Since visiting Toledo I have read that masterly novel by Blasco de
Ibañez, “The Cathedral,” a work of genius, which has brought the city
vividly to my recollection. I see the old dun-coloured houses on the
slopes, the gorge of the yellow Tagus, and the commanding steeple of the
cathedral, and I recall the Oriental landscape, viewed from the walls,
under a blue, burning sky in June. I know that the goats still wander
forth to their feeding-grounds in the early morning, returning at dusk,
with softly tinkling bells, that the guitar sounds melodious and low
outside the barred window when it is dark, that beggars, wrapped in
tattered cloaks, solicit alms “For the Love of God,” and that the voice
of the watchman rings clear at midnight, as he goes his rounds with his
lantern and keys, and a sword at his side.
“Romantic” is the word that describes Toledo; the setting of the city,
its labyrinthine alleys, its guarded houses, its Moorish fortress,
and its dreaming mood make appeal to the most apathetic of strangers.
The aspect of the city is hardly beautiful. It is too stern, too sombre,
even in sunlight, and it lacks the colour and gaiety of the Andalusian
towns. And yet Toledo is one of the most fascinating cities in Europe,
holding you with a strong spell, a grim, irresistible invitation to
remain within its gates. There is so much to behold, so much to think
upon, in this old Moorish place. The cathedral alone claims long days of
your sojourn, for it is a great monument, haunted with memories, and
richly stored with treasures of art.
Many legends surround the making of Toledo, one of them relating that
Tubal, grandson of Noah, built the city, and another that it was reared
by Jews driven from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. We know, however, that
Toledo was chiefly noted as the stronghold of the Catholic faith in
Spain, that it was in existence in the time of the Romans, held by the
Moors, wrested from them, and restored to the Spanish after many bloody
conflicts, and that it is now the seat of the primate. For four
centuries the Moors held sway here, and everywhere in the city they have
left their traces. Before the Moors, King Roderick the Goth sat on his
throne in the strongly fortified town, and thither came Tarik and his
hordes, coveting the rich capital. Later, the great Abd-er-Rahman
advanced upon Toledo, and laid siege, establishing a mighty camp on the
hillside facing the city, where he waited until famine compelled the
courageous natives to surrender.
In the days of its might Toledo could boast of nearly two hundred
thousand inhabitants. The city lost power when the capital of Spain was
transferred to Valladolid. It is now scarcely more than a museum and
resort of tourists and students of art. The streets are silent and
unfrequented; there is but little evidence of commerce, and the manners
and customs of the people have escaped the influences of to-day. Toledo
is indeed old-world, a veritable relic of antiquity, in spite of its
railway station and large hotel, often thronged with Americans.
The history of Toledo under the Moors is constantly recalled by the
gates, defences, and buildings that remain. We enter Toledo by two
arches and a bridge, over the swirling Tagus, and immediately we are, as
it were, projected into the period of the Moorish conquest. This bridge,
the Puente de Alcantara, was first built by the conquerors, but the
present structure, though Moorish in design, was made in the thirteenth
century. Older is the Puerta del Sol, a work of the Mudéjares, with the
typical horseshoe arches and towers.
The arch of the Zocodover, the bridge of San Martin, and the Church of
Santa Maria la Blanca each show the Moorish spirit in their
architecture. In the Casa de Mesa is a room in the design of the
Mudéjares, the reconciled Moors, who remained and followed their crafts
in Spain, after the reconquest of the country by the Spaniards. The
ceiling is a fine specimen of Arabian art. At the School of Infantry are
further traces of the Moors, while in the Church of El Transito will be
found treasures of the east. Many of the churches have Morisco towers,
such as San Roman, Santo Tomé, San Miguel, and San Servando. Santo Tomé
was once a mosque; it is now a Gothic church. The interior of El Cristo
de la Luz is typically Moorish.
The magnificent cathedral stands on the site of an earlier church which
the Moors shattered, erecting in its place a mosque. In 1227 Fernando
laid the stone of the present edifice; and over two hundred years were
spent in the labour of erecting and adorning it, while vast wealth was
employed in the work, and thousands of artists, craftsmen and labourers
employed. Under Mendoza and other prelates, Flemish artists worked in
The architecture is Gothic, with many traces of Baroque and Mudéjar art.
There is a very lofty and beautiful tower, with a steeple surmounting
it. The flying buttresses are exceedingly graceful; the eight doorways
of great beauty. A splendid façade, with a wealth of statues, faces the
west. It has three portals and a fine rose window, and is flanked by
towers. The Puerta de los Leones is noble Renaissance work, splendidly
sculptured with rich ornaments.
