The middle ages as a tourist attraction: the gòtic fake

Barcelona’s medieval quarter is an invention of the 20th century. Heavily remodeled architecturally, it systematically became a tourist destination.

Bridge between buildings in the Barri Gotic in Barcelona Photo: imago/imagebroker

Almost everyone knows and loves it: the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. It is one of the oldest neighborhoods of the city and stretches around the Cathedral, between the streets Carrer del Bisbe, Via Laietana and Avinguda de la Catedral. It belongs to one of the four neighborhoods that used to be inside the 1,270-meter-long Roman city walls, which then blossomed into full glory between the 9th and 15th centuries.

Today, the Barri Gòtic makes up the heart of Barcelona’s old town, along with the Raval, San Pedro, Santa Catalina i la Riveradas. Around the cathedral, palace walls and noble houses cast long shadows on the narrow labyrinthine streets.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors stroll through the streets and across the squares every day and allow themselves to be transported back to the Middle Ages – or even to the nearest bar or souvenir or designer store. Because where the monumental walls leave room, all kinds of stores have settled. Vacationers stroll under the Pont del Bisbe, the Bishop’s Bridge or "Bridge of Sighs," whose pointed arches connect two medieval palaces, the Palau de la Generalitat and the Casa dels Canonges. This bridge is one of the most photographed objects of Barcelona. However, the condemned did not sigh under it, nor did the kings of Aragon walk through it. Rather, this bridge was invented as a tourist attraction. Like so much here in the Barri Gòtic.

The medieval quarter is nothing more than an invention of the 20th century. This is how AgustIn Cócola Gant proves it in his doctoral thesis, which was published in 2011 and is already in its second edition. It still arouses great interest – and sometimes anger. For in it, the art historian takes a hard look at myths that have become cherished. Cócola carefully unravels the transformation of the Gothic Quarter and shows how local politicians and entrepreneurs have been systematically transforming the city into a tourist destination since the early 20th century.

The transformation began with the cathedral. Its simple, smoothly plastered facade was added to and "embellished" in a rather ostentatious neo-Gothic style for the first International World’s Fair in 1888. The central tower was added only in the early 20th century. The section of the "Roman" aqueduct on the right side of the cathedral is a reconstruction from Franco times.

Medieval mix

Cócola proves that this Barri Gòtic is a fake. For the most part, the visitor is presented with a medieval mix, a collage architecture assembled from old building blocks and elements. In 1908, Jeroni Martorell (Servei de Catalogació i Conservació de Monuments), then a monument conservator, and Joan Rubió i Bellver, the city council architect, began to redesign the cathedral district. In a limited space, they wanted to create an ambience and historical and emotional intensity with as many Gothic buildings as possible to overwhelm visitors, according to Adolfo Florensa i Ferrer, one of Barcelona’s city architects at the time. And they set out to give the city an old look and new symbolic meanings.

Without concern for historical authenticity, the architects transplanted components, facades and entire houses. "They referred to Barcelona’s heyday during the Middle Ages and also tried to revive medieval symbols by means of Gothic architecture," Còcola points out.

Restoration at that time meant completing the buildings and adding to them parts that were missing from the idea. The architect and politician Josep Puig i Cadafalch had an idea of what the typical medieval country house should look like, for example. He invented the name "Casa Catalana", even though he based it on existing types of houses. The medieval country house was to reflect the Catalan way of being, with a large portal and the typical ventanas coronelles (triple windows with Gothic pointed arch) and a portico gallery with a tower on the side. Following this model of Catalan architecture, several buildings of the Gothic Quarter were restored, which before was simply called the Cathedral Quarter.

It was gothicized wherever possible. Facades, gates and windows, even entire buildings were transplanted. For example, the 15th century Casa Padellas palace, now home to the Historical Museum, was completely dismantled and transferred to Placa del Rei, which was nimbly used to give it a portico gallery and Coronella triple windows with pointed arches.

The will to Gothic

Something similar happened with the 11th century Palau Reial Major, which had been remodeled in different periods and had a neoclassical portal. It was Gothicized back and enriched with old elements from other buildings. The Salò de Tinell, in Placa del Rei, where it is said that the Catholic Monarchs listened to Columbus’ tales, was also cleared of all surrounding buildings and then completed based on the idea that they had of a medieval building.

In doing so, they used windows from different periods: rosettes and triple windows. The rear Romanesque facade, which faces the patio of the Mares Museum, was also heavily remodeled in the process. As the city architect Rubió confessed, there were hardly more than six houses in the Barri Gòtic that could with good will be called Gothic.

At the turn of the century, the expansion of the city through the "Eixample district" had made its connection with the port necessary. It was necessary to cut a path through the old town. The construction of the Via Laietana resulted in the loss of 335 medieval buildings.

Augustin Cócola, art historian

"Much of what the tourism industry had proposed as early as 1911 was realized in the 1990s with Barcelona’s preparation for the 1992 Olympics"

For the most part, these were already very dilapidated. A great debate began about what to do with the medieval windows, capitals, columns and stones. The commission created especially for these issues proposed to exhibit the historical building elements in a museum. But then they came up with a better idea: the construction of a Gothic quarter around the cathedral.

At the same time as the construction of the Via Laietana began, around 1908, the Sociedad de Atracción de Forasteros (SAF) had been founded, a society whose mission was to promote international tourism and exploit the city’s potential in this way. The bourgeoisie, politicians as well as private investors wanted to give the city a distinctive look.

Early city marketing

"The tourists, the strangers, would then have better reasons to come to Barcelona and leave their money there." So argued architect Jeroni Martorell. That was in 1911. Three years later, the politician Ramón Rucabado advocated tearing down the "normal" – i.e., non-gothic – buildings and replacing them in the new-old style. In this way, he said, the district could be given a cohesive image and a "true Gothic quarter" could be created. Also, the next great World’s Fair of 1929 was coming up, for which the city was to be further spruced up.

From today’s perspective, the Barri Gòtic would have to be called a fake. The district was created like a consumer article for the visitor, a kind of theme park. Although there is an objection to the fact that every era has its own way of dealing with historical ensembles. And this careless approach to history was relatively normal and not shocking at the beginning of the 20th century.

"Reconstructions that followed an ideal model of the Middle Ages were common in many European countries. Especially in France, Italy, Belgium and Germany. The renovation of Cologne Cathedral is a good example," notes Cócola. However, reconstruction was particularly fierce in Barcelona. AgustIn Cócola, who is currently researching gentrification and tourism at the University of Lisbon, laments "how quickly ‘historical truth’ becomes beside the point once an invented tradition (Invented Tradition) succeeds." And Barcelona has.

According to official city data, more than 30 million tourists flocked to the Catalan metropolis in 2016. Only during Franco’s dictatorship was the touristification of Barcelona interrupted. And "much of what the tourism industry had already proposed in 1911, in terms of international marketing, the planning of major events and the creation of an attractive historic center, was realized in the 1990s with Barcelona’s preparation for the 1992 Olympics," explains Cócola.

The knowledge of the invention of the Barri Gòtic does not have to spoil the mood of visitors. On the contrary, it is part of its history. A part, however, that is not so readily revealed.