About Jaume Enric Zamora i Escala

Director of the Municipal Archives Network Unit. Cultural Heritage Office of Barcelona Provincial Council

Duran i Sanpere and the Catalan archives during the Civil War

Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

Images of the exterior of the Casa de l’Ardiaca and of the reading room of the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat (Historical Archives of the City) as they are today.
Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

The country’s archives were just as or even more vulnerable to the events of war than were human lives at the begining of the Spanish Civil War. Many were destroyed, particularly if they were of a religious or bourgeois nature and in the event that paper pulp was required for the printing of newspapers.

During the Spanish Civil War, and thanks to the municipal archivist Agustí Duran i Sanpere (1887-1975), Barcelona became the operations centre for the recovery of historical archives located both in the city and throughout the rest of Catalonia. Catalonia’s national cultural heritage ran the risk, common to all armed conflicts, of being neglected by those charged with its care and falling victim to destruction and disappearance. In addition to being subject to commonplace wartime threats, those parts of Catalonia’s documentary heritage related to the Church or to property also became a priority target for persecution.

In the words of Duran i Sanpere, “war poses a constant risk to people and property, but archives – whether public or private – became particularly vulnerable during the revolution, and many were captured and destroyed”1. “It was necessary to fight against extremists who had no respect for old documents, particularly if they were of a religious or bourgeois nature and in the event that paper pulp was required for the printing of newspapers. The Notarial Archive of La Seu d’Urgell and that of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem had already been sold to the ragman before we managed to rescue them. This obliged us to disguise the repositories and put up erroneous signs in them”.2

For this reason, the country’s archives were just as or even more vulnerable to the events of war than were human lives. “The spectacular nature of events had a harmful effect on the conscience of those whose mission it was to transfer the old documentary nuclei from one generation to the next,” says Duran i Sanpere. The Historical Archive of the City was in a good position to safeguard the most threatened documents, of a religious or notarial nature or related to the property of prominent families”3. “The Archdeacon’s House – home to the Historical Archive of the City of Barcelona – was used as a provisional storage site for the archives”.4

With regard to the first measures taken to protect cultural heritage, a decree issued on 24 July 1936 confiscated, in favour of the Catalan Government, all materials and objects of pedagogical, scientific, artistic, historical, archaeological, bibliographical and documentary interest located in the buildings or premises of public institutions in Catalonia that had been affected by the events of that time.

Photo: Josep Domínguez / AFB

Josep Tarradellas, Councillor for the Interior, visiting the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat (Historical Archives of the City) sometime in 1932; in the centre of the image, with Duran i Sanpere.
Photo: Josep Domínguez / AFB

The Catalan Government’s Archival Section

Agustí Duran i Sanpere, then director of the Historical Archive of the City of Barcelona and appointed as Director of the Archival Section of the Historical, Artistic and Scientific Heritage Department of the Catalan Government (by means of a decree issued on 2 June 1936), was put in charge of the recovery of the country’s documentary heritage. “The Archival Section of Catalonia’s Artistic Heritage Department was created in June 1936. We were set to implement a meticulously prepared plan and put it into practice in an unhurried and methodical way.”5 “However, the events that took place the following month put an end to all our plans and forced us to multiply our efforts by a hundred, desperately running around Catalonia from one end to the other to wherever archives were at risk, an effort that could be considered the ‘Red Cross’ mission of our archives.”6

The Archival Section, with the aim of saving the archives, always followed certain rules: keep a diary of all the operations carried out; store archival records at only a few repository sites (the number of which was subsequently reduced even further to ensure better care); always preserve data relating to the origins of records and the safeguard their integrity; protect records in boxes or in waterproof repositories located in sturdy and concealed premises; store records in numbered bundles and, in the event of a forced last-minute evacuation, seal off the repositories with a disguised wall.

Duran i Sanpere worked with a sizeable team whose members were given different assignments in accordance with the different tasks to be carried out: management (two people); collection and transfer of archives (twenty people); inventory organisation and creation (twenty-nine people); and document restoration (four people). Also included were eleven priests who, because they were persecuted, applied to the Archival Section in order to obtain employment certificates that would enable them to disguise their status.

On 4 August 1936, a decree required the Catalan Government to be provided with all documentation originating prior to the nineteenth century from public institutions, corporations and communities, and the family estates of the old nobility, in addition to municipal, notarial, judicial, parochial, episcopal, conventual, chapter and other Catalan archives of a similar nature.

Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

Effects of the bombing raids on the Casa de l’Ardiaca by the Fascist aviation in August 1938.
Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

Organisation of the rescue operations

Duran i Sanpere, aware of the threats associated with the war, explained the organisational aspects of the rescue operations: “Just as was done in the case of our museums, it was now necessary to safeguard the Catalan archives from the dangers of aerial bombardment. Towards this end, in Catalonia we have two archival refuges, one for the western municipal regions (Poblet) and another for the eastern municipal regions (Viladrau). The documents were transferred to these archival refuges using special boxes, which I would venture to say we should patent. It can be said that archives were taken to the refuge fully intact, thanks to these shelved boxes. Thus, despite the fact that they are far from Barcelona, we do not have them in storage, but rather perfectly installed and available to researchers who want to use them”.7

The summary note of the report signed by Duran i Sanpere in April 1939 tells us where the archive refuges were initially located around Catalonia: Lleida, Tortosa, Cervera, Manresa, Reus, Tarragona, Poblet, Barcelona, Vic, Girona, Ripoll and Viladrau. However, “to the extent that the forced evacuation of people made it inevitable, repositories that were set to disappear were located in Viladrau or Barcelona so as to prevent confusion. In cases where the archives were sufficiently well protected in their original location, efforts were made to prevent them from leaving. Such locations included Olot, Cardona, Sabadell, Terrassa, Palamós and Montserrat and the Notarial Archive of Barcelona, where actions were limited to carrying out the surveillance needed for them to be removed in the event of danger”.8

Documentary repositories

Documentary repositories, where documentation was taken and protected, were placed at various locations. The Archdeacon’s House, home to the Historical Archive of the City of Barcelona, was used in the summer of 1936 for the provisional placement of archives. It was also necessary to use other buildings in Barcelona, such as the house located at numbers 2 and 4 of Carrer de la Palma de Sant Just, a former convent known as La Casa del Retir i de l’Esperança, provided by the Caixa de Pensions i d’Estalvis savings bank. The decree of 21 August 1936 stipulated the reason for the selection of this location: “In order for the documentary collections given to the Catalan Government, which must be located in Barcelona, to be organised prior to their permanent installation in the former Episcopal Palace”. In addition, the decree of 29 September 1936 provided that “the General Archive of Catalonia will be installed in the building of the former Episcopal Palace of Barcelona”, but the outfitting works were never undertaken. The houses at number 2 Carrer Setantí and number 45 Carrer Sant Gervasi were also used.

Photo: AFB

Documents being moved to the Palau Episcopal in July 1938.
Photo: AFB

Photo: AFB

Archive material from various places in the Monastery of Pedralbes, which in autumn 1938 became the Arxiu Històric General de Catalunya (General Historical Archives of Catalonia).
Photo: AFB

The convent of l’Esperança had been looted and damaged, but many archives were collected from it. These were classified by their origins, and the task of cleaning and organising them was begun. It was also necessary to flatten parchments which came rolled up and bundled into sacks. Bombing was not the only risk factor at this location, which – because it was a convent – often attracted uncontrolled bands.

Bombs often exploded near the convent, making it necessary to find a new refuge far from the areas that seemed most dangerous. The Monastery of Pedralbes was secured to house the General Historical Archive of Catalonia (pursuant to the decree issued on 7 October 1938), and the change was made quickly. When in October of 1938 a bomb was dropped on the convent of l’Esperança, only a few metres of shelf were still occupied. The explosion destroyed the house’s roof and damaged much of the rest of the building, but it also proved the effectiveness of the protection system adopted for the volumes and bundles of documents, which consisted of tightly squeezing them in and aligning them on the shelves.

After the decision to leave the convent of l’Esperança convent was made, the archives were transferred at great speed during the second fortnight of October 1938. And in mid-September, the documents held at the Episcopal Palace were also transferred to Pedralbes. Pedralbes was a tranquil location outside of the habitual radius of the bombings.

The documents from the Palace of Justice were installed at Casa Guarro in Carrer de Setantí. In addition, Casa Maspons i Grassot was used as a place to order and safeguard private libraries whose owners had agreed to have them put under the protection of the Section. In August 1938, documentation from the Archdeacon’s House was also transferred to this house in Carrer de Sant Gervasi after the former building was damaged by a bombardment.

Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

The shelves where the first batch of documents from Barcelona sent to Viladrau were stored, in January 1937.
Photo: Pérez de Rozas / AFB

As regards the Archive of the Crown of Aragon, parts of its documentary collections were kept and others were moved to Viladrau. The Historical Protocols Archive of Barcelona held on to its collections.

Several protection centres were established outside Barcelona, some of which were provisional while others were more permanent. That is why, as a result of risks from the bombing in Barcelona, Viladrau became the repository for the General Archive of Catalonia.

