The monastery of Montserrat, situated about 50 kilometers from Barcelona, is understandably one of the most popular day trips for visitors to Barcelona. But before I tell you about that monastery, allow me to take a detour to the Poblet Monastery—comparatively little visited, and yet the only monastery in Catalonia (which has three famous Cistercian monasteries aside from Montserrat) to earn the distinction of being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The UNESCO designation largely rests on Poblet’s status as the royal burial site of the Kings of Aragón. Every king and queen of Aragón since James I (1208 – 1276)—save one—is buried in an alabaster tomb in the monastery’s church. The exception is the last king that Aragón ever had, King Ferdinand II (1452 – 1516), who married Isabel of Castile and thus merged their kingdoms—incorporating Aragón into Spain as we know it. Ferdinand is buried in Granada, a city that he “reconquered” from the Muslims, along with his wife. (With few exceptions, every monarch since this marriage—henceforth, kings of Spain—has been buried in El Escorial, in Madrid.)
My plan was to take a day trip from Tarragona to visit the Poblet Monastery. But I made a fatal error: I had waited until Saturday, when the buses aren’t running. My only option was to take a commuter train to a nearby town, Espluga de Francoli, and walk about an hour to the monastery. The problem with this plan was that, due to the train schedule, I would have to turn around as soon as I reached the monastery in order to catch the only train back to Tarragona. This was clearly not desirable. But, lacking options, this is what I did.
Luckily, the train ride to Espluga de Francoli was itself worth the trip, skirting around the edge of the Prades Mountains. Even Espluga de Francoli was a charming sight, sitting atop one of the range’s foothills, like so many villages in the area. And though I did not have time to appreciate it, I enjoyed the town’s Moderniste wine cellar, designed by Pere Domènech i Roura. The walk to the monastery quickly drew me through the town, however, and into the surrounding agricultural fields. It was winter and nothing was growing, though the hills in the distance were still green.
I arrived at the monastery with barely ten minutes to spare. But this was enough to go inside and take a look around. This Cistercian monastery is built somewhat like a fort, and for good reason. Like the Monasterio de Piedra in Zaragoza, it was founded when there were still frequent clashes between Christians and Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. Thus a strong wall surrounds the outside and there is a second layer of defense within. But it turns out that the monastery had more to fear from disenchanted Spaniards than from Muslims, since it was during the Mendizábal confiscations, in 1835, that the monastery was taken from the church’s hands and then destroyed by angry, anti-clerical mobs. In his youth Gaudí wanted to rebuild the monastery and turn it into a sort of religious commune; but this didn’t happen. Instead, the monastery was rebuilt later, starting in 1930, and began to house monks again in 1940. At present there are 29 monks living in the monastery.
But I had no time to dwell on any of this history. Indeed, I barely had time to rush through the church’s Baroque portal, walk down the nave, and peek at the royal tombs beside the main altar (designed by Damià Forment, who also designed the even more impressive altar in Zaragoza’s El Pillar). After that I had to speed away back through the farmland towards Espluga de Francoli, where I caught the train back to Tarragona. Thankfully, my trip to Montserrat went more smoothly.
As I said above, Montserrat is about 50 km (or 30 miles) from Barcelona. Getting there from the city center is easy. A commuter FGC train departs from the Plaça d’Espanya every hour: the R5 towards Manresa. You can hardly miss it: the ticket machines at the station are constantly swamped, and there are attendants on standby to help tourists buy the correct ticket. This train will, however, only bring you to the base of the mountain. There are two options for going up: a cable car and a rack railway. The second is slightly cheaper and the first has a slightly better view; but in the end it hardly makes a difference in the time or the experience.
Montserrat is Catalan for “serrated mountain,” and the name is well-chosen. As you approach, its form looms up above you like a giant stone saw. The surrounding countryside is a deep pine green, so the greyish brown rocks that appear look as though they are slicing through nature herself. The monastery complex is nestled between these sawtooths, overlooking the surrounding countryside. From up close, however, the sharp edges of Montserrat look swollen and bulbous, even vaguely alive. They could have been designed by Gaudí himself.
Unlike Poblet and other two famous monasteries of Catalonia—Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges—Montserrat is Benedictine, not Cistercian. Its origins are somewhat unclear, and legend has extended them far into the past; but what is certain is that by the 12th century it was taking shape. The monastery grew steadily over the years, with Romanesque and then Gothic additions, until the 19th century, when it was struck by two blows. First, Napoleon’s invading troops burned the monastery in 1811 and 1812; and then it was taken by the government during the 1835 Confiscations of Mendizábal (which affected so many of the Spanish monasteries I have seen). Unlike Poblet Monastery, however, the Monastery of Montserrat was reopened less than a decade later, in 1844.
But this wasn’t the end of the monastery’s troubles. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 the monastery was closed and confiscated by the Catalan government, the Generalitat. The wave of anti-clerical violence and persecution that took place during the war years resulted in the deaths of over twenty of the monastery’s monks. After the war’s conclusion, however, Montserrat was returned to the church. During Franco’s reign it became (like everything else in Catalonia, it seems) a symbol of Catalan nationalism, serving as a refuge and a place of protest. At present over 70 monks are still living, praying, and fasting within its walls.
Though many buildings make up the Monastery of Montserrat, the most impressive, by far, is the basilica. You cannot see it from the outside, since it is enclosed in a rather plain and unremarkable square building. But once you enter this through the front portal and stand in the enclosed plaza, you can see the basilica’s façade. This actually of quite recent date, having been constructed after the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless its fine sculptural friezes and decoration are perfectly in keeping with the place’s long history, as well as with the mountain itself, since the architect Francesc Folguera used stone quarried on site. The inside of the basilica is absolutely radiant. Numerous lights and candles illuminate the gold that seems to cover every surface. The vaulted ceiling, the walls, the altar—they all emit a regal glow.
In a space above and behind the main altar is the famed Virgin of Montserrat. Sometimes called the “Black Virgin” because of her dark skin, this is a statue of the Virgin and Child enthroned. According to legend it was carved by Saint Luke himself and discovered by some shepherds in the year 890 or so; but in reality it bears the clear marks of a Romanesque work. In any case, kissing this Virgin is supposed to bring blessing and good fortune, and so people line up for hours to do so. The expectant smoocher passes through an elaborately decorated doorway and ascends a staircase, at the top of which the Virgin patiently awaits—as she has done for centuries. For those in search of additional benediction there is a narrow passage in the space between the basilica and the mountain’s rockface, where for a small fee one can light a candle and place it on a metal rack. These candles are housed in colorful glass cups that glow attractively in the shadowy passage.
At this point I felt hungry and began searching for something to eat. Montserrat is well-stocked with restaurants, cafeterias, and vending machines. But they are uniformly overpriced. And since being stuck on a mountain is like being on an airplane—in that there are limited options—vendors can charge whatever they like for quite ordinary food. I bought a sandwich from a machine and scuttled away, unsatisfied. Heed my advice and pack a lunch.
Next I wanted to explore the mountain itself. Montserrat is full of walking paths, ranging from a quick stroll to mountain climbing. There are also funiculars for those who would prefer not to climb up any steep hills. The Funicular de Santa Cova takes one down to an important shrine in situated in a cave; the Funicular de Sant Joan takes one upwards, giving one a panoramic view of the compound. But I had just spent several weeks in city centers, surrounded by grey asphalt, so I wasn’t interested in either of those. I was aching to lose myself in nature; so I chose the longest path, up to the top of San Jeroni, the highest peak in the area.
The beginning stretch was the most difficult, leading up several steep staircases that had been carved into the mountain rock. After the first half-hour, however, the trail levelled out somewhat. Still, the constant pumping of my legs as I rushed ever upwards quickly had me panting. The scanty trees seldom provided any relief from the glaring sun. But the mountain spurred me on like a mystery story, gradually revealing itself in a series of twists and turns, each one bringing more of the whole picture into view. The undulating curves of the mountainside were covered in emerald bushes and spotted with the bulbous grey of rocks, like the scales of an enormous reptile.
Nearly an hour and a half had elapsed before I reached the top. The clouds hung lower and lower as I rose. The vegetation dwindled and finally disappeared, leaving only the swollen, jagged stone of this enchanting place. As often happens, there are many small cairns near the top—piles of stone that serve as miniature monuments to former climbers. Soon the whole surrounding landscape came into view; and the sight was well worth the exertion. The distant horizon faded into the atmospheric blue of faraway. The shadows of small clouds darkened the landscape below, where roads and towns looked like mere patches of dirt. But for the most part the view is a gently rolling sea of green.
So concluded my trip to Barcelona’s iconic mountain monastery. Now I must move on to another of Catalonia’s great cities: Tarragona.
Few cities can compare with Barcelona for the variety and depth of architectural pleasure on display. In my posts I have already had occasion to mention some of Barcelona’s wonderful gothic buildings, such as its cathedral and its basilicas. Even quite functional buildings are intriguing, such as the Fundació Miró, the Palau Nacional, as well as Barcelona’s former bullring, Las Arenas, and even its latest one, Monumental. Indeed, Barcelona is so full of fine buildings that many are barely noticed by the tourists. As an example of this I would offer the Casa Comalat, a bulging apartment building designed by Salvador Valeri i Pupurull, whose form would be eye-catching if it weren’t in the same city as Gaudi’s works.