Entering the cathedral we are impressed by its vastness and the
simplicity of the aisles. But the numerous chapels are highly ornamented
in a bewildering variety of styles. The hand of the artist has been
lavish. We are dazzled, astonished, by the wealth of decoration, the
carving, the metal work, the jewels, the colouring. The choir stalls are
very beautifully carved work by Borgoña and Berruguéte. The choir, with
its jasper columns and decorations, is impressive. The carving of the
stalls is superb.
How shall the visitor know where to turn for those objects that appeal
to him, amid such a wealth of treasures? There are twenty-seven side
chapels besides the chief chapel, and in all of them are works of art
that will repay inspection. The retablo of the principal chapel is a
gorgeous piece of work upon which many artists expended their labour and
skill. Cardinal de Mendoza was buried here in 1495.
The Capilla de Santiago is Gothic, and splendidly decorated. There is a
superb retablo in this chapel. In the Capilla Mozarabe there is a
painting by Juan de Borgoña. This was the chapel built for Cardinal
Ximénez, and it is handsomely ornamented. Another of Borgoña’s works
will be seen in the Capella de San Eugénio, an altarpiece representing
scenes in the life of Christ.
In the Sacristia is a notable work painted by El Greco, whose paintings
we shall presently see in the gallery. The subject of this picture is
“Casting Lots for the Raiment of the Saviour.” “The Betrayal of Christ,”
by Goya, is another important painting in the Sacristia.
In the cloisters we shall find some frescoes by Bayeu, representing
incidents in the lives of several saints. Francisco Bayeu (1734-1795),
who so often worked with Maella, was not a great artist, though he was
commissioned to paint mural pictures in many parts of Spain.
The City Hall (Ayuntamiento) was first erected in the fifteenth century,
and has an ornate frontage. The portraits of Charles II. and Marianne
within the hall were painted by Carreño, a pupil of Velazquez.
Proudly perched above the city is the Alcazar, a stout fortress of the
Goths, the residence of the mighty Cid, and afterwards a palace of
kings. The old building was almost destroyed during the war of 1710, but
was restored some years later. It was attacked and damaged in the wars
with France, and little of the pristine edifice remains except the
Toledo was the scene of fierce persecution during the Inquisition. In
1560 there was a burning of heretics in the city, a display arranged for
the entertainment of the young queen, Elizabeth de Valois. Several
Lutherans were committed to the flames on this occasion.
In the days of ecclesiastic splendour, the wealth of the cathedral of
Toledo was enormous. There were six hundred clerics in the city, and
the revenues of the high dignitaries were said to amount to a hundred
thousand pounds. The first archbishop was Don Bernardo, who broke faith
with the Moors by desecrating the sacred objects which they were
permitted to retain in their mosque.
The excellence of the sword blades of Toledan steel were known all over
Europe. To-day the sword-making industry is scarcely flourishing, and
Théophile Gautier was unable during his visit to purchase a weapon as a
memento. “There are no more swords at Toledo,” he writes, “than leather
at Cordova, lace at Mechlin, oysters at Ostend, or _pâtés de foie gras_
at Strasburg.” According to Henry O’Shea, in his “Guide to Spain,” sword
blades were made in Toledo in his day, but he states that the quality of
the steel had deteriorated.
One of the most illustrious of the world’s painters, Dominico
Theotocupuli, called El Greco (the Greek), worked for years in the city.
Mystery encompasses the strange character of El Greco; we know not when
he was born, but we learn that he died in Toledo, in 1614, and that he
was a native of Crete. While a youth he was a pupil of Titian; but he
was chiefly influenced in his art by Tintoretto. About the year 1576,
Theotocupuli came to Toledo, where he was employed in adorning the
church of Santo Domingo, securing one thousand ducats for his eight
pictures over the altars.
In character El Greco was independent to the point of obstinacy. His
mind was sombre and pietistic, and his imagination bizarre and vivid.
Men said that he was mad, but his alleged madness was the originality of
genius. “His nature was extravagant like his painting,” wrote a
contemporary, Guiseppe Martinez. “He had few disciples as none cared to
follow his capricious and extravagant style, which was only suitable for
We read that El Greco loved luxury, and that he hired musicians to play
to him while he took his meals. He was, however, retiring, almost morbid
in his desire for quietude; and there are many matters concerning his
life and his personality that will always remain enigmas. For a very
long period the work of El Greco was scarcely known beyond the borders
of Spain, and indeed his rare merit was hardly recognised in that
country except by a few students.
His name now arouses interest among the cultured in every part of
Europe, and there are admirers of his art who would place him on the
highest pedestal. But the more temperate discern in El Greco a
powerfully intellectual painter, not without defects and mannerisms, a
master of colour, with a curiously modern method in portraiture.
