Barcelona, the Great Enchantress

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National Geographic, 2004 - History - 169 pages
Robert Hughes has been going to Barcelona regularly since the 1960s and was married in its Gothic city hall last year. Although in his new book Hughes is compelling and engaging in describing Barcelona's remarkable culture and history, his first subject is his 40-year love affair with the city. Thus it is a much more personal book than his earlier Barcelona. Since publication of that book in 1992, Barcelona has become one of the most vibrant and popular cities in Europe; Hughes describes the pre- and post-Olympics reconstruction that sparked the tremendous revival.Hughes begins the book with the decision to marry in Barcelona, "Where to get hitched? It ought not to be in Manhattan, where I lived. Neither Doris nor I is a particularly social animal. Neither of us wanted a fearsomely expensive wedding, and in my post-divorce financial blues almost anything from a New York caterer beyond a sausage on a stick and a can of beer seemed extravagant.But there was a solution. It was Barcelona. Doris didn't have strong feelings about Barcelona-not yet-but I most emphatically did. I had been going there at intervals, to work and to disport myself, for more than 30 years. I had written a biography of the city, some ten years before: not a travel guide nor really a formal history, but something like an attempt to evoke the genius loci of this great queen city of Catalunya-and to tell the story of its development through its formidably rich deposit of buildings and artworks." Hughes goes on to describe the wedding, "Not only in Barcelona, but in the Town Halland by Joan, in his capacity as alcalde [mayor]. And not only by him and in the adjutament, but in its most splendid and history-laden ceremonial room, the Salo de Cent," and the party that followed in an ancient farmhouse. "I thought about a lot of things during that party, though with increasing muzziness as the evening lengthened. Mainly about Doris, about happiness, and about the very circuitous route which had led both of us to Barcelona. When I first spent a mildly riotous and sentimental evening at Xavier's [farmhouse], it was easier to imagine being dead than being over 60, and I had no more idea of Barcelona than I did of Atlantis. But if my grasp of Barcelona 40 years ago was lame and slight, so was that of most Europeans and Americans. Not just slight-embarrassingly so. The 1500 years of the city's existence had produced only five names that came readily to mind. There was Gaudi, of course, and the century's greatest cellist, Pablo Casals. There were the painters Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso." Thus begins Hughes's lively and engrossing account of the history, the art, and especially the architecture of "La gran encisera," the name Catalonia's great 19th-century poet, Maragall, gave to his native city-"the great enchantress." He tells how at the end of the 14th century-when Madrid was hardly more than a cluster of huts-Barcelona commanded a trading empire as wide as the Mediterranean. Barcelona was always what a recent mayor called "the north of the south," the part of Spain closest in contact with Europe, technologically advanced, proactive in trade, passionately democratic. Its wealth made it one of the great Gothic cities, filled with architectural treasures of the 13th-15th centuries. Its language, Catalan, was the medium of an enormously vital literature. Crushed and colonized by the Bourbons in Madrid in the 19th century, Barcelona nevertheless entered a period of prodigious industrial and architectural growth (rebuilt by, among others, the genius Gaudi). Repressed by Franco, who hated the Catalans, it has blossomed anew since 1975 and especially in the last decade.At the end of the book Hughes and his wife return to Barcelona for a one-person exhibit of her watercolors. "Once again I was off to my favorite city in Europe, or the world. For the twentieth time? The thirtieth? Long ago, I lost count. You are lucky if not too late in life, you discover a second city other than your place of birth which becomes a true home townSome forty years ago I had that marvelous stroke of luck: Barcelona."

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Barcelona the Great Enchantress

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In this pared-down version of his acclaimed Barcelona (1992), art critic Hughes traces Barcelona's progress from a burgeoning port city to the booming Catalan capital that roughly 1.5 million people ... Read full review


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About the author (2004)

Robert Hughes was born in Sydney, Australia on July 28, 1938. He studied art and architecture at the University of Sydney. He pursued art criticism mostly as a sideline while painting, writing poetry and serving as a cartoonist for the weekly intellectual journal The Observer. He left Australia and spent time in Italy before settling in London, where he became a well-known critical voice and wrote for several newspapers. He was chief art critic for Time magazine for over 30 years. He wrote several books including The Fatal Shore, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, Things I Didn't Know, and Rome. He also hosted an eight-part documentary about the development of modernism from the Impressionists through Warhol entitled The Shock of the New. It was seen by more than 25 million viewers when it ran first on BBC and then on PBS. He also wrote a book by the same name about the series. He died after a long illness on August 6, 2012 at the age of 74.

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