Though Barcelona dates back to Roman times, its most fertile architecture period occured at the turn of the 20th century. This was the epoch of Modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. The most overpowering quality of this trend was its emphasis on ostentatious decoration. There is nothing light or understated; the architecture bursts forth like a flower into curves and colors. Modernisme also coincided with a resurchange of Catalan nationalism, and as a result many buildings from this fruitful period are explicitly or implicitly involved in the Catalan identity. This movement had many excellent practitioners; but two architects stand out above the rest: Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Antoni Gaudí.
Lluís Domènech i Montaner
I cannot say why Lluis Domènech i Montaner (1850 – 1923), an architect nearly as original as Gaudí, is not even one-tenth as well-known. Certainly he was a less Byronic figure. Far from the typical brooding, solitary genius, Domènech was a man of the world. A brilliant polymath, he was a writer, scholar, teacher, and politician in addition to his work as an architect. But his central concern, in all of these endeavors, was to create a Catalan nationalism that was forward-looking and unprovincial—a Catalan nationalism that celebrated the region without rejecting the rest of the world.
One of his best-known buildings stands in the Parc de la Ciutadella (discussed in a previous post), beyond the Arc de Triomf. It is the Castell dels Tres Dragons, which was made for the same 1888 World’s Fair as the arc and the park’s fountain. Originally it was meant to be the Café-Restaurant adjoining a nearby hotel, which Domènech also designed but which was subsequently torn down. Nowadays the fortress is home to the zoological museum. It is notable for its use of brick as a decorative material—looked down upon at the time, though Domènech liked it because it contained Catalan soil—as well as nakedly visible cast-iron supports.
Far more showy is Domènech’s Palau de la Música Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music). This is a concert hall built between 1905-8 for the Orfeó choral society. Though unfortunately I have not yet gone inside—one of my biggest regrets of my visits to Barcelona—Robert Hughes considered this building to be Domènech’s masterpiece, and I have no reason to doubt him.
The concert hall stands amid the cramped streets of the old city center, hemmed in closely on all sides; so it is difficult to get a good look at its impressive façade. Nevertheless you can certainly appreciate the sculptural group exploding from its front corner, bursting forth like the prow of a ship. This is an allegorical representation of Catalan folk song, designed by Miguel Blay. Sitting on columns, high up above, are the busts of Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. (According to Hughes, Wagner was deeply loved in Catalonia at this time, since his own project of creating nationalistic art by combining different mediums—Gesamtkunstwerk—was obviously parallel to Domènech’s own aims, as well as those of his compatriots.) Colored mosaic enliven the building’s flaming brick-red exterior, giving the whole a playful, festive air.
Judging from the photos, and from Robert Hughes’s descriptions, the inside is even more impressive than the exterior. The roof of the concert hall is dominated by a glowing stained-glass skylight that droops down into the space. On either side of the stage are elaborate sculptural friezes. On the right, Beethoven’s bust swells into the smoke of inspiration, which then bursts forth into flying valkyries. Opposite Beethoven is the Catalan poet Josep Anselm Clavé, whose thoughts spring into a tree that blooms across from the winged warriors. Curiously, for a performance space, the concert hall is extremely open—both sides dominated by large windows. This means that, ironically enough, the acoustics are not great; and also that the space is poorly insulated from street noise. This hasn’t stopped many famous performers from adoring the space, including the famous Catalan cellist, Pau Casals (whose recordings of Bach’s cello suites, the first ever recorded, are still my favorite).
The building I have visited is Domènech’s Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul), begun in 1905 and not completed until 1930, after Domènech’s death, by his son Pere Domènech i Roura. This building complex is listed—along with the Palau de la Música Catalana—as one of Spain’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites, and deservedly so.
The Hospital de Sant Pau replaced Barcelona’s far older and obsolescent Hospital of the Holy Cross, a gothic structure that had been in use since the middle ages. This hospital was overcrowded and wholly unsuited to the new technologies and techniques of modern medicine. Luckily, a hefty donation from Pau Gil, a wealthy banker, allowed the city to begin work on a replacement. (This is why the new hospital is named Sant Pau, to honor Pau Gil’s contribution.) The new hospital was to be situated in the recently constructed Eixample, away from the overcrowded old city, almost next to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família (which begun construction about twenty years earlier). You can still see some of the buildings that formed the old gothic hospital, by the way, since they have been refurbished—most notably as the Library of Catalonia.
The hospital that Domènech designed could not be further removed than the dreary gothic interior of its predecessor. Indeed, it is unlike any hospital I have ever seen or heard of. Far from the white, sterile, and crowded places I know as hospitals, Domènech designed a place open, colorful, and tranquil—a place of pleasure and peace. For me his design is so convincing that I wonder why every hospital does not emulate it. For if healing is not just a matter of treatment and cures, but of will and mindset—as I think is the case—then Domènech’s work is a model: catering to the mind as well as the body.
The entrance to the hospital is a sweeping, winged building that seems to embrace the visitor as she walks inside (see photo above). It is crowned by a magnificent clock tower and adorned with angels. These angels were designed by the neoclassical sculptor Eusebi Arnau and his more famous pupil, Pau Gargallo (who has a museum dedicated to him in Zaragoza), whose own angels reveal the growing influence of cubism in his work. Running across the outside of this central structure is a mosaic showing scenes from the development of medicine in Catalonia, ending with the creation of the hospital itself.
Once the visitor walks through this main building, she will find herself surrounded by several separate pavilions, arranged in two neat rows with their entrances facing one another. Domènech wanted a place open and green; and to do that he split up the hospital into these individual buildings, leaving a garden in the center. This decision had medical as well as aesthetic motives; for it allowed patients with different ailments to be separated and quarantined from each other, reducing infection and improving organization.
The central garden is filled with benches, where patients could sit and rest. But of course the entire effect would be spoiled if doctors, nurses, and orderlies were constantly rushing in-between the pavilions and through the gardens. To prevent this, Domènech built a network of tunnels under the hospital, which directly connect each structure in the compound.
Each one of the pavilions is a delight, with a glowing, multicolored dome crowning one side of its entrance, and a narrow circular tower on the other. This fairly narrow façade conceals the buildings’ lengths, their main bulk leading away from the central courtyard. Each of their slanting roofs is decorated with bright tiles in delightful swirling patterns, different for each building. The insides are equally inviting. A vaulted nave leads down to the back of the building, its walls and ceiling covered in shining tiles, making the visitor feel that she is walking inside a luminescent seashell. Windows run along the top of each side, providing enough natural light to render artificial lighting unnecessary during the day. Beside the entrance, beneath the frontal dome, is the sun room, whose large windows flood the space with light. This room was used for relaxation and also for receiving visitors.
The Hospital de Sant Pau stopped receiving patients in 2009, when a new hospital was opened up nearby. Nowadays it survives as a museum and a monument. Judging from the informational video on display in the building complex, the hospital which replaced it is yet another modern care center—devoid of color and empty of air. This is a shame, I think, for Domènech’s building has much to teach us that we have yet to learn. Indeed, the Hospital de Sant Pau teaches the lessons of all great architecture: that beauty can be functional; that daily life need not be drab; that art and science can be merged. The building complex is not just a work of art, but a vision of what a cultured society can be: catering to and caring for the whole human being—not just the body’s obvious physical necessities but the mind’s subtler needs.
From the front steps of the administration building, the visitor can see the masterpiece of Barcelona’s next great architect—the Sagrada Família—whose work, albeit differently, illustrates the same lessons as Domènech’s.
The life of Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926) fits our Romantic mold of the eccentric artist far better than does Domènech’s. Neither a man of the world nor a public intellectual, but an austere man of deep spiritual convictions, Gaudí was every inch an artist. Uncompromising in his style, he accepted no projects unless he was given a free hand—complete creative control. Unyielding in his religion, he stood against the secularizing and cosmopolitan currents of his day. Fully obsessed with his work, he lived a monkish life, never marrying or even having any significant partners. He was killed by a tram on daily walk to confession—too deaf, apparently, to hear the oncoming train or the shouted warnings of bystanders. He was 73. His appearance was so shabby, and his pockets so empty, that he was originally mistaken as a beggar and sent to a public hospital to receive basic care. When his identity was finally ascertained it was too late to save him.
Gaudí came from a long line of artisans. At a young age he observed his father bending and molding metal into shapes. His profound understanding of structure and form, therefore, was anything but mathematical; he did not like drawings and hardly made any. He performed poorly in school. He thought with his hands, and thus preferred making models. Nowadays we have computers to aide architects in the difficult problems of support and weight distribution. Lacking (but not missing) these resources, Gaudí invented his own solutions. His most memorable one was to suspend little bags of birdshot from strings, showing how the weight naturally fell. When he photographed these models, and then turned the pictures over, he had perfectly sound structure. Unfortunately for history, many of his models for the Sagrada Família were destroyed in 1936, during the outburst of anti-clerical violence that followed the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Thus much of the work done on that building is little more than a guess at his intentions.
Perhaps the most perplexing thing about Gaudí, at least for us in the modern world, is his simultaneously radical style and ultra-conservative worldview. This is only a paradox if you blandly assume that avant-garde art comes with a left-wing perspective. Very often this is the case, of course, especially in the past one hundred years. But not necessarily. Now, Gaudí’s radicalism had many components. Most obviously it was religious. Gaudí was living in a time of growing secularism; anti-clericalism was a strong cultural force in Spain, occasionally leading to outbreaks of violence and destruction of church property. The famed Poblet Monastery of Gaudí’s native Tarragona, for example, was burned to the ground in the 1830s in one such outbreak. Gaudí thought that the only proper response to this was unconditional submission to the church and extreme acts of penance. He himself fasted intensely, sometimes endangering his health.
