Barcelona - A Thousand Years Of The City’s Past

  • Barcelona - A Thousand Years Of The City’s Past
    Felipe Fernandez-Armesto - Sinclair Stevenson, 1991 - 262 pp. - £18.95

Any city history must raise questions about definitions. Does a city consist primarily of buildings, a site, social institutions of economic or cultural activity? How do all these things relate to one another in the explanation of events which such a history must provide? How should the historian carve up his story, and who should he aim it at; the tourist, the resident or the fellow-historian?

In his challenging and stimulating book about Barcelona, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto shadow boxes with all these questions and finally loses. The preface and the blurb on the dust-jacket make a bid for the intelligent tourist as reader. 'What I want to do is take readers into the fabric of old Barcelona or take them round it, if they are already there – and characterise and, in patches, chronicle its past. I try to use the city as a document of its own history'. In the same vein there is an apology for the lack of a map, justified on grounds of cost and ready availability from the Spanish Tourist Office.

What such a reader is likely to find most useful is an analysis rooted very securely in the fabric of the city, not taking much knowledge for granted, with a solid chronological framework as well as economic and social history and plenty of pointed and illuminating anecdotes. At the beginning and end of the book there are chapters which provide this. Mr Fernandez-Armesto is very good, for instance, both on the pervasive- ness of Roman Barcelona in the old city, and the way in which that leads easily to an over-estimation of its importance at that period. He is also good on the social atmosphere surrounding the work of Gaudi and the other great architects of the Modernista style. The illustrations in the book, which give quite a bit of their limited space to Gaudi, are also squarely in the smudgy black and white tradition of the old-fashioned cultural history guide.

At the same time, this is an intellectually ambitious book, keen to explain the city if not to define it, and also to establish an emotional distance and sense of superiority. To quote again from the preface:

I find that like one of those tryingly beautiful and energetic women all men are able to identify among their acquaintances, she can excite passion only for short periods. There is a lot about her I dislike, like the fascinatingly lurid whores of The Raval, she can be brash, noisy, gaudy and unwholesome. Her vitality is often exciting but always tiring. Her variety is rich, but not quite rich enough, to my taste, to be unstaled by custom.'

This point seems worth quoting almost at the length it is made, because it demonstrates both the attitude and the style of the book; indeed one might say that it provided a definition of the style, except that no-one could describe Mr Fernandez-Armesto's prose as 'not quite rich enough'.

In the vein, the reader is addressed as if he were a professional historian, an undergraduate doing a special subject on Spanish history perhaps, going to a lecture series designed to provoke him into doing his own reading and thinking and very likely sending him back to more conventional views with a better understanding, mixing genuine learning with wildly simplified and prejudiced judgements (e.g. 'no conflicts of heresy and orthodoxy have ever been so embittered as those of the left in modern times'.)

The thesis offered to this audience is that Barcelona's development has been governed by a series of relationships in each of which she has failed to achieve the position which she hoped for and that her history is therefore one of ever-repeated failure. He sees her partners or adversaries as the hinterland, the sea, the Spanish monarchy, Catalonia and Europe. Quite apart from the element of personification involved in this, or the attribution of a commonalty of purpose to the inhabitants which is highly unlikely, for the most part this discussion involves setting up some standards of success and failure that are highly arbitrary. The story of waxing and waning commercial and political fortunes, occasional civil strife and gradual subjugation to the centre is fascinating and told here with plenty of detail, but is not helped by the heavily judgemental tone. At the heart of the book, however, is a genuine might-have-been in the shape of something more fully approaching an independent Catalan nation. Supposing expanding trade had not been accompanied by over-ambitious territorial ambitions in the Mediterranean, might this have been achieved?

One can be grateful to Mr Fernandez-Armesto for provoking such questions and above all for making one eager to get back to Barcelona, at the same time as wishing he had done both these things in a slightly more straightforward way.

  • Francis Golding has just been appointed as the Secretary of ICOMOS UK – The International Council on Monuments and Sites.
Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week

The world's finest history magazine 3 for £5