Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Grotesque guardians watched over silk exchange

While orange trees abound along the streets of Valencia, mulberry trees were more important as a cash crop in the 1400s. Not for the fruit, but because their leaves provided food for the very hungry caterpillars striving to build cocoons and emerge as moths. The moths only live about five days, but lay hundreds of eggs before their passing.

For Valencian farmers, the cocoons were the most important result of the short life cycle. After a dip in boiling water killing the pupa who so industriously wove it, a silkworm’s cocoon can be unraveled to produce a strand of silk ranging from about 1,000 up to almost 3,000 feet long.

So unravel the Valencians did. They unraveled so much, that by 1482 the fortunes amassed and riches anticipated from future trade enabled the silk merchants to begin construction of a major Gothic edifice worthy of housing their transactions.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Lonja de la Seda has a hall with soaring palm-tree-like columns for conducting transactions, a tribunal hall for adjudicating commercial disputes and even a prison for those found at fault.

Ah, but there are devils in the details. Although the Virgin Mary crowns the entryway and there is a nod to the crown on the side, many of the embellishments throughout the secular compound feature up-to-no-good-looking creatures. Was the ornamentation designed to warn dishonest merchants to stay away or to represent merchants thumbing their noses at the power of the church?

Less expensive fabric from Japan and China began dominating the silk market in the 1800s, but the streets of Valencia still house numerous shops continuing to vend fine silk brocade, with windows displaying their use in women’s fashions of centuries ago.

Oh, and the model wearing one such dress? She simply popped into camera view on a walk the same day we visited the silk exchange.

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