Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Savior or pillager of ancient relics?

Houses have their own countenance. They have souls. They have something indefinable, born of an idea or feeling. Now, renovated and embellished, it is the short compendium into which my whole life has been condensed. It is the shrine in which I have conserved the revered treasures of my grandparents and the art treasures accumulated during a lifetime.

Regla Manjon Mergelina, Countess of Lebrija (1851-1938)

And the countess did accumulate treasures.

To accommodate some of her sizable acquisitions, the countess purchased a 16th-century palace and began remodeling it in 1901 in the sumptuous Mudejar-Renaissance style originally made popular by the Casa de Pilatos. Entire walls of colorful 16th-century azulejos were harvested from a former convent.

Oh, but what to do about flooring?

Fond of archaeology, the countess underwrote digs outside of nearby Santiponce, the site of the ancient Roman city of Italica. This enabled her to “rescue” numerous long-neglected mosaic floors and return them to their former domestic role in her private home.

Much like Casa de Pilatos established a trend for Mudejar-Renaissance in Sevilliano palaces, the countess’ appetite for authentic Roman mosaic flooring spread to others. Floors from ruins throughout Spain began to disappear into private homes.

Spain was slow to protect the integrity of its antiquities and did not make Italica a national monument until 1912. Perhaps, if private Spaniards had not removed many of the mosaics and statues, they all might have ended up in museums in France or England. The acquisitive aristocratic homeowners in the early 1900s did keep the ancient artifacts in Spain.

The mosaics in Casa Lebrija also now can be seen by the public. The family owning the home opened it as a private museum in 1999. Several other house museums in Seville also feature Roman mosaics.

The flooring actually appears more appropriate in these domestic settings than in the more sterile surroundings of Seville’s Archaeological Museum. And they are in better repair than those remaining at Italica, still exposed to the elements. Now they are returned to public view, it is possible their removal by private caretakers ended up being a positive thing for Spain.

Similar to numerous house museums, portions of the second floor where the family still resides are open for guided tours for an additional fee. No photos are allowed, but the small price of admission is well worth the opportunity to view what originally was the “winter” portion of Palacio de Lebrija. In addition the distinctive architecture and rich furnishings, a few paintings by the elder Brueghel, Van Dyck and numerous Spanish painters are displayed.

And the countess might indeed have instilled a soothing soul in her palatial surroundings. We briefly saw the current matriarch serving as caretaker of the collection. Her son a step behind, she was climbing up the stairs to her quarters unassisted. She was approaching the eve of her 100th birthday.