The Archive of the Indies

Entrance to the Archivo

El Archivo General de Indias (General Archive of the Indies) is the third, and probably least well known, of Seville’s World Heritage monuments, and is located between the other two, the Cathedral and the Royal Palaces, in one of the most impressive of such groupings anywhere in Europe. The Archive itself was created in 1785 by order of Carlos III, to house all the documents related to the exploration and administration of Spain’s overseas possessions, until then housed in several smaller archives that were no longer large enough to hold the volume of paperwork involved. Today, mauch of the Archive is housed in a second building nearby, but is still an important resource for historians studying the Spanish empire period.

Corridor with vaulted roof

The building itself was originally constructed as a Commodities Exchange, the Casa Lonja de Mercaderes, for the merchants trading with the New World. In the years after Columbus discovered the Americas (1492) Seville was awarded a monopoly of the trade, and the 16th century saw a rapid increase in commercial activity in the city. Because of its central location and proximity to the port, much of this activity went on around the Cathedral, particularly the Puerta del Perdón and the Fuente de Hierro (where the Sagrario church is now), causing considerable friction between the ecclesiastical authorities and the merchants. Eventually, in 1572, a purpose built market was commissioned by Felipe II, and was constructed between 1584 and 1598 according to designs drawn up by Juan de Herrera. Later, in 1717, after the silting up of the river had made it impossible for ships to come upriver to Seville, the market was transferred to Cadiz, and the building became a lodging house, until Carlos selected it as the site for the new archive.

The grand staircase

As we see it today the building is an impressive example of Italian influenced Renaissance arcitecture with a regular and balanced geometry, around a large internal marble floored courtyard. One of its finest features is the grand staircase, added in the late 18th century as part of the conversion programme. The gardens in front of the main entrance are much later, being added in 1928 as part of the creation of what is now the Avenida de la Constitución in preparation for the Spanish – American expo of 1929.

Fountain in the gardens


Three Palaces

In the glory days of the empire, Spanish society was dominated by a rich, ruthless aristocracy that was totally convinced of its own right to rule, and Seville, the richest city in Europe, boasted dozens of palaces and grand houses.

Although some of these no longer exist, many are still with us, though often much changed in use and appearance. What were once the houses of the wealthy are now often smart hotels (the classic construction of rooms surrounding one or more central courtyards makes them ideal for the purpose), or have been converted into private apartments.

Some, however, not only still exist, but are also still the private homes of some of Spain’s top aristocratic families. So here are three palaces that you can see (though only from the outside) in the centre of Seville still occupied by the titled and (presumably) wealthy.

The first, the Palace of the Marquises of La Motilla, is certainly the most visible, being right in the city centre on the corner of Calle Laraña and Calle Cuna, though it might be considered cheating a little as the building we see today was only constructed in the early 1920s when these streets were widened. It’s most obvious features are the square 25-metre-tall watchtower, its neogothic arched windows, and the courtyard trees behind the corner of the building. Not what you expect in the middle of a shopping street, but Seville is good at surprises.

Our second palace is in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz, in the Calle Lope Rueda, just off the Plaza Alfaro, where the front door of the Palace of the Marquises of Pickman is set back from the street behind a short iron fence. And it’s quite some front door. The elaborate facade (in a style known as plateresque) is not only big, it was also moved here from another palace in Ubeda and re-erected. The Pickmans themselves, as you might guess from the name, are not of Spanish descent, but were a merchant family from England who in the 19th century owned the successful ceramics and pottery factory in the Cartuja monastery.

Our third palace is the home of the best-known of our aristocrats, the 87-year-old Duchess of Alba, Spain’s most titled peer and a personal friend of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. The Palacio de Las Dueñas can be found near the city centre in the Macarena neighbourhood behind a large, but not overly ostentatious, gateway in Calle Dueñas, which gives you a good view across the gardens to the house itself. The house wass also the birthplace of Antonio Machado, one of Spain’s most famous poets, whose father was employed in the house.

Three Icons

Three Icons

Pretty much wherever you go in Seville, or in whatever you read about the city, the images of three of its buildingsare inescapable. They appear on postcards, as souvenirs, or decorating the walls of shops, bars and other public places, and have become enduring symbols of the city.

The Giralda Tower

giralda tower at night

The most famous of these buildings is undoubtedly the Giralda, now the bell tower of Seville cathedral, but originally the minaret of the Grand Mosque that occupied the site in the time of the Moors. The tower was built between 1184 and 1198 by the architect Ahmad Ben Baso, and is similar to other famous minarets in Rabat and Marrakech. There are also a number of copies of the tower in the United States, most notably in Kansas City.

The top of the original tower was immediately below where the bells are today, and was surmounted by four copper spheres, but these were lost in the earthquake of 1365, and replaced by a cross and bell. The bell tower and the weather vane that gives the tower its name (girar is Spanish for turn) were added in 1568, making it 104 metres tall.

Inside, the tower is climbed by way of a ramp, rather than stairs, (the muezzin used to ride his donkey to the top to call the faithful to prayer) and whatever else you do in Seville you have to go up and enjoy the view over the rooftops of the city.

The Torre del Oro

torre del oroThat the second of Seville’s visual icons, the Torre del Oro (Gold Tower) also dates from late Moorish times is a testament to the importance of this period to the cultural development of the city. The distinctive twelve-sided tower was originally built as part of the city’s defensive system along the Guadalquivir river, when Christian forces began to seriously threaten the Islamic heartland of al-Andalus in the early 13th century, but failed to prevent the city falling to Ferdinand III in 1248.

It’s thought that it got its name from the golden glow of its reflection on the river, though another theory says it was because the tower was used to store gold offloaded from the ships returning from the Americas.

It has survived being used as a gunpowder store, and proposals by the city council to have it demolished. Nowadays it houses a small naval museum, whose entrance, now at road level, could once only be reached by a walkway over an arch whose far end can still be seen just inside the building on the opposite side of the street.

Plaza España

The Plaza España, in Maria Luisa Park, was built as the centrepiece of the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition, and is the masterwork of the architect Anibal González. The plaza with its central fountain and the huge semi-circular facade of the pavilion are instantly recognizable from thousands of postcard pictures, photographs, and films such as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Lawrence of Arabia and The Dictator.

plaza espana

Below the long colonnaded walkway are the alcoves with representations in ceramic tiles of historical scenes from each of Spain’s provinces, and at each end are almost disneyesque towers (unfortunately these are not open to the public to climb, as they would give great views across the park). There is also a boating “lake” spanned by four bridges that lead from the central plaza to the pavilion, and everything is decorated with a profusion of colourful ceramics.