The Barcelona that put Colombus in a cage

The Photographic Archive displays a hundred unpublished photographs from the 19th century that bear witness to the city's urban transformation

4 min
Construction of the monument to Colom. Antoni Esplugas. 1888

BarcelonaIn 1888, during the World Expo, the people of Barcelona had to look up. On the one hand, the monument to Columbus was built, a project by the architect Gaietà Buïgas y Monravà, and, on the other, a hot air balloon was tethered to the Parc de la Ciutadella, which allowed one of the first aerial photographs of the city to be taken. What most impressed those who strolled through the Portal de la Pau about Columbus was the scaffolding, and the press made fun of it: "Finally, Columbus has reached the top of his pedestal. But, as they have not yet removed the scaffolding, it does not give the impression wanted. A stranger exclaims at the sight of him: "Poor Mr. Christopher, they have him in a cage!"', L'Esquetlla de la Torratxa wrote. The photographer Antoni Esplugas dedicated photographic series to the two attractions, with dozens of images. Esplugas' view of this Barcelona in full urban, social and political transformation is intertwined with that of other photographers of the second half of the 19th century in the exhibition La ciutat davant la càmera. Imaginaris urbans al segle XIX, which can be seen at the Barcelona's Photographic Archive (AFB) until October 23. In 1888 the increase in the number of photographs taken of the city was brutal and left testimonies of some ephemeral buildings, such as the spectacular Hotel Internacional, which can be seen at the AFB

Tethered balloon at the World Expo of 1888
Industrial pavillion at the World Expo of 1888

The uncertain fate of the first photograph of Barcelona

"We have selected photographs from the AFB collection from the 19th century that had never been exhibited before to show how the conception of the city changes with the arrival of photography. The images are not a mirror of the Barcelona of the past, but rather urbanism and photography influence each other," explains the exhibition's curator, Núria F. Rius. Especially from the 1860s until the World Expo of 1888, photography explored different ways of understanding the city and representing it. "The first photograph was taken precisely at the heart of the bourgeoisie of the time," the curator says.

This first photograph of Barcelona (also the first in the Iberian Peninsula) was taken in the fall of 1839. The Royal Academy of Natural Sciences and Arts organised a public demonstration of the operation of a camera in Pla de Palau. "This photo, however, was given away in a raffle and lost. Maybe someday it will turn up," Rius adds. The camera, which was paid for by the raffle, captured the square with Casa Xifré, then just completed, and the refurbished Llotja building. "At that time photography was already plural, there was not only paper," says Rius, pointing to some binoculars through which the stereoscopic images made by Franck de Villecholle of Pla de Palau can be observed.

Casa Vidal Quadras from the Muralla de Mar promenade. 1860. AFB. Unknown authorship.

The bourgeois Barcelona of Pla de Palau is not the only one that photographers wanted to capture. Some also watched the dismantling of the military citadel, built after the military defeat of 1714, or took panoramic views over Barcelona from Montjuic, and of Montjuic from the seafront. These images bear witness to the rapid transformation and growth of the city, which by the end of the 19th century reached half a million inhabitants. In Barcelona, works to demolish the walls started in 1854, but continued in 1870 and 1880, and the photographers bore witness. There are some rather curious images, such as a photo taken on a rooftop where a man and a woman can be seen, and, behind them, a photographic studio, built on the rooftop.

"At that time there must have been about sixty photographic studios in Barcelona, but photographs like this one open up new lines of research," says Rius, who has spent years researching the background and history of these photographs at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, which made the exhibition possible.

Photos of the 1868 Revolution

"The Tragic Week is not the first revolt of which there are photos. We have found images of the Revolution of 1868," says Rius. There are photographs, for example, of the destruction of the church of Sant Miquel and, in one, you can see a guard, alone, guarding the stones. Of the church, one of the oldest in the city, only some sculptures survived, which are preserved in the MNAC, and a capital that is at the MAC. That revolution led to the dethronement and exile of Queen Isabella II and the beginning of the 'six democratic years'. The fact that those who had and could use a camera were the elites is noticeable in how that revolution is told: the aim was to denounce the rebels' actions. At that time the name of Plaça de Gràcia was changed: until then it had been called Isabel II and, since 1868, it became known as Plaça de la Revolució.

Soldier in front of the Porta de la Pietat of Barcelona's Cathedral. Revolution of September.1869.

At the end of the 19th century, photographers gradually left the Ciutat Vella behind and focused on industrial themes and the growth of Barcelona. The focus was on the structures that symbolised progress. Pau Audouard, official photographer for the World Expo of 1888, photographed, for example, the works at Barcelona's harbour in 1896. "He applied the nuclear point of view. He compressed large structures within the limits and the two-dimensional space of the photograph, while at the same time accentuating three-dimensionality," says the curator. The exhibition includes building work in the Eixample, Plaça Catalunya, the Liceu or a spectacular photograph of the construction of the University of Barcelona in 1865.

Construction of the historic building of the University of Barcelona. 1865. Marcos Sala.

Little by little, photographers also took pictures of the great events with people in them. Until the end of the 19th century, there were practically no figures in photographs. They also took photos when something out of the ordinary happened, such as the snowfall of February 1887. The graphic coverage of that unprecedented Barcelona, all covered in white, was extraordinary in different media, combining photographs and drawings.

Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes. Snow. 1887. Pau Audouard - AFB.