Revisiting Barcelona recently, it struck me that I have only written about the city in my fiction, though never entirely explicitly. I have few photographs other than these I took around the Eixample. Maybe that’s not so surprising. Like Dublin or London, I have been too immersed in the detail to make a brief sketch. There is so much to the mosaic of a city, a fascination with every little piece distracts from the entirety. Then there is the city of the soul that is difficult to describe in either words or pictures. What a picture Barcelona makes! A haphazard quilt of Gaudi’s giddy spires, Dali’s trompe l’oueil, Miro’s primary creatures, Picasso’s Harlequins. The city is alive in its stone and iron, shifting its shape by the hour so that some unexpected glory or horror can loom at you from a once familiar scenario.
Barcelona was one of those places which so intrigued me that I put its map on my wall. Before I set foot outside of Ireland, these exotic charts were the background to the posters and paraphernalia gathered in mis-spent youth. London’s ancient web of confusion, Chelsea to Soho with a hint of style and sulphur. New York had the added familiarity of those iconic buildings, postcards of the Chrysler and Empire State. Manhattan’s grid growing like a musical score from the chaos of its history. Barcelona was a similar confection. Its grid pattern, like New York’s, developed from an ancient harbour. There was something intriguing about the way the two parts knit together. Like two halves of a city engaged in cartographical warfare. The exotic names were occasionally almost translatable, like a science fiction text: the Diagonal, the Rambla, the Eixample.
Seductive Spanish art of the early twentieth century established a firmer connection. Such artists as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro fashioned a bridge of sorts. Surreal visions sprang from streetscape, seascape and parched landscape of Catalonia. Cubism brought art around corners, Miro’s mobiles moved through space. I could begin to fathom form and exuberance within the plan, find a path down into it for myself. Ultimately, of course, I had to go there.
I have had companions for that trip in reality, but that fab four won’t reform. For the moment I will travel in the company of a boy in motley. Summoned up from the stone slabs of the Rambla, where briefly he played. The artists there can sew together the three dimensions we inhabit, past, present and future. Rendered on one plane, the permanent moment stands on plinths, swirls on paper. Pierrot climbs from the pavement drawing on the Rambla, still clad in chalk and stone. Originally the work of a hirsute, apparently German street artist, always smiling behind his blond beard. His creation can transform into Harlequin at will, the perfect companion, I see myself in him and he is the Other.
The endeavour of Columbus and others, faced with a shrinking of their world, opened a new frontier to the west. The American continents are designated to him in only a secondary sense, Amerigo Vespucci having more court pull. But it was here they were invented as a manifestation of a new western world. The Early Modern period sees a truly new world order develop. A preference for the rational led away from the Dark Ages toward the Enlightenment. This was our world, it was up to us to make it in our image.
Modernism is a key movement in the creation of Barcelona. In the nineteenth century the city would expand beyond the medieval confines of the Barri Gotic. The Eixample was laid out in 1860 to the plans of Ildefons Cerda. The word means extension in Catalan. The plan was to create a regular grid of octagonal city blocks, the chamfering at each corner to allow light into its intersections. Cerda’s vision was Utopian, almost socialist to its critics, positing a mingling of all classes within a uniform scheme. It didn’t work out that way. The Eixample quickly became a well-to-do neighbourhood, with a greater building density than originally envisaged. But it is as fine an example, if you will, of the beauty of urban planning as you will see.
The imposition of the grid pattern does not make for a conformist city. Almost organically, magically, its architecture spills exuberantly out of the old town into the new. This is where architects threw ceramic, jeweled eiderdowns across the roofs, up there where chimneys can turn into toadstools or dragons, spires wear twisted turbans, ironwork folds into leaf and fauna.
I stand on the tower of Sagrada Familia, teetering high above the distant plaza. Pierrot calls to a woman below, but from my vantage point the place is empty of people. The sound of the cry endures, but fades, merging then with the beating of wings. The doves scatter, each bird a tear in the fabric of the day, each flying shadow a tattered window into the night.
God’s own architect, Antoni Gaudi, born in 1852, was well placed to participate in the flourishing of Barcelona’s Modernism in the late century. He became the most definitive of Barcelona’s architects. Geometrically complex in conception, his buildings suspended magically within their space. Swirling domes and turrets brought eastern mysticism within the western rationale. The daring concept of the Sagrada Familia displays that eastern exotic. Each facade seems braced against giant hands clasped in prayer. The stone slips sinuously into flora and fauna, leading the eye upwards to incredible heights. It is an unfinished prayer in itself. Begun in 1883, Gaudi would devote himself exclusively to this project from 1915 until his death in 1926. It is said that Gaudi, walking to the site from morning mass, was distracted by the majesty of the construction and, stepping back to admire his work, was struck by a passing tram. The genius was gone but the work staggered on, gathering momentum in recent decades so that it is estimated it will be completed, perhaps, in 2020, the year of perfect vision.
At the Cathedral in the Barri Gotic we stand by the city walls. Statues on the rooftops wave swords, gesturing wildly to the hills. Beyond in the square Rodrigo y Gabriella play. It is Allegrias, if my memory serves me well. In a weird way I feel I am back in Dublin again. The square is full of tourists but, again, imbued with an eerie emptiness. There is a woman there, striking a southern pose, one arm raised in an imperious gesture. In the exhausted moment the light dims and the gothic city is illuminated by torchlight. Pierrot touches my arm and I turn to see him fold back into the stone. Be my guide up to heaven, I ask, but everything is silent.
Earlier, we had travelled high above the city, taking the Blue Tram and the funicular to the Tibidabo amusement park. This is a pleasure dome indeed, from the 1890s, it still features some of the antique rides from that time. We can float on air and breach the castle walls, flying above the dizzying drop with all of Barcelona below. The boy tells me the story that it was here that Jesus met the Devil, the two looking down on the wonders of civilisation. All of these things I will give thee (in Latin: tibi dabo), said the Devil, if you will fall down and worship me. The rest is history. I could sit up here forever, maybe I am. I know you can’t have everything, but sometimes, in Barcelona, it may seem that you can.