Gaudí was also an intense regionalist. He thought that Catalonia was ideally situated between the passionate south and the over-intellectual north. To this religious regionalism one must add his love of nature. The movement of Modernisme itself emphasized natural forms, particularly the colors and curves of flowers. But Gaudí took this love of nature to an extreme. In his works, for example, one can find scarcely a single straight line—since perfectly straight lines are rarely seen in natural objects. To make some of the decorative friezes on the Sagrada Família, Gaudí made casts of plants and dead animals, even asking nuns for stillborn babies to use for the little angels (and the nuns agreed). To make the crucifix for the Sagrada Família’s main altar, he had a workman tied to a cross in order to see how a body naturally hangs from such a pose (the body droops down far more than in conventional representation). In short, Gaudí saw nature as God’s creation and strove to incorporate its order into his works.
The majority of Gaudí’s works are found in Barcelona. I have only managed to visit three, but these were enough to fill me with awe and to give me enough imaginative food for a lifetime.
The first was the Casa Batlló. This building is located on the Passeig de Gracia, in the famous Illa de la Discòrdia (Isle of Discord), a block so-called because it is home to four famous houses by four architects with jarringly different styles. One of these was by designed by the aforementioned Domènech: the Casa Lleó Morera. Next door is the Casa Ramon Mulleras, by Enric Sagier, the architect who designed the expiatory temple atop Tibidabo. But the most attractive house, after Gaudí’s, is the Casa Amattler by Josep Puig y Cadafalch. Topped with a Dutch-style crow-stepped gabble, the house brims with color and charm—very appropriate for the home of a chocolatier, which it was. Barcelona has no lack of brilliant architects.
Yet even such showy houses look absolutely tame next to Gaudí’s construction. This home was built (actually renovated, from 1904-1906), like all the other fine apartments on the block, at the behest of a rich patron—in this case, Josep Batlló i Casanovas. Seen from the outside the building has three distinct levels. The lowest consists of the cavernous windows covering the first floor, with spindly stalactites for supports. The windows above are discontinuous; and each is fronted with a skeletal, even skull-like railing. The roof bursts from the building’s body like the frilled back of some tremendous reptile. Indeed, this is the most popular interpretation of the building’s form: that the apartment is meant to be the dragon vanquished by St. George—the bottom layer its cave, the windows its victims’ skulls, the top its back, and the turret on the left St. George’s deadly spear. This interpretation ties into both Gaudí’s religiosity and his regional pride, since St. George is Catalonia’s patron saint.
The inside of the building is just as spectacular. In the dining room, which overlooks the Passeig de Gracia through the cave-like window, the ceiling swirls like a hurricane, its undulations closing in on the central light—molded to look like a glowing iron sun. Above the windows and doors circular panels of stained glass shed colored light throughout the space. Every surface swells and shifts like a windswept pond. On the far side of the room is the fireplace seat—two seats situated in a mushroom-shaped nook around the fireplace.
The central lightwell is one of the most impressive sights. Each surface is covered in shiny blue tiles, darker near the light source at the top and brighter near the bottom in order to equalize the brightness. Ascending upwards the visitor reaches the loft, where white catenary arches (similar to parabolic arches) enclose a narrow passageway (supposedly representing the dragon’s ribcage). On the roof one can see Gaudí’s whimsically bent chimneys, covered in colored tiles, as well as his trademark blooming cross, whose flower-like shape allows it to appear cruciform from any angle. Like so many of Gaudí’s buildings, the whole thing has an Alice-in-Wonderland quality.
Undeniably, one of the Casa Batlló’s finest features are the tilework that adorns the surface, making them shimmer with color like a Monet painting. This technique is called trencadís, and is done by plastering together smashed up china. The credit for this fine work actually belongs, not to Gaudí himself, but to Josep Maria Jujol, who also collaborated with Gaudí to create the fantastic mosaics in our next site: the Park Güell (1900 – 1914).
The park takes its name from Eusebi Güell, a wealthy entrepreneur who became one of Gaudí’s greatest patrons. The original idea was not to create a simply a park but a garden housing development, following the English garden city movement initiated by Sir Ebenezer Howard (which is why its real name is the English word “Park”). The goal was to create a green neighborhood for the wealthy who wanted to escape Barcelona’s insalubrious city air. But the idea was a flop, since nobody wanted to move so far away from the center; indeed, most people with money preferred to build fancy apartments on the Passeig de Gracia, such as the Casa Batlló. In the end only two houses were sold, one to Gaudí himself, where he lived from 1906 until his death in 1926, and which is now the Gaudi House Museum.
Describing the whole park would be an exercise in futility, but there are some highlights that cannot be missed. The first is the statue (in Jujol’s brilliant trencadís) of a salamander, nicknamed the dragon, which seems to guard the water in the fountain below. This is found on the staircase leading up to a forest of columns—the “hypostyle room”—modelled after a Greek temple, whose pillars hold up the terrace above. This terrance is one of the most famous spots in Barcelona, partly for its view of the city, but also for its undulating, ceramic bench that slithers around the exterior. Below, one can see the two pavilions that flank the original entrance, with rough brown walls and black and white roofs, one of them sporting a large tower topped with Gaudí’s signature budding crucifix.
The park itself is full of structures dun-colored stone—walls holding up terraces, elevated roadways and viaducts, balconies and covered footpaths proceeding through columns. The aesthetic effect produced by all this stonework is unique—for me at least—being somehow both natural and unnatural, which was undoubtedly intended by Gaudí.
If you leave the park and head towards the shore, you will replicate a journey taken by Gaudí himself many times during his life, ending up with his greatest and most iconic work of all: the Sagrada Família.
The full name of this building is the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, which translates to the Basilica and Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family. To repeat an earlier post, it is not and never has been a cathedral. By the time construction on the Sagrada Família began, in 1882, Barcelona had possessed a cathedral for several hundreds years already and was in no need of a replacement. Indeed, it is only recently, in 2010, that the building was designated a basilica (which essentially means it is an especially grand church). Before this consecration it could not even be used for mass.
The history of the building is an epic in itself. Never an official church project, the idea was conceived by an independent religious organization and funded by private donations. Gaudí used himself to go visit wealthy families on the Passeig de Gracia, asking for “a sacrifice.” Even today the building’s continuing construction is funded by entrance fees. Construction began in 1882; and by the time Gaudí died, in 1926, not even a quarter had been built. Since his models were destroyed during the Civil War, we cannot even be sure if the final result will be true to his vision. The builders hope to have the main towers completed by 2026 for the anniversary of Gaudí’s death—but these things are hard to plan.
The building has grown from its controversial origins—many feared that it would outshine Barcelona’s cathedral, and arguably it has—into being the inescapable symbol of Barcelona, as thoroughly identified with the city as the Eiffel Tower is with Paris or the Empire State Building is with New York. Indeed, the Sagrada Familia is the most visited monument in all of Spain—surpassing even the Alhambra in its more than 3 million visitors per year. Even so, not everyone likes it. George Orwell infamously remarked that the anarchists showed poor taste in not blowing it up; and Gerald Brenan cited the building as evidence of Catalonia’s low cultural level. I admit that when I first saw it I was put off by the hugely exaggerated goliath that greeted my eyes. The bulging form struck me as garishly Disneyesque, all cheap flare with little thought.
But I was badly mistaken. For close inspection cannot but reveal the Sagrada Família to be one of the great edifices of the world. Like all of Gaudí’s work, the Sagrada Família does not conform to any particular style. But if forced to put a label on it, you might call it a mixture of neo-gothic and Modernisme—though it goes far beyond the bounds of both.
As you approach you can see the basilica’s famous towers that curve up like rockets waiting for takeoff. Its dusty brown color gives it an earthy appearance, almost like a giant sandcastle, which belies its bizarre and otherworldly form. The continuing construction is evident. The newer sections are visibly more mathematically precise and their material is fresh and clean, unstained by the years. And if that wasn’t enough, the towering cranes overhead let you know immediately that the building is still very much a work in progress.
The visitor enters through the Nativity Façade, the only one completed during Gaudí’s life. It was for this façade that Gaudí made all those casts of plants, animals, and babies—to emphasize the divinity in nature and the nature of divinity. The holy family stands on the central doorjamb, surrounded by smiling angels and onlookers, heralded by four musicians who celebrate the coming of the Lord. These figure are suspended in a quasi-natural space, much like that of the Park Güell, the rough and bulging stone looking like a cave or a cliffside. Animals can be seen, too, such as the two turtles—one aquatic and the other terrestrial, representing the stability of the sea and the land—as well as plants, such as the palm leaves that grow out of the two pillars. Crowning the whole façade is what looks like a Christmas tree: the tree of life. You might even be tempted to call such nature-worship “pagan,” if it weren’t tinged with such a strong dose of repentance.
Impressive as all this was, I was prepared for it. Like nearly everyone I had seen photos of the Sagrada Família beforehand and so knew roughly what it looks like. But I was not prepared for what awaited me inside.
Gaudí has created a space utterly unlike any I have ever seen. The effect was so strange that I felt as though I had been transported onto another planet or was exploring an alien temple. Several factors combine to produce this effect. Most obvious is the lighting. Radiantly colorful light pours in through the exquisite stained glass. There are lighted panels on the columns, too, as well as on the roof, and so color comes from every direction. The columns are designed to maximize this effect. They subtly change in shape throughout their lengths, going from eight-sided to circular to six-sided, and so on, which affects how the light hits their surface. Gaudí’s columns are special in another way. They do not sit perpendicular to the ground, but at a slight angle; and as they approach the ceiling these columns branch off like the trunks of trees. The visitor feels that she is walking through a petrified forest illuminated by the light of distant suns.
