(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 26)

Robert Hughes’s Barcelona, a study of two thousand years of that city’s history aimed at a general audience, gives considerable information about the city’s physical, political, religious, artistic, and social development while supplying essential historical narrative necessary for an understanding of Barcelona’s unique presence and allure. Hughes, however, makes it known early in the book that this is neither an in-depth nor a scholarly assessment of Catalunya’s principal city, operating rather as a general introduction with a heavy emphasis on the painters, architects, musicians, and sculptors whose works have importance. In this way, it is an outgrowth of methods applied in Hughes’s earlier works, such as The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (1987). The work is divided into two parts, one half being listed under the heading “The Old City” and the remainder under “The New City.” The first section covers the period from the third century b.c.e. to c.e. 1713, and the second, from 1848—the year of European revolution and turmoil—to the late twentieth century, ending with a discussion of the significance of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church.

In the Old City section of the book, one learns that Catalunya, a nation in its own right at one time, was not colonized by the same Romans who settled elsewhere in Spain (those who founded such cities as Granada and Valencia), Barcelona having been created by footloose common soldiers and other lower-caste types interested only in building modest dwellings and living off their own produce. Those who went south and west, on the other hand, were aristocrats who desired large villas and spacious holdings. Barcelona’s settlers became small farmers—growers of grapes, olives, and wheat—whose down-to-earth ways contrasted with the cultivated, luxurious life-styles of the villa builders; this practical, earthy outlook they bequeathed to their descendants, allowing their city to become an industrial power during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As for the early settlers, their inherent ability to make an arid, hot place bloom led to Barcelona’s outward colonizing push of the early Middle Ages.

In the early fourteenth century, the kingdom of Catalunya (also referred to as Aragon and Catalunya) became one of Europe’s great powers, extending its reach far beyond the confines of the Iberian peninsula. This process of conquest began under King Jaume I, whose energy combined with bad temper and greed to create a monarch intent on making Barcelona queen of the Mediterranean world. In earlier times, Hughes demonstrates, the inhabitants of Barcelona and its environs would not have been interested in foreign escapades, for they were an inward-looking, provincial group, content with an agricultural life and unimpressed with their silt-laden harbor, their adobe structures mutely testifying to their love of things earthy and anchored. They knew that they could go to sea if they chose, and Jaume I and monarchs that followed him gave them a vision of new lands and opportunities. Chief among those monarchs were Queen Isabella and Prince Ferdinand, who sponsored voyages for their realm of Castile, Aragon, and Catalunya.

Thus, by the Age of Discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Barcelona had a long-established link with Mediterranean lands such as the Balearic Islands (Majorca, Minorca, and Ibiza), Sardinia, and Sicily, where previous conquests had taken Catalunya’s language and culture. Catalans, as Hughes takes pains to point out, inherited a rich culture from their Roman forebears, to which they added their own unique and sometimes bizarre touches, such as a love for discussions of human excrement and the depiction of it in paintings. The Gothic Age in architecture reached Barcelona and had considerable impact upon building design, yet Catalans took pride in their insistence upon a heavy Roman element that counteracted the soaring Gothic vaulting of churches and cathedrals. The curious, elongated barrel ceilings of the Catalans were unknown elsewhere, except in...

(The entire section is 1689 words.)