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“Seville,” wrote Byron, “is a pleasant city, famous for oranges and women.” And for its heat, he might perhaps have added, since Seville’s summers are intense and start early, in May. Seville (Sevilla) has three important monuments and an illustrious history, but what it’s essentially famous for is its own living self – the greatest city of the Spanish south, of Carmen, Don Juan and Figaro, and the archetype of Andalucian promise. This reputation for gaiety and brilliance, for theatricality and intensity of life does seem deserved. It’s expressed on a phenomenally grand scale at the city’s two great festivals – Semana Santa (Holy Week at Easter) and the Feria de Abril (which starts two weeks after Easter Sunday and lasts a week). Either is worth considerable effort to get to. Seville is also Spain’s second most important centre for bullfighting, after Madrid.
Despite its elegance and charm, and its wealth, based on food processing, shipbuilding, aircraft construction and a thriving tourist industry, Seville lies at the centre of a depressed agricultural area and has an unemployment rate of nearly twenty percent – one of the highest in Spain. The total refurbishment of the infrastructure boosted by the 1992 Expo – including impressive new roads, seven bridges, a high-speed rail link and a revamped airport – was intended to regenerate the city’s (and the region’s) economic fortunes, but has hardly turned out to be the catalyst for growth and prosperity promised at the time. Indeed, some of the colossal debts are still unpaid two decades later.
Seville’s old city – where you’ll want to spend most of your time – is sited along the east bank of the Guadalquivir. At its heart, side by side, stand the three great monuments: the Giralda tower, the Catedral and the Alcázar, with the cramped alleyways of the Barrio Santa Cruz, the medieval Jewish quarter and now the heart of tourist life, extending east of them.
North of here is the main shopping and commercial district, its most obvious landmarks Plaza Nueva, Plaza Duque de la Victoria and the smart, pedestrianized c/Sierpes, which runs roughly between them. From La Campana, the small square at the northern end of c/Sierpes, c/Alfonso XII runs down towards the river by way of the Museo de Bellas Artes, second in importance in Spain only to the Prado in Madrid. Across the river is the earthier, traditionally working-class district of Triana, flanked to the south by the Los Remedios
barrio, the city’s wealthier residential zone where the great April feria takes place.
Seville’s Catedral was conceived in 1402 as an unrivalled monument to Christian glory – “a building on so magnificent a scale that posterity will believe we were mad”. To make way for this new monument, the Almohad mosque that stood on the proposed site was almost entirely demolished. Meanwhile, the canons, inspired by their vision of future repute, renounced all but a subsistence level of their incomes to further the building.
The cathedral was completed in just over a century (1402–1506), an extraordinary achievement, as it’s the largest Gothic church in the world. As Norman Lewis says, “It expresses conquest and domination in architectural terms of sheer mass.” Though it is built upon the huge, rectangular base-plan of the old mosque, the Christian architects (probably under the direction of the French master architect of Rouen cathedral) added the extra dimension of height. Its central nave rises to 42m, and even the side chapels seem tall enough to contain an ordinary church. The total area covers 11,520 square metres, and new calculations, based on cubic measurement, have now pushed it in front of St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome as the largest church in the world, a claim upheld by the Guinness Book of Records, a copy of whose certificate is proudly displayed in the church.
Entry to the cathedral is via the Puerta de San Cristóbal on the building’s south side; you are guided through a reception area and bookshop that brings you into the church to the west of the portal itself. Turn right once inside to head east, where you will soon be confronted by the Tomb of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish). Columbus’ remains were originally interred in the cathedral of Havana, on the island that he had discovered on his first voyage in 1492. But during the upheavals surrounding the declaration of Cuban independence in 1902, Spain transferred the remains to Seville, and the monumental tomb – in the late Romantic style by Arturo Mélida – was created to house them. However, doubts have always been voiced concerning the authenticity of the remains, and in 2002 scientists from the University of Granada carried out DNA tests in an attempt to confirm that they are those of Columbus – but these proved inconclusive. The mariner’s coffin is held aloft by four huge allegorical figures, representing the kingdoms of León, Castile, Aragón and Navarra; the lance of León should be piercing a pomegranate (now inexplicably missing), symbol of Granada (and the word for the fruit in Spanish), the last Moorish kingdom to be reconquered.
As you move into the nave, sheer size and grandeur are, inevitably, the chief characteristics of the cathedral. But once you’ve grown accustomed to the gloom, two other qualities stand out with equal force: the rhythmic balance and interplay between the parts, and an impressive overall simplicity and restraint in decoration. All successive ages have left monuments of their own wealth and style, but these have been limited to the two rows of side chapels. In the main body of the cathedral only the great box-like structure of the coro stands out, filling the central portion of the nave.
