In Marca Hispanica II: Barcelona from Romans to Gaudí

I don’t think that we got the best out of an evening in Barcelona. We hit the point where nothing was open, and I think we were in the wrong part of the city anyway, but at least this did mean a night visit to the Barri Gòtic and the cathedral of Santa Eulàlia. These again sadly show you that I was still struggling with the camera, but it’s quite impressive anyway:

The cloister of Santa Eulàlia de Barcelona by night

The tower of the cloister of Santa Eulàlia de Barcelona by night

We would be back again next day, but before that we went to the other cathedral, as it should eventually be, Gaudí’s Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. Now there’s nothing medieval about that, but I can hardly pass up a chance to show you possibly the craziest building in Christendom. Gaudí’s God must be a fairly frightening deity:

Distant view of the Fa¸ana de la Passió side of the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família of Antoni Gaudí, ths side by Josep Subirachs

After that particular experiment with my vertigo, which given how much it messes with straight lines and natural orientation was quite severe, we got back on the metaphorical horse, because when Santa Eulàlia is actually open you can get onto the roof:

View of the spire of Santa Eulàlia de Barcelona from its roof

It’s not true to say that you can see the whole city from there, but the skyline is an impressive mixture, la Sagrada Família and Santa Eulàlia itself vying for sky access with skyscrapers and a Gherkin-like building (the Torre Agbar, I discover), an obviously-modern structure that I thought looked like a Roman amphitheatre and transpires to have a not-unrelated function, and more and more. Busy city (except, apparently, at night), and that’s quite a good place to look at it from, though the looming hill of Montjuïc, to which I never got, would be better. Next time.

But this would be to leave out the inside of Santa Eulàlia, which would be rather unfair. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in so splendidly Gothic a church; Westminster Abbey is pretty fantastic but you can’t take in as much of it at once as this:

The interior of Sants Creu & Eulàlia de Barcelona, viewed from the nave looking at the choir

This is an utterly splendid cathedral, in full-on Gothic style, full of gilt (and with two big confessionals allowing for bad `gilt’ puns too). The building is just huge, and every inch seems to be covered in gold paint. Most big Catholic churches have side chapels to one or two saints as well as their main altars, Santa Eulàlia has a neat array of them all along its walls, no space left open; even the exit to the cloister is through a chapel. Only the caskets of Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and his wife Almodis interrupt the inset private devotional spaces. You remember Ramon Berenguer and Almodis? They belong to the big story. And here, in some sense they are, pinned to the walls, although it’s a lousy photo because it’s quite dim in the cathedral, which makes the splendour look all the more impressive and hides the cracks, as we know. I imagine it must be a fabulous space for actual worship.

Caskets of Marquis Ramon Berenguer I and Countess Almodis of Barcelona

But after a full tour of dimly-lit gold, splendour and Renaissance-style martyrdom paintings, in the incensual oppressiveness that really heavy ecclesiastical architectural can generate, when you do emerge into the cloister, which is airy, well-lit from the sky and full of trees, and which echoes with water from fountains and the ill-tempered chattering of the white geese they keep there, it is honestly like stepping into a Paradise. It’s lovely. They very wisely have the gift-shops here; I think the effect on passers-by must be a quite profitable access of gratitude and wonder… Again, the picture doesn’t really convey it because the change of atmosphere and loss of echoes and change to fresh pastoral noise is most of the effect, but it does also look nice:

Interior of the cloister of Sants Creu & Eulàlia de Barcelona

Also in the Barri Gòtic with the cathedral, as well as the Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó where I didn’t in the end have time to go but where Abbess Emma’s other signature and other weirdnesses are stored, is the Museu de la Historia de la Ciutat, Museum of the History of the City. Now that could be dull as all get-out in some places – if you’ve ever been to the Museum of London, even, you may agree with me that it only escapes the dull parochial feel in places, even though when it does it’s excellent, but to me at least this one was absolutely fascinating because it’s actually a museum of a site, and most of the site is open. But it’s open vertically; you get in an elevator and it takes you, as it says, down through 2000 years, and you come out in an archaeological site where they’ve opened up the Roman levels. Only this is in the actual building! The Museum is on top of a Roman, and then medieval, archaeological site, preserved in cool dry air with carefully-built walkways over it. It’s brilliant, and I do recommend it to any visitors. Unfortunately one isn’t allowed to photograph it, so weblinks will have to do. But the story is quite good.