I found the interior of the building so stunning that, when I exited on the other side, I was somewhat exhausted. What greeted me here was the Passion Façade. This side was expressly conceived by Gaudí to contrast with the Nativity Façade. Where that side of the building bursts with curves and figures and thus brims with life, the façade dedicated to the Passion is bare, linear, and austere—a monument to death. The sculptures depicting the crucifixion were designed by Josep Maria Subirachs, who also designed the monument to Francesc Macià (discussed in a previous post). The harsh and almost cubist sculptures that Subirachs designed have proven somewhat divisive. Some, like Robert Hughes, think that the sculptures are not consonant with Gaudí’s aesthetic. Others were offended for religious reasons, since this façade has one of the few extant representations of Christ completely nude. In any case I liked the heavy, blocky statues, since they provided a nice contrast with the previous side. They are also, arguably, not very distant from Gaudí’s own work, since they are highly reminiscent of the sculptures atop another of Gaudí’s famous works, the Casa Milà (which I have yet to visit).
This exhausts my experience and knowledge of Gaudí’s work in Barcelona. Indeed, with this post I come to the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona. Yet despite my tour of Barcelona’s museums and architecture, one iconic Catalan artist has yet to be discussed: Salvador Dalí.
Barcelona, is a vast and cultured city, and has a correspondingly huge number of museums. There is the Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Catalan Modernisme; and a museum dedicated to archaeology and to design—just to name a few. But I have only visited the three most famous: the National Art Museum; the Miró Foundation; and the Picasso Museum.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
The biggest and grandest museum in Barcelona is the National Art Museum of Catalonia, situated atop the Montjuïc hill. The museum’s building itself is splendid: the Palau Nacional, a large palace built for the 1929 World’s Fair. It reminds me very much of El Escorial, and for good reason, since it was intentionally made in a Spanish Renaissance style. Four large towers flank a central dome, which rise above the city on its perch.
The museum’s collection is expansive, ranging from the Romanesque to modern art. The oldest pieces are arguably the museum’s most impressive. Whole church apses have been transported into the museum in order to display their frescos. And these frescos are exquisite. Romanesque art always charms me with its fantastic stylization. As in Egyptian and Babylonian art, humans are idealized and abstracted, turned into cartoonish symbols. The volume of Greco-Roman art and the realism of the Renaissance are completely absent from these flat figures, residing in a two-dimensional realm of color and sentiment.
When I first saw medieval Christian art I found is disagreeable, almost childish in its lack of naturalism and its technical unsophistication. But now I find in the Romanesque a sense of otherworldly peace. It is a spiritual art, representing timeless truths, and thus the stylization suits it perfectly. Unlike the real world, where facts and details have no meaning beyond their own existence, every line in Romanesque frescoes is imbued with significance. Every scene is part of a cosmic drama; every man and beast symbolizes a divine attribute; every gesture illustrates a religious truth. The apparently simplicity of the works, then, is the result of a synthesis: focusing a whole worldview into vivid clarity.
Quite as enchanting as the frescoes are the Romanesque capitals. These often display what, to me, seems like a playful delight in the grotesque. The monsters, men, and vegetable motifs that weave around each other—their squat forms helping to hold up the structure—are almost pagan in their exuberant love of life. The friezes are ingenious, endlessly varying, each one a different pictorial solution to the puzzle of turning things into designs. Apart from the frescoes and the capitals, the museum also has a digital reconstruction of the monumental portal of the Ripoll Monastery (in Gerona). Using a projector you can explore the façades many excellent friezes in detail, and in 3D.
The character of the art changes quite noticeably once you go from the Romanesque to the Gothic section. Gothic representation is, on the whole, far more naturalistic than that of the Romanesque. The people are individualized—escaping the anonymously identical faces of the Romanesque—with flowing robes and fluffy beards. Frescoes and paintings have more sense of solidity and depth. This growing naturalism, if it lacks the purity of the Romanesque, does give the Gothic a greater visual delight, while maintaining a deep sense of spirituality.
Having finished with the medieval period, I ascended the stairs to the second level. Here you can stand under the building’s central dome. Its inside is decorated with an attractive, allegorical fresco by Francesc d’Assís Galí. From here you can skip ahead in time a few hundred years, and visit the museum’s collection of modern art. I must admit that none of the individual pieces made a deep impression on me as I walked through. But I did very much like the historical and sociological framing of the progression of modern art, which reminded me very much of how Robert Hughes introduced the subject in his documentary, The Shock of the New.
This about does it for the National Art Museum. Luckily, the next museum is only a short walk away.
The Fundació Miró sits perched on the same hill, Montjuïc, with the same grand view of the city beyond. Around it are the lush gardens of the hill, where many locals come to exercise, play, and walk their dogs. The building of the foundation looks incongruous amid such surroundings, white and angular like a warehouse. It was designed by Josep Lluís Sert, a friend of Miró’s, who managed to create an ideal museum space. Each room, bare and unobtrusive, is bathed in natural light; and the visitor is led effortlessly through the museum on a linear path.
The right angles and stark whiteness of the building offsets the colorful curves of Miró’s paintings. These are arranged both by chronology and theme. Miró’s earliest works are actually some of my favorites. They were made during his fauvist period, when he was painting realistic scenes of Montroig—his ancestral home in Tarragona, to which he returned throughout his life—using lush and vibrant colors. The influence of Cézanne also shows, with shapes somewhat simplified and made geometrical. To me, these works have a wonderful cheerfulness, purely absorbed in the joy of bright colors and the beauty of the Mediterranean landscape.
But this realistic phase is soon got through. Now we come to the Miró as we know him: the Miró of flat spaces and abstract shapes. The human form in particular becomes unrecognizably twisted in Miró’s works—a whole person being evoked with a few lines and dots and shapes. To me many of these paintings have a sort of childlike naiveté—completed with a seemingly simple technique, at times approaching stick figures. But there was nothing childlike in Miró’s thought. He was deeply interested in poetry throughout his life and aspired to make his paintings like poems, employing an idiosyncratic system of symbols. To the knowledgeable eye, therefore—which I do not possess—his paintings are deeplying meaningful.
On a purely formal level, however, they may still be savored. Miró’s bulbous and suggestive shapes, swelling and sticking, stretching and squeezing, evoke many things at once. Unlike Picasso, who bent form but never broke it, Miró’s paintings sometimes verge on the nebulous—the outlines floating on top of nowhere. It is a deeply organic world with no hard surfaces, with every simple form evoking the body and the natural world. And though grotesque and even monstrous, it is not a frightening world. Miró’s demons are cartoonish and his nightmares have laughing tracks.
This is the Miró that charms me. But when Miró attempts a grave statement, I cannot go along with him. His series of three paintings, The Hope of a Dead Man, which were painted on the occasion of a young anarchist’s condemnation and execution, provoke no reaction in me save boredom. They consist of a single blank stroke on a white background, with a ball of color floating nearby. Such art is too much statement and too little substance. In general I think Miró’s work is rather hermetic—floating in his own dream world—and so his attempts to be political fall flat.
The Fundació Miró also tells us something of Miró’s philosophy of art. One of his most quoted phrases was his desire to “assassinate painting.” This statement can be interpreted in manifold ways, but I believe refers to his desire to escape bourgeois commodification. (Notwithstanding this desire his paintings sell for millions of dollars at auction.) It is true, though, that Miró was never quite content with painting. He loved poetry and strove to emulate it, developing a complex system of symbols for his works. He also branched out into sculpture (of which the Fundació Miró has many examples) and even into tapestries. Apart from assassination, Miró was interested in the idea of anonymity, believing that art should be so popular that it cannot be said to have come from anyone. (According to what I’ve read, Miró liked popular music, especially Jimi Hendrix.) All of these ideas, taken together, seem quite odd in a painter who developed an individual style that is not widely popular.
I cannot say that I emerged from the Fundació Miró deeply shaken by an aesthetic awakening. But I did emerge deeply impressed by the diligence with which Miró followed the bent of his vision and his success in bringing forth an entirely new visual language. After visiting this museum one can hardly doubt that Miró was one of the great Catalan artists of the previous century.
(Unfortunately photos are not allowed in this museum, so you will just have to imagine the art.)
The last museum on my itinerary is quite a walk from Montjuïc: forty minutes away, deep in the old city center. This is Barcelona’s Picasso Museum. Picasso was not Catalan: he was born in Málaga (where there’s another Picasso museum) and spent several years in La Coruña. Nevertheless he is regarded as something of an honorary Catalan, since he spent his teenage years in the city and often returned to it throughout his life. This is why Picasso suggested Barcelona as the location for a museum dedicated to his artistic career.
The Museu Picasso occupies five aristocratic houses dating from the gothic period. Its collection is somewhat bipolar: with an extensive (approaching exhaustive) collection from the beginning and end of Picasso’s career, and very few from its famous middle. Despite this—or because of it—the museum is one of the best places to go to explore the workings of Picasso’s mind.
