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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Plaça de Sant Jaume in Barcelona

What is Plaça de Sant Jaume?

The Plaça de Sant Jaume is a historic square in the Old City of Barcelona that dates back to antiquity, and is the beating heart of Catalan political life.

Plaça de Sant Jaume

Plaça de Sant Jaume History

This grand square has functioned as the city's political centre since ancient times. Located in the heart of the Barri Gòtic (or Gothic Quarter), it’s the administrative heart of Barcelona and, therefore, of Catalonia. In fact, the square was also the centre of the former Roman colony of Barcino, in the junction of its two main streets, the cardo (the major north-south road) and decumanus (the major east-west road). As far back as the 1st century AD, this square was used as the forum where legislators and administrators made public speeches and conducted debates.

Despite its rich classical history, the square takes its name from the church of Sant Jaume (or Saint James), which once stood here during the Middle Ages. Barcelona’s legislators would meet in the porch of the church to debate local and regional politics. The city council eventually acquired several nearby homes for this purpose, and these buildings would ultimately become the headquarters of the Generalitat de Catalunya (or Government of Catalonia).

The square's contemporary configuration dates to the early 19th century, when the old church of Sant Jaume was destroyed by a fire and subsequently demolished. Prior to the demolition, most of the area was occupied by the church and its cemetery, as well as the houses of the Magistracy, leaving the square limited to a small irregular space. The removal of the church, therefore, opened up the square and allowed for the development of buildings for Barcelona's governing classes.

The institutional bodies which once met at the doors of the church still leave their mark on the square today. At the northern end stands the magnificent Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya (or Palace of the Catalan Government) with its late 16th-century Neoclassical façade that recalls Michelangelo’s design for the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. (If you wander down Carrer del Bisbe, you’ll find the palace’s medieval entrance). To the south stands the grand Neoclassical Ajuntament de Barcelona, Barcelona’s City Hall, whose Gothic façade you’ll find on Carrer de la Ciutat. Both buildings are responsible for governing the lives of Catalans and the people of Barcelona to this day.

The square has witnessed some of the most significant political events in Spanish and Catalan history: In 1931, the Second Republic of Spain was first announced here, and during the Spanish Civil War, barricades were built on the square in the final moments of resistance to Franco’s fascist army. Finally, after almost 40 years of dictatorship, the square saw the return from exile of Josep Tarradellas i Joan, president of Catalonia, and the birth of a movement advocating for Catalan autonomic rights.

Despite its rich political history, the Plaça de Sant Jaume has played a central role not only in Catalonia’s governance, but also in its culture: it hosts numerous public events such as concerts, exhibitions, and celebrations of great football victories. Notably, the square is at the centre of La Diada de Sant Jordi (or Saint George’s Day) celebrations every 23rd of April. Jordi is the patron saint of Catalonia as well as of England and the Italian city of Genoa. According to tradition, Jordi was a hero who saved a beautiful princess from being harmed by a dragon that had been terrorising a village. In Catalonia, on his anniversary, women and men exchange roses and books for Sant Jordi. During the festivity, the square is filled with stalls selling books and the streets become crowded with people, strolling around, clutching books and roses wrapped in red and yellow ribbons – red, the colour of Saint George, combined with yellow making the colours of the Catalan flag. Every September, the square also holds celebrations for La Mercé festival, where people gather in the square to dance traditional native Catalonian Sardanas, drink vermouth, throw firecrackers, and watch trained castellers build human towers.

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