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?
Andalucían culture features prominently in my recent novels, Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, especially in relation to music and dance, which is characterised by a single emotion: passion. As Salvador tells Alexandra in Indiscretion:
‘Spanish flamenco is the embodiment of passion. Some people say that music is at its best when wild and unleashed. Flamenco is often like that, heels stamping, castanets clicking, skirts of the dancers whirling.’
He goes on to explain that not all flamenco music is performed in this way – it can be still and poignant – but of course Salvador has described here the vision of flamenco that most people conjure up, of which castanets is an integral part.
In fact, while castanets are used in some flamenco dances, they are not traditional to all flamenco. They are more commonly played as part of other folkloric dances, like the Sevillana and the balletic Escuela Bolera. Here is an example from my novel Masquerade; a raw, spirited performance by my character Marujita:
‘The older gitana took up her castanets and stalked into the space, twirling her hands like proud birds. Now the true queen had taken the stage for all to see. With mesmerizing nobility the gypsy danced, her head held high, hands and arms moving with a power and beauty that were breathtaking. Every movement, while exaggerated in its twists and turns, was fluidly graceful; then she dipped and twirled aggressively like an Amazon warrior, her castanets clattering like gunfire. Marujita’s black eyes shone like some terrifying goddess as her arms swooped up like wings about to take flight.’
‘Castanets’ is derived from the Spanish word for chestnut (castana), but in Andalucía the instrument is known as palillos, which translates to saucers. The instrument isn’t, in fact, Spanish in origin. In various forms, it can be traced back more than 10,000 years, beginning with the Phoenicians and then being taken up by the Iberians, who brought it to Spain.
The simplicity of the instrument and the ease with which it can be played to create a rhythmic percussive sound has helped it to stand the test of time. Modern castanets are formed from two shell-shaped clackers held together by a string or leather tie. Hardwood produces the best sound: granadillo, rosewood, ebony, pomegranate or oak.
Don’t let the simplicity of castanets fool you, though, that they are easy to play! It takes years of practice to play with speed and mastery. Remember, the castanets player is not merely a dancer or musician, but must be both at once. Accomplished players can coax from the castanets a range of sounds. The right hand holds the hembra (the higher-pitched ‘female’ of the pair) while the left holds the macho (the lower-pitched ‘male’ set). This video shows a skilled castanets player in action, accompanying the Berlin Opera Chamber Orchestra as they play Georges Bizet’s Carmen:
When it comes to castanets playing, the most important artist is Antonia Mercé y Luque. Born in 1890 to professional Spanish dancers, she was destined for the stage, but she grew up to have strong opinions on what she performed there. Essentially, she developed her own dance style, based on Spanish folkloric dancing, which would prove hugely influential, and castanets playing was an important element of that. La Argentina, as she came to be known, laid the foundations of all modern castanets playing: her way of playing become the definitive way of playing.
La Argentina took castanets beyond the borders of Spain, notably to the US, which she toured six times, and to France, where she was especially popular in Paris. There, Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted a work he considered one of his most important, called ‘Dancing Girl with Castanets’ (1909). I will leave you with this artwork, which I think perfectly encapsulates the emotion and intensity of the castanets player.
Each of the Spanish regions has its own unique culture and history; but for me, the most beautiful and fascinating of them all is Andalucía. This southernmost region has a distinctive look and feel influenced by a history of Moorish occupation. It is a place characterised by legacy, and thus was the ideal setting for my recent romance trilogy: Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy.
The Moors were descended from Berber and Arab tribes of North Africa, and they ruled ‘Al-Andalus’, modern-day Andalucía, from 711 to 1492. More than 500 years later, their presence is still felt. Here are three important legacies the Moors left in Andalucía:
Under Moorish rule, sophisticated irrigation systems were developed, which greatly improved agricultural output. Not only this, but the Moors brought with them crops which were then integrated into Andalucían farming – and, subsequently, into the cuisine. Orange, grapefruit, lemon, peach, apricot, fig, pomegranate, artichoke, almonds, carrot, coriander, saffron, sugar cane, rice… these were all brand-new flavours to be explored. Consider paella, for example, that staple of Spanish cuisine, and the almond taste in so many Andalucían desserts and pastries; it is thanks to the Moors’ introduction of rice and saffron and almonds that such recipes were ever conceived.
Cooking methods that are still in use today were also taught: fish coated in flour and then fried, for example. The Moors favoured salt and vinegar for food preservation; their influence can be seen today in the tapas dish boquerones en vinagre, anchovies marinated in vinegar.
No doubt you know that Spanish is a Romance language: like French and Italian, it evolved from Latin between the sixth and ninth centuries. But did you know that in fact as many as 4,000 words Spanish words have Arabic roots, thanks to the Moorish rule? Most words that begin with ‘al’ are derived from Arabic, as does that most famous of Spanish expressions, ‘¡Ole!’
Hundreds of place names in Andalucía are derived from Arabic, such as Almería City (from Al-Meraya, the watchtower), Jaén City (from Jayyan, crossroads of caravans) and Sanlúcar de Barrameda (from shaluqa, meaning the Levant wind, and bar-am-ma’ida, water well of the plateau). Plenty of geographical features also have Arabic names, such as the River Guadalquivir (derived from Al-Wādĩ Al-Kabir, the big river).
Given names like Almudena, Fátima and Guadalupe can also be traced back to Arabic origins, as can Omar, Soraya, Zaida and Zahira. (Surnames are less commonly related to Arabic, because in the 15th and 16th centuries Muslims were persecuted and forced to adopt Christian family names.)
Last but by no means least, the most striking of all the legacies…
Out in the countryside of Andalucia, through the north of Cádiz and Málaga provinces, you find the pueblos blancos. Literally translated, they are the ‘white villages’, so-called because the villagers whitewash their homes. The result is luminous buildings that stand out in the landscape, reflecting the light – a contrast of brilliant white against the azure sky that is beautiful and unforgettable. The whitewashing tradition was begun by the Moors, who knew, from their African heritage, that it reflected the blazing sunrays and cooled the buildings.
Within and beyond these villages, you will find Moorish influence in so much of the architecture, in the colours, the materials, the symmetry, the domes, the elegant arches. The two most striking examples of Moorish architecture that have endured in Andalucía are the Alhambra palace in Granada and the Alcázar in Seville. You can read all about them in these articles from my blog: http://hannahfielding.net/the-alcazar-seville-a-setting-for-indiscretion/; http://hannahfielding.net/tales-of-the-alhambra/; and http://hannahfielding.net/the-hall-of-the-abencerrages/.
The Moors, then, have left a lasting legacy in Andalucía, and it is one that inspired me greatly as I wrote my Andalucían Nights novels. You will find references to the Moors throughout the books, with regard to everything from art to legends.
But what of the great spirit of Andalucía, the fiery passion of its people – does that come from Moorish ancestors? I will let you decide, and in the meantime I will leave you smiling, I hope, with a little joke from Salvador in Indiscretion:
‘Didn’t you know that in Andalucia, love is as inconstant as it is passionate and jealous? A liking for the harem has been handed down to us by centuries of Moorish civilisation.’