Osuna, Spain

Visited 7 October 2008
Osuna is one of those towns you're not likely to visit unless you stay 5 weeks in Andalusia. It's about an hour from everywhere: Granada, Seville, Cordoba, and Malaga -- Central, but distant, and seemingly not worth the trip -- until you make it and then fill up your friends' email boxes with pictures. The hills around burst with neat rows of olive trees in arid terrain similar to the cactus-spattered hill in the picture below. In the 17th century, this land hid the bandoleros -- outlaw gangs with some of the mythic charm of Robin Hood who, in fact, preyed violently upon Andalusia trade routes.

Osuna Panorama

Caesar’s Last Stand

Today all is calm and much is white as Osuna shows off its stately churches, noble homes, and even a bit of its Roman roots stretching back to the days when the place sided with Pompeii in his civil war against Julius Caesar. In fact, this was the site of Caesar's last battle (if we ignore that unfortunate "Et tu, Brute" incident on the Senate floor a year later.)

The Dukes Pearl

This town got so polished because some uppity counts traded for the place -- and then invested to make their social climbing possible. They ended up as some of the most powerful dukes in Spain. The Osuna Dukes had done a real-estate swap for their future home with the Order of Calatrava -- a branch of the Cistercian monks who fought as Knights. (Not all monks prayed, some had to convert heathens through other methods up to and including death.) Since Osuna had an advantageous hilltop position on the border between Christian territories and the Moors capital of Granada, the King ceded them this frontier town in 1264 -- hoping they would hold it.

The monks rebuilt Osuna as a fort. Eventually the Moors were permanently driven out and the area became safe forCity Hall respectable (and social climbing) nobility during the 15th century. With the fall of the Moors, the King took over the order and gutted it, leaving in place pretty much an honorary society for nobles. One of them, the count of Ureña,  Pedro Téllez de Girón, swapped other territory to get this town for his family. After the swap, his successor counts made this now peaceful site into an elegant showpiece to help convince the king that such a beautiful town deserved a dukedom, which Philip II eventually established.

The Tellez-Girón Dukes’ fortunes rose. At least two of them served as the viceroys (governors) of  Naples, then the 2nd largest city in all of Europe and under the Spanish crown. By the end of the 16th century, the Dukes had the 2nd largest estate in Spain.

The 3rd Duke was quite a character: Pedro Téllez-Girón (1575 – 1624) served as viceroys of Sicily (also a Spanish possession) and then Naples. At least as reckless as he was talented, he died under house arrest and his dukedom remained in eclipse for decades afterwards.  Despite that, he is known as "Osuna el Grande” -–the great Duke of Osuna.

Barefoot in the Chapel

Our day started at an old hospital which since 1626 has been a cloister for nuns. Inside it's also a museum of sacred art and has one of the most complete Sevillian ceramic series anywhere. The fourth Duke of Osuna (Juan Tellez Giron) founded the place in the 17th century. For 2 Euros each, we had two nuns as personal guides -- one ample and jovial and the other tiny and fascist. Grade school deja vu!

Chapel of the convent

Discalced or Barefoot Carmelites typically wear sandals, as did our two guides. Ours also wore socks and full nun habits, and spoke only Spanish except for their NO PHOTOS! However, we were allowed to shoot pictures in their chapel (above) just off their entrance where, like many Spanish convents, they sell sweets to support themselves. The NO PHOTO rule held behind their cloister and in the museum rooms, not to mention the ceramic series which was technically outside.

After the chapel tour, the nuns took us through the adjoining museum room-by-room: opening doors and turning on lights as they showed off their collection of religious art, especially statues, some with various outfits which were changed with the feast days. The piece de resistance (if they have such a thing in Spain) is the extensive tile dado in the cloister and stairways symbolizing the five senses. (NO PHOTOS said the little nun – again!)

The Colegiata

Colegiata view from town

Next we walked up the hill to the Renaissance jewel in the very plain wrapper -- The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria de la Asunción . A Collegial church is one which is not a cathedral. This once was part of the university behind it (now a secondary school after the reactionary Fernando VII shut down such liberal hotbeds in the 1800s.) The outside is monotonous ecru stone blocks except for its west door of the sun (Puerta del Sol) with its sculpted Plateresque doorway (below) which seems to be semi-restored.

West Door

The word Plateresque has roots in the Spanish word for silversmith and refers to the delicate, almost metal-worked, decorations. This particular door is thought to be inspired by the Plateresque details in the Spanish city of Salamanca. Rumor holds that Napoleon's troops used this portico for target practice.

