The acquisition of an early work by Diego Velázquez has helped rekindle interest in a city that has long played second fiddle to Madrid and Barcelona in the artistic pecking order.

Curiously under-represented in his native city, 17th-century Seville painter Diego Velázquez figuratively came home in July 2007 when a local cultural foundation, Focus-Abengoa, bought one of his early works, Santa Rufina for a record 12.4 million euros.

The painting, along with a handful of other important canvases by Seville artists, was promptly put on display in the freshly inaugurated Centro Velázquez, an art gallery encased in a former 17th-century hospice  in the city’s historic Santa Cruz district. Provoking an excited buzz on Seville’s cultural scene, the acquisition helped to rekindle interest in a city that has long played second fiddle to Madrid and Barcelona in the artistic pecking order. 

But it was not always so. For a brief but golden 50 years, starting in the 1620s, Seville’s painters boldly defined world art. The so-called “Seville School” was spearheaded by a trio of baroque masters: the light, accessible Bartolomé Murillo, the dark, severe Francisco de Zurbarán, and the vividly realistic Velázquez. Between them, they shook up the art world in the 17th Century with their subtle use of colour and penchant for striking religious paintings. Velázquez is often called “the artist’s artist” for the profound influence he had on other painters, including fellow Andalucían Pablo Picasso who, three centuries later, made  44 abstract attempts  to reinterpret Velázquez’s  greatest work, Las Meninas

In 1660, Seville opened an art academy, the Academia de Bellas Artes, patronised by Murillo and fellow Seville native Juan de Valdés Leal and who served as its  first two presidents. The Academy’s goal was to instruct young students in the fine arts and foster a new generation of great painters; but, with Seville’s influence under challenge from other regions, it struggled to make an impact and closed three decades later. A gradual shift  in political power on the Iberian Peninsula between Andalucía and the rest of Spain, precipitated by Seville’s loss of its trading monopoly with the American colonies, meant that the best art and artists migrated to Madrid. Spain’s new capital, with its influential royal court, grew in cultural importance during the reign of Philip IV (1621-65), an avid art collector who appointed  grand master Velázquez as his court painter  in 1623 and began to amass a huge collection of important works. By the 1900s, the cream of Spanish art was in Madrid, London or New York, while shifting tastes led contemporary critics to deride Murillo for being vacuous and overly sentimental. Zurbarán, who was often unfavourably compared to Murillo during his lifetime, received less disparaging criticism after his death.

Reversing the tide, the Saint Rufina acquisition has offered plenty of opportunities to revisit and re-evaluate Seville´s art scene after centuries in the shadows. The Focus-Abengoa Foundation further enhanced its credentials in 2009 buying La Inmaculada, another work attributed to Velázquez, which is displayed with Santa Rufina in the Centro Velázquez alongside a permanent collection of 14 other important works by Seville artists, including Zurbarán and Murillo, whose reputation has been firmly re-established since the 1980s. The centre also hosts regular temporary exhibitions with works often loaned from Madrid’s Prado Museum. The current show, an exposé of some of Murillo’s later paintings (dating from between approximately 1662 and 1682), runs until January 2013.

Beyond the Centro Velázquez, Seville is home to plenty of Spanish Baroque and Renaissance classics. To see the city’s biggest collection, head to the Museo de Bellas Artes, located since 1839 in the old La Merced convent in the central district. While light on the works of Velázquez, both Murillo and Zurbarán are well represented, as are other Golden Age artists such as de Valdés Leal, famous for his Las Tentaciones de San Jerónimo The highlight of the museum is Murillo’s Inmaculada Concepción Grande. Exhibited in a converted chapel flooded with light, it is the first of approximately 20 renditions Murillo made of the Virgin Mary surrounded by angelic cherubs.

An often overlooked art nook is Seville’s immense Gothic cathedral, the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede. Central to the cathedral’s collection in its Saint Anthony’s chapel is a huge Murillo masterpiece, The Vision of Saint Anthony, which has garnered both fame and infamy since it was commissioned in 1656. In 1874, thieves cut out the figure of the kneeling saint from the canvas and spirited it off on an around-the-world voyage. It  turned up several months later in a gallery in New York where a curator bought it for $250 and sent back it to Seville to be glued back into the painting. Less notorious, but no less alluring, are Zurbarán’s sombre Santa Teresa painting and Renaissance master Pedro de Campaña’s Descendimiento, both hung in the cathedral’s sacristy.

Another historic building that guards artistic gems is the royal palace complex, Real Alcázar, where, hanging behind the altar in a small chapel in the Cuarto del Almirante (the Admiral’s Chamber), is the Virgen de los Mareantes by Alejo Fernandez. Dating from the 1530s, it is the earliest-known painting depicting Columbus’s  discovery of the Americas. Another goldmine is the intricately baroque Hospital de la Caridad in Seville’s Arenal neighbourhood, a hospice for the elderly with an adjoining chapel that displays art. Much of the Caridad’s original collection (including four Murillos) was stolen during the Napoleonic wars by a French general named Jean de Dieu Soult and dispersed throughout Europe, but the roughly two dozen that remain are something of a who’s who of Golden Age Seville. Look out for the stirring works of naturalistic Baroque sculptor Pedro Roldán and two huge canvases by Murillo on the theme of mercy which were, presumably, too large to fit into General Soult’s suitcase.