One hundred years ago a British traveler described Barcelona as “combining the business of mill and shop, of warehouse and dock…of Liverpool and Manchester in one.” The comparison was in fact a compliment to the Catalan city, for its port was smaller and less efficient than Liverpool’s while its factories could not compete with Manchester’s: indeed, they survived only because Spain had the highest tariffs in Europe.

Such a comparison now, however, would be regarded as a terrible insult to Barcelona. Its textile mills may be old-fashioned (although so now are Manchester’s) but other features of its economy keep the place growing while the Lancashire cities have been losing jobs and inhabitants for decades. During the last hundred years Barcelona has suffered from a civil war, two dictatorships, and long periods of political and industrial violence. But it has acquired some marvelous architecture (almost all of it before 1936), much cultural prestige as well as political status, and a population about double that of Liverpool and Manchester combined. In addition, its application to host the Olympic Games succeeded, while Manchester’s has failed (so far).

Barcelona is arguably the finest “second city” in Europe and should have little to complain about. But whereas such a title would delight Birmingham or Lyon, Barcelona could never be satisfied with a designation that placed it behind Spain’s first city, the capital. To be deputy to a metropolis like London or Paris might just have been tolerable to the Catalans, but to be run by Madrid has for centuries been considered an injustice and a humiliation.

History massages Catalan grievances. In the Middle Ages, when Madrid was a meager provincial town, Barcelona was the center of a Mediterranean empire which included Sicily, Sardinia, and Majorca. In the nineteenth century, when Madrid was perhaps the most backward and corrupt capital in Europe, Barcelona led Spain’s industrial revolution, while today it is the largest city anywhere on the Mediterranean. Only bad luck and, in Catalan eyes, fiendish inequity could have determined that the greater city should have had to serve its inferior. The historical “ifs” proliferate from the fifteenth century: if Isabella of Castile had married the Portuguese king instead of the Aragonese heir, if the dynastic union had not happened when Castile was unnaturally strong and Aragon was unnaturally weak, if Philip II had not abandoned Toledo in 1561 or if he had made Lisbon his capital after 1580, if Valencia and the Aragonese hinterland had backed the Catalans in the 1640s—if any of these things had taken place, Barcelona would have been spared submission to Madrid. The most favorable opportunity to escape presented itself in the seventeenth century when both Portugal and Catalonia rebelled against the weakened Castilian state. Portugal managed to secede permanently from Spain, but Catalonia was reconquered. Barcelona was captured by a Castilian army in 1652 and again, after another lengthy war, in 1714. As its inhabitants are well aware, only a historical toss of the coin decreed that Lisbon rather than their own city is a national capital today.

The Catalans’ traditional reaction to this situation has been to claim that they are more European than Spanish, to declare that they have more in common with Paris than with Madrid, and to clamor periodically for independence. Now, after a long struggle, a political solution to Catalan nationalism has been achieved in the form of autonomy, but the rivalry between the two cities remains intense, particularly on the football field. A victory for the Barcelona team (“Barça”) over Real Madrid, the side that dominated European football in the Fifties, is still celebrated with political and nationalist satisfaction. And the stereotypes that each city has created for the other also linger on. Catalans have traditionally despised the madrileños as snobbish and idle, contemptuous of hard work. On the other side Castilians have not denied that Barcelona’s citizens know how to work but they are apt to assert that such persistent money-making has left them avaricious and uncultured.

In his admirable portrait of Barcelona, Robert Hughes awards its inhabitants slightly fewer points than they themselves would claim but more than their detractors have offered. Highly romantic about their history and sentimental about their region, the Catalans nevertheless have a fairly earthy approach to their own lives. Partial to good food and to a sense of humor that can be horribly scatological, they take pride in their seny, their reliability or natural common sense. Hughes defines seny as what Dr. Johnson meant by “bottom”—a phlegmatic English characteristic, a quality which Wellington much appreciated in his horse “Copenhagen,” which refused to be unnerved by artillery shells or Napoleon’s cavalry at Waterloo. A review of Barcelona’s history, however, would indicate that seny has not been so dominant a characteristic in Catalonia as phlegm in England. Certainly the long succession of civil conflicts and hopeless revolts suggests that rauxa (rage), the quality which Manuel Vázquez Montalbán believes is in a perpetual state of tension with seny, has had its share of influence.