In the first rooms of the museum the visitor can see Picasso’s juvenilia—in itself not especially great, but showing great promise. These gradually increase in sophistication, under the influence of Picasso’s academic tutelage, until it culminates in Science and Charity. This paintings, which he completed in 1897 at the age of 15, is astonishingly finished. Picasso manages to be both allegorical and naturalistic. The morbid topic of death is portrayed with great realism, with the brown hues of the space and the sick girl’s palid face giving the painting a certain grimy edge. Belying this naturalness is the careful diagonal composition of the figures, and the obvious dichotic symbolism of the doctor (science) and the nun (charity). It is no wonder the critics loved it.
But Picasso does not continue down the academic path. Instead he turns toward the avant-garde, and thus commences his blue period. Here his work becomes decidedly unrealistic, completed in monochromatic blue; and his drawings of human forms reveals the influence of El Greco, with bodies extended and features exaggerated. In subject matter, Picasso turned towards poverty, sadness, and death—the darker aspects of the human experience. Though perhaps not technically in the Blue Period, The Madman (1904), which you can see at the museum, illustrates this trend in Picasso’s painting: a homeless man, covered in rags, his long fingers extended almost maniacally—all done in a single shade.
Also on display is The Frugal Meal (1904)—showing two gaunt, emaciated forms, the man desperate and the woman resigned, leaning over a bare table. This vein in Picasso’s early work reminds me of one of Van Gogh’s early works: The Potatoes Eaters. Both artists, it seems, were deeply concerned with the poor and neglected during their youths; and both used gritty hues and nightmarish distortions to represent it. As I mentioned, the museum has relatively few paintings from Picasso’s most well-known periods—when he was developing, perfecting, and then moving beyond cubism—but this time is not totally neglected. The museum has, for example, The Offering (1908), a recognizably proto-cubist work clearly reminiscent of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The museum also has a copy of Picasso’s famous etchings, Minotauromachy (1935), made when Picasso was experimenting with mythological themes in the years leading up to Guernica.
The museum becomes, once again, close to exhaustive when it reaches Picasso’s later years. Most notably, the museum boasts the complete Las Meninas series (1957).
Las Meninas is, of course, a famous painting by Velazquez, on display at the Prado in Madrid. Picasso used this iconic image as the bases of a series of reinterpretations, 45 in all. Though many are excellent, I don’t think any of these paintings, individually, is a masterpiece. But taken together the series is an incredible look at the way Picasso can take a form apart and put it back together. Velazquez’s painting explodes under Picasso’s gaze, reduced to its basic elements. Picasso then experiments with the different ways these elements can be distorted, twisted, stretched, compressed, simplified, and how all these can be reassembled into a new work. Admittedly there is something trivial about all this; many of the paintings look somewhat slapdash and hasty. But their lack of finish does help us to see Picasso’s mind at work—to catch a glimpse of his cognitive processing of shapes and compositions. And one of the paintings, at least (the most famous one, in black and white) does capture some of the creative energy of Velazquez’s original.
Here I reach the limit of my knowledge of Barcelona’s museums. But the city of Barcelona, you might say, is itself a sort of museum, housing some of the most interesting buildings I have ever seen. It is to these buildings, and the architects that designed them, that I turn next.
Although Joan Miró’s name is hardly less known than that of Dalí’s or even Picasso’s, his art seems strikingly less popular. I have been told by several people that they cannot appreciate it. And, indeed, I was often left cold by the works I had seen in the Reina Sofia—some of which seems to confirm every negative stereotype about modern art. But I wanted to give Miró another chance; so I visited the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, and read this book.
One of the most difficult tasks before any young artist is to develop her voice. By “voice” I mean many things: style, philosophy, identity, themes, and so on, which taken together make an artists work immediately recognizable as hers. In a word, this requires originality. One might be inclined to think that originality is the easiest thing to achieve—being the natural product of everyone’s differences. But to produce a deeply original work—one that could not have been produced by anybody else—is anything but easy. Artistic voice emerges in a dialectical process with one’s influences, as they are first mastered and then synthesized, until gradually something appears which cannot be traced to any influence.
This process is most easily seen among painters. And it is wonderfully illustrated in Miró, whose work incorporated fauvism, surrealism, and cubism. But it wasn’t only artistic trends that shaped the young painter. He was deeply inspired by natural sights—particularly the countryside near Montroig (near the city of Tarragona, in his ancestral Catalonia). The voice that Miró developed through his formative experiences and influences is unmistakable—displaying a sensibility for forms and color that no other artist could replicate. And consequently one feels, upon entering the Fundació Miró, the same way one feels upon entering the Dalí Museum in Figueres—that one is entering a new visual universe that obeys different laws.
In short, I have come to enjoy Miró’s work far more than I had. I find in it a sense of playfulness, and sometimes a sense of peacefulness, that is deeply appealing; and I enjoy watching his manipulation of forms shift throughout his work, while remaining recognizably Miró, like a theme and variations. But I still must admit that it does not affect me very deeply. My appreciation, in other words, is more intellectual than emotional. And I think that would have suited Miró just fine.
This little book is full of glossy pictures and does an excellent job in covering the different phases of Miró’s career.
The city of Barcelona is one of the most immediately inviting cities on the planet. Like New York, with its numbered grid of streets, Barcelona is intuitively navigable: you are either travelling towards the eastern coast or away from it, towards the mountains that bound the city’s western edge. Moving around is easy: the city has a clean and efficient metro and train system. Thanks to the Mediterranean, the weather is agreeable: Barcelona has mild winters and warm summers. And, most importantly, Barcelona is stuffed with restaurants and attractions that cater to every taste.
It is no wonder, then, that the place is swarming with tourists. This is a classic case of a city’s strengths becoming its weakness: visited by many times more tourists annually than its 1.7 million inhabitants, the city has—at least in my experience—less local character than many other cities in Spain. Every major street and site is constantly swarming with foreigners, visiting for a week or for a weekend, which can give the city a feeling of artificiality and anonymity. The city’s harbor is partially responsible for this influx: it is the European port most used by cruise liners. But the real culprit are the city’s many treasures, which make it worth visiting despite the crowds and despite the fact that it is the most expensive city in Spain.
Like many cities in Europe, Barcelona is far older than its surrounding country, having been founded by the Romans. But traces of that ancient people are mostly absent from the city. Nowadays the most important division is between the medieval city center and the newer expansions. It was only in the 1850s that the old medieval walls were torn down, which is why there is a sharp contrast between these two sections: the narrow, crooked streets of the old city, and the wide, cuadrangular streets of the new.
The most famous part of this old center is the Barri Gótic, or the Gothic Quarter. Its winding streets, unsuited for automobiles, are now home to one of the most fashionable areas of the city. It is somewhat like Madrid’sMalasaña or even Brooklyn: with trendy restaurants and quirky boutiques. This transformation from dreary old city to tourist haven was far from accidental; the place was heavily refurbished, in a Neo-Gothic style, in preparation for the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona.
This is true even of one of the Gothic Quarter’s most famous landmarks: Barcelona Cathedral. The church’s magnificently pointy façade is, in fact, neo-gothic; the original exterior was, judging from pictures, quite unremarkable. Authentic or not, however, the cathedral’s façade is beautiful, resembling St. Patrick’s in New York City (which was built around the same time). Part of the old medieval walls (built on top of the ancient Roman walls) were incorporated into one of the cathedral’s sides, and have thus escaped destruction. The church is dedicated to Saint Eulalia, a young girl who was executed for being a Christian during Roman times. There is a magnificent tomb of the saint, with an exquisitely carved sarcophagus, in the cathedral’s crypt. But my favorite part of the cathedral was its peaceful cloister, which is home to 13 white geese (13 being the age when Eulalia was martyred) who mill about to the gurgling sound of a mossy fountain.
I should note here that this building, not the Sagrada Familia, is the true cathedral of Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia is, rather, an “expiatory temple” (by contributing money to its creation you can expiate your sins). A cathedral, by the way, is not a cathedral by virtue of its size or splendor, but because it is the seat of a bishop (the word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word for “chair”), who oversees a diocese (a division of land). Each diocese normally has only one cathedral. This is Barcelona’s.
As attractive as is Barcelona’s cathedral, the city’s loveliest gothic church is undoubtedly Santa Maria del Mar. As its name implies, this church is found near the sea, in the Ribera quarter of the old city center. Its imposing outside, formidably stiff and monumental, gives way to an extraordinarily fluid interior. Unlike most churches of this size, Santa Maria del Mar was built relatively quickly, between 1329 and 1383, which means that historical progress did not create an mixture of styles. The word that comes to mind upon entering the church is, instead, “pure.” The curving lines of the columns and vaulted arches flow into one another, creating a shell-like space, liquid but still. This effect is partially the result of historical accident. Upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, there was a corresponding outbreak in anticlerical violence. Angry anarchists pilled all the pews and altars and, according to Robert Hughes, lit a fire that burned for 11 days, charing the stone and leaving only the building’s skeleton. The stark simplicity of the empty building allows one to more fully appreciate its noble form.
(A similar fate befell the nearby Santa Maria del Pi, another massive gothic church in the old city center. Anticlericalism seems to have been particularly strong here in Barcelona during the 1930s. On a tour I was once shown photographs of anarchists posing next to the exhumed bodies of saints and firing their rifles at crucifixes.)
The old center of Barcelona gives way to the new section at the Plaça de Catalunya, the true center of the city. This massive plaza is always throbbing with people—mostly tourists—since it stands at the intersection of so many corners of the city. The pigeons also like it, which is why the square’s many neoclassical statues are covered in fine spikes that prevent them from landing.
