Seville, capital of Andalusia, setting of my romantic trilogy: Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy. On the map for its rich historical and cultural sites, like the Alcázar palace complex and the Cathedral, and for one artistic field in particular: religious sculpture.
I first encountered the Sevillian school of sculpture in the Museum of Fine Arts of Seville, with this depiction of Saint Jerome (c. 1528):
Have you ever been in an art gallery, and it is like time stands still; you are so astonished and awed by a work that the world around recedes? That is how I felt before Saint Jerome Penitent. The terracotta sculpture, made by Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, is astoundingly realistic and expressive.
Torrigiano was not, in fact, Spanish; he was Italian, of the Florentine school – and famously a rival of Michelangelo’s. After he broke the latter’s nose in a fight, Torrigiano wasn’t too welcome in Italy, so he decamped to Spain, where, in Seville, the style of sculpture being worked in the city inspired him.
The Sevillian school of sculpture, as it is known, dates back to the 13th century, and is focused on creating lifelike depictions of key figures in the Christian religion. In the 16th century, the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross declared that sculpture was a necessity: “to inspire reverence for the saints, to move the will, and to awaken devotion” (source: National Gallery). Thus beautiful sculptures were created for places like monasteries, cathedrals and tombs, and also for pasos, processional floats of Biblical scenes used in Seville’s Holy Week festival – which I have seen in person and can attest are absolutely beautiful.
What really sets the sculptures apart is how lifelike they are. The most important and influential sculptor of the school, Juan Martínez Montañés, popularised a technique called encarnación, which translates to incarnation – literally, bringing to life.
“Not everyone who can hew a block of wood is able to carve an image; nor is everyone who can carve it able to outline and polish it; nor is he that can polish it able to paint it…”
So said Saint John of the Cross. Indeed, it takes a great deal of skill – and work – to create one of these sculptures. Wood is the first-choice material, carved intricately and then covered with ‘gesso’, composed of animal glue, chalk and white pigment. The sculpture is then left to dry for up to half a year, before the encarnación can begin: painting, varnishing and sanding, often over and over to achieve the desired effect.
Here is Juan Martínez Montañés’ depiction of Saint John the Baptist. It was created in the early 17th century, but the encarnación really has stood the test of time.
[Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
Readers of my novels will know that I am a very visual writer, especially when it comes to describing colours. Not for me grey, dreary scenery – I love bold, vibrant colours that catch the eye and touch the soul. Do you remember the key line in Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple? To paraphrase: it is a travesty to walk past the colour purple in a field and not notice it. I quite agree!
Recently, an article in the Times Literary Supplement entitled ‘The infinity of blue’ – all about books written about the colour blue and the subsequent desire to collect them – got me thinking about which colours in particular I am drawn to in my reading and my writing.
In my Andalucían Nights trilogy, two colours stand out.
Red: the colour of passion, which is at the heart of Spanish culture and this trilogy. It is the colour of the flamenco dancer’s skirt and the lipstick on her pouting mouth; the colour of the toreador’s outfit and the flag he waves daringly at the bull; the colour of the flag that embodies such nationalist spirit; the colour of the sangria that lifts the spirit; the colour of blood, of all the sensations and struggles and triumphs of life – of love, of hearts beating as one.
Blue: the colour of beautiful clear skies in which the sun beats down and against which ancient ruins and astonishing architecture loom; the colour of the ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see, so many different shades of blue for every mood and meaning; the colour of daydreams, of longings, of legends; the colour of Cadiz, the Bride of the Sea, the city the Moors compared to a ‘dish of silver in a bowl of blue’, founded by no less than Hercules himself.
My publisher, London Wall, recently released an all-in-one edition of my Andalucían Nights trilogy in ebook format (https://www.amazon.com/Andalucian-Nights-Trilogy-Award-winning-Romantic-ebook/dp/B06XKZ2XKC/). The challenge for my cover artist was to devise a new cover that would convey the feel of all three books. I was delighted with the final cover, especially because it blends together the two colours at the heart of the trilogy.
What do you think of this new cover? Do you think colour is important in a book cover? Are you attracted to certain colours in books – are your bookshelves dominated by greens or blues or pinks or golds? I would love to hear your thoughts.
