SEVILLE. 16th and 17th Centuries.

Seville. 16th and 17th Centuries.
The 16th century and some of the 17th were Seville’s golden years, much as they were Spain’s.  But if Spain’s Golden Age was in many ways contradictory, so too was Seville’s.

It expanded rapidly and accumulated enormous wealth but was ravaged by extreme poverty.  It glittered with opulently dressed nobles but was plagued by pícaros (rogues), vagabonds, beggars, prostitutes drawn to the city like flies to meat. It was an exciting city, the city Don Quixote was invited to visit because “it was just the place to find adventure, for in every street and on every street corner there were more adventures than in any other place” (Don Quixote, Part I, Chptr. 14. Don Quixote does not take up the invitation).

Seville’s religious fervour was famous throughout Spain, so too was its sensuality, it boasted  luxurious palaces but it was bedevilled by squalor, it practiced charity like no other city in the country but it was riddled with crime and corruption.

People flocked to Seville from all parts of Spain and abroad with hopes of better days, making it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Traders from Genoa were already established there, to be joined now by merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans from Flanders, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy and England.

There were slaves from Africa, Morisco craftsmen (Muslim converts to Christianity), sailors, soldiers of fortune and emigrants to the New World. The streets throbbed with activity, whether public festivities or great rejoicings at the return of the transatlantic fleets.  By the 17th century, Seville was already famous for the magnificence of its Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions and the activities of its cofradías (religious brotherhoods).
Seville’s spectacular growth into Spain’s largest and most dynamic city in the 16th and early 17th centuries was built on its trading monopoly with the newly discovered America (or Las Indias to Spaniards).  It retained this privilege, bestowed on it in 1503, until the beginning of the 18th century. In the same year (1503), a Casa de Contratación (equivalent to a Chamber of Commerce) was set up in the Reales Alcázares, close to the cathedral, to regulate all goods exported and imported.
The rhythm of life was dominated by the departure and arrival of the great transatlantic fleets. The waterfront held not only the great Spanish galleons.  There were small boats ferrying local goods for the transatlantic crossing (wine, cereal, salt fish, dried meat, biscuits, clothes), and large ships from France, Italy, Germany, Britain, bringing goods and luxury items that Spain was unable to provide for its American settlers. 

It was a hive of activity as stevedores loaded food and munitions on board, officials checked the cargoes, and sailors, emigrants, missionaries prepared for the trip.  There were two departures, one in Spring, the other in late August. The city turned out en masse to watch: anxious merchants, finely dressed nobles, members of the church, not to mention rogues and pickpockets hoping for a good haul.

But it was the arrival of the fleet that really set the pulse of the city racing. After a crossing that could take anything from 3 to 6 months, it was always a huge relief when news came that the fleet had been sighted.
The departure and arrival of the fleet was always an occasion.

Crowds gathered to watch, and church services were held to celebrate the event. Huge expectations and fortunes rested on the safe arrival of the fleet, and the loss of a ship could spell disaster for many.

The crossing was fraught with danger from storms, enemy ships and pirates, and even the presence of armed galleons to protect the bullion-loaded vessels was no guarantee of safety.  And finally, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, there remained a notorious sand bar that caused grief to several ships.

Officers from the Casa de Contratación first inspected the cargoes before the ships were unloaded.  Gold and silver of course were the most important items, although most of these precious metals were sent to other destinations: 1/5th went automatically to the king’s coffers, and large amounts passed through Spain to bankers in Genoa and Germany in repayment for the loans to underwrite Spain’s imperial adventures in Europe and the Mediterranean.

With these precious metals came new and exotic goods: e.g. cocoa, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, vanilla, chilli peppers, cochineal, skins… Some of these products were viewed suspiciously because of their unfamiliarity, and were at first not eaten.  For example, for a long time tomatoes and chilli peppers were used as ornamental plants and potatoes were cultivated in botanical gardens.

The prosperity experienced by Seville was accompanied by an explosion of new buildings: great palaces (e.g. the Casa de Pilatos), imposing houses, convents, churches… and miserable slums.