The coro extends and opens onto the Capilla Mayor, dominated by a vast Gothic retablo composed of 45 carved scenes from the Life of Christ. The lifetime’s work of a single craftsman, Fleming Pieter Dancart, this is the supreme masterpiece of the cathedral – the largest and richest altarpiece in the world and one of the finest examples of Gothic wood carving. The guides provide staggering statistics on the amount of gold involved.
Before proceeding around the edge of the nave in a clockwise direction it’s best to backtrack to the church’s southeast corner to take in the Sacristía de los Cálices where many of the cathedral’s main art treasures are displayed, including a masterly image of Santas Justa y Rufina by Goya, depicting Seville’s patron saints, who were executed by the Romans in 287. Should you be interested in studying the many canvases here or the abundance of major artworks placed in the various chapels, it’s worth calling at the bookshop near the entrance to purchase a copy of the official Guide to the Cathedral of Seville, which deals with them in detail.
Alongside this room is the grandiose Sacristía Mayor, housing the treasury. Embellished in the Plateresque style, it was designed in 1528 by Diego de Riaño, one of the foremost exponents of this predominantly decorative architecture of the late Spanish Renaissance. Amid a confused collection of silver reliquaries and monstrances – dull and prodigious wealth – are displayed the keys presented to Fernando by the Jewish and Moorish communities on the surrender of the city; sculpted into the metal in stylized Arabic script are the words “May Allah render eternal the dominion of Islam in this city”. Through a small antechamber here you enter the oval-shaped Sala Capitular (chapterhouse), with paintings by Murillo and an outstanding marble floor with geometric design.
Continuing to the southwest corner and the Puerta del Nacimiento – the door through which pass all the pasos and penitents who take part in the Semana Santa processions – you then turn right (north) along the west wall, passing the Puerta Principal.
In the northwest corner, the Capilla de San Antonio has Murillo’s Vision of St Anthony depicting the saint in ecstatic pose before an infant Christ. A magnificent work: try to spot where the restorers joined San Antonio back into place after he had been crudely hacked out of the picture by thieves in the nineteenth century. He was eventually discovered in New York – where art dealers recognized the work they were being asked to buy – and returned to the cathedral. The Baptism of Jesus above this is another fine work by the same artist.
The nave’s north side leads to the Puerta de la Concepción, through which you will exit – but before doing so, continue to the northeast corner to view the domed Renaissance Capilla Real, built on the site of the original royal burial chapel and containing the body of Fernando III (El Santo) in a suitably rich, silver shrine in front of the altar. The large tombs on either side of the chapel are those of Fernando’s wife, Beatrice of Swabia, and his son, Alfonso the Wise. The chapel is reserved for services and private prayer and may only be viewed via the entrance in Plaza Virgen de los Reyes (Mon–Sat 8am–2pm & 4–7pm; free). You are now close to the entry to the Giralda tower.
The entrance to the Giralda lies to the left of the Capilla Real in the cathedral’s northeast corner. Unquestionably the most beautiful building in Seville, the Giralda, named after the sixteenth-century giraldillo, or weather vane, on its summit, dominates the city skyline. From the entrance you can ascend to the bell chamber for a remarkable view of the city – and, equally remarkable, a glimpse of the Gothic details of the cathedral’s buttresses and statuary. But most impressive of all is the tower’s inner construction, a series of 35 gently inclined ramps wide enough to allow two mounted guards to pass.
The Giralda tower, before it was embellished with Christian additions, was the mosque’s minaret and the artistic pinnacle of Almohad architecture. Such was its fame that it served as a model for other minarets at the imperial capitals of Rabat and Marrakesh. It was used by the Moors both for calling the faithful to prayer (the traditional function of a minaret) and as an observatory, and was so venerated that they wanted to destroy it before the Christian conquest of the city. This they were prevented from doing by the threat of Alfonso (later King Alfonso X) that “if they removed a single stone, they would all be put to the sword”. Instead, it became the bell tower of the Christian cathedral.
The Moorish structure took twelve years to build (1184–96) and derives its firm, simple beauty from the shadows formed by blocks of brick trelliswork (a style known as sebka), different on each side, and relieved by a succession of arched niches and windows. The original harmony has been somewhat spoiled by the Renaissance-era addition of balconies and, to a still greater extent, by the four diminishing storeys of the belfry – added, along with the Italian-sculpted bronze figure of “Faith” which surmounts them, in 1560–68, following the demolition by an earthquake of the original copper spheres. Even so, it remains in its perfect synthesis of form and decoration one of the most important and beautiful monuments of the Islamic world.
