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A Brief History of the Frederic Marès Museum in Barcelona

Updated: Jan 13

What is in the Museu Frederic Marès?


The Museu Frederic Marès holds a varied collection of art, sculpture, and artefacts gathered together by sculptor Frederic Marès during the 20th century.

exhibits at Museu Frederic Marès

Guillem F-H, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Museu Frederic Marès History


Hidden within the Barri Gòtic (or Gothic quarter), the Museu Frederic Marès is a gem for anyone with a penchant for painting and sculpture, as well as the everyday objects of the past. Nestled in a section of the stunning Palau Reial Major, once the palatial headquarters of the local Inquisition in the 15th century, this embarrassment of riches is the legacy of sculptor and avid collector Frederic Marès.


Born in 1893 in Portbou, near the French border, Marès studied at La Llotja (the prestigious School of Fine Arts in Barcelona) and in the workshop of Eusebi Arnau, one of the leading sculptors of the Modernista movement in Catalonia. After graduating from La Lotja, Marès started working there as a sculptor and a university professor, where he taught until he retired in 1964.


Despite his entwined careers in art and academia, Marès also nursed a passion for collecting. In his memoirs he recalls collecting photographs, chocolate wrappers and Japanese pictures from a very young age. So keen was his love for art that when his father couldn’t afford to buy a 15th-century painting of the philosopher Ramon Llull, the young artist (who was still a student at the time) purchased it with the prize money he had won at an exhibition. This sparked an urge to collect which never waned. Marès's interest in memorabilia and ephemera alongside high art led him to befriend antiquarians, bookshop owners, and art auctioneers during his time in Paris. Recognising himself as an incorrigible obsessive, Marès kept growing his collection, but managed to keep it secret from even close friends and family; everything was crammed into his studio.


In 1944, he decided that in the event of his death he would bequeath his collection to the City of Barcelona. Later that year, he showed the fruits of his decades of collecting for the first time in an exhibition. Members of the council found the contents so rich and beautiful that they decided to display it as a museum. The Palau Reial Major, which had been occupied by Clarissine nuns for the past two centuries until their expulsion in 1936, was restored and adapted for its new use as a museum.


The museum itself is divided into multiple sections. A number of spaces are given over to sculpture, housing an extensive array of Spanish pieces which date from ancient times to the 19th century. The excellent ‘Collector's Cabinet’, which occupies the second and third floors of the building, presents an assortment of household items from daily life in Spain. As we all know, the realm of the everyday is infinitely rich with material culture: the ‘Cabinet’ fills 17 rooms in the museum. Some of these items include tobacco pipes, dolls, ladies' fans, walking sticks, pocket watches, and seashell-encrusted vases. The museum has a collection of ‘bouquet holders’, used mainly by women for the small floral arrangements they wore as accessories. The collection can be more challenging: the display of embroideries made with human hair stand out among the array of bourgeois objects.


A trip to the Frederic Marès Museum cannot be completed without visiting Café d'Estiu. Located in the palace’s courtyard under orange trees, it’s the perfect setting to process and discuss the curiosities which caught Marès’s eye; to refresh oneself with coffee and a little treat, and wonder whether he’d have taken a shine to the sugar spoon.


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