Viladrau, a place of refuge

On 30 November 1936 Duran i Sanpere went to Ventura Gassol, Minister of Culture of the Catalan Government, and told him of the risk involved in keeping the most important archives near the city’s government buildings. He recommended placing them in Viladrau, a town that was “in inland Catalonia and not connected to any important routes, thus offering the necessary guarantees, backed up by the Town Council’s offer to allocate a building or buildings for this purpose that were sturdy and better located”.9

The Archival Section had three houses in the town of Viladrau: “These buildings are sturdy, spacious, well ventilated and free from moisture”.10 These were Casa Balcells, Casa Vídua Crexells and Casa Trias, as well as the Mas Noguer property located on the town’s outskirts.

Because a portion of the Crown of Aragon Archive was installed in Viladrau, “Duran explained, in response to the false rumour circulated by residents of the town of Viladrau that the crown of the kings of Aragon had been hidden there, he had organised cultural visits to show them what he really was hiding”.11

In the period between late 1936 and early 1937, the transfer to Viladrau of the archives that were in Barcelona and subsequently those in the rest of the country began.

The archives that were protected and saved by the Archival Section, with a network of staff deployed throughout the country, were highly diverse in nature, including documents from dioceses, chapters, convents, parishes, notary public offices, trade unions, property registers, municipal governments, old mortgage bookkeeping records, legal records and exceptional documents such as the Archive of the Crown of Aragon.

The Franco dictatorship

From February 1939, after the Francoist army had achieved its military occupation of Catalonia, the Bibliographical and Documentation Recovery Service of the nationalist side ordered the return to the Monastery of Pedralbes of both the archives that had been located in Viladrau as well as those that had been located in the monastery, which had been the last location of the General Archive of Catalonia in Barcelona, in order to transfer them to their respective places of origin.

Subsequently, the purging of municipal officials began, and legal actions were taken against those who had held positions in Republican institutions, as well as those who had previously shown or displayed signs of opposition to the new imposed order.

Duran i Sanpere was subjected to two legal proceedings: he was removed from his position as a City Council official, and brought to trial before a summary war council in the courts of Barcelona.

After making it through the ordeal, he received many displays of solidarity, esteem and gratitude from people he had helped during the most difficult times of the war. And once the conflict had finished, many individuals who had left their documents in the custody of Duran i Sanpere rewarded his work by donating these documents to the Historical Archive of the City of Barcelona.

It is hoped that this article will serve as a tribute to all those in Barcelona and throughout the country who, during the Civil War, helped to save Catalonia’s documentary heritage – amounting to a volume of 20,000 linear metres of documents and 150,000 parchments – and, in particular, to the professionalism and character of the man who made it possible: Agustí Duran i Sanpere.


1. DURAN I SANPERE, A. “Els arxius documentals de Catalunya durant la guerra dels anys 1936-1939”. [Catalonia’s Documental Archives during the Civil War 1936-1939] In: Barcelona i la seva història. L’art i la cultura. [Barcelona and its History, Art and Culture.] Barcelona: Curial, 1975, volume 3, p. 622.

2. DURAN I SANPERE, A. “Nota sumaria de los trabajos realizados durante el dominio del Gobierno rojo para la protección de los Archivos Históricos de Cataluña”. [Notes on the work done during the period of the leftest government to protect Catalonia’s Historical Archives.] Barcelona. 15 April 1939. Box 413. Archival Collection of the Catalan Government (Second Spanish Republic). Archival Section of the Historical, Artistic and Scientific Heritage Service. National Archive of Catalonia (ANC).

3. Op. cit. DURAN I SANPERE, A. “Els arxius documentals…” p. 622.

4. Op. cit. DURAN I SANPERE, A. p. 623.

5. Op. cit. DURAN I SANPERE, A. p. 622.

6. Interview with Agustí Duran i Sanpere. “El salvament i la conservació dels arxius de Catalunya”. [Saving and preserving Catalonia’s archives.] Última Hora, 26 December 1937. Press summary. Agustí Duran i Sanpere Archive. Cervera Regional Archive.

7. Ibid. “El salvament i la conservació…”

8. Ibid. DURAN I SANPERE, A. “Nota sumaria de los trabajos…”

9. Viladrau archival record. Box 409. Archival Collection of the Catalan Government (Second Spanish Republic). Archival Section. ANC.

10. Section of the second point agreed between Duran i Sanpere and Martínez Ferrando about transferring part of the Archive of the Crown of Aragon to Viladrau, 18 December 1936. Comunicaciones oficiales entradas, 1921-40. Secretariat (115 sec.). Archive of the Crown of Aragon (ACA).

11. Interview with Martí de Riquer, 17 January 1996.

Memoirs of a rescue

Photo: Estorch / AFB

Photograph of Duran i Sanpere in the courtyard of the Casa de l’Ardiaca in 1935.
Photo: Estorch / AFB

Duran i Sanpere left a written testimony of the operation, whose reading allows us to grasp the enormous dimensions of his work.

