No visitor to the Cuban capital will fail to notice the beautiful bronze statuette standing at just over a metre tall, sitting on top of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza—the Royal Castle—in Old Havana, which became the symbol of the city already nearly five centuries ago.
For Cubans this little statue located opposite the entrance to the canal of Havana’s bay is like a guardian of the city, which is also the purpose of the aforementioned fort built in 1539.
The story goes that in 1538, King Charles I of Spain named Don Hernando de Soto the Capitán General of Cuba and Florida.
Don Hernando was to reside in the castle with his wife Isabel de Bobadilla in order to guard the bay and defend the city from the pirate and corsair attacks that were common in the day.
King Charles bestowed this mission on De Soto because the latter had won the king’s confidence on account of the courage and daring he displayed on the Castilla del Oro expedition in Panama as well as the conquests of Nicaragua and Peru.
After taking up his post in Cuba, De Soto left for Florida with nine ships and nine hundred soldiers, leaving his wife in charge of the island.
According to historical documents De Soto traveled through various parts of what are now the United States, crossing Georgia and Alabama where he discovered the Mississippi River. It is said that in those days there was a legend that a “Fountain of Eternal Youth” could be found close to the river, and De Soto wanted to find this invaluable treasure believing it would bring him limitless riches.
But as is often the case with legends, what the luckless Spaniard actually met with was nothing less than his own untimely death from a fatal fever.
Records from the time indicate that Isabel de Bobadilla, De Soto’s loyal and loving wife, spent years sitting in the castle tower looking out at the horizon over Havana Bay, searching for signs of the boat that might bring her hubsnd back. But sadly this was never to happen and they say Isabel died of a broken heart.
Only a few years later Gerónimo Martín Pinzón, an artist with origins in the Canary Islands, sculpted the statuette in memory of this loyal woman.
Later the city’s governor Juan Bitrián Viamonte had the statue cast in bronze and placed as a weather vane at the top of the tower that had been added to the castle. Bitrián Viamonte christened the statue La Girardilla, to recall the Giralda (weather vane) of his home city Seville.
The original of this beautiful figure can today be found in the City Museum. She is a woman holding in her right hand the trunk of a palm tree and in her left hand, atop a staff, the Cruz de Calatrava, which was the symbol of the order that the governor belonged to. On her chest she bears a medallion with the sculptor’s name, and her skirt is gathered up over her right thigh.
This endearing story has been passed down from generation to generation so that today Doña Isabel, who would probably never have imagined it, has come to represent love and loyalty as a symbol of the Cuban capital.