Seville: Where truth and fiction merge

Article published on May 19, 2003
Article published on May 19, 2003
How the locals in Seville have been creating an idealised image of their town and of what supposedly makes them different – sources of pride...and business.

In “The Wanderer and his Shadow”, Nietzsche points out in one of his maxims that not reflecting deeply about people you hold dear is proof of the affection you hold them in. This thought process, which has both optimistic and pessimistic undertones, hits the mark when it comes to the way the people of Seville frequently perceive their own city through rose-tinted spectacles. I must qualify this by saying that the people of Seville do think deeply about Seville but they do so in a proud and passionate way rather than in an analytical way. It is well worth noting that there are a range of influential factors which fuel this passion, from the climate to its monuments (a legacy of its long history), to the so-called “character” of the south and the peculiar intensity in the way that traditions are expressed. These have all been and still are the subjects of literature, exuberance and business.

Although there is no denying these defining characteristics of Seville, we need to go a little further than using our five senses by using our faculty to reason if we are to analyse the true nature of the city, that is the idea that the local people have of Seville. To do so, I will summarise what in my opinion are the three aforementioned phenomena responsible for shaping the Seville of today: literature, exuberance and business.

Seville as a literary phenomenon

During the 19th century mainly French and English people setting out to discover southern Europe travelled all over Andalusia in a long trip called The Grand Tour. These travellers, who created “travel literature”, wrote books describing overviews of specific events, creating topical images of Andalusia and, as a result, also of Seville. The books were read by travel-hungry readers and created idealised concepts of southern Spain. One example is “Carmen” by Prosper Mérimée, which is not a travel book but did emerge from the author’s stay in Andalusia. In addition many books were written without the author ever having been to the places (as these books were based on books by travellers who had been there), leading to even more distortions of what was really happening. This vision of Seville created by foreigners was also conveyed in other art forms, with the involvement of Spaniards, including people from Seville: music (Bizet’s “Carmen”), paintings of local customs and manners (of which many clients were foreigners), poetry etc transmitting this idealised identity into the collective memory for generations. Thus the growing number of visitors who arrived in Seville had a preconceived and mythologised idea of the city, a perspective which they tried to identify on the ground. This is where the second phenomenon comes in - exuberance.

A Sevillian first and foremost…

Faced with the visitor’s quest for the imagined city, the Sevillian felt more confident and approved of in his actions, making him behave even more in line with the idealised version of reality. The result has been the beginning of a loss of naturalness. Sevillians stopped being Sevillians in order to start behaving as Sevillians were expected to, but now no longer just for the foreigners but also for other Sevillians.The result of this attitude was exuberance about the idea of Seville and its customs even amongst its citizens, making a virtue of this Sevillan way of life. As part of this process, Sevillans identify fully with the city, are bursting with pride in their origins and begin to become more and more inward-looking, something which has done them so much damage. Reality was the starting point but this reality was exaggerated by non-natives through art and has stimulated the collective imagination of locals in such a way that Sevillans have ended up adopting an idealised perception invented by others as their own. We can see an example of this phenomenon in the April Feria, promoted by a Basque and a Catalan. It is a private fiesta sold to foreigners as a popular one, which marks the exuberant celebration of values which are regarded as Andalusian. Without doing down any of the city’s distinctive features, Seville has turned into a stage and Sevillans have turned into actors proud of their role; proud in front of other Sevillans and visitors, with the latter delighted to see that the reality matches their idealised version of Seville. This link between the idealised version and the reality will continue for as long as it brings profits to the city. This brings me to the third important phenomenon - the economic exploitation of what I have described so far.

The Sevillan showcase

My final point is that the monuments, the climate and their “savoir vivre” have made Seville a tourist destination. Tourism is the most highly developed sector in the city and has shaped its development. You can see a very clear example of this phenomenon in the Santa Cruz district, where souvenir shops, bars, restaurants and bed and breakfasts are replacing other types of trade. The city is turning into what the visitors want it to be. There is an unmistakeable pressure to turn Seville into a capital of the services sector. Take the Universal Exhibition of 1992. Designed as the gateway for the future development of the city and of Andalusia, this investment, which was meant to signal the latest major redevelopment of the town, has become a leisure park, as transient as almost everything which is done in this baroque city. Today, the huge plot of land that was occupied by the exhibition is underused. Another example is the way that Seville is a perennial candidate to host the Olympic Games.

Of course, not all Sevillians are like this. And the process of identifying with the city is not only for the reasons that I have had the audacity to expressed here. My aim as a Sevillian is to highlight certain ideas in order to provoke critical thought, whereby not thinking about Seville due to one’s affection for it is merely a conscious gesture of ingenuous romanticism.