To reach the cathedral’s exit, move east along the nave’s north side to reach the Puerta de la Concepción, passing through this to enter the Patio de los Naranjos. Along with the Giralda tower, this was the only feature to be spared from the original mosque. In Moorish times the mosque would have been entered via the Puerta del Pardon, now the visitor exit. Taking its modern name from the orange trees that now shade the patio, this was the former mosque’s entrance courtyard. Although somewhat marred by Renaissance additions, the patio still incorporates a Moorish fountain where worshippers carried out at ritual ablutions prior to worship. Interestingly, it incorporates a sixth-century font from an earlier Visigothic cathedral, which was in its turn levelled to make way for the mosque.
Seville was one of the earliest Moorish conquests (in 712) and, as part of the Caliphate of Córdoba, became the second city of al-Andalus. When the caliphate broke up in the early eleventh century it was by far the most powerful of the independent states (or taifas) to emerge, extending its power over the Algarve and eventually over Jaén, Murcia and Córdoba itself. This period, under a series of three Arabic rulers from the Abbadid dynasty (1023–91), was something of a golden age. The city’s court was unrivalled in wealth and luxury and was sophisticated, too, developing a strong chivalric element and a flair for poetry – one of the most skilled exponents being the last ruler, al-Mu’tamid, the “poet-king”. But with sophistication came decadence, and in 1091 Abbadid rule was overthrown by a new force, the Almoravids, a tribe of fanatical Berber Muslims from North Africa, to whom the Andalucians had appealed for help against the rising threat from the northern Christian kingdoms.
Despite initial military successes, the Almoravids failed to consolidate their gains in al-Andalus and attempted to rule through military governors from Marrakesh. In the middle of the twelfth century, they were in turn supplanted by a new Berber incursion, the Almohads, who by about 1170 had recaptured virtually all the former territories. Seville had accepted Almohad rule in 1147 and became the capital of this last real empire of the Moors in Spain. Almohad power was sustained until their disastrous defeat in 1212 by the combined Christian armies of the north, at Las Navas de Tolosa. In this brief and precarious period, Seville underwent a renaissance of public building, characterized by a new vigour and fluidity of style. The Almohads rebuilt the Alcázar, enlarged the principal mosque – later demolished to make room for the Christian cathedral – and erected a new and brilliant minaret, a tower over 100m tall, topped with four copper spheres that could be seen for miles around: the Giralda.
Rulers of Seville have occupied the site of the Alcázar from the time of the Romans. Here was built the great court of the Abbadids, which reached a peak of sophistication and exaggerated sensuality under the cruel and ruthless al-Mu’tadid – a ruler who enlarged the palace in order to house a harem of eight hundred women, and who decorated the terraces with flowers planted in the skulls of his decapitated enemies. Later, under the Almohads, the complex was turned into a citadel, forming the heart of the town’s fortifications. Its extent was enormous, stretching to the Torre del Oro on the bank of the Guadalquivir.
Parts of the Almohad walls survive, but the present structure of the palace dates almost entirely from the Christian period. Seville was a favoured residence of the Spanish kings for some four centuries after the Reconquest – most particularly of Pedro the Cruel (Pedro I; 1350–69) who, with his mistress María de Padilla, lived in and ruled from the Alcázar. Pedro embarked upon a complete rebuilding of the palace, employing workmen from Granada and utilizing fragments of earlier Moorish buildings in Seville, Córdoba and Valencia. Pedro’s works form the nucleus of the Alcázar as it is today and, despite numerous restorations necessitated by fires and earth tremors, it offers some of the best surviving examples of Mudéjar architecture – the style developed by Moors working under Christian rule. Later monarchs, however, have left all too many traces and additions. Isabel built a new wing in which to organize expeditions to the Americas and control the new territories; Carlos V married a Portuguese princess in the palace, adding huge apartments for the occasion; and under Felipe IV (c.1624) extensive renovations were carried out to the existing rooms. On a more mundane level, kitchens were installed to provide for General Franco, who stayed in the royal apartments whenever he visited Seville.
The Alcázar is entered from the Plaza del Triunfo, adjacent to the cathedral. The gateway, flanked by original Almohad walls, opens onto a courtyard where Pedro I (who was known as “the Just” as well as “the Cruel”, depending on one’s fortunes) used to give judgement; to the left is his Sala de Justicia and beyond this the Patio del Yeso, the only surviving remnant of the Almohads’ Alcázar. The main facade of the palace stands at the end of an inner court, the Patio de la Montería; on either side are galleried buildings erected by Isabel. This principal facade is pure fourteenth-century Mudéjar and, with its delicate, marble-columned windows, stalactite frieze and overhanging roof, is one of the finest things in the whole Alcázar.