Agustí Duran i Sanpere kept a diary where he chronicled the work carried out by the Archival Section to save documentary collections during the Civil War. The diary is incomplete and includes entries from 31 July 1936 to 28 May 1938. It contains information on the daily activities of members of the Section, journeys taken to collect documentation and carry out transfers, inventory work and visits. In short, detailed chronicles of frantically executed actions. It is a written testimonial that is essential to comprehend the scope of the rescue operation. Below we offer a few samples from the diary.

The diary begins on 31 July 1936. At the beginning of the Civil War, the burning of religious monuments and their archives was commonplace:

  • “Bernardí Martorell has brought five burnt parchments and another that has not been burnt, from Santa Maria del Mar.” (31/7/1936)

Documents were collected constantly, and whenever he participated he would write entries:

  • “19 bundles of documents and books from the Archive of Santa Maria del Mar collected. A lorry from the Museum Service: Arques, Amat, Cayo, Ismael and Manuel Estrems, Dalmau, Benavent and Cluselles, B. Martorell.” (1/8/1936)

In order to prevent attacks on Church buildings, signs were put up that announced the building’s new function from then on:

  • “Placement of a sign on the Episcopal Palace with the name of the General Archive of Catalonia.” (4/8/1936)
Foto: Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

Cover and one page from Duran i Sanpere’s diary, kept at the Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya (National Archives of Catalonia).
Foto: Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

While collecting the Archive of Saint John of Jerusalem – located in a convent of nuns in the Sant Gervasi district that had been taken over and used as a hospital for militiamen – members of the FAI (the Iberian Anarchist Federation) stopped Duran and threatened to shoot him unless he explained what he was doing there. He finally managed to escape, but without the archive. In May 1937, he managed to recover it from a group of militiamen, to whom he paid twice as much money as a ragman had offered them to shred up the archive as old waste paper. In this entry from his diary, we can see that Duran discretely noted “negative result”.

  • “Visit to the Archive of Saint John of Jerusalem. Two rented lorries (negative result) Bas, Rius, Buch, Gómez, Estrems brothers, Dalmau and Amat.” (6/8/1936)

The building at numbers 2 and 4 Carrer de la Palma de Sant Just, the former Casa del Retir i de l’Esperança, was used for the collection, classification, cleaning, organisation and flattening of documents. In the convent, which had been looted, a sign was placed to prevent misunderstandings.

  • “Transfer of the Cathedral Archive to the convent of l’Esperança. Rented lorry.” (9/9/1936)
  • “The painter Agustí Grau collected a panel to paint a sign for the convent of l’Esperança.” (16/9/1936)

The diary noted the preparatory work for the transfer of some of the documents from the Archive of the Crown of Aragon to Viladrau:

  • “Work to protect of the first batches of documentation of the Archive of the Former States of Catalonia and Aragon: Arques, Riquer and Buyreu.” (4/12/1936)

He also took notes on the arrival of special boxes for transfer:

  • “Arrival of special boxes for the transfer of documentation from Casa Pou and Ripoll.” (8/12/1936)

And he noted the beginning of the transfer to Viladrau:

  1. “In the Archive of the Former States of Catalonia and Aragon: two lorries loaded with documentation for transfer to Viladrau. Gómez, Riquer and Buyreu. Duran and Arques leave for Viladrau. Lorries with documentation leave for Viladrau. Riquer and Gómez.” (18/12/1936)

The work of organising archives and journeys is also carried out constantly:

  • “Riquer and Buyreu at the convent of l’Esperança, location of the Pi Archive.” (From 15/6/1937 to 19/6/1937)

“Viladrau: the number of parchments flattened is 11,821.” (17/7/1937)

  • “Journey to Hostalric. We agree with the Town Council to take the Archive of the Casa Medinaceli Hospital.” (7/8/1937)

Duran provides accounts of the bombardments, which were the reason, in 1938, that the Monastery of Pedralbes, on the outskirts of the city, was assigned to house the General Historical Archive of Catalonia:

  • “Bombardment of the Plaça Nova neighbourhood.” (30/1/1938)
  • “The bombing continues. Shelter for paintings and photographs, glass items in Plaça Nova tower.” (18/3/1938)

The diary comes to a sudden end on 28 May 1938, with the “Visit to the Minister of Justice about the Notarial Archives.” What could have been the reasons for this? If the diary was in fact interrupted on that last entry date, the reasons could include the increased obstacles put up by the Government of the Republic against the Catalan Government’s activities, to growing shortages of vital supplies (food, paper, etc.), the bombardments or a general worsening of the situation brought about by the course of the war. Nonetheless, rescue activities continued until the very end of the conflict.