>My posts this week hope to provide some interesting and useful information for those following the upcoming Papal Visit to Barcelona this Sunday, when Pope Benedict XVI will be dedicating the Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Familia and raising it to the status of a Minor Basilica. The late architect of the church, Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudí i Cornet, has been a not-infrequent topic in these virtual pages, most recently regarding developments in the cause for his beatification. While he has come to be a revered architect around the world, this development occurred despite a man who ended his life in abject humility.
For many, Gaudí remains a somewhat remote and mysterious figure. Part of this has to do with the fact that, as he became more famous, he also became more reclusive. He loathed speaking about himself, and equally loathed having his photograph taken. Yet from the documents we have, the few photographs of him that are known, and some details about his personal life and habits, we can see that not only was he a man of great faith, but a man fiercely proud of being a Catalan, and having a typically wry Catalan sense of humor.
Gaudí was born June 25, 1852 in the Catalan province of Tarragona. Like many Catalans he was always short in stature, though this was also partly as a result of rheumatic fever he had suffered as a child, and which continued to affect him physically throughout his life. Also like many Catalans, he had dark, ash-blonde hair, blue eyes, and pink rather than olive-toned skin – something which those not familiar with the people of Catalonia may find surprising, though red hair, blue eyes, and paler complexions are common particularly in the countryside.
Let’s take a look at some of the few known photographs of him, and place these in the context of his work and the world he lived in.
Here we see a photograph of Gaudí in 1878 as a young architect just starting out in the profession, when he was 26 years old:
He had moved to Barcelona in 1868 to begin his architectural studies, and in 1878 his transcript had been submitted for approval of granting the title of architect to him at the completion of his studies. It must be said, at this point Gaudí was a bit full of himself, and was already creating a bit of a reputation for being something of an odd duck with odd ideas about architecture. It was just at this point that he received his first municipal commission, for the lampposts in the square known as the Plaça Reial, which are still there. This was also the year that he first met Count Eusebi Güell, who was to become the great patron of his work.
Ten years later, at the age of 36, we see Gaudí in 1888, with a shaved head:
The year 1888 was a very important one for Barcelona, and it was the first time in several centuries that the city had come back into international cultural consciousness as a result of the civic renaissance taking place there. This was the year of Barcelona’s International Expo, which was the impetus for an enormous number of municipal building projects which have placed a permanent stamp on the layout of the city of Barcelona. The work of Gaudí and his contemporaries was now attracting enormous international interest from other architects and critics, particularly in England, France, and the Austrian Empire.
At this point the Count Güell and Gaudí were already well-underway in their collaborative efforts as patron and architect. The pavilions to the Güell country estate in Pedralbes, with their enormous wrought-iron dragon gate, were already completed, and work on the Güell Palace in downtown Barcelona was almost finished. In addition, the architect had been awarded the commission for the Sagrada Familia in 1884, and the crypt of the church was about halfway completed when this photo was taken.
Our next photograph of Gaudí shows him in 1910 at the age of 58, well into middle age and at the height of his powers – and having grown his hair back:
His major apartment buildings in the Eixample, or the “expansion” development of Barcelona north of the old city center, had all been built by this point. The Casa Calvet was completed in 1904; the Casa Batlló with its St. George and the Dragon motif by 1907; and the undulating, extremely innovative Casa Milà – more commonly known as La Pedrera – shortly afterward. The architect was still at work on the Parc Güell development, so beloved by tourists today, as well as the Sagrada Familia of course.
The next photograph, taken in 1915, shows Gaudí at the age of 63 giving a tour of the worksite at the Sagrada Familia to the Apostolic Nuncio to Spain (and later Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura), Francesco Cardinal Ragonesi. We see the Cardinal in the center of the photograph, staring up at the church, and Gaudi standing just to his left, with white beard and hat.
During this visit which, in the form of the Papal Ambassador, was the closest Gaudí himself would ever get to meeting the Pope, the architect’s normally reticent form of speech was thrown out the window. He showed the Nuncio all over the building, explaining his plans and the theological study and reflection that had gone into them, as I had written about in yesterday’s brief overview of some of the complex iconography and symbolism that went into the plans. The Nuncio was apparently extremely impressed at everything he saw and heard, and told Gaudí that “You are the Immanuel Kant of architecture.” (Of course, one is not exactly sure whether this is a compliment.)
At just about this point Barcelona’s building boom had come to an end. Commissions had started to dry up in an economic downturn, art and architecture was changing to geometric styles in rejection of the elaborate designs of the 19th and early 20th century, and Gaudí soon found himself without his greatest patron when the Count died in 1918. This combined with the death of his only remaining family members and his best friend and business partner led him to become a near-total recluse, working only on the Sagrada Familia and nothing else.
Finally here is probably the last known photograph of Gaudí in his lifetime, taken in 1925 at the annual Corpus Christi procession when he was an elderly man of 73:
At this point Gaudí was considered by many, particularly those who did not know him, to be something of a lunatic. In fact, he had moved out of his house and was living in his studio at the church, and sold most of his possessions. He spent much of his time when not on the construction site going around quite literally begging for contributions for the completion of the Sagrada Familia. When not doing this, he was at mass or in prayer or in fasting, or in seeking spiritual direction from the Oratorian fathers.
Because he looked like an old beggar by this point, and did not carry a wallet or identification, when Gaudí was hit by a tram on June 7, 1926 on his way to mass after work, no one offered to help him. In fact several taxi drivers refused to take him to the hospital because they thought he was not able to pay the fare. Incidentally, when this was discovered and reported to the police, these cab drivers were tracked down and charged with refusing to render aid, and they were heavily fined. Barcelona’s greatest architect was eventually taken to Santa Creu (“Holy Cross”), a hospice for the indigent, where he lay unrecognized for 24 hours.
Gaudí’s friends began to look for him in the city hospitals when they realized that he was missing, and late in the evening on June 8, 1926, they eventually tracked him down to the Holy Cross Hospital. He had been found with a copy of the Gospels in his pocket, his clothes held together with safety pins. There was no identification on him and he was unconscious, so could not tell anyone who he was.
The next morning, he regained consciousness and the first thing he requested was the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. This was administered while his friends were out spreading the news about Gaudí’s very poor state of health to the powers that be. The newspapers began to fill with reports of the accident, and crowds gathered around the hospital.
Soon after, a flood of important people began to arrive at the hospice, including the Archbishop of Barcelona; Gaudí’s younger contemporary the great architect Puig i Caldafach, who was then at work on the Abbey of Montserrat; and the spokesman of the Mayor’s office, the Baron de Villar, who told Gaudí that the Mayor and city council were going to have him moved to the best hospital in the city and would pay for the expenses themselves. Gaudí refused this offer, saying that “I belong here, among the poor people.” He asked for a crucifix to hold, and he kept this in his hand until he died the following afternoon, on June 10, 1926.
Gaudí was buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia, and it is said that half of Barcelona turned out for his funeral; in a sense, this is his final photograph, of the very few ever taken of him: