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Real Alcázar of Seville: Casa de Contratación (House of Trade)


A building of great historical significance

Situated on the eastern side of the Patio de la Montería and next to the glamorous Pedro I Palace is a building that is of great historical significance to the entire world. The decisions made in this unremarkable building changed the course of history. It was home to the first headquarters of the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade), an organization established in Seville to control trade in the Americas. It was here many famous and infamous seafarers got approval and funding for their expeditions and brought back the looted riches from the New World. Many European nations who followed in the footsteps of Casa de Contratación to create their own trade organizations – such as the East India companies – eventually ended up colonizing a large part of the world, to the detriment of indigenous peoples and their cultures all over the world.

The Casa de Contratación building is part of Real Alcázar of Seville, a large complex consisting of palaces, administrative buildings, and gardens built/rebuilt by different cultures from the middle ages to the modern era. Designated in 1987 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site – along with the Seville Cathedral and the General Archive of the Indies – the Real Alcázar is one of the most visited attractions in the world.

A bit of history

The need for an organization to control the voyages arose because of the problems arising from the success of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas in 1492. It opened the floodgates of expeditions, and chaos ensued due to the uncontrollable conquests by the navigators, resulting in mutinies and rebellion in the New World.

Because there was no entity controlling the traffic to and from the Americas, the Crown had little knowledge of what was happening in the New World. Another important reason was that there was no accounting of the goods that arrived in Spain, and therefore no taxes were paid to the Crown.

To fix these problems, Queen Isabella I of Castile established the Casa de Contratación in 1503, with a mandate to regulate the trade in the Americas. Although it was a commercial organization, somewhat similar to the more notorious East India companies of the later yeas, it had broader powers that extended beyond trade. Besides approving the expeditions and training and licensing navigators, it collected taxes and acted as a court of law to settle trade disputes.

It was also a scientific organization responsible for creating maps of the trade routes and newly discovered territories and maintaining their secrecy. Many famous cartographers of the 16th century worked here. For example, Juan de la Cosa, who was working as a cartographer here, created his famous first world map, which included the New World. Note that he was also a navigator who accompanied Christopher Columbus in the first three voyages.

The Spanish Crown chose Seville as the first headquarters of Casa de Contratación because of its strategic location, which provided many advantages. After the discovery of the New World, Seville became the hub of international trade. It was an inland port on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, about 50 miles from the ocean. While the high navigability of this river made it easier to access the ocean, Seville’s distance from the ocean provided security from attacks by the sea, especially from pirates. Its location also made it easier to access inland areas for distributing goods from the New World.

The Casa de Contratación remained in this building until 1598 and was moved to the current location of the Archive of the Indies (Used to be known as Lonja de Mercaderes). After Seville lost its importance, primarily because the Guadalquivir River became less navigable due to silting, the Casa de Contratación was transferred in 1717 to the port city of Cádiz. It remained there until King Charles IV abolished in 1790.

As a side note, Spain’s rival Portugal also had its own house of trade known as the Casa da Índia (House of Índia), established in 1500 in Lisbon by King Manuel I of Portugal. It funded the voyages of Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope.

Old building with a new appearance

The original building that housed Casa de Contratación was built over existing Moorish structures. In the next two centuries after its inceptuin, the building endured many calamities, such as fires and earthquakes, and fell into disrepair. It was reconstructed in 1805 with a new facade and remodeled in 1973 with its current appearance.

The Casa de Contratación occupied three halls, two of which have been well-preserved. These are the Admiral’s Hall and the Hall of Audiences.

Admiral’s Hall

Although this hall was part of Casa de Contratación, it got its name for a different reason. It was the headquarters of the Tribunal del Almirantazgo de Castilla (Admiralty of Court of Castile).

When this hall was part of the Casa de Contratación headquarters, many famous (and infamous) explorers from Spain and the neighboring countries visited this hall for a variety of reasons. Here are some examples:

Admiral’s Room

The above image shows part of the Admiral’s Hall, which is still in active use; Occasionally, it hosts small conferences. As you can see, it has a stage and seating arrangement for the attendees. Decorating its walls are exquisite paintings, most of which are portraits of famous figures.

Here is a brief description of the paintings that are visible in the image:

A large oil painting on canvas and beautiful portraits of kings, queens, and nobility covers the other part of the hall. Listed below are these paintings.

Portraits of famous figures

Portraits on display at the Admiral’s Hall

The portrait in the left-most image shows King Ferdinand VII of Spain painted by Carlos Blanco in the 19th century. King Ferdinand VII was the king of Spain twice. His first reign was in 1808, which lasted a few months, and the second in 1813, which lasted until he died in 1833.

The middle image depicts King Louis Philippe I of France painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter sometime in the 19th century. Louis Philippe I (1773 – 1850) was the last king of France. He reigned from 1830 to 1848. In 1809, he married Princess Maria Amalia of Naples and Sicily, daughter of King Ferdinand IV of Naples and Maria Carolina of Austria, and also the niece of Marie Antoinette. The right-most image is her portrait painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1842. She is known as Queen Maria Amelia de Borbón-Dos Sicilias.

Las postrimerías de Fernando III el Santo (Last Moments of Ferdinand III the Saint)

This masterpiece is an oil painting on canvas (size 400 cm x 750 cm). Painted by Virgilio Mattoni, it depicts the last moments of Ferdinand III, the king of Castile, who captured Seville in 1248 from the Almohads. He died in Seville on May 30, 1252, and was later canonized in the 17th century.

Last Moments of Fernando III the Saint, a masterpiece by Virgilio Mattoni

Virgilio Mattoni, a native son of Seville, painted this work for the National Exhibition of 1887 to show his special connection to the city of Seville. This acclaimed work secured the second position in the exhibition.

The inspiration for the painting came from a passage described in the Chronicle of Spain, a compilation of historical accounts commissioned by Alfonso X the Wise, the son and successor to King Ferdinand III.

The mood of the scene in the painting is somber. Dressed in a white gown, King Ferdinand III has his head lowered and is falling on his knees as two monks are holding his arms up to form a cross. As he is about to die, the Archbishop standing in front of him is holding up the Eucharist with his hands as kings courtiers are anxiously watching the spectacle. Also seen is his queen, Joan of Dammartin, who collapsed on a cushion.

Hall of Audiences

It is much more ornate than the Admiral’s Hall. As you can see from the image below, the ceiling is covered with Mudéjar-style decoration. This hall used to serve as a chapel.

Hall of Audiences

On display in this hall is the altarpiece installed to make this hall a chapel so that the visitors, especially the navigators who were about to embark on a voyage, could attend a religious service or pray.

Virgin of the Navigators

In the central panel of the altarpiece is La Virgen de los Navegantes (Virgin of the Navigators), a masterpiece painted by the Spanish painter Alejo Fernández sometime between 1531 and 1536. As you can see, the Virgin Mary is up in the clouds looking down at the ships floating in the sea. Her mantle covers many famous seafarers, including Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, and indigenous people of the Americas. Flanking the central painting are the portraits of St. Sebastian, St. James the Great, St. Elmo, and St. John the Evangelist.

Virgin of the Navigators – A painting on the central panel of the altarpiece

Replica of La Santa Maria

On display to the left side of the altarpiece is a model of La Santa Maria, one of the three ships that sailed from Seville as part of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.

Model of La Santa Maria

La Santa Maria was the flagship for the expedition and the largest of the three, the other two being La Niña and La Pinta. It had a crew of 40 sailors when they set sail from Seville. After reaching the Americas, it hit a reef and was shipwrecked somewhere near Haiti on the Christmas day of 1492. Because the ship suffered considerable damage, Columbus ordered his crew salvaged its timber then abandoned it. Its remains has not been discovered yet. Columbus and his crew returned to Spain on La Niña.

There is no record of the exact measurements and capacity of La Santa Maria. Its size was estimated based on the anecdotal evidence provided by Columbus’s crew. Based on this estimate, the Santa Maria was about 58 ft long and had three masts. The replica of Santa Maria shown in the image was built at the Museo Maritimo de Barcelona, Spain, under the supervision of the museum director.

The wall behind the model carries a banner with the insignia of the crown of Castile y León and similar banners cover the rest of the wall.

Related Pages

Seville Pages and Posts
Real Alcázar of Seville: Pedro I Palace – A masterpiece of Mudéjar art and architecture
Seville Cathedral: An awe-inspiring architectural marvel
Sala Capitular – The Chapter House of the Seville Cathedral
Sacristía Mayor – The Main Sacristy of the Seville Cathedral
La Giralda: A harmonious blend of Moorish and Renaissance architectural styles
Las Setas of Seville – A modern artistic structure in a historical city

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