I looked sheepishly around the empty central courtyard of Pilates House, permanent residence of the Dukes of Medinaceli, right in the centre of Seville, and quickly pressed the shutter button again. Click click. The sound of the double shot is usually drowned by the noise of busy city dwellings, but there, in the quiet winter’s air, it hung just that little bit longer.
We’d arrived early to pay our entrance fee, which included an audio guide and a guided tour of the upper floor. We were keen to roam the place before it filled up with other visitors. After all, we’d been waiting a few years for this day to arrive.
During our last visit to Seville in December 2010, we were disappointed to find this 16th-century Mudéjar style gem closed.
Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz are here! They’re filming an action movie, we were told just after ordering, Dos cañas, media ración de croquetas de salmorejo y media ración de albondigas de choco, at a nearby bar. This spontaneous (the closure turned out to be a perfect excuse to stop for a small glass of beer and some tapas) but nonetheless vital break allowed us to ponder where to head next. And then the all too familiar tourist-native exchange followed as soon as one of the two cheerful Sevillanos behind the bar picked up on my non-native Spanish accent:
¿De dónde eres?
De Austria, pero vivo en Londres.
Ah, Austria ¿Es la primera vez en España?
No, pero aquí, en Sevilla, sí, es mi primera vez.
I’d learned, that sometimes, for the sake of conversation flow, it’s best to stick to the polite ‘conversation script’. So, I left out my usual enthusiastic talk about Madrid and the small villages and towns of Castilla y León, and continued with my part:
Me encanta Sevilla. Siempre fue un sueño para mí ver los naranjos.
(That is very true, and besides, I love Seville orange marmalade thinly spread on my breakfast toast, and the next time I return, it’ll have to be in March because I want to see the trees in bloom and take in their subtle fragrance.)
Tienes que venir durante la Semana Santa.
Sí sí sí. Hay que venir, sí sí sííí…, I nodded as the image of me bumping into Cameron Diaz in the narrow streets of Seville crept into my mind and …
Anyway. Back to January 2017 and Pilates House. We had about one hour to wander around the house to absorb the wonderful architecture of the central courtyard, its adjoining rooms and two gardens, a fusion of Italian Renaissance and Mudéjar-Gothic styles, before our guided tour started on the upper floor.
For twenty-five-or-so minutes, I listened diligently to the man and woman trapped inside the audioguide picking up interesting information, such as why the palace became to be known as ‘Pilates House’. Then I decided to have a quick walk around one of the gardens. When I returned to continue with the tour, patient partner called me inside a small room next to the Praetor’s Study. The room was furnished with a desk, a couple of chairs and on the wall behind the desk and …there she was, La Mujer Barbuda by Jusepe de Ribera, 1631.
Oh, what a portrait, I cried out and hurried towards it to have a closer look and read (yes, I admit, my audioguide concentration span had at that moment elapsed) to read the plaque below it. How utterly fascinating, I thought when I read the story of its protagonists, and how beautifully executed was the composition in its entirety. I absorbed Magdalena Ventura’s feminity, highlighted by a large breast – perhaps a bit too centred on her chest? – and her breastfeeding an infant. Her thickly grown beard, the one prominent feature of her masulinity. Apparently, Magdalena started to grow a beard only at the age of thirty-seven after having given birth to three sons.
Some may find the portrait disturbing, but I stood in front of it in awe. I was surprised that other visitors, who have slowly started to arrive, entered the room without looking at the painting.
An interesting article, La Mujer Barbuda by Ribera, 1631: a gender bender, by W. Michael G. Tunbridge can be found here
For me, Pilates House is all about fusion, that of Christian and Islamic workmanship. Thus, I thought it was the perfect place to have stumbled upon Ribera’s portrait of Magdalena Ventura, who herself – her body – is meeting point, that of male and female.