Aristocrats and wealthy merchants built their palaces and houses with a view to impress, even though they were often located next to wretched hovels in foul-smelling streets which were little more than dung heaps.  Unlike the Moors who had kept the exterior of their houses blank, and favoured family life around the patio, the new style called for plenty of windows and ornate facades.**

**A 16th-century historian observes the following: “The inhabitants now build their houses with an eye to the exterior. Formerly all the attention was focused on the construction of the interior of houses and no one bothered about the outside, as had been done in the days of the Moors. But today, people are concerned to make their houses more splendid outwardly, with plenty of windows giving on to the streets, which set off and beautify the appearance of the many ladies, distinguished and noble, who look out from them.” Defourneaux, 85.

The patios –with their fragrant flowers and citrus trees etc.– were retained, but the outer windows allowed ladies, dressed in fine silks, or satin or velvet to see and be seen.

But if Seville was famous for its lavish wealth and high living, it was equally well known for its criminal underground. One famous figure who was well acquainted with this world of ruffians, cutthroats, thieves, gamblers, false beggars, prostitutes, mercenaries and murderers, was Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), who lived for a period in the city and was even imprisoned there. 

In one of his short stories, Rinconete y Cortadillo, Cervantes gives a wonderfully satiric portrayal of an underworld gang as seen through the eyes of two young delinquents, Rinconete and Cortadillo, who have just arrived in Seville. There are rites of passage to be observed, rules to be obeyed, and a new underworld language to be learned before the two are accepted into the syndicate.

Then they perfect their respective speciality, card sharping and pick pocketing, before being allowed to practice their trade, with some of the profits going to the group. Their experience in many ways reflected that of many criminals who were born in different parts of the country and who came to Seville to “graduate” in their particular “field.” Echoes of the street gangs in cities nowadays?

In a society where poverty was widespread, corruption was rife, as Rinconete and Cortadillo learned.  Contemporary observers commented on the scale of complicity reaching the highest level, with money and favours being exchanged for lenient sentences or freedom from jail.  As one canon from the cathedral commented: Here they only punish those who haven’t got a deep purse.

It wasn’t only criminals who flocked to Seville, so too did beggars, spongers and landless peasants because the city was famous for its charitable organisations. With a rapidly expanding population (from about 50,000 in 1530 to 150,000 by 1600), there was a constant threat of social unrest.

Inflation and higher food prices, caused by anything from natural disasters –droughts, floods— to manipulation of food costs by speculators only made things worse. The numerous convents, churches, guilds and religious fraternities which competed in providing food attest to the important function of these bodies in helping to keep the peace.

Even individuals could play a role, the most famous being Don Miguel de Mañara (1626-79), a 17th-century libertine who, after apparently seeing a vision of his own funeral, repented and spent his fortune on charitable works.  Just a short distance from the cathedral in the direction of the river is the large Hospital de la Caridad founded by Mañara and still used, now as a hospital for the elderly.

Probably Don Miguel de Mañara would be no more than a historical footnote but for the fact that he is frequently cited as the inspiration for the original Don Juan Tenorio by the dramatist Tirso de Molina. This is most unlikely, however, since the play was written before 1630 when Mañara was a still young child…3 to 4 years old!   In fact the reverse has been argued: that Mañara saw the play when he was a young man and was determined to outdo Don Juan in seducing women. Only when he saw a vision of his funeral did he repent.

The explosion of new buildings experienced by Seville during its Golden Age provided much needed work as nobility, merchants, churches and convents vied for builders, artisans, woodcarvers, carpenters, sculptors, stonemasons, ceramicists, goldsmiths, painters etc. 

For example, the interior of the Cathedral was a hive of activity as craftsmen worked constantly on the numerous side chapels, the elaborate chancel (capilla mayor), and the choir and its beautiful stalls.  The immense gold-covered altarpiece of the capilla mayor (said to be the largest in the world), contains over 1,000 carved biblical figures and took 76 years to complete (1482-1564).

Cultural life flourished under the patronage of the aristocracy and the church. Wealthy religious institutions were particularly active in commissioning sculptors and artists to fill their buildings with works meant to move viewers to contemplation or spiritual wonder.

Seville was not unique in this; such commissions were part of the Catholic Church’s response (as outlined in the Councils of Trent, 1545-63) to the puritanism associated with Protestantism. But Seville outdid all other Spanish cities in the quantity and exuberance of its displays, and in its increased religiosity.  In the 17th century, monasteries and convents doubled in number, and the cult of the Virgin Mary increased as debates about her Immaculate Conception intensified.

