Papal Visit to Barcelona: Gaudí the Man, Part II

Regular readers know that this week I have been writing on subjects related to the upcoming Papal Visit to Barcelona, when Pope Benedict XVI will be consecrating the newly-designated Basilica of the Holy Family, or “Sagrada Familia”. Yesterday readers were able to examine several photographs of Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, the architect of the church, in conjunction with a loose timeline of what was going on in his world at the time the pictures were taken. Today we will take a look at some of the aspects of the great architect’s native place and age, and perhaps gain some insight into his thoughts and outlook.

It is impossible to underestimate the importance that Gaudí’s being a Catalan, and emphatically not a Spaniard, had on his work. There are those who would find such a statement to be somewhat inflammatory, for the issue of Catalan nationalism has often been a cause of conflict in Spanish history. Yet as a man who appears in the universe at a particular place and time, Gaudí like any of us was a man informed and shaped by where and when he found himself.

When Gaudí was born in 1852, Catalonia was beginning a rapid transformation from a commercial backwater into an industrial powerhouse. As money poured into the industrial cities of Catalonia, Barcelona foremost among them, the Catalans went on a building boom which they had not experienced since the heady days of their lost empire in the 14th and 15th centuries. New fortunes were being made, and new fortunes need new homes, factories, offices, warehouses, parks, churches, schools, libraries, and theatres: in short, there was plenty of work for ambitious young architects.

At more or less the same time, the Catalans were rediscovering their history and their language. With the encouragement of the elites, they began to express and patronize their cultural identity as a people in poetry, music, and art, in a movement known as the Catalan Renaissance or Renaixença. Spoken and written Catalan once again began to take over the cities (it had never really been stamped out in the countryside), and festivals that had fallen into disuse or which were banned under the Bourbon autocracy in the 18th century were revived, such as the reestablishment of the Medieval “Jocs Florals” or “Floral Games”, last celebrated in the 1400’s and revived in 1859. Catalan newspapers, magazines, novels, and songs were created to spread the use of the language, while the plastic arts commemorated important figures and concepts from Catalonia’s past.

Gaudí was very much a part of this movement, and to look at a building like the Sagrada Familia without understanding that it was designed by a Catalan architect of this period and built by men committed to a conservative, Catholic Catalan nationalism, is to completely miss the point of it. The evocation in its design of the unusual, towering finger-like rock formations of the holy Catalan mountain of Montserrat, location of the image of Our Lady housed in the ancient Benedictine monastery dedicated to her, is obvious to anyone who has visited both sites. The Catalan love of nature, particularly of the combination of sea and mountain – mer i muntanya – throughout the decoration of the basilica, is conceptually important in many aspects of Catalan identity: there is even a national dish bearing this name.

Although he could speak Spanish when he wanted to of course, Gaudí continued to use Catalan as his primary language throughout his professional life. This may be part of the reason why there are so few Gaudí buildings that exist outside of Catalan-speaking areas. In fact, there are no buildings by him that exist outside of Spain, though he did design a skyscraper for Manhattan which, sadly, was never built.

The architect’s insistence on Catalan knew no bounds: when King Alfonso XIII of Spain came to visit the construction site of the Sagrada Familia for example, he addressed Gaudí in Spanish, but Gaudí answered him only in Catalan. This sort of Catalanism was both very serious, in a political sense, and also very funny – to Catalans anyway. Gaudí knew who he was, and he was not going to defer to a Bourbon who refused to learn the language of a significant portion of his kingdom.

On another occasion, the great Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who frankly was rather full of himself, visited the Sagrada Familia and announced that he thought the whole thing was a waste of money which would never be finished. During the tour which the architect attempted to give, Unamuno wandered around wringing his hands, and very rudely saying out loud, “I don’t like it, I don’t like it,” in Spanish. The (naturally) offended Gaudí decided to follow along behind Unamuno imitating his gestures, and saying, “I don’t like it, I don’t like it,” in Catalan. This sort of behavior was to get him into trouble however, as we shall see.

Most nations or peoples celebrate what they consider to be their national holiday in order to mark a particular high point. For example, these holidays will often take place on the anniversary of achieving independence, or the birth of a significant figure. Catalonia however, marks its national day, known as “La Diada” or the “Day of Days”, on September 11, 1714, the day of their greatest defeat. This was the day that the Bourbons took Barcelona in the Wars of the Spanish Succession, abolishing the local autonomy which had been established in Catalonia during the Middle Ages, and later preserved, albeit with increasing restrictions, under the Hapsburg Empire, along with the use of the Catalan language.

In 1924, the government of Spanish dictator General Primo de Rivera ordered the closing of all churches in Catalonia on September 11th, in order to prevent popular commemoration of La Diada. However, some edict from a military junta was not going to deter Gaudí and other Catalan Catholics from marking the occasion as a conservative Catholic Catalan would normally do. And so on the morning of the holiday, he set out for mass at the Basilica of Sts. Justus and Pastor, located just across from Barcelona city hall, which planned to hold a mass to commemorate those who had died on September 11th during the French siege. Those interested in learning about this ancient and beautiful Gothic church can read about its fascinating history on my other blog, Catholic Barcelona.

What happened next shocked many observers, not only in Barcelona and in Spain, but around the world. As the 72-year old Gaudí made his way across the square in front of the basilica, he was stopped by the Guardia Civil, the Spanish national police, who refused to allow him to enter the building. They asked him to identify himself and explain what he was doing there, to which the elderly architect replied – in Catalan.

Matters escalated as the police continued to question Gaudí in Spanish, and he continued to answer them in Catalan, remonstrating with them for trying to prevent him from attending mass. They insisted that he was breaking the law by attempting to attend the mass and by addressing them in Catalan, to which the architect responded: “My profession obliges me to pay my taxes, and I pay them, but this does not oblige me to stop speaking my own language.” Gaudí was then arrested, and taken to jail where he was housed in a communal cell with petty criminals.

As the arrest was witnessed by many people, someone contacted his office at the Sagrada Familia with the news of what the old man had been up to. One of his assistants contacted a priest friend of the architect, who then came down to bail Gaudí out and pay the fine for disturbance of the peace and speaking Catalan, which amounted to about $700 in today’s money. In an interview he gave to a journalist the following day, Gaudí made the comment that after his rather shocking experience, he was convinced that with such actions on the part of the police forces, a radical transformation of Spain was inevitable; his prediction would later be proven correct with the establishment of the Leftist Republic in 1930, and the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Tomorrow, in our final post before the Papal Visit, we will have a round-up of some of the interesting things to look out for during the coverage of the event.

A caricature of Gaudí at work, by his friend Ricard Opisso i Sala

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