Hughes opens his long book with an impressionist’s portrait of this designconscious city and its contradictory leanings toward cosmopolitanism and narrow-hearted provincialism. He is humorous and well-informed, describing the city with an enthusiasm mildly diluted by skepticism. His imagery is vivid and original: “The Casa Milà is a sea cliff with caves in it for people”; the grid layout of the nineteenth-century extension “encloses Barcelona’s Old City like a walnut in an enormous slab of stamped chocolate.” Only occasionally do his epigrams seem far-fetched:

If London has the changing of the guard as one of its emblems for mass tourism, Barcelona has the changing of the body.

The city no doubt does have more transvestites than in the past, but so too has Madrid. According to the novelist Francisco Umbral, the bureaucrats have more or less disappeared from the capital, leaving the impression that it has been taken over by transvestites and executives. Franco’s supporters say it is all the fault of democracy, but perhaps it is just an unfortunate part of growing up, of rejoining the modern world and discarding what Ortega called “Tibetanization”—that condition which has recurred several times in the last four hundred years when Spaniards go around saying their country is different and no foreigners understand them.

Hughes’s assertion that Barcelona is a walker’s city is almost the only thing in his book I disagree with. Apart from Granada (the town itself rather than the Alhambra) and old Madrid, it is one of the worst cities for walking in the whole of Spain. The author points out that the Paseo de Gracia, with several buildings by Gaudí and his modernista contemporaries, is a fine promenade. It is entertaining, too, to walk up the Ramblas, the traditional haunt of florists, caged-bird sellers, and painted streetwalkers, though the latter have largely disappeared from their corners and now mostly attract customers through the advertising columns of the newspapers. But to reach the Ramblas from the Paseo de Gracia you have to make an adventurous crossing of the Plaza de Cataluña where seven large and architecturally undistinguished banks loom over a hazardous and confusing traffic system. And after you have exhausted this particular walk, you have to choose between the monotonous grid extension, where nearly all the streets are the same width, the pavements the same length, and every angle is a right angle, and the dangers of the old Gothic center. The Plaza Real, a lovely arcaded square adorned with palms and lanterns designed by Gaudí, strikes the innocent traveler as an ideal place to rest in, just as its surrounding alleys look tempting to wander through. But after ordering your coffee you notice the drunks on the benches, the dealers and rent boys on the margins, and the addicts injecting themselves in the side streets, and the place rather loses its charm. If you go there on Saturday nights, Hughes remarks graphically, “you can almost hear the viruses mutating.”

After his introductory portrait, Hughes embarks on a survey of Barcelona’s history, covering some two thousand years in a couple of hundred pages but frequently digressing to discuss artistic and other fashions. He examines the Catalans’ version of their history, accepting their valid claims but gently deflating more extravagant pretensions. The medieval liberties of Aragon, for example, were different from those of Castile, and its government was less centralized and more democratic. There was nothing, however, benign about the Mediterranean conquests. After Minorca’s Moorish population had been removed and enslaved, so few Christians could be persuaded to settle on the island that the place became virtually a desert. As for the Bourbon “tyranny” of the eighteenth century, there seems to have been more indignation about this from later generations than there was from the victims at the time.

Nevertheless, even if the period of Bourbon repression was subsequently exaggerated by Catalan historians, the myths are important because they have determined the shape of Barcelona’s history—and indeed its appearance—during the last hundred and fifty years. Hughes himself acknowledges this fact in the first sentence of his preface when he says that the “book was meant to be thinner.” He had intended to produce a work about the modernista period (the years 1875–1910 which take up most of the second half of the book) but realized that this

would have meant examining the foliage of the tree without considering its trunk and roots. So much of what was built in Barcelona in the late nineteenth century was grounded in a strong, even obsessive, sense of the Catalan past, in particular its medieval past, that there was little point in trying to describe the newer without the older.

