The settlement of Barcelona has seen waves of immigrants and conquerors over its 2000-plus years, including Romans, Visigoths and Franks. Barcelona's fortunes have risen and fallen: from the golden era of princely power in the 14th century to dark days of the Franco era. An independent streak has always run through Barcelona, which has often led to conflict with the Kingdom of Castille – an antagonism that continues today, with a desire for more autonomy (or, increasingly, full independence) from Spain.
Barcelona's recorded history really begins with the Romans when Barcino (much later Barcelona) was founded in the reign of Caesar Augustus. The Romans were attracted to the location for the possibility of building a port here.
Rome's legacy was huge, giving Hispania (as the Iberian Peninsula was known to the Romans) a road system, aqueducts, temples and the religion that still predominates today, Christianity. Before Rome embraced this monotheistic tradition, however, there were waves of persecutions of early Christians. Santa Eulàlia, who may or may not have existed, is one of the great martyrs of this time. She still plays a role in the city's folklore, with a major festival in her name happening in February each year. Her body is believed to be buried under La Catedral. Christian persecution ended a few years after her death, when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion in 312.
Wilfred the Hairy & the Catalan Golden Age
In the 9th century AD, when much of Spain was ruled by the Moors, Louis the Pious – the son of Charlemagne and the future Frankish ruler – conquered Barcelona and claimed it as part of his empire. Barcelona in those days was a frontier town in what was known as the Frankish or Spanish March – a rough-and-ready buffer zone between the Pyrenees and the Moors who had conquered most of the lands to the south.
The March was under nominal Frankish control but the real power lay with local potentates who ranged across the territory. One of these rulers went by the curious name of Guifré el Pelós (Wilfred the Hairy). This was not a reference to uneven shaving habits: according to legend, old Guifré had hair in parts most people do not (exactly which parts was never specified!). He and his brothers gained control of most of the Catalan counties by 878 and Guifré entered the folk mythology of Catalonia.
Guifré consolidated power over Catalonia and ushered in an era of early building projects. He endowed churches and had a new palace for himself in Barcelona (of which nothing remains). His achievements were later described by medieval monks and Romantic poets, who credit him with transforming a minor town into the future seat of an empire. If Catalonia can be called a nation, then its ‘father’ was the hirsute Guifré. He founded a dynasty that lasted nearly five centuries, and which developed almost independently from the Reconquista wars that were playing out in the rest of Iberia.
At the beginning of the second millennium, Catalan culture entered a rich new age. Romanesque churches in the countryside fostered a powerful new style of architecture. Inside lay richly painted frescoes created with the finest pigments and bearing notable Byzantine influences. Some of these works – rescued from churches that later fell into ruin – are beautifully preserved inside the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) on Montjuïc. Commerce was also on the rise, fuelled by a new class of merchants and tradespeople.
A Growing Empire
Shipbuilding, textiles and farming (grain and grapes) helped power expansion. An even bigger catalyst to Catalonia's growth came in 1137 when Ramon Berenguer IV, the Count of Barcelona, became engaged to Petronila, heir to the throne of neighbouring Aragón, thus creating a joint state that set the scene for Catalonia’s golden age.
In the following centuries the regime became a flourishing merchant empire, seizing Valencia and the Balearic Islands from the Moors, and later taking territories as far flung as Sardinia, Sicily and parts of Greece.
A New Form of Government
In the 13th century Barcelona also became the epicentre of a bold experiment in self-government. Jaume I created the Consell de Cent Jurats (Council of the Sworn-In Hundred) to help run city affairs. Shortly thereafter, Catalonia saw the creation of the Corts Catalanes, a legislative council for Catalonia made up of representatives of the nobility, the clergy and high-class merchants, to form a counterweight to regal power. Its home was, and remains, the Palau de la Generalitat.
Barcelona's Golden Age
The 14th century marked the golden age of Barcelona. Its trading wealth paid for the great Gothic buildings that bejewel the city to this day. La Catedral, the Capella Reial de Santa Àgata (inside the Museu d'Història de Barcelona) and the churches of Santa Maria del Pi and Santa Maria del Mar were all completed during this time. King Pere III (1336–87) later created the breathtaking Drassanes Reials (Royal Shipyards) and also extended the city walls yet again, this time to include El Raval to the west.
Black Death & Pogroms
Preserving the empire began to exhaust Catalonia. Sea wars with Genoa, resistance in Sardinia, the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of the gold trade all drained the city’s coffers. Commerce collapsed. The Black Death and famines killed about half of Catalonia’s population in the 14th century. Barcelona also lost some of its best merchants when bloodthirsty mobs attacked Jewish businesses and homes in 1391.
The Peasants' Revolt
After the last of Guifré el Pelós’ dynasty, Martí I, died heirless in 1410, Barcelona saw its star diminish when Catalonia effectively became part of the Castilian state, under the rule of Fernando from the Aragonese throne and Isabel, queen of Castilla. Impoverished and disaffected by ever-growing financial demands from the crown, Catalonia revolted in the 17th century when Catalan peasants gathered on La Rambla outside the walls of the city and began rioting.
They attacked and murdered the Viceroy, Dalmau de Queralt, and sacked and burned his ministers' houses in what was later known as the Guerra dels Segadors (Reapers’ War). Under French protection, Catalonia declared itself to be an independent ‘republic’. Anarchy ruled over the next few years, until Barcelona was finally besieged into submission by Castilla.
Little was gained from the effort, though the event was later commemorated as the first great Catalan drive towards independence. The song 'Els Segadors', written down in the 19th century (but with an oral tradition dating back to the 1600s), officially became Catalonia's 'national anthem' in 1993.
War of the Spanish Succession
Although Catalonia had only limited autonomy in the late 1600s, things grew worse at the turn of the 18th century when it supported the wrong side in the War of the Spanish Succession. Barcelona, under the auspices of British-backed archduke Charles of Austria, fell after an 18-month siege on 11 September 1714 to the forces of Bourbon king Felipe V, who established a unitary Castilian state.
Catalonia under a Repressive Regime
Angered at Catalonia's perceived treachery, the new king abolished the Generalitat and levelled a whole district of medieval Barcelona to make way for a huge fort (the Ciutadella) to watch over the city. The excavated ruins beneath El Born Centre de Cultura i Memòria (which opened in 2013) show what life was like for those living in the 1700s on the future site of the Ciutadella. Their lives changed irrevocably as their homes were destroyed and they were relocated to the new soulless geometric grid of Barceloneta. Not surprisingly, the citadel became the city's most hated symbol among most Catalans.
Teaching and writing in Catalan was banned, as Felipe V proceeded with a widespread plan of 'Castilianisation', in hopes of crushing future dissent. What was left of Catalonia’s possessions were farmed out to the great powers.
A New Boom
After the initial shock, Barcelona found the Bourbon rulers to be comparatively light-handed in their treatment of the city. The big break came in 1778, when the ban on trade with the Spanish American colonies was lifted. In Barcelona itself, growth was modest but sustained. Small-scale manufacturing provided employment and profit, and wages were rising.
Barcelona's growth was briefly slowed by the French invasion in 1808, but gradually returned after Napoleon's defeat in 1814. The cotton trade with America helped fuel the boom. In the 1830s, the first steam-driven factories opened in Barcelona, heralding a wave of development that would last for most of the century. Wine, cork and iron industries flourished. From the mid-1830s onwards, steamships were launched off the slipways. In the following decade Spain’s first railway line was opened between Barcelona and Mataró.
A Dramatic Redesign
Creeping industrialisation and prosperity for the business class did not work out so well down the line. Working-class families lived in increasingly putrid and cramped conditions. Poor nutrition, bad sanitation and disease were the norm in workers’ districts, and riots, predictably, resulted. As a rule they were put down with little ceremony – the 1842 rising was bombarded into submission from the Castell de Montjuïc.
In 1869 a plan to expand the city was begun. Ildefons Cerdà designed L’Eixample (the Expansion) as a grid, broken up with gardens and parks and grafted on to the old city, beginning at Plaça de Catalunya. The plan was revolutionary. Until then it had been illegal to build on the plains between Barcelona and Gràcia, as the area was a military zone. As industrialisation got under way this building ban also forced the concentration of factories in Barcelona itself (especially in Barceloneta) and surrounding towns like Gràcia, Sant Martí, Sants and Sant Andreu (all of which were subsequently swallowed up by the burgeoning city).
L’Eixample became the most sought-after chunk of real estate in Barcelona – but the parks were mostly sacrificed to an insatiable demand for housing and undisguised land speculation. The flourishing bourgeoisie paid for lavish, ostentatious buildings, many of them in the unique Modernista style.
A 19th-Century Renaissance
Barcelona was comparatively peaceful for most of the second half of the 19th century but far from politically inert. The relative calm and growing wealth that came with commercial success helped revive interest in all things Catalan.
The Renaixença (Renaissance) reflected the feeling of renewed self-confidence in Barcelona. Politicians and academics increasingly studied and demanded the return of former Catalan institutions and legal systems. The Catalan language was readopted by the middle and upper classes and new Catalan literature emerged as well.
In 1892, the Unió Catalanista (Catalanist Union) demanded the re-establishment of the Corts in a document known as the Bases de Manresa. In 1906 the suppression of Catalan news sheets was greeted by the formation of Solidaritat Catalana (Catalan Solidarity; a nationalist movement). It attracted a broad band of Catalans, not all of them nationalists.
Perhaps the most dynamic expression of the Catalan Renaissance occurred in the world of art. Barcelona was the home of Modernisme, or Catalan art nouveau. While the rest of Spain stagnated, Barcelona was a hotbed of artistic activity – an avant-garde base with close links to Paris. The young Picasso spread his artistic wings here and drank in the artists’ hang-out of Els Quatre Gats.
An unpleasant wake-up call came with Spain’s short, futile war with the USA in 1898, in which it lost not only its entire navy but also its last colonies (Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines). The blow to Barcelona’s trade was enormous.
Barcelona’s proletariat was growing fast. The total population grew from 115,000 in 1800 to over 500,000 by 1900 and over one million by 1930 – boosted, in the early 19th century, by poor immigrants from rural Catalonia and, later, from other regions of Spain. All this made Barcelona ripe for unrest.
The city became a swirling vortex of poor workers, Republicans, bourgeois regionalists, gangsters, police terrorists and hired pistoleros (gunmen). Among the underclasses, who lived in some of the most abysmal conditions in Europe, there was a deep undercurrent of discontent towards the upper classes, the state and the Catholic church (which had long been viewed as an ally to the rich and powerful).
Anarchist Bombings & the Tragic Week
When the political philosophy of anarchism began spreading through Europe, it was embraced by many industrial workers in Barcelona, who embarked on a road to social revolution through violent means.
One anarchist bomb at the Liceu opera house on La Rambla in the 1890s killed 22 people. Anarchists were also blamed for the Setmana Tràgica (Tragic Week) in July 1909 when, following a military call-up for Spanish campaigns in Morocco, rampaging mobs wrecked 70 religious buildings and workers were shot on the street in reprisal.
Class Struggle & the Coming War
In the post-WWI slump, trade unionism took hold. This movement was led by the anarchist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT; National Labour Confederation), which embraced 80% of the city’s workers. During a wave of strikes in 1919 and 1920, employers hired assassins to eliminate union leaders. The 1920s dictator General Miguel Primo de Rivera opposed bourgeois-Catalan nationalism and working-class radicalism, banning the CNT and even closing Barcelona's football club, a potent symbol of Catalanism. But he did support the staging of a second world fair in Barcelona, the Montjuïc World Exhibition of 1929.
Rivera’s repression succeeded only in uniting, after his fall in 1930, Catalonia’s radical elements. Within days of the formation of Spain’s Second Republic in 1931, leftist Catalan nationalists of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC; Republican Left of Catalonia), led by Francesc Macià and Lluís Companys, proclaimed Catalonia a republic within an imaginary ‘Iberian Federation’. Madrid pressured them into accepting unitary Spanish statehood, but after the leftist Popular Front victory in the February 1936 national elections, Catalonia briefly won genuine autonomy. Companys, its president, carried out land reforms and planned an alternative Barcelona Olympics to the official 1936 games in Nazi Berlin.
But things were racing out of control. The left and the right across Spain were shaping up for a showdown.