In the Provincial Museum at Toledo there are several paintings by “The
Greek.” The portraits of Antonio Covarrubias and of Juan de Avila give
example of El Greco’s capacity for seizing the characteristics of his
sitters. Covarrubias has a fine, rugged, thoughtful face. The canvas
seems alive. Very strange are the pictures of “Our Saviour,” “St Paul,”
“St Peter,” and other saints in this collection. The figures in many of
the artist’s paintings are curiously lean and attenuated, the faces long
and pinched. In the picture of “Our Saviour” the hands are large, the
fingers remarkably thin and pointed.
The most fantastic of El Greco’s pictures is “The Assumption” in San
Vicente at Toledo, in which the ascending figure seems literally flying
in the air. “The Burial of Gonzalo Ruiz,” in the Church of Santo Tomé,
is another splendid composition, revealing amazing skill in
portraiture, for each of the figures in the row of Castilian caballeros
was drawn from life. The sixth figure, from the right-hand side, is the
artist himself. There are technical faults in the picture; there are
mannerisms and extravagances; but the work is strongly individual, and
we may echo the words of Ponz, the historian, who states that “the city
has never tired of admiring it, visiting it continually, always finding
new beauties in it.”
“The Expolio,” in the cathedral, we have already seen. If the work of El
Greco begins to arouse a desire to study more of his paintings, a day
may be spent in visiting the gallery and the churches that contain
examples of his different periods. “San José and the Child Jesus” is in
the Parish Church of St Magdalen. “Jesus and St John” in St John;
portrait of Tavera, in the Hospital of St John; In Santo Domingo there
are four pictures by El Greco. The museum has twenty paintings from his
“Very few paintings interest me so much as those of El Greco,” writes
Théophile Gautier, “for his very worst have always something unexpected,
something that exceeds the bounds of possibility, that causes
astonishment, and affords matter for reflection.”
Toledo expresses Castile, as Seville reflects Andalusia. For, like its
stern surroundings of rocky sierras, the city is austere, even gloomy.
Heavy iron gates protect the courtyards, bars screen the windows of the
ancient houses, high, stout walls and towers guard the frowning town.
The natives are reserved, a little proud in their demeanour, but not
inhospitable to the strangers who come and go constantly, and lose their
way in the tortuous streets, in spite of plans and guide-books.
Persistent beggars hang about the cathedral, and squat, blinking in the
sun, along the ramparts. The children pursue the visitor, uttering a few
words of broken English, French, and German, asking for a copper in the
English tongue, and thanking you for it in French or Spanish.
I must not forget that there is another Toledan more widely known than
El Greco, and that is Lope de Vega, the dramatist, the most prolific
writer of Spain, for it is said that he wrote three thousand plays. We
are told that the playwright would compose a comedy in one night. His
plays were often topical, and many of them must be regarded as ephemeral
and poor; but De Vega’s stage-craft was excellent, though few of his
works are great in a literary sense. Cervantes styled the dramatist “a
monster of nature,” and envied him as “sole monarch of the stage.” Lope
de Vega probably wrote for a space of fifty-two years, for he died at
the age of seventy-two, and during that period he produced not only
plays, but epic poems and twenty-one volumes of miscellaneous writings.
Cervantes, by the way, spent some time in Toledo, where he lodged in an
inn, and wrote industriously. Some historians have claimed Cervantes as
a Toledan, but his birthplace was Alcala de Henares.
Berruguéte, the great sculptor, the favourite of Charles V., worked long
in Toledo, where he died, in the Hospital of St John the Baptist. There
are many of this artist’s work in Toledo. The fine portal of the
hospital, and the monument within, to Juan de Tavéra, were designed by
Alonso Berruguéte was born at Valladolid about 1480. He was a pupil of
Michael Angelo, and studied the arts of architecture, painting and
sculpture in Italy. Professor Carl Justi refers to the Italian influence
and the “Raphaelesque forms” in Berruguéte’s pictures. But it was as a
sculptor that he excelled.
Writing of Toledo in the eighteenth century, the Chevalier de Bourguanne
describes the city in these words: “Houses out of repair, fine edifices
going to ruin, few or no manufactures, a population reduced from two
hundred thousand to twenty-five thousand persons, and the most barren
environs are all that now offer themselves to the sight of the traveller
drawn thither by the reputation of the famous city. Under the present
reign some successful efforts have been made to recover it from the
universal decay into which it is fallen.”
About the time when the chevalier wrote this, the Alcazar was being
restored, and the silk industry in the city was reviving; but Toledo,
even to-day, is not a flourishing mart. It is a place of dreams and
memories, set upon a rock among savage hills.
The Tagus, which rushes through its rough gorge, was once made navigable
between Lisbon and Toledo, and in last century small boats sailed now
and then from the city to the sea. There are many fish in the upper
Tagus, and its tributaries provide trout for the markets. The
surrounding country is bare, and in many districts, savage and
unfrequented, the hills affording sparse pasturage for sheep and goats.
These desolate uplands were formerly haunted by bands of the most
bloodthirsty bandits in all Spain.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan