Seville had enjoyed a Golden Age during the 16th and 17th centuries, thanks largely to its trading monopoly with America (or Las Indias). However, one of the unfortunate consequences of Seville’s dependence on that trading monopoly was that it failed to take advantage of its position to become an industrial or commercial centre.
Most trade was carried out by foreigners who imported goods which were then shipped to America, and native products –with the exception of soap and olive oil– never really developed beyond the artisan level. Although it is common to blame aristocratic scorn for trade and commerce, Sevillian nobility did not adopt the extreme contempt that Castilian aristocrats did. What happened was that merchants in Seville, once they had acquired wealth, sought and bought titles of nobility and then abandoned commerce and invested in land and government bonds. The penchant for this type of investment was something that the economist (arbitrista) Gonzalo de Cellórigo attacked at the beginning of the 17th century.
With the transfer of the administrative control of trade with America to Cádiz in 1717, Seville saw its last grip on its transatlantic monopoly disappear (ships had already started to load and unload their goods in Cádiz in 1680). After the glitter of its Golden Age, 18th and 19th-century Seville was bound to suffer in comparison. Like Spain generally, Seville seemed to have lost its vitality. It was not a cultural wasteland, but its creative juices seemed to have dried up and it borrowed rather than produced, mostly from France. The influence of the Age of Enlightenment from France was felt in the founding of several academies in Seville: of Philosophy and Medicine (1700), of Letters (1751), the Society of the Friends of the Country (1775). In 1758, Seville had its first newspaper (the first in the country outside Madrid), and a second at the end of the century. Popular spectacles, which had been a feature of Seville in the 16th and 17th centuries, were still in demand. When the court was temporarily transferred to Seville from 1729-33 there were plenty of processions, masquerades, dances etc. to entertain the melancholic Philip V. The magnificent bullring (the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza) that stands on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, not far from the Cathedral or the Torre del Oro, was built in 1763.
It’s the oldest surviving plaza de toros** in Spain, and second only in importance to the ring in Ronda in transforming bullfighting on horseback into bullfighting on foot. Bullfighting on horseback had been an aristocratic pursuit, on foot it became the domain of the ordinary people. It was outside the Maestranza that the fictional Carmen of opera fame was stabbed to death by her rejected suitor, Don José, while her lover, Escamillo, was celebrating his victory in the ring!
Before her death, Carmen had worked in the Fábrica de Tabacos, a massive and impressive Neoclassical structure that was finally completed in 1763. Reputed to be the largest industrial building in Europe at the time, it employed thousands of women (cigarreras) more famous for their impertinence than their modesty, according to the 19th-century British traveller Richard Ford.
To accommodate the women’s babies, the factory also housed a nursery. The fábrica was a state monopoly and continued to serve its original purpose until the mid 20th century. In the early 1950s it was renovated and became part of the University of Seville.
Seville’s lot did not improve during the 19th century, which began inauspiciously in 1800 with a plague. From 1808 to 1812, the city was occupied by Napoleon’s French troops during the War of Independence (better known elsewhere as the Spanish Peninsular War). As was the case in other parts of Spain, the French soldiers took with them valuable works of art when they retreated.
Most of the old city walls were torn down to allow for expansion in 1869, but there were no memorable new buildings. The city did finally construct its first permanent bridge across the Guadalquivir in 1852, the Puente de Isabel II or more popularly de Triana (pontoon bridges were the only means of crossing the river until that date). Two more bridges were added before the end of the century.
The city’s upper classes followed a now well ingrained life of leisure, living for the most part off their huge country estates, which they rarely visited. Meanwhile, the lower classes continued in poverty, living in slum conditions. Still, both groups enjoyed spectacles, and an additional one was added in 1848 when the city authorities established a site for an annual horse fair. The April feria quickly became a social event, a place to dress up and party… and so it has remained to this day.
Although Seville’s population recovered over the course of the century (to about 150,000), it was no larger than it had been in 1600. Compared to its vitality during its Golden Age, however, Seville was very much a provincial town at the turn of the 20th century. Nothing much changed in the next 50 years except for the shanty towns thrown up around the city by impoverished rural immigrants. It did get to hold an international exhibition, the Exposición Iberoamericana, in 1929, but extreme political instability during the Second Republic (1933-36) followed by the Civil War from 1936 to 1939 quashed any hopes of improvement.
Urban development under the Franco regime was by and large a disaster. Most visitors see only the core around the cathedral, protected by its historic significance. Beyond that core, however, large numbers of historic buildings were demolished to make way for soul-less glass and concrete structures.
In 1982 Seville received a boost when it was selected the capital of the new, autonomous region of Andalusia. Then in 1992 it hosted Expo 92, the world fair that celebrated at the same time Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. Huge amounts of money were invested in constructing the fairground on La Cartuja Island (on the Guadalquivir River), and in sprucing up the city. There was a new opera house, an international airport, new bridges connecting La Cartuja to the city, a bus station and a railway station for the first high speed train connecting Seville to Madrid.
January 2012: Since 2007, Seville has been undergoing a “green” revolution, drastically reducing traffic emissions by making the city centre pedestrian-friendly, inaugurating a bike-sharing scheme, introducing a new public tram system, and facilitating the rental of electric cars. For a good article on Seville’s “revolution,” see: http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20120105-seville-goes-green Seville to 1500.
January 2015: For the latest on cycling in Seville, see http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/28/seville-cycling-capital-southern-europe-bike-lanes
Gilmour, David Cities of Spain London 1994
Jacobs, Michael A Guide to Andalusia London 1990
Nash, Elizabeth Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History Oxford 2005
Shubert, Adrian Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight Oxford 1999
Image of La Maestranza: By E Corbero http://virtourist.com
Fábrica de Tobacos: By Anual – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5962171
For the latest on cycling in Seville, see: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/28/seville-cycling-capital-southern-europe-bike-lanes
For some personal comments on Seville, see Travel Seville
Very helpful site: http://www.exploreseville.com/index.htm