From the Rose of Fire to Gaudí

For a long time, the only reason travellers paid any attention to Barcelona was because of its proximity to Montserrat. It took many centuries for the city to forge an identity for itself that would make it attractive to foreigners. It was initially the Rose of Fire, a revolutionary city.

© Maria Corte

Travellers, upon returning home, talked about everything they had seen. Through what they said and wrote, they painted images and stereotypes of cities, countries, and landscapes. They were lucky: they had enough time and money to take leisurely journeys around the continent. They were propelled by curiosity. In each place, they sought out the strange, the wonderful and the never-before-seen: everything from places of worship to mountains of salt. It was about visiting and hence seeing things that were different to what one had previously known. Barcelona received little attention.

For a long time, the only reason travellers paid any attention to Barcelona was because of its proximity to Montserrat. Evidence of this fact is found on many engravings of the city, where the outline of the mountain appears on the left in the background. Montserrat, pilgrimages, La Moreneta, crocodiles hanging from the ceiling of the cloister that was burnt down by the French, the boys’ choir with the clear yet worn voices of castrato singers. Montserrat, the chapels, the rocky places, a never-ending number of legends and Fray Garí, not to mention the Holy Grail. The attraction of the sanctuary goes back a long way. To start with, there is one of the most important works of French literature: Roman de Mélusine, a novel written by Jean d’Arras between 1387 and 1392, part of the story of which is set on the sacred mountain. Barcelona, however, had little of interest to offer to travellers. Walls, churches, a few gardens, some cobbled streets, a port. It did not take long to visit, being more or less the same as any number of things travellers would have seen on their journeys.

It would take many years, centuries even, for Barcelona to build its own, characteristic image. And not just one, but several. To become an attractive city for travellers, eager to be in a place where everything seemed different. First of all, it was a city of revolution. The Rose of Fire. The famous quote by Friedrich Engels: “Barcelona – Spain’s largest industrial city, which has seen more barricade fighting than any other city in the world” are words that ring out in the pages of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. That was the Barcelona with a flair for anarchism that Pío Baroja captured in several books, such as Red Dawn and The Cape of Storms.

And after everything had been blown up and set ablaze, and everything had died, a few travellers appeared on the scene to see the new city. “The aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle,” wrote George Orwell. Similar sentiments were to be found in the pages, musings and clichés of John Langdon-Davies, Franz Borkenau and H.E. Kaminsky: “A crank organ plays The Internationale. In Barcelona The Internationale could be felt at all times and everywhere.” There were also a novel and a film by André Malraux. But returning to Orwell, it should be noted how amazed he was that the Sagrada Família was still standing after the anarchists had burned and devastated so many other churches. They say it was an artistic question. “I think the anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.”

Barcelona, the Rose of Fire. And from one fire to another fire, the one that burns in the loins. Other travellers recounted a new image of the city, a city now fixated on prostitution. This view is largely the work of French literature. Francis Carco, Pierre Mac Orlan, Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Henry de Montherlant: all of them, on one page or another, or in one novel or another, speak of Barcelona’s Red-Light District. The cliché was already there. As were bombs and attacks, venereal diseases, cocaine and human trafficking. Apparently, living in Barcelona was risky and exciting, and the city was nothing more than La Criolla, Madame Petit, Cal Sagristà and occasional moments out on the Rambles for some fresh air. Then back into the fray with women, little boys, brothels and cabarets – anything and everything the sex industry had to offer, in spades.

© Biblioteca de Catalunya
The final issue of the magazine D’Ací i d’Allà, in June 1936, published a piece by a foreign photographer on what he considered the most unusual aspects of the city.

Regardless of whether the city’s bordello image originated from those travellers in the early 20th century or from an earlier time, it would nonetheless come to largely represent Barcelona’s identity. The bishop Joseph Clement wrote in 1767 that “dissolute youth dare say that there is not a more fun-loving city in Spain than Barcelona. I have heard some foreigners say that in no other European city can one as easily and cheaply find an outlet for such gauche passions.” They say that bishops always exaggerate and see only what is bad – a certain kind of bad – even though it is also said that God merely laughs at sins of the prick. We must nonetheless recognise the correct nature of the bishop’s observation, as late 18th-century travellers passing through the city would have stumbled upon just that kind of behaviour and the omnipresence of prostitution. There is no need now to hold those travellers to account. I will mention just a minor detail, told by Casanova the adventurer. Barcelona, 1768.

Nina Bergonzi, ballerina. She executed a brilliant rebaltade, finishing with a pirouette and backwards somersault. Her first performance day was phenomenally successful, earning her generous applause… because her undergarment showed during the jump. Bad luck. Display of the most intimate of garments was prohibited and punishable by a fine. The next day she performed once again and managed the reverse somersault without showing her knickers. She wasn’t wearing any. That’s the way some shows were in the Barcelona of 1768. It’s worth remembering that the Inquisition was still active in those years. And to finish on this topic, a local story. Visitors could see it, the people from here knew and talked about it. “At the end of the day / many are waiting; / they go to the fishmonger, / they buy fish and sell flesh.” The fish monger, the fish market, near El Born. It was demolished in 1877.

Visitors talked about the city of bombs, the city of sex. And also about the city of the killer bookseller, one of the great legends explained in all its glory by, amongst others, Charles Nodier and Gustave Flaubert. It is even found in the work of Max Aub and a certain bookshop on Carrer d’Aribau. So many Barcelonas, even that of the white gorilla.

The last edition of the magazine D’Ací i d’Allà was published in the summer of 1936. It included a piece commissioned to a foreign photographer: an exposé on what most surprised him about Barcelona. That is the essence of travel, what travellers do: see different things and capture that which is unusual. The results show the shacks where scribes sold their services at La Virreina, the geese in the cloister of the cathedral (which also drew the attention of H.C. Andersen in 1862), the traditional rope-soled footwear worn by the Catalan police on gala days, the Chinese dragon on the façade of Casa Bruno Quadras, opposite the Boqueria, the insignias of the commercial district of Santa Maria, a newsagent’s stand on La Rambla and the inclined colonnade of Park Güell.

Gaudí, the last cliché. The one that makes the biggest impression. Because it is much too long to get into now, I will comment on just one point. In 1929 Evelyn Waugh went on a Mediterranean cruise. There was a two-day stopover in Barcelona. While walking leisurely about, he saw a house with a wonderful blue roof and shapes that looked to him like fossilised waves. And there, at the corner of Passeig de Gràcia with Carrer d’Aragó, he hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take him to see other similar buildings. That’s how he got to see La Pedrera, the Sagrada Família and Park Güell. The English writer had never seen anything so fascinating or so outlandish. He took pictures non-stop during his journey, which illustrated an article in an architectural magazine published upon his return to England. That was in 1930, and it was one of the first writings seriously dedicated to Gaudí. In addition to praising his work, the writer explained some of its technical aspects. This polite English writer also included a thank-you to the taxi drivers for helping him discover that “the glory and delight of Barcelona, which no other town in the world can offer, is the architecture of Gaudí”. Then came the tourists.

Joan de Déu Domènech


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