One of the most eye-catching of these statues, a monument to Francesc Macià, looks like an inverted staircase and is meant to symbolize the difficult road to Catalan independence. Macià was a Catalan separatist, you see, who led the Esquerra Republicana de Cataluyna, a leftist party that favored independence; and when his party gained a majority in the 1931 elections he duly declared Catalonia an independent Republic. This state of affairs lasted for a total of three days, from April 14 to 17, until they settled on partial autonomy within the Spanish Republic. As far as I know, these three days are the only time in modern history that Catalonia has been independent.
The Plaça de Catalunya hasn’t always been such a tranquil tourist haven. On a tour I was once shown bullet marks that remained from infighting between anarchists and communists during the Civil War. It was during this infighting that George Orwell had to go into hiding, after he spent three days posted on a nearby building with a rifle. In the early 1900s, when Barcelona was an industrial center riven by stark inequality, the city was a hotbed of leftist movements among the workers. Anarchism in particular was popular, as Gerald Brenan details in his classic study of the causes of the Spanish Civil War. The idealism of these movements, as well as the machinations which eventually destroyed the anarchists and brought the Stalinists to power, made a deep impression on Orwell, which he describes in his remarkable memoirs of the war. Anyone who wishes to learn more about this can contact Nick Lloyd, who also wrote a book about this chaotic time.
(To see another scar from the Civil War, you can visit the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, near the Cathedral. One side of the eponymous church is deeply pockmarked. During Franco’s time this damage was explained as having been caused by executions committed by the Republic side, as bullets missed their targets. This is a classic case of history being falsified by the victors. For the real explanation for the damage are two bombs that fell on this spot, hitting the church, which was being used as a refugee for children. Forty-two died in the blasts, mostly children, and a plaque now commemorates the spot.)
One of the major paths leading away from the plaza is La Rambla. The word “rambla” originates in the Arabic word for “riverbed,” for that it all it was, originally—a dried river that used to flow into the Mediterranean. Now it leads the tourist in the same direction, towards the beach, in a lovely procession lined with trees. Robert Hughes called the street “one of the great, seedy, absorbing theaters of Spain,” but I think it has changed somewhat since he wrote those words. He speaks of bursting flower stalls and vendors selling exotic caged birds. Nowadays, however, the walker is treated to a series of indistinguishable, gaudy restaurants, with their colorful menus displaying “authentic” cuisine and their chairs and awnings crowding the sidewalk.
In other words, tourism has largely eroded whatever distinct character this street once had, leaving it with the nowhere-in-particular quality of so many tourist centers—which, ironically, are travel destinations that all look the same. Another consequence of the huge influx of tourists is that the street is also popular with pickpockets. Indeed, Barcelona in general is one of the great pickpocketing capitals of the world; half of everyone who goes there seems to lose something—though I’ve been lucky so far. If you walk down the Rambla—and any time you are in Barcelona, for that matter—be aware of your belongings. This huge concentration of people also made La Rambla a target of a terrorist attack in 2017, when a man drove a van through the crowd, killing 15 people.
But you cannot let either pickpocket or terrorist dissuade you from walking down this street, at least as far as La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous market. I am no foodie and not usually captivated by markets. But the Boqueria is undeniably impressive, with stall after stall selling a huge variety of foods—all of it vibrant and delicious. Fish, sausage, fruit, vegetables, beans—cured, dried, pickled, freshly picked—you can find everything here. I didn’t even buy anything but I very much enjoyed just walking around.
The end of La Rambla spills into the sea. Here you can find Barcelona’s gigantic monument to Christopher Columbus. There is a joke that Catalonians like to claim everything; and thus many Catalans believe Columbus wasn’t an Italian at all, but a Catalan. (According to this article, he has also been claimed by the Italians, French, and Scottish.) This may partially explain why Barcelona has such a monumental dedication to the explorer. The main tower, on top of which stands the man himself, rises to almost 200 feet (60 m) tall; and its base is bursting with finely carved statues. But now that Columbus is coming to be seen as a subjugator and even as genocidal, perhaps these different places will stop trying to identify themselves with him. (The irony of Columbus, one of the great claimers of history, being himself claimed, reclaimed, and disclaimed after his death, will not be lost on the reader.)
From here you can walk along the seaside towards Barcelona’s finest park (aside from the Park Güell, to be discussed in another post): the Parc de la Ciutadella. The name of the park comes from a huge citadel that used to occupy the spot. This fortress was built after the Spanish forces conquered Barcelona during the War of Spanish Succession, in order to maintain control of the unruly province. Unsurprisingly it became a hated symbol of Spanish dominance, and was eventually destroyed. The park that later emerged was, for a long while, Barcelona’s only stretch of green. But it is not only attractive for its trees and grass. The park’s central fountain is massive and glorious, bursting with the granite and golden forms of horses. The final effect is undeniably impressive, much like the monument to Columbus. This is no coincidence. Both of these works were built for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition (a world’s fair).
A third surviving monument to this exposition stands right next to the park: the Arc de Triomf, a triumphal arch that served as the fair’s entrance. The arch looks somewhat lonely now, with nothing to lead to or from; but the lovely Neo-Mudejar design retains its sense of excitement. As you can see, then, the 1888 exposition and the 1929 exposition (in the Gothic Quarters) have left their mark on the city. So have the 1992 Summer Olympics, which were hosted here. It is a short walk from the Arc de Triomf to the Olympic Port, where you can see Frank Gehry’s wiry sculpture of a fish made for the event, in addition to some of the hotels erected for the influx of spectators and athletes. From here you can walk onto the sands of Barcelona’s beach—always crowded, of course, but with a bona fide Mediterranean sun.
Some years before the 1888 exhibition, an idealistic urban planner (and socialist) named Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer was laying the foundation for the next phase of Barcelona’s expansion. Up until the mid 19th century the city of Barcelona was still constrained by walls: Roman, medieval, and Spanish Bourbon (such as the citadel). Their destruction meant that the city could now expand into the largely uninhabited areas beyond. And it was Cerdà who was given the task of planning this expansion, from which the resultant Eixample gets its name (Catalan for “enlargement”).
Cerdà was a polymath who had studied urban poverty; appalled by the massive inequality and poor living conditions that plagued the city in his time (and continued to long after his death), he originated a utopian scheme for a city without center or division. If every building and street is identical, in a symmetrical space with no uptown or downtown, then there can be no segregation by class or wealth.
This was the ideology that motivated the Eixample’s grid pattern. Cerdà wanted his new city to be efficient and healthy, and he thought of everything: constraining the heights of buildings to allow sunlight; rounding off the corners of buildings to allow street cars to go by; and dedicating a large portion of the space to patios and parks. But the developers who built up the area were not faithful to this plan: the buildings are taller and there is very little in the way of green space. The final result is not nearly as sunny and open as was Cerdà’s original vision. And far from creating an ideal equality, the Eixample became yet another playground for the rich, with wealthy industrialists paying famous architects to design ostentatious homes. Idealistic plans have little chance against the combined strength of wealth and greed. On the plus side, though, many of these homes are now landmarks.
The most extraordinary of these houses—including two of Gaudí’s greatest works—are found on the Eixample’s iconic avenue: the Passeig de Gracia. Here one does not miss the narrow, twisting streets of the old city. The wide avenue is bathed in sunlight and warmth. The pedestrian enjoys a grand procession as she walks down the avenue, with beautiful building arranged like paintings in a museum. Even the street lights are lovely: ornate wrought iron that lazily hangs over the pavement; and each of these street lights emanates from a ceramic bench, giving the avenue many places to sit, rest, and enjoy the scenery. But it must be admitted that other parts of the Eixample are not so impressive, but recede into an undifferentiated dullness that seems to prefigure the inhumanity of modernist urban planning. This is the general drawback of grid plans: they lack the spontaneity and surprise of cities that have grown more “organically.”
The next point of interest is also to be found in the Eixample: the Plaça d’Espanya. This square itself is not particularly attractive. It was built on the occasion of the 1929 World’s Fair, and suffers from its monumental aspirations—being inhumanly vast. Admittedly, in the center of the plaza is an impressive fountain, full of sculptures; but so many cars swarm around the roundabout (it is the intersection of four major roads) that it cannot be seen from up close. On one side of the square is Las Arenas, a shopping center built in a beautiful old bullring—its neo-mudéjar design quite similar to Las Ventas in Madrid.
(Bullfighting, by the way, was banned by the Catalonian government in 2011, and hasn’t taken place since. This ban was, however, overturned in the Spanish courts—so I am unclear whether it is now legal or not. In any case, bullfighting is so symbolic of Spanish culture that it now arouses disapproval in Catalonia for political as well as ethical reasons.)
On the other side of this square are the two Venetian towers—also built for the World’s Fair—that welcome the pedestrian towards the famed mountain of Montjuïc. Well, Montjuïc is more of a hill than a mountain; and on it stand two of the city’s finest museums: the National Art Museum of Catalonia and the Miró Foundation (to be discussed in a separate post). In front of this first museum is the so-called Magic Fountain: a large fountain that has been programmed to be part of an audiovisual show. Basically, at a certain time at night the water is lit up with colored lights while it sprays in rhythm to music played over a speaker system. I did not enjoy the show very much, especially since so many people came to see it, but others may like it.
Standing on top of Montjuïc one gets an excellent view of Barcelona, the whole city spread out before you. And in the distance, rising above the city, is Tibidabo, the highest peak of the Collserola range that encloses Barcelona’s western edge. If you squint you may be able to see the pointed form of the Temple Expatriatori del Sagrat Cor, a modernist church designed by Enric Sagnier. Nearby you may also spot the ferris wheel of Tibidabo’s amusement park, the second oldest amusement park in all of Europe, having been opened in 1901. Easier to spot is the Collserola Tower, a huge telecommunications spire that extends almost 1,000 feet into the air.