As part of my FANtastic Fiesta, running until 14 August, I’m giving away three lovely wooden Spanish hand fans, as featured on the covers of my Andalucían Nights trilogy:
No doubt you know that the hand fan is a classic object that blends both fashion and function. But how much do you know about the history of the fan? In this article I will share what I’ve learned through my research. I hope you find it interesting background, and you feel inspired to enter my FANtastic giveaway at http://hannahfielding.net/fan-tastic-fiesta/ and have your own beautiful fan.
The first recorded hand fans date back to Ancient Greece, but they were not widely used until the 17th century: Japan and China led the way in developing fans, and once traders introduced them to Europe, they were widely adopted as objects of beauty and practicality. Fans were soon deemed the accessory to have, especially for noblewomen and royalty; they feature in several portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, for example.
Many of the fans at this time were rigid, and ladies would hang them from their skirt belt, but soon the more practical and enchanting folding fan came into favour. What was painted on your fan when extended was of great interest, and it became quite the art form to design the leaves: challenging, because at that time the sticks of the fan, made from ivory or tortoiseshell, were closely spaced.
By the 18th century, specialist fan makers existed, and they used a broad range of materials for their art, including silk, while the painting on each fan was more intricate and artistic. The fan really had become an object d’art.
The handheld fan was now an integral part of a lady’s attire for dedicated followers of fashion, but it was not only used to impress and beautify. The fan served other core purposes: to cool, to conceal and to communicate. In the 18th century, pallor was considered beautiful in a woman, thus at the fireside they would use a fan to conceal flushed cheeks and to protect heavy makeup. At the same time, in regal courts fans were used to communicate non-verbally. At the end of the century, print designer Charles Francis Badini created the ‘Fanology, or Ladies Conversation Fan’, which featured instructions for how to use the fan to spell out messages. Here is the fan, as featured by Christies of London:
Of all the European countries, Spain is most associated with the hand fan to this day. The Spanish embraced the fan, and it would become an integral part of the emotional, sensual flamenco dance that evolved in Andalucía. An entire ‘language of the fan’, the abanico, evolved. For example, holding your fan open and covering one cheek meant ‘I like you’; holding your closed fan over your heart meant ‘I love you’; waving your open fan quickly at your side meant ‘Keep a distance; we’re being watched’.
There are some spectacular hand fans on display at the Museum of Costume in Madrid. This one, for example, dates from 1880–1890 and has beautiful peacock detailing:
Here is another, painted in 1829 to commemorate the marriage of King Ferdinand VII with Maria Cristina of Naples:
Beautiful, don’t you think? If you’re interested in fans and you’re based in the UK, you can visit a museum dedicated to these items of beauty, practicality and communication: the Fan Museum at Greenwich: https://www.thefanmuseum.org.uk/. There you can see fans from all over the world, such as this one by the iconic Spanish artist Salvador Dali, inspired by Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
There is so much that drew me to the Spanish region of Andalucía when it came time to choose a setting for my romantic trilogy. But given that core themes in the trilogy are roots and legacies, the rich history of the Andalucía was a big attraction.
Andalucía is steeped in history. I have written before about the Moors who ruled ‘Al-Andalus’, modern-day Andalucía, from 711 to 1492 (see my blog post http://hannahfielding.net/the-moorish-legacy-in-andalucia/), and today I want to focus on another important people who took control of Andalucía and helped to shape its history: the Romans.
The Roman occupation of Andalucía dates back to the sixth century AD. They conquered the region, which was controlled by the Carthaginians, and bought it into their empire, naming it Baetica (part of Spania). It became an important part of the Roman Empire: emperors Trajan and Hadrian hailed from here, and in mythology Hercules was said to have founded the city of Cadiz.
The Romans lost Andalucía to the Moors many centuries ago, and yet their influence is felt still, most especially in the distinctive architecture of the region. The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba (the Mezquita) is a beautiful example of Roman-inspired Moorish architecture. It was in fact constructed using materials from Roman buildings, including a temple dedicated to Janus that had stood on the site and the Amphitheatre of Mérida.
For me, original Roman buildings are even more interesting. When I visited Andalucía, I spent some time touring archaeological sites. I especially loved the Roman amphitheatres: the Acinipo, near Ronda; the Italica, Seville; and the Malaga theatre.
