2000s Archive

Conjuring Spain

continued (page 3 of 3)

Tempted to ask myself whether the towns and cities of Andalusia owe their fallen pride to the triumph of kitsch, I have only to think (with profound gratitude for having seen it) of the Mezquita, the Great Mosque, of Córdoba, which architecturally and aesthetically beggars all. A forest of stately columns—onyx, jasper, marble, and granite—fill the wax-and incense–scented space. Shift your glance a fraction and you feel yourself to be unaccountably elsewhere in this regal universe: This patterned, kaleidoscopic, ordered, severe, and sumptuous world exists for you to catch the lucid, complicated symmetry by surprise. Perspective is all—physical and theological perspective. Interlaced red-and-white–striped double-horseshoe arches, imposing and graceful, rest on columns of oxblood red, marching to infinity, pointing to a carved ceiling, the whole enlivened by ground-gold calligraphy. There is something ineffably tentlike—tents in stone—about this place, which could only have been built by desert dwellers who were also mathematicians. Our tiny hotel room is directly across the touristed street from the mosque, and at night, when everything is still, the joy of it disturbs my sleep. I peer from my window at the beaten-brass doors, the illuminated golden tracery shimmering like an Art Nouveau fantasy in a blue velvet sky.

A mosque is also a court, a meeting place, a marketplace. By day, fountains play among the orange trees in the courtyard, the Patio de los Naranjos. The ablution fountains of the Muslims serve now as ornamental pools. I see an Arab woman, in purdah, walking through the Gate of Pardon. I see elegant men in long white jellabas engaged in discourse. I see a child with button your fly on his T-shirt, and a toddler with Marlboro embossed on his cap.

When Charles V sanctioned the building of a cathedral plum in the center of this great mosque, he faced opposition. Nothing, said the wise men of the municipality, could replace such perfection as already existed. But when I come upon the flowery protrusions of marble, the sudden and almost violent explosions of a Baroque choir, I have the sense that I am home. This, after all, is my language, as familiar to me as my hands—the language of monstrance, relic, church organs, crucifix, Nativity, pale Virgins in stone (and cozy, domestic side chapels, tidy residencies of the righteous dead). Representational art is necessary to my view of the world. After a while, calligraphy makes me giddy and leaves me frustrated. What we have here is a dignified dialogue in stone. (Isn’t God bilingual?)

Lorca called córdoba “the most melancholy city of Andalusia.” He felt differently about Seville. Córdoba for death, he said, Seville for life. The soft, winsome, romantic, picture-perfect, otherworldly city thrills and soothes. Seville moves us into the realm of fairy tales.

Four enormous golden apples once crowned the massive pink tower of the Moorish Giralda, but there is nothing airy-fairy about this noble structure, part of the third-largest cathedral in the world. Its charm, and by extension that of all old Seville, is such as to make it seem to belong to another, and very blessed, place and time. Indeed, you never saw such a sweet and friendly, sultry church. The anticipation of its riches made men giddy with delight. “When it is complete,” the canons said of the cathedral in the 15th century, “let posterity consider us all mad.” And a divine madness reigns in the great Flamboyant Gothic church—a golden chapel that is almost Hindu in its mass and in its sense of fecundity and dimensionality (horns, trumpets, angels’ wings). Organ music fills the immense space, swallows fly under the nave, a Gypsy girl sells carnations from a Schwepps paper cup.

Steps away is the Barrio Santa Cruz, clusters of pastel houses, Baroque fountains, and cafés of enduring simplicity and vivacity. Here the august and the naïve, the heroic and the intimate, exist side by side with the cathedral, no rift between the eternal and the quotidian, the sacred and the profane. I sit in a café, regarding the Giralda and eating tapas: saffron shrimp and rice; pork and veal meatballs; calamari in spicy tomato sauce; tiny pork sausages; oxtail stew with almonds, raisins, apples, grapes. Surely this is one of the most satisfying urban oases in the world.

The cathedral, the Barrio, the Alcázar and its gardens, form the glorious feminine trio of Seville. Everything here, in Don Juan’s city, is designed for physical and visual refreshment and delight. Always the unexpected view, often seen behind a scrim of jacaranda, a veil of succulent vines—a heady interplay of shadow and light, palm and fir, orange and roses. All is orderly and complex. Pines, ponds, pavilions. Moonflowers (which yield their fragrance only at night—a soporific, a deadly narcotic if you will) and Dick-and-Jane hollyhocks. Jets of water, a myrtle maze, mimosa. So many levels to this enchanting garden, one seems to walk down to get up and to walk up to get down.

At night we cross the Guadalquivir River and enter the working-class artisans’ district of Triana, where pleasures cost little. Columbus brought his ships up the Guadalquivir after his discoveries. A happy provincial, he said the sea was the same color as the river in Seville. Here, in a late-night tapas bar, over a glass of Sherry, I reflect how in Italian holy painting, the landscape speaks: The Annunciation takes place in Tuscany, Leonardo would have us believe, and all the scenes of Jesus’ earthly life were lived against the background of Chianti. In Spanish art, in the works of those great Spanish masters—Murillo, Velázquez, Goya—the face is more important than the cultivated scenery. Christ is set here, every day, all around me, among the ordinary men and women of Spain.

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