It was the Romans who first came up with the idea of commemorating major military victories with triumphal arches. Later, the tradition spread out around the world — now you can find them in Paris and Moscow, in Berlin and even in New Delhi. But Barcelona’s brickwork beauty has its own peculiar story
From whatever side you approach the Arc, there are winged female figures keeping an eye on you, either blowing on their trumpets or holding out laurel wreaths. These are the twelve Phemes, goddesses of fame, whose task it was to help Barcelona achieve worldwide glory and renown. Well, as you can see: mission accomplished!
Street musicians, skaters, magicians and tourists, they all flock here. This is the place where protesters and soccer fanatics gather to wave their flags or cheer their team on as they watch the game broadcast on a big screen brought in for the occasion. Dividing Passeig de Lluís Companys and Passeig de Sant Joan, two major thoroughfares in downtown Barcelona, the Arc de Triomf is smack in the middle of the life of the city. It wasn’t any feat of arms that put it on the map of Catalonia’s capital, either. Rather, it was part of the preparations for the 1888 Universal Exposition with all its symbolism of artistic, scientific and commercial progress. This was a city of 450,000 and it had to compete with the likes of Paris or London for the right to host an event of such magnitude. And for that it had first to become a giant construction site. Speaking of Paris, by the way — as improbable as it may seem now, the spot where the Arc de Triomf stands now could have hosted the Eiffel Tower. The city authorities gave serious consideration to Gustave Eiffel’s application but ended up rejecting the design as “too expensive and extravagant.” Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas, however, proposed adesign for a Neo-Mudéjar brick gateway that they just loved.
Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf is not just another dreary historical monument – it is an integral part of the living organism that is the city today. Among other things, it is the starting point for the so-called triángulo friki, a triangle of shops and stores that has a cult status for city’s videogame, sci-fi and graphic novel fanatics. When around one thousand Pokémon lovers gathered last summer for a mass Pokémon Go event, naturally, the place they chose was the Arc de Triomf. The “Pokédada” was a great success, even though the police charged the organizers afterwards for failing to get proper prior authorization from the town hall for a mass gathering
The head of the Barcelona Architecture School, Vilaseca was very well known in the city. Suffice it to say it was he who had turned an undistinguished house on the Rambla belonging to Bruno Cuadros into the striking modernist building that stands on the site today, replete with ornate parasols and a blue-eyed Chinese dragon on the corner. Vilaseca’s triumphal arch was to be quite unlike its Roman predecessors. How, exactly? Well, for one thing, it would be built of inexpensive red bricks of slightly varying hues, reminiscent of Moorish architecture. But it was the sculptural decorations, a mix of ancient and modern themes and figures, that would really set the structure apart. These were the responsibility of a team of noted Catalan artists. There is a stern-looking Athena with nude peasant girls on the façade, along with a cogwheel, flaming torches, the coats of arms of the forty-nine Spanish provinces of the time, and a profusion of giant bats. The last bit should come as no surprise: these were the early days of modernisme, and the period had a bizarre weakness for these creatures, off-putting as they may be to the average citizen.
As improbable as it may seem now, the spot where the Arc de Triomf stands now could have hosted the Eiffel Tower. The city authorities gave serious consideration to Gustave Eiffel’s application but ended up rejecting the design
Vilaseca and the sculptors that he appointed to decorate the arch were accomplished masters, so it is a strange thing that the architect was close to panic when the work was done and it was time to remove the scaffolding — he was afraid the entire structure might collapse! Reportedly, his friend and fellow architect Gaietà Buïgas was so confident that, to calm Vilaseca’s nerves, he offered to stand right underneath the arch at the critical moment. The scaffolding came down and the disaster, of course, did not materialize, but the whole affair would make Vilaseca the butt of many a joke among his friends.
The 1888 Universal Exposition marked a turning point in Barcelona’s fortunes. That was the mo ment the city’s new image was born. A place that until then had tended to attract dull businessmen became a magnet for travelling aristocrats, artists and other luminaries from all over Europe. Not only is the Arc still standing one hundred and twenty-nine years later, sometimes it even lets curious visitors inside. To get to the top, you’ll have to first negotiate a narrow spiral staircase inside in semidarkness. The climb may be tiring and claustrophobic, but it is more than worth it, if only for a chance to pet the fierce-looking stone lions that guard the Spanish coat of arms at the top and, of course, to enjoy the marvelous view.
How to Get There
Arc de Triomf de Barcelona. Junction of Passeig de Lluís Companys and Passeig de Sant Joan, Metro Arc de Triomf