Catalans view the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries as their eras of glory and are apt to think of the intervening periods as featureless ages consisting largely of Castilian repression and neglect. Early in the nineteenth century Barcelona superseded Cádiz as the dominant city of the Spanish economy, and its new wealth fueled the rise of cultural and political nationalism. Catalans remembered the old kingdom of Aragon and the things that went with it—the empire (by then nonexistent), the architectural traditions (long since forgotten), the language (extinct for all literary purposes) and they determined to recreate what they could of the past. A movement known as the Renaixença (Renaissance) set out to rediscover the Middle Ages and in the process created a literature so fanciful that, in Hughes’s words, it makes the works of Scott and Tennyson look like social realism in comparison. Hobsbawm’s “invention of tradition” was thus to go hand in hand with progress in a blend that would make the Catalans unique. As Hughes suggests,


Industrial capitalism might make them different from the rest of Spain, but the revival of their own Middle Ages would distinguish them from the rest of Europe.

One of the main instruments of this revival was the Jocs Florals, a poetry contest designed to stimulate Catalan as a literary language. The original Jocs Florals had died out in the Middle Ages but were revived as an annual event in which Catalan poets would declaim their love for their homeland and its traditions. Although they believed they were recreating the glories of medieval life, Hughes points out that their poetry had as little connection with thirteenth-century Catalonia as the work of the pre-Raphaelites had with the English Middle Ages. The poetry of the Catalan troubadours had in fact been earthy and rather coarse: it was not at all the “mincing poetry” that Shakespeare’s Hotspur disliked so much and compared to “the forc’d gait of a shuffling nag.”

Nevertheless, the important thing was to be patriotic and uplifting rather than historically accurate. As Hughes neatly puts it,

Patriotism was to the Renaixença what feminism and ecological virtue are to American poetry workshops today: it produced a flood of conventional sentiment, and “correct” political rhetoric, all written with the deepest conviction by poetasters who wished only to express what was in their Catalan hearts. Most of the verse of the Renaixença was proof that neither sincerity nor patriotism, however desirable in life, are quite enough in art.

The quest for the Middle Ages dominated the nineteenth century’s architecture as well as its literature. In their search for an authentic Catalan style, the men of the Renaixença found it easy to discard the Renaissance and the Baroque (which had been barely represented in Barcelona) and the neo-classical (which was implicated with the Bourbons and had made little impact outside Cádiz and Madrid). Going further back for inspiration, they toyed with the Romanesque (the style of Rogent’s university of 1860) but eventually settled on Gothic, which they blended with Moorish traditions, contemporary European ideas, and modern technology to create modernisme, Barcelona’s most original architectural movement. Modernisme’s acceptance by much of the city’s bourgeoisie, particularly by the newest and most energetic members of this class such as the Güell family (which became Gaudí’s principal patron), ensured that the movement became more than just a minority cult. Despite a reaction against it in the 1920s, when even Gaudí was regarded as the epitome of bad taste, many modernista buildings have fortunately survived.

Hughes ends his book with a fine chapter on Gaudí, whose architecture he describes as “the delayed Baroque that Barcelona never had.” He thus avoids the tumultuous years since then, the era of the avant-garde rationalists, the exhilaration and anarchy of the Civil War, and the “black-market architecture” of Francoism. His opinions on the modern city are limited to the introduction where he pokes fun at the local architectural hero, Ricardo Bofill, and is surprisingly lenient about José María de Porcioles, the Francoist mayor between 1957 and 1973. The buildings put up during his administration, Hughes argues, may be hideous and look like “stained cardboard,” but they are no worse than similar blocks erected throughout Europe and the United States in that period.

In Barcelonas Manuel Vázquez Montalbán finds nothing good to say about Mayor Porcioles and contends that the policy of his administration was to allow private enterprise to build whatever it liked wherever it liked so long as it respected the prerogative of the motor car:

A laissez-faire administration passively contemplated the most brutal changes in the historic centre while creating new Barcelonas especially built for immigrants in San Cosme, Bellvitge and the satellite city Sant Ildefons. All of them are monuments to bad taste and bare-faced contempt for the popular classes.

If it is easy to accept Montalbán’s strictures on Porcioles, it is more difficult to follow his enthusiasm for the young rationalist architects who were killed or dispersed by the Civil War. Their intended contribution to Barcelona was the Maciá Plan, an appalling scheme inspired and approved of by Le Corbusier. Thwarted in his attempt to demolish the Parisian district of Les Halles and replace it with eight monstrous tower blocks, the Swiss architect rejoiced at the opportunity his disciples had of ruining Barcelona. Their inability to carry out the Maciá Plan was perhaps the only beneficial effect of the Civil War.

Barcelonas is an engaging portrait, full of improbable information, of the author’s home town. In the Spanish edition published two years ago (Montalbán’s mother tongue is Castilian not Catalan), the book ended with an optimistic passage about the effect of the Olympic Games on the city: “There will be a happy ending, if happy endings still happen…” Evidently they do not, for Montalbán has now added a preface to the English language edition damning politicians, architects, and the Olympic Committee for having, among other crimes,

wasted the first opportunity in the history of this city to put a model of democratic growth into practice, based on the objective needs of its inhabitants. Where are the state-subsidized houses? Where are the social policies which might have started to erase the inequalities between North and South which can be found in the same city? Where is the commitment to infrastructure and cultural diversity as opposed to overspending on pretentiousness?

While this edition has gained a preface, it has sadly lost a good deal of the original text. The abridgement is puzzling, for the Spanish book was not long (less than 100,000 words) and the omitted passages are not so recondite that they would have bored British and American readers. In fact foreigners would have appreciated Montalbán’s excursions into the town’s mythology (such as the view of Barcelona as a “widowed city”) and the habits and prejudices of its middle classes. I particularly missed the passages in which he describes the dictatorship’s obsession with changing the city’s street names. Within weeks of Barcelona’s capture in 1939, a commission was set up to propose “the names of streets and squares…with the aim of honoring the heroes and martyrs of the Homeland and eradicating the memory of the hordes who passed through Barcelona, staining it with the names of foreigners and undesirables…” (Among the “undesirables” was the great cellist Pablo Casals.) Later, during the years of Porcioles, the Calle Marco Antonio was mysteriously replaced by the Calle Marco Aurelio. As the authors of an urban study subsequently enquired,

What was it about Mark Antony which displeased the mayor or whoever demanded the change? Perhaps he did not approve of Antony’s suicide or his love affair with Cleopatra. Or can the truth be that Señor Porcioles is an admirer of the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius?

It is a paradox that Franco’s heavy-handed government ultimately provided Barcelona with the opportunity of culturally dominating the rest of Spain. The Forties and Fifties were a period of repression, but the economic liberalism of the Sixties, unaccompanied though it was by political reform, transformed the country to such an extent that the political transition after Franco’s death could be carried out without another civil war. Barcelona particularly benefited from the combination of rapid economic growth (inspired largely by tourism on the Costa Brava), foreign influences, and a declining but politically immobile administration in Madrid. The dictatorship’s stupidity, exhibited by policies such as banning the teaching of Catalan and prohibiting performances of the local dance, the sardana, merely united the region and contributed to its cultural resurgence. While Madrid remained the seat of a despised regime, Barcelona attracted the leading writers not only of Spain but also of Latin America, many of whom decided to live there. By the time of Franco’s death, the city was indisputably the country’s cultural capital: it possessed the most publishers, the best singers, the finest art galleries after the Prado. On the day the dictator died, its shops ran out of champagne.

The reverse side of the paradox is that Barcelona did not shine under the new regime. All the ingredients were there, or seemed to be: democracy, the recognition of Catalan as an official language, and an autonomous Catalan government. And yet the city that had been the center of opposition to Franco did not go on to play a great national role after his death. The cultural and economic vigor that characterized Barcelona under the dictatorship suddenly appeared in Madrid and is still flourishing there. Perhaps the Catalan capital was too complacent, or perhaps because its ascendancy was artificial its eclipse was thus inevitable. The right-wing slogan “We were better off with Franco” was paraphrased with irony by the left as “We were better off against Franco.”

Barcelona had thrived on opposition. With the coming of democracy it returned to socialism and local nationalism, to the objectives of the 1930s and before. Madrid threw off the Francoist anachronism and looked forward, while its rival returned to the concerns of the past. Although Catalonia avoided the political extremism of the Basques, petty provincial extremisms soon asserted themselves. In Barcelona’s Picasso Museum, for example, the labels describing the pictures are not printed in English or French or even in Spanish but only in Catalan. Such a gesture antagonizes the visitors at the same time that it confirms the city’s provincialism. This summer Barcelona will celebrate its brief Olympic status as a major cosmopolitan city. It will be interesting to see what direction it faces when the hangover begins.

This Issue

June 11, 1992