The Thunderbolt, Hamilcar Barca. Does the name sound familiar?
It was said in legend that this old Carthaginian General founded Barcelona.
There lie thousands of years in Barcelona’s history. The ancient Romans found it littered with huts and ancient buildings before they rebuilt it, and they huddled there, in camps, before the shores of the Mediterranean, and told stories about the founding of the city.
These ancient stone buildings are surrounded by the modern, the new, the shiny. The Torre Gloriès towers over the city, the Sagrada Familia is so boisterous it overshadows the old cathedral, and the Venetian Towers loom over anything small and old. But as pearls, history is still held deep within – and these old places were mired in revolution, drama, and blood. Here are 4 stories to breathe life into them.
Arc De Triomf
It stands, at over 12 meters high, in the heart of Barcelona, heading toward the Parc de la Ciudadela, wide over the front of the Passeig de Lluís Companys. Its story is simple: it was built some two-hundred years ago, 1888, by Catalan architect Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas, a gaunt dude with curly mustaches. Emblazoned on its front is the motto “Barcelona rep les nacions”, or “Barcelona welcomes the nations”: it was built for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair.
And it was a result of Barcelona’s rebellious, hip, young cultural revolution.
Barcelona’s art scene in the late 19th century was a shocking, chaotic battle, heralding a new style – “modernisme”. These artists were edgy and confrontational, the punks of the 19th century southern European art scene, Casanovas among them. They were young, motivated, and way too cool. They laughed at the old bourgeoisie with their boring neo-gothic, passé, popular trash, called them has-beens, and wanted instead to be at the contemporary forefront of European architecture, to have Catalonia known as an artistic rival to any European nation.
The arc is a reminder to the international, a defining example of modernism – and an intentional attempt by Casanovas to demonstrate how cool Barcelona is. After the modernisme fad passed in 1910, it was no longer seen as avant-garde or edgy, but its coolness abides through time.
Violence! Torture! Death! The screams of revolution! The Catholic Church had it all.
The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia is an ancient Gothic thing, and once the seat of the Archbishop of Spain, constructed in 1339. A church is a political institution, and so many stories surround it.
The main one’s the most horrible and violent: the story of Eulalia of Barcelona, patron saint of the city. Some two-thousand years ago, when Romans occupied Barcelona, they viewed Christianity as a mounting political obstacle.
Emperor Diocletian, a grim, intelligent, cold man, saw the Christians’ power and domain grow, and he grew pissed. He campaigned against them to quell their increasing presence.
He was not subtle. It is said he made a display of a 13-year-old girl, Eulalia, a compassionate virgin who refused to publically recant her religion. She was subjected to 13 public tortures for each of her 13 years.
They say the Roman soldiers, in these times decadent and corrupt, paraded her around the city, nude, and shamed, when clouds amassed above and disguised her nudity in thick clumps of snow. She died a martyr days later, crucified and decapitated. In the legends, it is stated, a dove flew from her open neck and toward heaven.
Eulalia was not forgotten by the Christians, and the Cathedral now stands forever in her name.
Barcelona Royal Shipyard
In the 14th century, the Pope unilaterally declared war on the Kingdom of Aragon. Wow.
This was a continuation of the questionably justified War of the Sicilian Vespers. In a blatant power grab, Pope Martin IV claimed that since Aragon had conquered Sicily, Aragon was a papal fiefdom and thus under his jurisdiction. The Pope claimed the throne now legally belonged to the ruler that would best suit his interests: the French Charles, Count of Valois.
So began the Aragonese Crusade. In defense against the mounting threat, King Peter III the Great of Aragon began construction of the Royal Shipyard to amass a navy.
In an embarrassing effort to appear legal, Charles was coronated in Catalonia before the war was even won. They had no crown – they used a random bishop’s hat in its place. Charles became the laughing stock of France, who called him “roi du chapeau”, or king of the hat.
In the dead of night, the Aragonese ships rolled out from the Shipyard, commanded by Admiral Roger of Lauria. He placed two torches on each of his galleons to make them seem more numerous, like burning specters in the night, and the fleet demolished the French. The surviving prisoners carried a message to the French king: that not even the fish of the Mediterranean may cross safely without an Aragonese banner.
King Peter the Great kept his kingdom.
So the shipyards held strong, and throughout the centuries they were built, rebuilt, expanded, and modified. They are now one of the most spectacular and beautiful monuments in Barcelona’s sea line, with beautiful galleon reproductions within.
A long time ago, before the dawn of the iPhone 7S, before Oculus Rift and VR, Barcelona saw an ancient time: the year 2011.
The Torre Gloriès is of many names. They call it the shell, the geyser, the Gherkin, the suppository. It was conceived by Jean Nouvel, an eccentric French architect with a passion for shiny lights. Intentionally an homage to Catalonian art, phallic imagery, and hi-tech postmodern architecture, the Torre Gloriès quickly grew to define Barcelona’s skyline.
Intended as a rejection of traditional western skyscrapers, it most of all is intended as a geyser of light. Even this old building has a historical reference, in a city as layered as Barcelona: it is also an homage to Our Lady of Montserrat, and is inspired by the titular mountain ranges her idol rests in.
So many places in Barcelona have hundreds and hundreds of stories. Even above, these buildings saw and gave way to hundreds of thousands of human events, histories, pains, and paths. But the new buildings, too, show Barcelona’s beauty: the combination of the old, of modernism, neo-Gothicism, neoclassical, of contemporary glass, of plastic and mechanical...it is this mix of time and culture that keeps the city vibrant, alive, modern, and old, all at once.
- Daniel Riesco