This does it for my tour of Barcelona. Next I will visit some of the museums, beginning with the National Art Museum right behind me.
Beauty is the mirror of truth, and since art is beauty, without truth there is no art.
Gaudí has the distinction of being among the few genuinely famous and popular architects in history. Along with Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright, he is among the handful of architects that decently educated people can be expected to know of. More tourists flock to the Sagrada Familia every year than to the Alhambra—even if many of these gapers mistakenly believe that it is a cathedral (it is an expiatory temple).
And he wasn’t just some popular hack. Gaudí’s stature in the history of art is equally monumental. This wasn’t always the case, however. Both George Orwell and Gerald Brenan, two cultured men, thought that his work was pretentious rubbish. (Orwell regretted that it wasn’t blown up during the Spanish Civil War, and Brenan evinced his work as evidence that Catalonia was culturally behind Spain.) I admit that I had misgivings upon first seeing some of Gaudí’s work. It struck me as exaggerated and theatrical, too mindlessly showy.
But this impression disappears as soon as one begins to inspect Gaudi’s work with any circumspection: for the man was undeniably a genius of the highest order. And it is especially enthralling to encounter a genius architect. For, unlike a painter or a novelist, you can literally step into a world created by Gaudí. You can immerse yourself in his work—see it, hear it, touch it, even smell it.
And Gaudí’s world is incredibly rich. He was the capstone modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau, an art movement that was preoccupied with rich decoration. Gaudí’s art developed this preoccupation into an explosion; his works burst with ornament. To achieve his typically overwhelming effect, he combined several crafts: sculpture, landscaping, stained glass, ceramics, mosaics, carpentry, blacksmithing, among others. And underlying this passionate drive to beautify was a keen sense of space—the architect’s fundamental aptitude—making his works remarkable on both the macro and micro scale.
His method of working was famously unconventional. He seemed to operate by instinct rather than calculation, even when dealing with complex problems of structure. Gaudí thought spatially: instead of drawing plans he preferred to build models (many of which were burned during the Civil War). Most famously he hung weights from strings to study the optimal angles for weight-bearing arcs. Thus he was a kind of unconscious geometrician, and underneath the seemingly heavy ornaments are beautifully elegant forms.
One of Gaudí’s central passions was nature. A deeply religious man, he considered the natural world to be the work of God; thus he thought that architects should strive to emulate the original creation. Consequently you will look in vain for any straight lines in his works, since perfectly straight lines are seldom found in the natural world. This also helps to explain his use of color: how often are natural landscapes black and white?
A severe and passionate Catholic (not to mention a fervent Catalan nationalist), at first glance it is perplexing that a man so avant-garde in art could be so conservative in every other sphere of life. This is no paradox, of course, and only seems strange because we have come to associate cutting-edge art with the left—a historical and not a logical connection. In any case, Gaudí is yet another example of the truism that great artists manage to be both traditional and innovative in the same moment.
This little book is a nice companion and introduction to the man’s work. For my taste, the text consists too much of dense descriptions of buildings and not enough of biography or history; but any book of this length is bound to leave a lot out. The photos are excellent to have; and the final section, which includes several different interpretations of Gaudí’s work (including Dalí’s Surrealist-Freudian take on it), was very welcome.
A man is a member of a political group of any kind in virtue of his non-membership of other groups of the same kind.
—E.E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer
Evans-Pritchard—or “EP,” as his friends called him—was one of the great pioneers of cultural anthropology. His work among the Nuer, a Nilotic ethnic group living in modern South Suden, is now regarded as among the classics of anthropology.
I read his work when I was just a young anthropology student. After all these years, this quote has stayed vividly in my memory because, though not occupying a central position in EP’s thought, I think it says something profound about the nature of social behavior.
Consider this typical habit. If somebody from Europe asks me where I’m from, I say the United States. If an American asks me the same question, I say I’m from New York. If the person is a New Yorker, I say I’m from Westchester; and if they’re also from Westchester, I say I’m from Sleepy Hollow.
Thus, I locate my identity with increasing precision depending on the proximity of our origin. Differences between people become more important, paradoxically, the more similar you are. Freud called this phenomenon “the narcissism of small difference,” and it is memorably portrayed in EP’s book.
The Nuer, a tall, thin, pastoral, cattle-herding people, are constantly at war with the Dinka. The Dinka also speak a Nilotic language, are also characteristically tall and thin, they also herd cattle. An outsider would likely have trouble telling the two groups apart. And yet the Nuer look down upon the Dinka with disdain and disgust, regarding them are nearly subhuman, and never hesitate to inflict violent raids upon them.
This sounds ridiculous; but consider how often we do the same thing. Indeed, it is of the nature of our social identities that they are defined by the groups they are opposed to.
The phenomenon is especially visible in sports. Here in Spain, your identity is signified by the football team you support. Being a fan of any given team has political and cultural overtones. The ideological tension between Madrid and Barcelona is symbolized by the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barça (known as El Clásico). Likewise in New York the Yankees and the Mets attract different demographics.
Politics, too, is classic example. To be a Democrat means being opposed to everything the Republicans do and believe; and vice versa. To quote a recent Op-Ed article by the comedian Trevor Noah: “Either black people are criminals, or cops are racist—pick one. It’s us versus them. You’re with us, or you’re against us.” Even the minor parties are defined by their contrast to the major ones. A member of the Green Party is somebody too leftist and idealistic to be a Democrat; and a libertarian is somebody who disagrees with the Republicans on social issues and with the Democrats on economic ones. And so on.
Less apparent, though no less real, is the operation of this phenomenon in the sphere of culture. This was demonstrated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu’s classic sociological study, Distinction. There he documents how people use their taste in music and literature in order to define their position in the social scale.
Snobbishness is an attempt to distance oneself from other groups by snubbing your nose at their art and culture; and in so doing, you signal your allegiance to your own group and construct your own social identity. Just consider how much time people have spent publically complaining about Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey. Why do people so enjoy—in the privacy of friendly conversation and the openness of social media—berating movies, shows, songs, and books? And why do we often consider a person’s taste to be such a critical factor of who they are?
In the words of Oscar Wilde (who was right about everything): “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”
I myself, I am ashamed to admit, have viciously judged others by what books they read and didn’t read—even by what books they have or hadn’t heard of. Likewise, in various circumstances I have been judged for my lack of knowledge of Buddhism, rap, postmodern philosophy, contemporary physics, and the history of the United States.
The knowledge deemed “crucial” varies from group to group. And in each case, some other reason is given for their snobbishness. Buddhism can save your life! Physics is the nature of reality! You need to know all the names of the Supreme Court justices in order to be a conscientious citizen! And so on. But the truth is that all this knowledge, while useful and interesting, also serves as a social marker, identifying your place in the complex, ever-shifting, overlapping hierarchies that we use to negotiate the public world.
Take a moment to reflect on this. How much of your own identity is constructed from this process of embracing and scorning, of judging and condemning, of critiquing and collecting, of identifying and opposing? How much of our self-image is composed of the types of movies we watch, the genres of music we listen to, the sophistication of the books we read? How much of your sense of self is a reflection, a negative definition formed by you self-consciously not belonging to a certain political party?
Personally, when I ask myself these questions, I find the answer very disturbing. Yes, to a certain extent it is inevitable if we are to live in a society. But identifying yourself by variously allying yourself with, or distancing yourself from, various pre-existing identities seems like the very definition of superficiality. After all, if we are not to be mere party members or fans or cheerleaders, we cannot put together our identity out of puzzle pieces we find laying around. A true individual is not made of legos.
At the very least, we can keep this insight of Evans-Pritchard in mind the next time we feel inclined to judge somebody for their political party, for the team they support, for the books they read, or any of the other innumerable things we use to reduce the irreducible complexity of a human being down to simple social categories. Next time you have the urge to be a snob about your musical taste, to hate somebody because of their opinion, or to crown yourself with a halo for not being a Democrat or a Republican, consider how this very act of judging is a way of defining yourself. And do you really want your self-image to be the byproduct of snobbery?
In a sense no visitor can ever be adequately prepared to judge a foreign city, let alone an entire nation; the best he can do is to observe with sympathy.
Travel writing is like love poetry. All travelers and lovers are convinced that their experiences are unique, and therefore worth writing about; while in reality most travel stories and love poems express nearly the same basic sentiment, over and over, with only minor variations. Both genres are easy to write and hard to read, which is why far more travel blogs and love poems are written then read. Even brilliant writers sometimes make fools of themselves.
James Michener is not a brilliant writer, but he has done a fine job in this book. And for once in my life, I think I am actually qualified to judge, since I have been to about 80% of the major places he visited. Not only that, but I myself have written about my travels in Spain.
As I said before, Michener is not a brilliant writer; but he is a highly competent one. There are very few parts of this book that are memorably good, but very few that are memorably bad. The best thing that can be said for his prose is that you can read him for hours without getting tired or bored. The only parts that stuck out as bad were in some of his descriptions of churches. For example, I got completely lost in his description of the Toledo Cathedral, even though I’ve been to it—which is a bad sign.
