Seville and Cádiz in Andalusia (in the south of Spain) played a vitally important role in the Spanish empire in the Americas, with the empire being administered from Seville, making it one of the most important cities in Europe in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Parts of Andalusia had been the first areas of Spain captured by the Moors in the eighth century, and by the early 13th-century, Seville, inland port on the Río Guadalquvir, was the leading city in Muslim Spain.
It was captured from the Moors in 1248 by Ferdinand III in the Reconquest (Reconquista), and soon afterward, 24,000 Castilian settlers arrived in Seville, transforming the place into a Castilian city. It also became the location of a favorite residence of kings of Spain. Ferdinand III and his son Alfonso X were both buried in Seville.
Cádiz on the coast is, by tradition, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, said to have been settled by the Phoenicians in 1100 b.c.e. It then became a Roman naval base and later went into decline and was occupied by the Moors. In 1262, it was captured from the Moors by King Alfonso X.
When Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492, he left from the port of Huelva, west of Seville and Cádiz. However his second expedition was fitted out and left from Cádiz, as did his fourth expedition. It was Seville, and not Cádiz, that was to profit massively from the Americas.
The kings of Spain gave Seville the monopoly of trade with the Americas, quickly making it one of the wealthiest cities during the 16th century. Vast Renaissance and baroque buildings were constructed, the most famous of which was the new cathedral. It had been a mosque but was converted into what later became one of the biggest cathedrals in the world.
The famous architect Hernán Ruiz designed the belfry for La Giralda, formerly the minaret of the mosque, and the Cabildo—chapter house—which was constructed between 1558 and 1592. It is decorated by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618–82), one of Spain’s greatest painters and the first to gain widespread fame outside Spain.
Murillo may have been the most famous painter associated with the city at this time, but he certainly was not the only one. Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) had been apprenticed in Seville and many of his paintings were for the Spanish Americas.
In his last years, he was heavily influenced by Murillo, and the style of many of his later paintings shows this. Juan de Valdés Leal (1622–90) was born in Seville but worked in Córdoba before returning to his native city, where he was president of the Seville Academy.
When Murillo died, Valdés Leal became the most prominent painter in the city. Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) was also born in Seville but moved to Madrid, where he executed his most famous paintings. There were also a number of sculptors drawn to Seville.
Juan Martínez Montañés (1568–1649) moved there in 1287 and remained in Seville for the rest of his life; Pedro Roldán (1624–1700) was responsible for the main altarpiece in Seville, along with Valdés Leal. The tomb of Columbus is also in Seville—but his body was not taken from Cuba until 1899, and it is possible that the real body was lost before this.
With Seville protected, being so far up the Río Guadalquivir, one of the main reasons for choosing it as the city from which to administer Spanish America, some traders also used the more accessible port city of Cádiz, close to the mouth of the Río Guadalquivir. It also grew wealthy during the 16th century but never achieved the fame of Seville. However the wealth of Cádiz also attracted raids from the English and the Dutch.
In 1587, Sir Francis Drake attacked Cádiz to “singe the king of Spain’s beard” and this delayed the fitting out of the famous Spanish Armada, which set sail in the following year. In 1596, an Anglo-Dutch expedition attacked Cádiz again, burning down much of the city.
During the 17th century, the administering of the Americas from Seville became far more difficult. The larger vessels of the period had trouble navigating the Río Guadalquivir, which had started to silt up badly. As well as this, Seville was struck by a massive plague in 1649, which wiped out probably half the population of the city.
This did lead to a greater interest in public health, and the Hospital de la Caridad (Charity Hospital) was built in 1676 and still has paintings by Murillo in its chapel. After years of indecision and prevarication, finally it was decided to move the Casa de la Contratación from Seville to Cádiz in 1717. Based on this, a series of large public buildings were commissioned in Cádiz.
In 1716, plans had been started for a large cathedral for the city. Although work started quickly, it was not in fact finished until 1838. During the 18th century, nearly three-quarters of Spanish trade with the Americas went through Cádiz, making the city hugely wealthy.
Near Cádiz, the famous 18th-century stone fountain La Fuente de las Galeras, with its four spouts to provide water for ships going to the Americas, can still be seen at El Puerto de Santa María. Many of the paintings from the time when Seville was one of the richest cities in Europe are displayed at the city’s Museo de Bellas Artes. Seville also has the oldest surviving bull ring, dating from 1758.
The 15th-century building that had served as Seville’s Lonja (Exchange) for the American trade is now the Archivo de Indias, where, since 1785, most of the archival records connected with Spanish America are held. Hundreds of scholars from all around the world still use it every week for research into Spanish and Latin American history and genealogy.