Book Review: Barcelona 1700 by Albert Garcia Espuche

This week in Book Review we delve into a well-preserved layer of Barcelona's history. Based on author Albert Garcia Espuche's own excavations at the Mercat del Born Cultural Centre, Barcelona 1700 provides a surprisingly lucid vision of life in the rebellious city before it was destroyed during Felipe V’s year-long siege in the Spanish War of Succession. The unprecedented archaeological finds are dusted off and categorized to piece together a picture of real citizens; where they lived, what they owned, their work routines, their hobbies and their passions…

The Born Cultural Centre was opened for the September 11 tricentenary festivities, and has become the highly symbolic focal point of the now annual independence rallies.

In one corner of the old market is a brilliant, ongoing exhibition. It displays the domestic artifacts found in the ruins of the houses that existed in this neigbourhood before the War of Succession. Ranging from china vases to textiles, legal documents and cooking implements, these artifacts allowed historians to piece together a startlingly clear image of how ordinary folk lived in the year 1714. As a slice of specific European history astonishingly preserved, only Pompeii can rival it.

The historian and architect Albert Garcia Espuche was the director of the Projecte del Born, directly involved in the project of classifying and restoring this collection of artifacts. Barcelona 1700 is just one in a series of books chronicling the finds. It presents a riveting picture of a diverse, economically dynamic port city ravaged by a conflict which was ongoing in spits and spurts between 1691 and 1714, but whose citizens were rich in possessions, hobbies and interests.

Among all these artifacts were hundreds of legal documents, including death certificates, land deeds, inventories of possessions and much more. Combined with the domestic ornaments and possessions, they enabled Garcia Espuche to paint a painstaking portrait of the day to day lives of concrete individuals.

He can state with confidence that Barcelona had a population of around 38,000, over 20% of whom were French immigrants – known derogatively as gavatxos - while there were many Italian, Dutch and English living in the city who had adopted Catalan names. As was the case with a surprising number of Milanese hairdressers, for example, or an English merchant who had changed his name from William Rose to Guillem Ros.

A typical Barcelonan house (in fact, over 85% of them) would have had a shop or work space (taller) on the ground floor next to their kitchen, with bedrooms and store-rooms used for work tools on the first floor accessed via a spiral staircase, and balconies shaded by blue and white striped awnings. Over 70% of houses were rented from landlords. A house would cost anywhere from 40 pounds for a one-storey to 79 pounds for a two-storey. Many families had rooms rented out to lodgers and students.

The desirable streets to live on back then would have been Portaferrisa, Ample, Mercé and Montcada, where the cases grans were to be found (today erroneously called palaces, for some reason). The inventories of these noblemen’s houses reveals a world of Flanders tapestries, Ghent or Genovese cloths, goose feather cushions, four-poster beds, vases from China, English plates, cotton from India and goblets made of silver from South American mines.

The city was extremely religious; during easter every year the local rector would go from door to door pushing the communion biscuit into the mouths of his parishioners in a rite akin to enforced mass. Woe betide those whose names weren’t ticked off on his calling list; in those days la hostia was obligatory. Religious superstitions could also affect your career prospects. In order to take on certain jobs, you had to be able to produce proof of purity of race, ie. lack of Jewish or Moorish blood, otherwise you could forget about climbing the career ladder in a workmen’s guild, for example. Children, meanwhile, were touchingly draped in bells and small amulets on their belts, as well as agnus deis (a medallion of a holy lamb) to deter evil spirits.

Religion was not everything however according to Garcia Espuche. Among the leisure pursuits and hobbies that citizens enjoyed in the early 1700s were minigolf (trucs), pilota ( a form of squash), gambling and card games in a kind of casino/leisure club known as the triquet and a riotously thuggish game where two gangs of men threw rocks at each other.

Barcelonans of 1700 were also obsessed with a substance said to have psychoactive qualities. Brought over from the Americas, it was flakey, with a deep brown colour, and was often heated up so that its rich aroma could be enjoyed. It was served in fashionable cafes all over the city, and only to adults. 1700-era revellers would gorge on it in Baccanalian parties.The substance in question? Chocolate. Meanwhile, one of the most popular drinks was aigua garrapinyada, a kind of sweetened snow cone, with crushed ice transported from the nearby Montseny mountains.

Garcia Espuche’s style of commentary is quite dry and serious, but the thoroughness of his research shines through, and makes it a rewarding read for anyone interested in Barcelona's history. What chiefly delights, throughout this extensive catalogue of small discoveries, is the sense of similarity between their society and our own. Not just in the sense that you can see flats or shops in the Born or Gotic of today that you can imagine in his 1700-era Barcelona. It's that the people weren’t so different to us either; whether getting high on tobacco, chocolate or brandy, or delighted by a visit to their local drogueria to try out all the perfumes, or popping to the botiga de roba for the latest ruffed collar, or to the perruqueria to get their hair greased forward. It’s not the squalid, medieval fleapit one might imagine, with the rich hogging the feast, and the commoners battling over alms. The city was rich, and its inhabitants enjoyed luxury items brought to them on ships from every corner of the globe.

Garcia Espuche’s book is as yet only available in Catalan. The other books in his Barcelona 1700 series include Llengua I Literature, Indumentària, Politics, Drogues, Dolços I Tabac and Economia I Guerra.

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