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  • The Virtues of Exile: An Appreciation of María Rosa Menocal, 1953–2012
  • Ryan Szpiech

It is raining today in Seville. Through the falling torrent, heavy enough to cancel my plans and keep me at home, I can still see the iconic cityscape from my balcony. Looking beyond the baroque façades and bell gables, I can take in at once La Giralda—the cathedral’s bell tower, formerly the minaret of the twelfth-century Almohad mosque—and the top crenellations of the walls around the palace and gardens of the Alcázar, expanded by king Pedro I of Castile in the fourteenth century, and I can even make out the Torre de oro —another Almohad fortification along the Guadalquivir. When I first saw this stunning view, which encompasses in a single sweep so many layers of historical contact, conquest, interpenetration, and imitation, my thoughts were not of the Almohads or Pedro I but of María Rosa Menocal, my mentor and friend. These were things that inspired her work, because she saw buildings and gardens like manuscripts and images: For her, all were texts expressed in a single, polyphonic cultural language. It was with this vista before me that I opened my mail a few days later and received news of [End Page 5] her passing on October 15, 2012.

Now, I am reminded of her every day by the monuments of the city. I turn a corner, or hear a bell, and I imagine she is with me, explaining with great enthusiasm some striking fact of Iberian history, some curious connection between buildings and literature. Taking my children to school yesterday, I happened to pass the church of San Marcos, one of a number of small churches established after the Christian conquest of Muslim Seville in 1248. Founded, like many Sevillan churches, on the site of a former mosque, it was then partly rebuilt in the so-called “mudéjar Gothic” style by order of Pedro I at the same time as the Alcázar (and then partly rebuilt in the fifteenth century after a fire). Looking at the original bell tower, built in imitation of La Giralda, I was suddenly transported back over a decade to a class in which María Rosa explained the difficulty of defining the mudéjar, because the examples all transcend the category in their particularity and complexity. It does not, she would say, merely reflect a style but embraces an entire lifestyle, and touched architecture and design as much as poetry and grammar.

Passing the church, these thoughts still in my mind, I walked the kids to their door and noticed that it was decorated with arabesque tiles and inscriptions, probably from the nineteenth century. I felt dizzy as I contemplated the irony of this discovery: it so happens that the school building itself, a stone’s throw from San Marcos, occupies the site where King Alfonso XI (Pedro’s father) kept his mistress, Leonor de Guzmán, and it is said that their son, the bastard Enrique de Trastámara (the first of the Trastámara monarchic line, after he killed his legitimate brother Pedro I in 1369) was born there. As I contemplated these faux-Arabic inscriptions and “neo-mudéjar” arches—imitations of imitations, each based on a desire to connect the present with the past—I thought again of María Rosa, how she often told stories about Pedro, of his patronage of the Jewish poet Sem Tob of Carrión, of his hot-and-cold relationship with his treasurer Samuel Halevi Abulafia (who built the Tránsito Synagogue in Toledo with Pedro’s approval, but was later tortured and killed by his order), of his beloved Alcázar, just next to Seville’s old Jewish quarter. She told how Pedro housed his own mistress, María [End Page 6] de Padilla, within the Alcázar (one can still visit her private underground baths), but was hardly able to enjoy his completed palace before his betrayal and murder by his half-brother (perhaps a just fate, because Pedro had killed another of his half brothers, Enrique’s twin Fadrique, inside the Alcázar eleven years earlier). I...


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