Civil War Erupts
On 17 July 1936, an army uprising in Morocco kick-started the Spanish Civil War. The main players in the conflict were the Nationalists and the Republicans. The Nationalists were allied with conservatives (and the Church). Angry at the new leftist direction in which Spain was heading, they staged a coup, led by General Francisco Franco and other rebels, and quickly gained the following of most of the army. On the opposite side was the Republican government, which was supported by those loyal to Spain's democratically elected government. Republican supporters were a loose coalition of workers' parties, socialists, anarchists, communists and other left-wing groups.
Barcelona’s army garrison attempted to take the city for General Franco, but was defeated by anarchists and police loyal to the government. Franco’s Nationalist forces quickly took hold of most of southern and western Spain; Galicia and Navarra in the north were also his. Most of the east and industrialised north stood with Madrid. Initial rapid advances on Madrid were stifled and the two sides settled in for almost three years of misery.
Life Under the Anarchists
For nearly a year, Barcelona was run by anarchists and the Trotskyist militia of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM; Workers’ Marxist Unification Party), with Companys president only in name. Factory owners and rightists fled the city. Trade unions took over factories and public services, hotels and mansions became hospitals and schools, everyone wore workers’ clothes (in something of a foretaste of what would later happen in Mao’s China), bars and cafes were collectivised, trams and taxis were painted red and black (the colours of the anarchists), and one-way streets were ignored as they were seen to be part of the old system.
The anarchists were a disparate lot, ranging from gentle idealists to hardliners, who drew up death lists, held kangaroo courts, shot priests, monks and nuns (over 1200 of whom were killed in Barcelona province during the civil war), and also burnt and wrecked churches – which is why so many of Barcelona’s churches are today oddly plain inside. They in turn were shunted aside by the communists (directed by Stalin from Moscow) after a bloody internecine battle in Barcelona that left 1500 dead in May 1937.
Barcelona also suffered aerial bombing raids carried out by Italian bombers sympathetic to Franco. The pockmarked walls around Plaça de Sant Felip Neri still bear the scars of one particularly gruesome day of bombardment when dozens of civilians – many of them children – were killed here.
Barcelona became the Republicans’ national capital in autumn 1937. The Republican defeat in the Battle of the Ebro in southern Catalonia the following summer left Barcelona undefended. Republican resistance crumbled, in part due to exhaustion, in part due to disunity. In 1938 Catalan nationalists started negotiating separately with the Nationalists. The city fell to Franco's forces in January 1939.
Franco Takes the City
Franco's tanks rolled into a strangely silent and empty city. Almost half a million people had fled to the north. The first few months of occupation were a strange hiatus before the onset of the full machinery of oppression. Within two weeks of the city’s fall a dozen cinemas were in operation, and the following month Hollywood comedies were being shown between rounds of Nationalist propaganda. The people were even encouraged to dance the sardana, Catalonia’s national dance, in public (the Nationalists thought such folkloric generosity might endear them to the people of Barcelona).
On the other hand, the city presented an exhausted picture. The metro was running but there were no buses (they had all been used on the front). Virtually all the animals in the city zoo had died of starvation or wounds. There were frequent blackouts, and would be for years.
Round-Ups & Executions
By 1940, with WWII raging across Europe, Franco had his regime more firmly in place and things turned darker for many. Catalan Francoists led the way in rounding up anarchists and former Republican supporters; up to 35,000 people were shot in purges. At the same time, small bands of resistance fighters continued to harry the Nationalists in the Pyrenees through much of the 1940s. Catalonia's president, Lluís Companys, was arrested in France by the Gestapo in August 1940, handed over to Franco, and shot on 15 October on Montjuïc. He is reputed to have died with the words ‘Visca Catalunya!’ (‘Long live Catalonia!’) on his lips.
The executions continued into the 1950s. Most people accepted the situation and tried to get on with living, while some leapt at opportunities, occupying flats abandoned by ‘Reds’ who had been forced to flee. Speculators and industrialists allied with Franco were able to earn a lucrative income, but the majority of barcelonins were affected by nationwide poverty.
Life under Franco
Franco took a particularly hard line against Barcelona. Catalan monuments in the city were dismantled. He banned public use of Catalan, and had all town, village and street names rendered in Spanish (Castilian). Education, radio, TV and the daily press would henceforth be in Spanish. Independent political activity was banned, as was the celebration of traditional Catalan holidays.
In Barcelona, the Francoist Josep Maria de Porcioles became mayor in 1957, a post he held until 1973. That same year he obtained for the city a ‘municipal charter’ that expanded the mayor’s authority and the city’s capacity to raise and spend taxes, manage urban development and, ultimately, widen the city’s metropolitan limits to absorb neighbouring territory. He was responsible for such monstrosities as the concrete municipal buildings on Plaça de Sant Miquel in the Barri Gòtic. His rule marked a grey time for Barcelona.
Immigrants Pour into Barcelona
Under Franco a flood of 1.5 million immigrants from poorer parts of Spain – chiefly Andalucía, Extremadura and the northwest – poured into Catalonia (750,000 of them to Barcelona) in the 1950s and ’60s looking for work. Many lived in appalling conditions. While some made the effort to learn Catalan and integrate as fully as possible into local society, the majority came to form Spanish-speaking pockets in the poorer working-class districts of the city and in a ring of satellite towns. Even today, the atmosphere in many of these towns is more Andalucian than Catalan. Catalan nationalists believe it was all part of a Francoist plot to undermine the Catalan identity.
The Road to Democracy
When the death of Franco was announced in 1975, barcelonins took to the streets in celebration. The next five years saw the gradual return of democracy. In 1977 Josep Tarradellas, who was head of Catalonia's government in exile, returned to Barcelona and was officially recognised by the Spanish government as head of a new Catalan coalition. Barcelonins who lived during that time will likely recall the historic words given from the balcony of the Palau de la Generalitat. Before a huge crowd gathered on Plaça de Sant Jaume, he said, 'Ciutadans de Catalunya, ja sóc aquí!' (Citizens of Catalonia, I am here!).
Twenty years after his stint in Franco’s jails, Jordi Pujol (an early ringleader in protests against the Francoists) was elected president of Catalonia in 1980. These were the first free regional elections since before the civil war. A wily antagonist of the central authorities in Madrid, Pujol waged a quarter-century war of attrition, eking out greater fiscal and policy autonomy and vigorously promoting a re-Catalanisation program, with uneven success.
Barcelona's Olympian Moment
Politics aside, the big event in post-Franco Barcelona was the successful 1992 Olympic Games, planned under the guidance of the popular Socialist mayor, Pasqual Maragall. The games spurred a burst of public works and brought new life to areas such as Montjuïc, where the major events were held. The once-shabby waterfront was transformed with promenades, beaches, marinas, restaurants, leisure attractions and new housing.
After the turn of the millennium, Barcelona continued to invest in urban renewal, with ambitious projects such as the 22@ high-tech zone in the once-industrial El Poblenou district, the major development around new trade fairgrounds between the city and the airport, and the Diagonal Mar waterfront development around the Parc del Fòrum at the northeast tip of the city.
A Move Towards Independence
Since the demise of Franco, Spain has devolved considerable powers to the regions, which are officially known as comunidades autónomas (autonomous communities). Catalans approved a new Estatut in a referendum in 2006, but within months the right-wing Partido Popular (warning of the 'Balkanistation' or break-up of Spain) launched an appeal in the Constitutional Court against the Estatut, which it claimed granted too much autonomy.
After four years of wrangling, in 2010 the court delivered a verdict, ruling that 14 of the articles were unconstitutional – including areas of language, taxes, the judiciary and self-recognition as a ‘nation’. Catalans converged on the streets en masse to protest the decision, which was widely hailed as one more blow to relations between Barcelona and Madrid.
Separatism on the Rise
The economic crisis that erupted in 2007 has largely shifted the conversation to the realm of economic recovery. Soaring unemployment and painful austerity measures – not to mention Catalonia's heavy tax burden – has led to anger and resentment towards Madrid, and fuelled the drive towards independence.
The fervour to secede has only grown in the last few years. Recent polls and the regional elections held at the end of 2017 indicate that about half of Catalans support the region becoming a new European state. At the time of writing, however, Madrid had imposed direct rule as a result of Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont's declaration of independence, which Spanish judges ruled was in clear violation of the Spanish constitution, and – at the close of the year – several Catalan politicians found themselves in jail on charges of sedition and rebellion.