Sculptors such as the prolific Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649) and Juan de Mesa (1583-1627), and artists of the calibre of Francisco de Zurburán (1598-1664), Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82) and Juan Valdés Leal (1622-90) were outstanding proponents of the religious art that so captured the imagination of the people. Another artist, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) –who was to make his name in Madrid as a court painter– cut his teeth in Seville with paintings that included religious themes of noteworthy originality for so young an artist. By the age of 20, he had painted at least four canvases with religious figures, including the remarkable Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618).

Velázquez. Christ in the House of Marta and Mary. 1618.

It was during the 17th century that the Semana Santa processions began to take on the form by which we know them today. Some of the sculptures that are paraded nowadays are from this period, two of the most popular being Jesús del Gran Poder (Jesus the Almighty, by Juan de Mesa in 1620) and Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza (Our Lady of Hope), popularly known as La Macarena (attributed to Luisa Roldán, late 17th century). La Macarena is a favourite with the poor and the gypsies, and is the patroness of bullfighters.

La Macarena. © M A Sullivan

Although Seville’s cultural wealth in the 16th and 17th centuries expressed itself primarily in architecture, sculpture and art, it also enjoyed a vibrant period of literary fame.

For example, it was at his palace that the Conde de Gelves, great-grandson of Christopher Columbus, entertained the cream of Seville’s literary and artistic world regularly from 1559 to 1581.  The most famous figure was the poet scholar Fernando de Herrera (1534?-1597), whose verse set the tone for the so-called Sevillian school of poetry marked by erudition (knowledge of classical literature, pagan mythology), linguistic dexterity, rhetorical devices (Latinisms, intense use of metaphors), and musicality. Herrera had two great loves, his country and the Count’s wife, Leonor, with whom he maintained a Platonic relationship over many years.  She is considered the source of inspiration for his love poetry.

Seville’s fame as home of the iconic seducer, Don Juan Tenorio, and the fiery gypsy, Carmen, has eclipsed its claim to being arguably the birthplace of the picaresque novel. 

An earlier work,  Lazarillo de Tormes (anonymous, 1554), had captured some of the characteristics of the genre, but it was the Sevillian Mateo Alemán (1547-after 1613) who first gave voice to the pícaro in his two-part Guzmán de Alfarache (1599, 1604). It’s a long book, with numerous moral digressions as the first-person narrator, Guzmán, traces his life from his birth in Seville to his position as galley slave on a Spanish ship.

As a text, Guzmán de Alfarache is fundamental not only in the history of the picaresque novel but of the novel in general.  It was a best seller in 17th-century Spain (more so than Don Quixote), and immensely popular in translation in England, Germany, France, Italy.

Seville’s privileged position as port to the Americas and its very well-being took some serious hits during the course of the 17th century.  Larger transatlantic vessels found it increasingly difficult to navigate the Guadalquivir, and by 1680 most Atlantic ships were loading and unloading at Cádiz.

The administration of the trade through the Casa de Contratación, however, continued from Seville until 1717 when the cumbersome arrangement was finally brought to an end, although not without strenuous protests from Seville.

Seville’s cause wasn’t helped by several natural disasters. The Guadalquivir was frequently prone to floods, and in 1627 and 1683 the city was inundated, and thousands of houses ruined. But even worse were the plagues whose virulence was helped by the unhygienic conditions everywhere. Of the many outbreaks during the 16th and 17th centuries, the worst was that of 1649 which wiped out almost half the population and left the city demoralised.

Seville to 1500
Seville from 1700

Defourneaux, Marcelin  Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age  Stanford  1970

Gilmour, David   Cities of Spain  1994
Herrero García, Miguel  Ideas de los españoles del siglo XVII Madrid 1966
Jacobs, Michael   A Guide to Andalusia  London 1990
Nash, Elizabeth  Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History  Oxford 2005
Pike, Ruth   Aristocrats and Traders: Sevillian Society in the Sixteenth Century Ithaca 1972
Image of Seville in 16th century by Alonso Sánchez Coello:
Image of Velázquez’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary: National Gallery, London – online collection, Public Domain,

Image of La Macarena