Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Size foremost in the minds of Cathedral founders

In the year 1482, Pierre Dancart began carving the High Altar for the Cathedral of Seville, el Catedral de Santa María de la Sede. The enormous project probably consumed most of his life, as he did not finish until 44 years later. The sheer size of the altar overwhelms the vignettes from the Bible and lives of saints contained within it, such as the rather gory spearing of children above.

But size was what mattered most to those who determined to build the grand Cathedral in 1401.

Prior to that time, the site was occupied by a major mosque with a minaret designed by architect Ahamed ben Basso for Almodhad Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1135-1185). When King Ferdinand III of Castile (1199-1252) conquered Sevilla in 1248, both the city and the mosque were Christianized. Chapels were inserted to convert the interior into a more Catholic appearing space.

Seville became a center of wealth, and the initial redo of the mosque was not as grandiose as the city’s leaders vision for the city. They wanted an awe-inspiring Cathedral, so work commenced.

The resulting Cathedral was built astride the mosque and inside some of the walls of its compound. The imposing edifice covers close to six acres, with the center transept soaring to a height equal to a 12-story building – by most measurements, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. The minaret was converted into a bell tower, the Giralda, and rises more than 30 stories in height.

Perhaps some of the plans were more grandiose than practical. The center dome collapsed in 1511, only five years after its completion. Its replacement, however, lasted until an earthquake in 1888. The newest one was completed in 1903.

The Cathedral contains the tombs of several kings as well as that of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). The riches within are suitably impressive, and art includes works by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) and Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

One can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Cathedral, or zoom in on the details, such as tiny shards of saints held in reliquaries or predatory, the Moorish lock on a door or wolves topping pilasters at one of the entrances.

Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Vestiges from our visit

Although he sailed for the New World under the Spanish flag, Genoa claims Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) as among the famous born there.

Genoa’s narrow, rabbit warren-like tangle of streets and intimate plazas in the historic medieval center, purportedly the largest intact in Europe, mainly defy access to anything as wide as a modern-day automobile. Centuries-old buildings reflect layers of changing architectural tastes in their facades. Ethnic shops crowd into small spaces in the heart of the city, while contemporary fashion is found on arcaded boulevards outside the walls. Elegant palaces and financial houses from Renaissance and Baroque periods line streets and the wide-open Piazza de Ferrari just outside the medieval walls.

Genoa is a rough-and-tumble jumble, a beautiful unpolished diamond inviting those living in the New World to explore the Old. Well, inviting except by that one grouchy tagger who dropped the f-bomb on tourists.

Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Captain’s castle reflects his circumnavigations of the globe

Service in the Italian Navy and Merchant Navy did not diminish the love Captain Enrico Alberto d’Albertis (1846-1932) had for the sea. He circled the globe three times using diverse forms of transportation, explored Africa and even recreated the journey of Christopher Columbus to San Salvador relying on 15th-century-style navigational instruments he crafted himself. Known also as a writer, philologist and ethnologist, he collected enthusiastically during his travels.

The adventurer’s eclectic collection needed a home reflecting its quirkiness, so the captain helped design a Neo-Gothic Revival castle with major Moorish and other exotic embellishments. Perched atop a hill overlooking Genoa’s harbor, the castle was built between 1886 and1892 in the midst of medieval fortifications and incorporates one of the turrets from the 16th-century bastion.

Captain d’Albertis left his castle and collection to the city of Genoa where it serves as the city’s Museum of World Cultures. Many of the items and furnishings are arranged exactly as when the captain was alive.

The explorer was as colorful as the items he chose to collect. Elisabetta Genecchi-Ruscone delved into his journals to document some of his travels in the Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes:

D’Albertis really seemed to enjoy the thrill of trading for artefacts with natives approaching the ship on their canoes. In Battulei, in the Aru Islands, he reported trading for bracelets and skulls, but it was especially in Orangerie Bay that he did most of his ethnographic collection on this trip. He acquired spears, stone clubs, bamboo combs, cassowary ornaments, and bracelets made out of human mandibles. To the north of Dafure Island D’Albertis reported having nearly succeeded in bartering a piece of iron for a ten-year old boy. The arrival of the boy’s mother thwarted his efforts and instead he obtained a grass skirt.

And from the captain’s diary upon leaving the coast of New Guinea in 1880:

A last greeting to these children of Nature, a farewell, perhaps forever. Chance brought us to know them; we approached them, we may say, for a minute, yet this sufficed to breed in us a sympathy for this people who we call barbarous and savage because they live a life so different from ours. If we knew more intimately their customs we may have reason to be persuaded that they are better than is generally thought….

They had in them something noble, and did not lower themselves to asking or showing desire for what I showed them. No, these personages are something more than savages, they are in the European sense true gentlemen.

Not known for being shy, the flamboyant traveler did sometimes take advantage of the naïve:

To show that I intended being friends with Aira and his people, I hugged and kissed him, in the middle of the village square, then, among general laughter, I went on to kiss all the women: The scene was certainly among the most comical, some shyer women would have refused my embrace, but were incited by the others to let me do. It is true that to be impartial and give my act the true aspect of a ceremony I had to kiss some old and ugly ones, but on the whole there were more young and beautiful ones, and some really were beautiful.

One of the most interesting parts of a visit to the castle is to leaf through albums containing a small portion of the 20,000 photographs taken by the captain at home in Genoa and around the world. To explore images from his amazing journeys, click here.