Homage to the Provinces

Michael Wood

  • Barcelona by Robert Hughes
    Harvill, 575 pp, £20.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 00 272078 7
  • Barcelonas by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, translated by Andrew Robinson
    Verso, 210 pp, £17.95, May 1992, ISBN 0 86091 353 8
  • Cities of Spain by David Gilmour
    Murray, 214 pp, £17.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 7195 4833 0
  • Red City, Blue Period: Social Movements in Picasso’s Barcelona by Temma Kaplan
    California, 266 pp, $30.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 520 07507 2

The funicular railway takes you to the top of the mountain with the strange name: a nonsense word, a child’s burble, Tibidabo. You see the city of Barcelona spread out beneath you; beyond it the Mediterranean. Très beau panorama, the Michelin guide says, as well it may, since the name is not the nonsense word it looks but the Devil’s Latin, part of the sentence in which he offered to Christ the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them: Haec omnia tibi dabo si cadens adoraveris me, ‘All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.’ I don’t know when the mountain received its name, but there is obviously a pretty complicated joke in the folk memory here. Is this the world Christ rejected? The Devil’s world? Or did Christ make a mistake? Perhaps the suggestion is that Christ didn’t take enough time to think, that a little Catalan pragmatism would have allowed him to reject the Devil but keep a piece of the worldly kingdom and glory.

Catalan pragmatism is the great regional myth, peddled in all kinds of forms. It is usually opposed to Castilian abstraction and rigidity, and there is a Catalan word for it: seny. This untranslatable term means, we are told, something like common sense, or the spirit of compromise, but it is also rendered as wisdom and intelligence, and Temma Kaplan associates it with solidarity. ‘The man of seny,’ we learn from a Catalan writer quoted by Hughes, ‘renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.’ Sounds altogether reasonable, but not as if it needs a special word. What the concept actually seems to do is to convert a complex bundle of morally ambiguous habits into a virtue: it is pragmatism in its best possible light. The Vicar of Bray wouldn’t have seny, nor would your ordinary malleable politician, but a slave-owning Catalan who built a handsome church might. It’s clear, in any event, that whatever moderation is associated with this idea is entirely mythological; the sort of myth needed, perhaps, only by truly extreme types.

Barcelona at the end of the 19th century was a ‘bourgeois paradise’, Hughes says. It also held, according to Engels, the world record for barricade construction. Manuel Vazquez Montalban, who quotes this interesting assertion, doesn’t tell us what the record was for; quantity, say, or the speed with which the barricades were put up. It’s certainly an interesting legacy for an Olympic city. ‘Between 1919 and 1923,’ David Gilmour writes, ‘there were more than seven hundred political assassinations in Catalonia’; and Temma Kaplan documents in some detail a large number of bombings, strikes and executions. The bourgeois paradise was also the Anarchists’ headquarters, and we need reflect only for a moment to realise that this is not a paradox, or a contradiction, but only a description of the same scene from different angles. The metaphor of several cities enshrined in Vazquez Montalban’s title and used several times in the book, is both eminently sensible and, if it merely suggests a relaxed pluralism, a little too easy. Different Barcelonas have frequently been at war with each other, accumulating astonishing losses of life. The factions are in this sense fighting for a single space; if they had a Barcelona each there wouldn’t be a problem. No wonder the place needs a myth of moderation.

Hughes reminds us that Barcelona contains, in its Gothic Quarter, ‘the most concentrated array of 13th to 15th-century buildings in Spain, and, not discounting even Venice, the most complete in Europe’ – but we do need reminding, and I wonder why. Partly because Catalan Gothic, as Hughes says, is unlike French and English Gothic, a matter of mass rather than aspiration: ‘Catalan architects did not want to imitate the organic profusion of detail in northern Gothic. They liked a wall. Their bell towers ended in flat roofs, not in spires.’ At the same time they produced the austere and haunting arches of the Salo de Tinell, a banqueting hall that later served as a parliament, and the interior of the church of Santa Maria del Mar, than which Hughes says ‘there is no grander or more solemn architectural space in Spain.’ But mainly, I think we need reminding because we don’t picture Barcelona as a Medieval city at all. It is too much an invention of the 19th century for that. It has a Medieval city in it, but that is not what it is.

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