.”

Seville Modern

There are lots of reasons why people choose to come to Seville for a holiday. There’s the sunshine and bright blue skies. There’s the orange trees, especially the heavenly scent of the blossom, and the vibrant colours of the city’s parks and gardens. There’s flamenco, the Spring fair, and the Holy week (and other) processions, and plenty of art and culture. Then there’s the food – the culinary and social phenomenon that is tapas, which is becoming increasingly well-known, and is beginning to be exported to other parts of the world. And, of course, Seville is almost over-endowed with history and historical monuments and the picturesque narrow streets of the old neighbourhoods of the centre of the city.

But as well as all this, Seville is not just a giant postcard, but a place where people live and work, and where the new has to be continuously integrated with the old. This is nothing new. In the tens and twenties the preparation for the 1929 Spanish-American Exhibition involved en extensive programme of urban renewal and renovation, and the 1992 expo (celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America) left its mark on the riverside and the Cartuja skyline. But the real challenge is not building new things, it’s building new things that fit in with what’s there already, and don’t stand out like a sore thumb.

Despite the occassional hiccup, Seville has generally met this challenge remarkably well, and for me there are two examples that everyone should see. The first of these you will certainly find for yourself, as it’s right alongside the World Heritage Centre of the Cathedral, Archivos de India and Alcázar Palace. In some ways, however, it’s quite mundane, and it’s possible you won’t “see” it. I’m talking about the Avenida de la Constitución, the main street that runs in front of the cathedral, and its extension into Calle San Fernando. The first impression is of a classic modern European avenue, with a sleek new tram system and pavement cafés, lined with the ubiquitous Seville orange trees. But look around and you can see the old Seville alongside the new. Here are the Cathedral (15th century), the Archivos de India (17th century), the Tobacco Factory (18th century), and a number of neo-Mudejar style buildings of the early 20th century, all living together as if part of a single grand design.

The second example is a new building. The Metropol Parasols (or The Mushrooms as they are known locally) were completed just two years ago, and are the world’s biggest wooden structure (although Colossos comes pretty close). This fantastical, almost ultra-modern edifice swoops and curves above the Plaza de la Encarnación in the city centre, and houses Roman ruins, a provisions market, and up on the roof a complex of bars and walkways with stunning views. Naturally, it’s been controversial, but I like to think that the modern builders were moved by the same spirit that moved one of the creators of the Cathedral, who said “Let us build a cathedral so immense that everyone on beholding it will take us for madmen.”

La Monumental

remaining gate of La Monumental

Halfway up Avenida Eduardo Dato, on the corner of Calle Diego Angulo Iñiguez opposite the Buhaira Palace Gardens, stands a short section of apparently functionless wall with a bricked up doorway to a small vacant lot. There’s no plaque, no sign, nothing to say that this is all that remains of the Plaza de Toros Monumental de Sevilla, the city’s ill-fated second bullring, first opened to the public in 1918, closed in 1921, and finally demolished in 1930. The driving force behind its construction was the famous bullfighter José Gómez Ortega ‘Gallito’, also known as Joselito, whose death in the ring on May 16, 1920, was a contributory factor in its closing. In 1915, when construction started, this was a ‘greenfield’ site a short way outside the city. Demolition made way for the new suburbs that now spread out to Nervion and beyond. I knew of the existence of the Monumental before I discovered this, but even such a small piece of its actual physical presence makes it much more real.

The architects were José Espiau y Muñoz and Francisco Urcola Lazcanotegui, whose other works include the Hotel Alfonso XIII, and the Adriática at the end of Avenida Constitución.

La Monumental tapas bar is located on the old site and is filled with bullfighting memorabilia including framed contemporary newsclippings about Seville’s forgotten bullring.