Many cities are proud of having a triumphal arch. Among the most famous we can remember those of ancient Rome dedicated to the emperors Constantine and Titus; the one in Orange dedicated to the legionaries who conquered Gaul; that of Palmyra dedicated to the emperor Septimus Severus, destroyed in 2015 by the Daesh bombings, or without a doubt, the first that comes to mind, the one of Paris, dedicated to the victories of Napoleon. But in Barcelona we also have a triumphal arch.
Commemorating a non-military victory.
Barcelona’s triumphal arch, unlike the rest, was not made to commemorate any military victory. It was built to be the entrance door to the site of the Universal Worlds Fair of 1888, located in the space previously occupied by the Citadel that Felipe V had built in 1714, after the War of Succession.
With this exhibition, Barcelona wanted to make itself known to the rest of the world, regain its former economic and commercial importance and return to being one of the great cities of the Mediterranean. The construction of a triumphal arch became the symbol of overcoming previous centuries of decadence.
The architect comissioned to do it was Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas, a usual collaborator of Lluís Domènech i Montaner, who was the great architect of the Worlds Fair project, and like Domènech i Montaner, Josep Vilaseca used the brick to build it. A material not as noble as stone, but which helped to symbolize that a good part of that triumph, of that victory, had been a consequence of the industrial revolution and the textile factories existing in the city. And those factories, all of them, were built with brick.
Neo-mudejar in Barcelona
In Europe, at the end of the 19th century and before the arrival of modern style, eclecticist movements began to develop that remembered the historical moments of each country.
In this context, some specialists classify the Barcelona triumphal arch as neo-Mudejar. And although it is true that Mudejar was not a particularly relevant style in medieval Catalonia, in the Crown of Aragon it was relevant, and very much. In fact, in the imposts of the arch, you can see reliefs representing the bat, which was the emblem of King Jaime I at the conquest of the kingdom of Valencia.
The universal exhibitions at the end of the 19th century were a magnificent opportunity for the cities that organized them to present themselves to the world. Usually they were held in Paris or London, but those other cities that occasionally managed to hold them, took advantage of the effort to make a large investment in what we would now call tourism promotion.
Thus, the triumphal arch was also a reference to the rest of the country. The coat of arms of Barcelona, even though it is the largest of all, it’s surrounded by of all the Spanish provinces coats of arms. At the top of each one of the façades, friezes made with portland cement (ultra modern material at that time) represent an allegory of the exhibition itself. They represent mythological characters that could be identified with some of the participating nations. And crowning everything, the shield of the Spanish monarchy, flanked by two lions.
The Universal Exposition of 1888 marks the before and after of the history of Barcelona. In The City of Marvels, Eduardo Mendoza captured in a very pleasant way the great transformation for the city, and also for the people who lived in it at the time.