His approach to travel writing is not very different from that of Bill Bryson: go someplace, find an interesting tidbit from the history, and then describe a few nice buildings or whatever. Apart from this, however, the two men are quite different. Michener is very much preoccupied with what in earlier times was called ‘culture’: painting, literature, architecture, music, and so on. Thus much of this book consists of descriptions and appraisals of Spain’s artistic and intellectual life. He covers flamenco, zarzuela, the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, the paintings of Velazquez and El Greco, romanesque, gothic, and modernist architecture, the philosophy of Seneca, Maimonides, and Averroes, and much else.
But most of all, Michener is concerned with history. For him, Spain is a kind of window into the past, and he spends many pages on his so-called ‘speculations’. Mainly, these speculations deal with the following question: Why was Spain once so great and is now not so great? Personally, I found him to be a pretty mediocre historian, academically speaking; but he knows how to find a good story and how to tell one. And it is true that you learn quite a bit about Spain’s history in the course of this book.
Michener spent about thirty years traveling in Spain, on and off. As a result, he is able to cast a wide net, covering almost every major city in the country. Most of the chapters are centered around one city—Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca, Seville, Santiago, Córdoba, Toledo—but Michener inevitably ends up leaving the city and touring the surrounding areas. (The exceptions to this are his chapters on the Guadalquivir Marshes and bullfighting.) Not only that, but Michener is very digression-prone, so he will often pause to tell you some bit of history that interests him. Thus in the course of these 900 pages he travels through nearly all of the country, the only noticeable exception being the Basque Country. It is an encyclopedic travel book.
Some people have said this book is outdated. To a certain extent this is true. Michener first came to Spain as a young man, which must have been in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and then continued his visits until the books publication in 1968. Thus you obviously can’t find anything here about the great transformations and dramas of post-Franco Spain. Apart from this, however, the book has kept its relevance. Every time he visited somewhere that I had been, I found little to no discrepancy between his description and my experience. All the beautiful cathedrals and churches and plazas are still standing today, just as lovely as when Michener saw them.
The only section where the book’s age really made itself felt was in the chapter on Madrid. In one section, Michener adds excerpts from several conversations he had about what would happen when Franco died. What is most fascinating is that nobody saw what was coming. In fact, many people insisted that democracy could never work in Spain and that Juan Carlos was just a weak little boy. A mere seven years after this book’s publication, Franco would die, Juan Carlos would take over, and then the new king would effect a masterful transition from fascism to liberal democracy. Of course, Michener can’t be faulted for missing this.
I am not sure whether this book can be enjoyed by somebody who is not at least planning on visiting Spain. It’s simply too long and too detailed. For those who are planning a trip, the book can be profitably skimmed, and indeed that might be the best way to read it. But frankly this may not a great travel guide, if only because it can make you feel inadequate and envious. You see, Michener was a successful novelist with plenty of time and disposable income on his hands. As a result he went everywhere he pleased, stayed in whatever hotel he wanted, spent months driving around eating, drinking, seeing bullfights. Every time he goes to a new town the local professor comes to talk to him about the local history. He gets private tours of every monument. In short, he has many experiences that aren’t available for the rest of us.
On the whole this book is a very well-done piece of work. It is not poetic, not profound, but it covers a lot of ground in a highly readable way. But the book suffers from several faults. First, it is simply too big and sprawling. Michener needed a better organizing principle than “Hey, this is all the stuff I liked in Spain!” This lack of an overarching organization really wore on me by the end of the book. There are only so many buildings I can hear described in agonizing detail, there are only so many times I can hear him say “This is one of Spain’s finest plazas,” or “This was one of the best meals I had in Spain.”
This is related to another flaw. For travel not to be frivolous, I think it must change you in some way, if only subtly. Well, Michener is certainly not a superficial person, and I think he was deeply affected by Spain. Nevertheless, at times I wondered whether all this travel—all this eating and music and art loving—was just another, more sophisticated version of consumer culture. Of course this is a bigger question than this book; and in fact it can be asked about all modern travel. At what point does the itch to go to a new city and to see all the sights become just as frivolous as the itch to buy the newest iPhone? At what point does travel stop being a rewarding experience and start becoming a consumption of experience? And by the way, this question can be asked of books too, especially on Goodreads: at what point does reading stop being a form of self-learning and start being a form of conspicuous consumption? Probably there is no clear line, but in any case there were several times during the course of this book that Michener’s urge to see and know everything about Spain struck me as the urge to consume the country.
The third flaw was Michener’s preoccupation with authenticity. He often talks about finding the ‘real’ Spain, and I find this grating. He goes from place to place, finding each one more ‘authentic’ and more ‘Spanish’ than the last. I admit that I have had experiences in which I couldn’t help saying to myself “This is so incredibly Spanish.” Just the same, I am deeply suspicious about this idea of authenticity in travel. Every tourist looks for something that is unique to the area they are visiting. This unique thing—whether it’s a dish or a genre of music—becomes profitable and then becomes commodified very quickly by locals hoping to earn some money. Thus a kind of arms-race ensues, with tourists trying to find out where the locals go and locals trying to find out where the tourists go. The whole thing is silly. And the silliest part is that often the locals are not fond of the ‘authentic’ local attraction. I know Spaniards who dislike flamenco, and I’ve met Germans who insisted that the best food in Germany is Döner Kebab.
These flaws are all certainly applicable to myself. I offer them in the spirit of comradeship and not of spite. All things considered, this book is really a marvelous tour of Spain. Michener did a fine job in a difficult task. If you read it, you will learn a lot, and you’ll get many good ideas for trips too. Michener is a clear writer, a knowledgeable guide, and a genial companion. More than that, this book has a special significance for me, since we are two writers with similar experiences, similar flaws, and roughly the same interests. This book spoke to directly to me in a way that few other books have, so I am sad to be putting it down.
I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself.
Autobiographies and memoirs are, I think, the best books to read on vacation. Not only are they light, easy, and entertaining, but they’re usually not hard to put down. This is important because, if you’re like me, you may end up spending your whole vacation with your head buried in a book. Most valuable, however, is simply seeing how an excellent writer transforms their experiences into stories. The vague emotions of daily life, the interesting characters we encounter, the sights and sounds and smells of new places—good autobiographies direct our attention to these little details.
In this spirit I picked up Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia to read during my trip to Seville. It was an excellent choice. It’s been a while since I’ve read Orwell, and I’d nearly forgotten what a fine writer he is. In fact, perhaps the most conspicuous quality of this book is the caliber of the prose. It is written with such grace, clarity, and ease, that I couldn’t help being constantly impressed and, I admit, extremely envious at times. The writing is direct but never blunt; the tone is personal and natural, but not chummy. The book may have been a bit too readable, actually, since I had a hard time prying myself away to go explore Seville (and a book has to be very good indeed to compete with Seville).
There seems to be a bit of confusion about this book. Specifically, some people seem to come to it expecting to learn about the Spanish Civil War. This is a mistake; Orwell only experienced a sliver of the war, and his understanding of the political situation was limited to the infighting between various leftist groups. The events and conflicts that led up to the war, and the progress of the war itself, are for the most part unexplained. This book is, rather, a deeply personal record of his time in the Spanish militia. We learn more about Orwell’s military routine than about any battles between fascist and government forces. More light is shed on Orwell’s own political opinions than the political situation in Spain.
If you come to the book with this in mind, it will not disappoint. His time in Spain made a deep impression on Orwell; he writes of it in a wistful and nostalgic tone, as if everything that happened occurred in a dreamy, timeless, mist-filled landscape, disconnected from the rest of his life. Characters come and go, soldiers are introduced, arrested, or killed in action; but we do not get acquainted with anyone save Orwell himself. The mood is introspective and pensive, as if it all took place in another life. Even when he is describing his friends’ imprisonment, or his experience getting shot in the neck and hospitalized, he manages to sound dispassionate and serene.
Two chapters, however, do not fit into this characterization. These are Orwell’s analyses of the political situation in Barcelona during this time. In some books, they are published as appendices—which I think is a good choice, actually, since they interrupt the flow of the book quite a bit. Despite the abrupt change in tone and subject-matter, however, they make for valuable reading. The machinations and petty political squabbles that went on during this time are astounding. One would think that having a common enemy in Franco would be enough to unite the various factions on the Left, at least for the duration of the war. Instead, the anti-revolutionary communist party ended up declaring the pro-revolutionary communist party (of which Orwell was a member, entirely by chance) to be a fascist conspiracy, resulting in hundreds of people—people who had spent months fighting at the front—being thrown in secret prisons. Orwell himself narrowly escaped.
Nevertheless, I think that Orwell’s analyses of the general situation in Spain should be taken with copious salt. He understands nearly everything through a quasi-Marxist lens of class-warfare, which I think fails to do justice to the complex political and cultural history of the conflict. Added to this, one gets the impression that Orwell’s command of Spanish was fairly rudimentary, which I think greatly limited his ability to understand the war. To his credit, though, Orwell does warn us about his limitations:
In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.
But these are minor complaints of a book which I found to be supremely well-written and absolutely fascinating. His accounts of life at the front were possibly the best descriptions of war that I’ve ever read, with the exception of those in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is not because Orwell saw very much fighting; quite the opposite. Rather, he conveys a sense of the crushing boredom and the sense of futility that many soldiers must feel during a long, draw-out war. Also superb was his portrayal of political oppression, the climate of fear and backstabbing that arose during the party conflicts in Barcelona.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is that, despite all of the hardships Orwell endured, and despite the obvious injustices inflicted on both himself and his friends, he does not come across as bitter or resentful. I leave you with his words:
When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.