[Picture credits: Apinicio Falconaumanni; Malaga Andy Nash; Italica Diego Delso.]
Baleo Claudia, in the Cadiz province, is really stunning. There, archaeologists have uncovered an ancient town, complete with basilica, theatre, market, and the temple of Isis – all at a spectacular stretch of coastline.
I found stepping back into the Roman Empire in Andalucía fascinating – and inspirational. When you read my Andalucían Nights trilogy, you will find echoes of the distant Roman past interspersed in these modern-era stories.
For example, in Indiscretion Salvador considers what makes the Andalucían horses the family breed so special:
‘Look at our cartujanos. Over the centuries, their bloodline lost its purity and was injected with new strains that have made it stronger. Today, not only does the blood of their Moorish ancestors run in them, but also that of the Nubian horse, which the Romans used in their chariot races.’
Also in Indiscretion, the heroine Alexandra visits Ronda, and feels a sense of the past when she steps into the bullring:
The following afternoon, La Plaza de Toros in Ronda was drenched with the blinding white glare of a fierce sun. The huge, tragic amphitheatre with its floor of red sand, reminiscent of the Roman arenas of old, had been the scene of many bloody and barbarous combats between man and beast since the end of the eighteenth century.
I could not resist drawing on the Roman influence in my characterisation as well. In Legacy, for example, the heroine finds herself likening Ruy to a Roman god.
He was coming towards her, bare-chested, his eyes shining. He looked like a primitive Roman god and the sexual stir she felt in her belly was instant, confusing her thoughts.
Of course, beyond Andalucía itself, another Roman influence can be found in all my writing – that of the great Roman philosophers, Marcus Aurelius in particular. I will leave you with one of my favourite Aurelius quotations from Meditations, whose sentiment guides my writing hand:
‘Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.’
Here’s a little quiz question for you:
Which bird features in my novel Burning Embers, set in Kenya, and my novel Indiscretion, set in Spain?
No doubt the photograph has given away the answer! Yes, it is the flamingo.
In Burning Embers, the heroine Coral takes a balloon ride over the Rift Valley, and as she passes over Lake Baringo she sees beautiful flamingos stalking for food and basking in the sunlight on the shores. Many miles away, in Andalucía, Spain, Alexandra of Indiscretion sees flocks of pink flamingos lying languidly in the sun beside the Guadalete River.
Even now, I can close my eyes and see those splashes of vivid colour in my memories. I grew up in Egypt, where flamingos migrate in the winter, and I now spend each summer in the south of France, not too far from the Camargue, where flamingos nest. But the Andalucían flamingos, which I saw on my travels, are particularly memorable. I visited the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, a vast natural lake to which flamingos flock each spring to breed. The sight was absolutely beautiful – thousands of birds standing in the water, whose mirror-like surface glinted in the sun and reflected their vibrant colour to create a dazzling display of sunset pink.
My interest in the flamingo goes beyond its eye-catching colour, however. I love its elegance, its sleek lines, as beautifully captured here by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso:
I love the flamingo’s exoticism: it looks like a creature straight out of a fantasy novel. At the end of his poem ‘The Flamingos’, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described flamingos ‘strid[ing] off one by one into the imaginary’. They are like something out of a dream – something, indeed, out of Alice’s dream of Wonderland; no wonder they spark my imagination.
I think what most fascinates me about the flamingo, though, and inspires me to weave them into my own fiction, is that they are a very romantic bird. When it comes time to breed, both the females and males dance together in unison. See the following BBC footage from Patagonia (from the 2-minute mark):
Once the birds are paired, they build a nest and nurture the egg and then young together; they are usually monogamous for the duration of the breeding season. Each pair has its own love story that summer – romantic, don’t you think?
You may well associate flamingos with passion then, but be warned: if you do not wish to upset a Spaniard, don’t confuse the dance of passion for the bird of passion! In Spanish, the word for flamingo is ‘flamenco’ – which is a word that also means an Andalucían art form. But you always sing and dance flamenco, never flamingo.
Also, despite the fact that way back in history the Romans thought flamingo to be a real delicacy, their meat should certainly be off the menu these days (there have been reports of people eating them recently). Far better, instead, to respect this protected animal and in their honour raise a glass… of Pink Flamingo cocktail, perhaps?