In order to claw their way to the top of the Spanish nobility, the Girón dukes spent lavishly, hiring the best artists from Seville, 60 miles away. This church is the work of two of them: Diego de Riaño and Martin de Gainza who did that city's iconic city hall and Andalusian parliment building, respectively. (We'll post those pictures soon). Unlike this building, both of those Seville structures have elaborate plateresque exteriors. Inside, the Collegia's five naves switch back and forth from Renaissance arches to Baroque altarpieces:

Colegiata interior

This ground level is magnificent; below it's even better as the 4th duke of the powerful Girón family created this church and the university behind it as a memorial to his parents; next, he built a mausoleum for the family underneath the apse starting around the mid 1500s.
Jose Ribera's Crucifixion
In addition, a huge sacristy is now a museum with, among other jewels, four early paintings by Jose de Ribera (1591- 652). But just inside the nave door of the church is one of the most important works of this master, known as Lo Spagnoletto -- the little Spaniard. (Although unsigned and undated, this naturalistic Crucifixion with its treatment of flesh and cloth is unarguably Ribera and likely done in 1618.) Born in Spain, he spent most of his life in Naples -- which was under the Spanish crown during his time. For a while it was run by the Duke of Osuna who probably commissioned Ribera to fill up his home church with such paintings. (Other Osuna dukes and duchesses were likely involved, as well). Ribera was a fellow traveler of the older Caravaggio in that dark and light stuff called tenebrism. 

Float carried during processionsHere's an elegant silver float carried during processions.  Most churches brag about how big their organs are (this may be a guy thing). Instead, The Colegiata has one of the smallest –but it can be carried during processions, an 18th century variant on the marching band theme that may have inspired Woody Allen's Cello marching band in Take the Money and Run. These candles could use a little Viagra in the holy water as well.

We ended our visit to the Collegiate church in its masterpiece: the tombs of the Dukes. Unfortunately, photos weren't allowed; since this lovely cloister was technically outside, I thought I could sneak this one in. (See below) This small square space (15' per side) has been recently restored -- but I can't believe that the original architect intended that upper railing to be there. Although Italian inspired, this atrium is considered to be one of the outstanding examples of the Spanish Renaissance. Note the triangle of the red-and-gold beamed ceiling showing at top center. The Dukes' Mausoleum itself could be the most interesting spot in town (but no photos allowed.) It claims to be the smallest --25' X 15' X 8' high -- cathedral in the world. (The choir has 9 sculpted seats). It has a bit of a bizarre Gothic feel to it with a polychrome ceiling now whose blue has turned to gray with centuries of candle smoke

Atrium of Duke's Tomb in Osuna

Walking through the Duke’s town

Near the two art museums/churches is the town's main square, the spacious Plaza Mayor (see below), flanked on one side by a colonnaded city hall: the Ayuntamiento (see the picture of the arcaded building near the top of this page). Signs are plentiful and traffic flows reasonably well right through the building.  Unlike most Plaza Mayors, Osuna's seems to lack the outside restarants and bars flowing onto the plaza from the surrounding retail establishments. (Maybe we should return some summer to check this out again.)

Plaza Major

Upon these rocks were built the Calle San Pedro

The Girón family’s efforts paid off. Not only did the town (and they) get its Dukedom, this duchy became one of the most influential in all Iberia. Consequently wealth flowed back to the town, allowing for the construction of beautiful public and private structures. San Pedro Street features many of them.

The Cilla del Cabildo
cilla del cabildo cilla del cabildo

This 1773 Baroque palace called Cilla del Cabildo (above right) honors nearby Seville: a model of its famous Giralda rises between flowerpots (representing the cathedral of Seville) and statues of Sts. Justa and Rufina (above left -- but you may have to click on that picture to enlarge its detail). These were  3rd century Sevillian sisters and martyrs from the days when Christians were still being fed to lions. (Rufina actually was, but the lion turned into a pussy cat and so she was beheaded instead). These sisters traditionally guarded this famous tower through the centuries (probably starting after the Moors erected its base as a minaret before abandoning the town to the Christian reconquest.)

The Cilla del Cabildo has an exquisite Plateresqe facade augmented by a little graffiti on its sign and the ever present parked cars to frustrate photographers. These unusual pilasters are typical of its architect, Alonso Ruiz Florindo

Palacio de los Marqueses de la GomeraPalacio de los Marqueses de la Gomera
Down the street a block or so is the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Gomera, sporting another 18th century Baraoque facade where delightful curves run rampant. With the marquis long gone, it's now an upscale hotel. The front cornice of the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Gomera built around 1765 is crowned by the Marquis' family crest. This building is considered the most representative of secular Baroque architecture in Osuna (but still contains a cloister and chapel!) It was designed by Juan Antonio Blanco.

Today the Dukes of Girón are long gone, but the town they left behind proudly preserves its baroque core and welcomes tourists to this somewhat out-of-the-way spot.  Lots more pictures are available on the slideshow. (See below)

Please join us on the following slide show to give Osuna the viewing it deserves by clicking here.
Osuna, Spain

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Created on December 23, 2008

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