The bottom layer is a Roman-era fish-sauce works and wine-pressing factory. I think factory is fair enough, because it spreads over several buildings; workshop implies that it could all be in one house, but it was bigger than that. And attached to both is a villa in which there is a mosaic, and the mosaic has around its central pattern grapes and fish. Is it too much to think that this was the factory owner, commemorating the source of his wealth that paid for the mosaic in its tesselae? The Museu staff apparently think so as they didn’t make the link in the signing, but I rather liked it as a conclusion to jump to. Now, why do we have all this? Well, because perhaps rather later, in the fourth century, the then-owner of this site converted and gave it to the city’s fledgling Christian community. This was thus the site of Barcelona’s first church, and it’s thus where the first cathedral went up. That was in the fifth century, probably only a basilica, but because of the changing of the times, the palace of the comes civitatis, the count of the city, was also put next to it, and eventually an episcopal palace linked the two. The Carolingian-era counts also used the comital palace, though they seem to have rebuilt in the tenth century. If not Borrell II himself, then, his brother Miró or father Sunyer; either way I get a good connection out of this. Now actually a large part of the Museu, the next level up, is in this palace complex, even if in the next generation, a twelfth-century rebuild whose lower stories are now one of the exhibition halls. So if I’d taken a very bad photo in there in between goggling at good examples of Carolingian-era transitional diners, it might firstly be in the space where my counts had walked, and secondly look like this:

Medieval galleries of the Museu de la Història de la Ciutat, Barcelona

The diners are very interesting too, actually. I don’t know if I can find a decent picture, but being used to the Fitzwilliam’s trashed example…

Reverse of a transitional denier of the county of Barcelona, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.345-2001, copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge

… I hadn’t realised what the type was. Now I’ve seen it in a good example and it’s kind of like a very barbarised Temple type, with three blocks of relief, but they’re quite narrow. And there were Muslim dirhems in the case just next door which of course also have inscriptions, in Kufic script which can look quite like an ornament if you’re not aware it’s writing, in three or four lines. I can’t help wondering if the Barcelona coins weren’t supposed to look like Muslim ones just like the eventual gold mancuses they minted 150 years later in imitation of Muslim dinars. I need to do some looking-up on this; it’s so obvious a thing that if there’s any reason to suppose it it should have been spotted by others. What do you think? Firstly the Temple type, secondly a contemporary Spanish dirham, both images copyright Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge okay? And the latter linked to its catalogue record there; the former hasn’t got one yet but will be in the next upload.

Reverse of a Temple-type denier of Louis the Pious, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.112, copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge

Reverse of dirham of Emir Muhammad I of al-Andalus, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.IS.250-R, copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge

It’s hard to evaluate from the wreckage of the Fitzwilliam’s transitional diner, but on the good examples it seemed much more like a geometric halfway point between the two designs. Anyway, on our way out back up at ground level, where the existing museum and its more modern stuff are housed in the fourteenth-century palace that was rebuilt over the upper stories of both comital and episcopal ones, we found, as well as a Carolingian-era tombstone which got me all excited, a doorway which, it was claimed, held the last fabric remaining from the Carolingian-era comital palace. Now again obviously we wouldn’t have taken a photo of that, because photography isn’t allowed there. But if we had, it would have to be captioned like this:

A lolhistorian in the doorway of the Palau Comtal de Barcelona

Because after all I am the lolhistorian. Anyway, this lolhistorian hit the countryside next, and that needs another post. Let me therefore finish with some towers, for Gabriele, towers that at the bottom at least are ones your characters might have known if they ever got posted out here:

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

Still in business, these fortifications; never quite stopped being relevant.

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4 responses to “In Marca Hispanica II: Barcelona from Romans to Gaudí

  1. Oh, that looks like another place I want so see. I think I should learn some Spanish. ;)

    Thanks for sharing the pics and the info.

  2. Clearly, I missed a LOT when I visited Barcelona (forty years ago!). Barcelona and Toledo and Ubeda are my favorite places on the Iberian Peninsula.
    Though it’s not for medievalists, the Picasso museum in Barcelona is outstanding.

  3. I only really had a day for tourism; the Picasso Museum is on the list for the next trip :-)

  4. Pingback: In Marca Hispanica XIX: a dead count’s church in the Barri Gòtic « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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