Modernista Barcelona

Historical, Political and Cultural Context

For many visitors, Modernist Barcelona is one of the city's great attractions and inevitably Antoni Gaudí is its most famous exponent.

However, Gaudí was not the only architect - at the time, both Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch were just as famous, and many lesser known architects produced brilliant work in the Modernista idiom.

What's more the movement grew out of the specific political, social and economic situation of Barcelona in the late nineteenth century, which also inspired painters, sculptors, poets and playwrights.

My Barcelona Modernista Guided Tours put this hive of creativity in its cultural context.

*Please note that I am aware that Modernist Architecture normally refers to a slightly later period and the work of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright etc. For convenience, I use the terms Modernist, Modernista, Modernism and Modernisme interchangeably.


Background to Modernist Barcelona

Although influenced by what was happening in art and architecture in the rest of Europe - particularly what became known as Art Nouveau -

Modernisme as it evolved in Barcelona was a uniquely local phenomenon.

Its eruption was preceded by three key events - the Renaixença, the Pla Cerdà and the 1888 Universal Exhibition.

La Renaixença

Following over a century of political, economic and cultural oppression by Castile, in the mid-nineteenth century following the publication of Oda a la Pàtria by Bonaventura Carles Aribau, the Catalan language once again began to be used in literature.

Its main writers were first Jacint Verdaguer and later Joan Maragall, but more importantly it became a popular movement due to the restoration ofthe Jocs Florals - a medieval poetry competition.

At the same time, a new bourgeois class was developing in Barcelona as a result of fortunes made in the Americas and the growth of a major textile industry closer to home.

These nouveau riche embraced the new literary movement as its main theme was the wonderfulness of Catalonia and this conveniently explained why they were becoming rich and embracing the modern techniques of the industrial revolution whilst the rest of Spain wallowed in poverty under abackward agricultural economy.

The use of the Catalan language amongst the monied classes also led to a resurgence of political Catalanism, if only because greater autonomy from Madrid would hopefully lead to less taxes.

El Pla Cerdà and the Universal Exhibition

As pride in the Catalan language was on the rise, Barcelona City Council also realised that the city need to grow beyond its restrictive walls.

The city was hemmed in by the sea on one side, Montjuic on another and the medieval walls which stood at the top of what is now La Rambla.

In 1860, Ildefons Cerdà drew up a plan for the Eixample - the enlargement - that would be based on a grid system and would link the Old City with what were then the outlying villages of Gràcia, Sants and Sant Martí de Provencals.

Almost immediately work began particularly in the area around what is now Passeig de Gràcia but it wasn't until the Universal Exhibition of 1888 that the movement that was to become Modernist Barcelona really came together.

The 1888 exhibition was a showcase for the city, and architects, sculptors, painters and other craftsmen were able to work together for the first time on a major international project.

Once it was over, this group of plastic artists found work by creating palaces for Barcelona's new bourgeois class in the New City.

As this was new money made by ambitious men, there was a great deal of rivalry over who had the finest property.

Furthermore, the new Catalan literature with its emphasis on myths and legends and the glorification of Catalonia's imperial past served as an inspiration for many architects and resulted in powerful metaphors of Catalan superiority made out of bricks and mortar.

Modernista Architecture

The often forgotten impulse behind the Modernist Barcelona movement was Elies Rogent i Amat.

He was Head of Works during the 1888 Universal Exhibition and as Professor of the Escuela Provincial de Arquitectura de Barcelona, he taught both Domènech i Montaner and Gaudí.

His best-known works - the Universitat de Barcelona and the Arc de Triomf - recuperate elements of Catalan Gothic but can't yet be described asModernist.

That honour is generally conceded to Lluís Domènech i Montaner's Castell dels Tres Dragons, which was built in the Parc de la Ciutadella for the i888 Exhibition and is now the Zoological Museum.

Into The Eixample and Beyond

From 1888 onwards, the generation of architects who had worked on the 1888 Exhibition began to receive commissions.

The best known of these architects are obviously Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch but at the time Enric Sagnier, Rubió i Bellver and Jujol i Gibert were also highly regarded, and there are a whole host of lesser architects who produced some wonderful work in other parts of Catalonia.

These architects went where the money was but it's fair to say that the greatest concentration of Modernist Architecture is in the Eixample, particularly an area known as the Quadrat d'Or - the Golden Square - which runs up from Ronda Sant Pere to Diagonal and across from Carrer Aribau to Passeig Sant Joan.

It's also worth noting that a great number of specialist craftsmen were employed to work on. amongst other things, the stained glass windows, tiles and ironwork of the major buildings.

Although many of these artesans remain little known there is a group of well-known sculptors - Eusebi Arnau, Carles Maní and Josep Llimona - whose fame goes beyond that of mere collaborator.

Modernist Painters in Barcelona

Obviously with so much art and crafts going on, there was also an important group of Modernist Barcelona painters, who were based at the bar Els Quatre Gats.

The most influential and most brilliant of this group was Ramon Casas, who was Picasso's first mentor.

Although not such a great painter, Santiago Rusiñol was the conceptual leader of the group and also wrote plays and articles.

Other painters of importance were Joaquín Sunyer, Hermenegildo Anglada Camarasa, Joan Brull, Ricard Canals, Xavier Gosé, Josep María Sert and Miguel Utrillo, many of whom like Picasso also spent periods in Paris.

Incidentally, Els Quatre Gats is located on the ground floor of Casa Martí at Carrer Montsió 3 and is a good example of how Modernism seeped into the fabric of Barcelona very quickly.


There are many Modernist bars and shops that aren't shown in most guides of Barcelona but are included in my Modernist Barcelona Guided Walking Tours.

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