As you will exit on the other side of the complex, it’s probably better to look round the Salón del Almirante (or Casa de Contración de Indias), the sixteenth-century building on the right, before entering the main palace. Founded by Isabel in 1503, this gives you a standard against which to assess the Moorish forms. Here most of the rooms seem too heavy, their decoration ceasing to be an integral part of the design. The only notable exception is the Sala de Audiencias (or Capilla de los Navigantes, Chapel of the Navigators) with its magnificent artesonado ceiling inlaid with golden rosettes; within is a fine sixteenth-century retablo by Alejo Fernández depicting Columbus (in gold) and Carlos V (in a red cloak) sheltering beneath the Virgin. In the rear, to the left, are portrayed the kneeling figures of the Indians to whom the dubious blessings of Christianity had been brought by the Spanish conquest.
The royal apartments, known as the Palacio Real Alto, have now been opened for visits when not in use, and a temporary desk located in front of the Salón del Almirante sells tickets (€4) for a guided tour lasting about thirty minutes. This takes in the royal chapel with a fine early sixteenth-century retablo by Nicola Pisano; the so-called bedroom of Pedro I, with fine early Mudéjar plasterwork; and the equally splendid Sala de Audiencias – with more stunning plaster and tile decoration – which is still used by the royal family when receiving visitors in Seville.
As you enter the main palace, the Palacio de Pedro I, the “domestic” nature of Moorish and Mudéjar architecture is immediately striking. This involves no loss of grandeur but simply a shift in scale: the apartments are remarkably small, shaped to human needs, and take their beauty from the exuberance of the decoration and the imaginative use of space and light. There is, too, a deliberate disorientation in the layout of the rooms, which makes the palace seem infinitely larger and more open than it really is. From the entrance court a narrow passage leads straight into the central courtyard, the Patio de las Doncellas (Patio of the Maidens), its name recalling the Christians’ tribute of one hundred virgins presented annually to the Moorish kings. The heart of the patio has recently been restored to its fourteenth-century original state after having been buried under a tiled pavement for four centuries. Archeologists have replanted the six orange trees that once grew in sunken gardens to either side of a central pool. The pool is now filled with goldfish – as it was in the time of Pedro I – a medieval way of eliminating mosquitoes in summer. The court’s stucco work, azulejos and doors are all of the finest Granada craftsmanship. Interestingly, it’s also the only part of the palace where Renaissance restorations are successfully fused – the double columns and upper storey were built by Carlos V, whose Plus Ultra (“yet still farther”) motto recurs in the decorations here and elsewhere.
Past the Salón de Carlos V, distinguished by a superb ceiling, are three rooms from the original fourteenth-century design built for María de Padilla (who was popularly thought to use magic in order to maintain her hold over Pedro – and perhaps over other gallants at court, too, who used to drink her bath water). These open onto the Salón de Embajadores (Salon of the Ambassadors), the most brilliant room of the Alcázar, with a stupendous media naranja (half-orange) wooden dome of red, green and gold cells, and horseshoe arcades inspired by the great palace of Medina Azahara outside Córdoba. Although restored, for the worse, by Carlos V – who added balconies and an incongruous frieze of royal portraits to commemorate his marriage to Isabel of Portugal here – the salon stands comparison with the great rooms of Granada’s Alhambra. Adjoining are a long dining hall (comedor) and a small apartment installed in the late sixteenth century for Felipe II.
The last great room of the palace – the Patio de las Muñecas (Patio of the Dolls), takes its curious name from two tiny faces decorating the inner side of one of the smaller arches. It’s thought to be the site of the harem in the original palace. In this room, Pedro is reputed to have murdered his brother Don Fadrique in 1358; another of his royal guests, Abu Said of Granada, was murdered here for his jewels (one of which, an immense ruby that Pedro later gave to Edward, the “Black Prince”, now figures in the British crown jewels). The upper storey of the court is a much later, nineteenth-century restoration. On the other sides of the patio are the bedrooms of Isabel and of her son Don Juan, and the arbitrarily named Dormitorio del los Reyes Moros (Bedroom of the Moorish Kings).
To the left of the main palace loom the large and soulless apartments of the Palacio de Carlos V – something of an endurance test, with endless tapestries (eighteenth-century copies of the sixteenth-century originals now in Madrid) and pink, orange or yellow paintwork. Their classical style asserts a different and inferior mood.
It’s best to hurry through to the beautiful and rambling Jardines de los Reales Alcázares (gardens), the confused but enticing product of several eras, where you can take a well-earned rest from your exertions. Here you’ll find the vaulted baths in which María de Padilla is supposed to have bathed (in reality, an auxiliary water supply for the palace), and the Estanque de Mercurio with a bronze figure of the messenger of the gods at its centre. This pool was specially constructed for Felipe V in 1733, who whiled away two solitary years at the Alcázar fishing here and preparing himself for death through religious flagellation. Just to the left of the pool a path beyond the Puerta de Marchena leads to a pleasant cafetería with a terrace overlooking the gardens. South of here towards the centre of the gardens there’s an unusual and entertaining maze of myrtle bushes and, nearby, the pavilion (pabellón) of Carlos V, the only survivor of several he built for relaxation.