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And then there was Spain!

Or should I say Islamic Spain? During the Italian Renaissance, the Iberian Peninsula, which is now Portugal, Spain and Andorra, was very much Islamic territory. Moors, Muslims who resided in this area during the Middle Ages, " who were initially [...] Berber and Arab peoples from North Africa" (1) have been said to live in harmony with a large Jewish population until Christendom entered the area with an iron hand, exiling many of the knowledgeable and skilled farmers, engineers, scientists and craftspeople represented by these demographics.(2)

While following the early Western Europe textile trade routes of the early Renaissance, I have discovered that Spain until the late 1400's was very much isolated from the trade and cultural influences of Italy and even its neighbour France until Spanish nobility and royalty began to work with Rome to create a Catholic empire that would unite the lands of Spain, France, Italy and beyond. This isolation of Islamic Spain did not mean that the area was not culturally advanced in its own right, but rather had developed agricultural, scientific and cultural advancements in their own right prior to the increased exchange of imagery, ideas and innovation between Spain and more central European countries in the 1500's.

In fact Islamic Spain very much had its own vibrant textile industry in silk, wool, leather and eventually cotton due to their own trade relations. The quote below speaks of the regions industriousness.

“Then Toledo, Cuenca, Segovia, Cordova, Granada, Ciudad Real, Villacastin, Baeza, and other towns flourished as important seats of manufacturing industries. According to so sober and careful a writer as Baralt, "Seville, in which was concentrated the commerce of America, had then, no less than sixteen thousand work-shops and one hundred and thirty thousand workmen employed in making textile fabrics of silk and of wool; the Peninsula had then more than a thousand merchant vessels in all of the known seas, a number very much greater than that of any other nation of Europe at that time;” (2)

Mosque- Cathedral of Cordoba

Monumental mosques, churches, palaces and fortified city walls seem to physically represent the excess of wealth being generated within the major trade and manufacturing trade centres. Filled with as many magnificent paintings, frescoes, and ornamental shrines as those found in Florence. Upon the uniting of the Catholic monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon a Add to dictionary would occur which aimed to rid the Iberian peninsula of Muslims and Jews as they were of the belief that these other people of faith would undermine the spread and power of Catholicism. The building of Renaissance inspired cathedrals atop of old mosques began to cast physical and psychological shadows on parts of Spain where different religions used to live in peace. However, due to the complete integration of Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures found within many of the urban centres, the designs found within the architecture, mosaics, tile work and textiles of Islamic Spain would live on and continue to reflect the multi-culturism that once made this such a rich and collaborative centre of innovation. We can see these Moorsish influences within the photo below taken while walking the streets of Toledo, a city that has managed to retain its medieval feel despite all of the technological advances and suburban sprawl that has affected many of tghe other major manufacturing centres and trading ports from the time.

Toledo doorway (Photo by Jill Price)

Unfortunately, Spain saw a huge drop in their population during the 1500’s due to both the plague and expulsion of non-Christians from their cities. This greatly affected the quality of the goods being produced within different regions and at times resulted in economic decline in certain areas. Spain also sent all of its best farmers, engineers, scientists and other professionals to colonize the south Americas, resulting in a brain drain for the local economies. “In 1492, after the expul- sion of the Jews, it was 9,800,000. In the next hundred years the population of Spain sank to 8,ooo,ooo. During the sixteen years following I592, years in which the Moriscos were expelled, it fell to 7,500,000; and in I700 it stood at 6,ooo,ooo.” (4)

It would seem that the loss of skilled farmers resulted in the decline of irrigation strategies that "passed from the attention of both king and cortes, and [...] by the people.” (5), ultimately contributing to decline of the growing of agricultural crops needed for the textile industry as well as the sustenance of livestock required for the leather trade.

Some personal observations that I made while engaging with different cities is how many of them had major rivers that would have served both in the irrigation of the fields, the processing of textiles and the transport of raw and manufactured goods. I also couldn't help but recognize how motifs were repeated across different types of cultural artefacts. I had to wonder what came first, the ornamentation of the architecture or the designs of the textiles, or was it not what came first, but rather that nature inspired it all. I find this ironic that from the birth of materialism we have simultaneously drawn on nature for inspiration while disregarding how our design and manufacturing of goods will destroy or change it forever.

On a personal note, as my thesis is looking at the shadows of material excess, I couldn't help but reflect on the wealth and privilege interwoven into the exploratory journey I was on, not very unlike the Grand Tours taken by the elite during the 1600’s. However, in those cases, I suspect the nobility and royals did not have to carry their own luggage or stay in hostels and share rooms with strangers. With each museum and church I entered, paying a fee each time, I began to recognize how the access to knowledge is often shrouded in the darkness of capitalism and yet at the same time too much knowledge may in fact cast shadows on our outlook about the world around us. Will I be able to see and enjoy the beauty of textiles in the future or am I destined to only now see materials for their ecological impact?

With respect to my the material excess I was carrying on my back, it was the very first climb up three flights of winding stairs after maneuvering through the hilly cobblestone streets of Toledo from a not so close parking lot that I began to feel the weight of textiles upon my back. Upon opening my pack to change clothes I began to calculate what I could do without upon the second leg of my journey during which I would be travelling alone and using public forms of transportation.

Photo documentation in a variety of museums also led to observation of the material excess required for the archival presentation and preservation of materials. Not only were objects on display casting shadows, but I also noted how vitrines and shelves used in their presentation were casting dramatic shadows around the room. I saw this as an opportunity to explore within my own exhibit in August.


(2) Moses, B. (1893). The Economic Condition of Spain in the Sixteenth Century. Journal of Political Economy, 1, 513-534. Retrieved from, pgs 520 -521 (3) Ibid, pg 513

(4) Ibid, pg 514

(5) Ibid, pg 522

Other Sources:

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