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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of the Arc de Triomf in Barcelona

What is the Arc de Triomf?

The Arc de Triomf is a red-brick triumphal arch in Barcelona that was designed by Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas as a monumental entrance to the 1888 International Exhibition.

Arc de Triomf at sunrise

Arc de Triomf History

In ancient Rome distinguished generals returned to the imperial city through triumphal arches; during the Renaissance in Europe the practice was revived for victorious soldiers, as well as new kings or civic leaders, or to celebrate the acquisition of new colonies. However, Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf does not boast of military or coercive success. Instead, it celebrates Catalonia's scientific, economic, and artistic achievements and progress. Designed by Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas, it served as the main entrance for Barcelona’s International Exhibition of 1888, one of many World’s Fairs held throughout Europe and America in the 19th and 20th centuries, which displayed the achievements of various nations.

The International Exhibition took place in the Ciutadella Park between April and December 1888. It aimed to let the city showcase its finest art and architecture. The organisers agreed that the event's entrance was to match the exhibition itself for spectacular, monumental quality, as the arch was the first impression of the city for over a million visitors. To this end, Vilaseca i Casanovas designed a modern take on the Renaissance triumphal arch, highlighting Spanish architectural styles. Instead of using traditional marble, Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf was built in red brick recalling the techniques of medieval Moorish craftsmen (‘Moors’ being the European name for Muslim settlers of the Iberian peninsula). As a result, the architect alluded elegantly to the influence of Al-Andalus – the period during which much of the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim occupation – on Spanish architectural history.

Renaissance arches, temporary or permanent, were rich in pictorial symbolism. The architect envisioned this Arc de Triomf accordingly as an allegory through which to characterise both Barcelona and the International Exhibition, and welcome visitors. Vilaseca i Casanovas decorated the red brick with four monumental friezes in which Barcelona is personified as a woman.

Arc de Triomf sculpture detail

One frieze (facing the Passeig de Sant Joan) illustrates the city welcoming other nations at the exhibition; another (facing the park) develops the theme, with the visiting countries awarded prizes for their participation. Yet Vilaseca i Casanovas's design goes deeper, representing the history and identity of Barcelona itself. The architect designed two additional lateral friezes portraying the city's history of art and commerce, along with images of agriculture and industry. These images tell the story of how the intertwining of economic and cultural work has underpinned the city's expansion.

Sculptures of bats, an unlikely emblem of 13th-century King of Aragon James I, are also dotted around the arch. The king, under whose rule Barcelona’s economy and culture flourished, and who liberated Valencia and Mallorca from the Moors, used bats as his lucky charm. Though not an official symbol of the city, depictions of bats flutter through the city’s architecture; in some older and draughtier buildings, you find the real thing.

Just above the arched passageway (on either side) there are coats of arms of various provinces in Spain. Barcelona's crest, however, takes pride of place, sitting itself triumphantly atop the other regions – regions and autonomous nations, as some Catalans might interject – at the centre of both main façades. This choice highlighted the city hosting the 1888 International Exhibition and recognised Catalan identity as both separate from that of Spain and yet integral to the nation.

Though initially planned as a temporary building for the exhibition (just like Paris’s Eiffel Tower in the following year), its popularity and beauty made the Arc de Triomf a permanent feature of area. The unique triumph of Barcelona's arch lies in its individuality, its celebration of uniting nations rather than conquering them, and its recognition of Catalan and Spanish identity. It’s for this reason that the monument has become so well-loved by Barcelonans and recognisable to the city’s visitors, over a century after its unveiling.

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