Catalonia is currently an autonomous state of Spain, divided into four regions; Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. It has a population of approximately 7.5 million and has three official languages, Catalan, Aranese and Spanish.
There is evidence of a Phoenician settlement at Sant Marti de Empuries, on the Costa Brava, which was subsequently taken over by the Greeks, then the Carthaginians, until the whole region came under Roman control. Tarraco (now Tarragona) became the capital of the region and one of the most important cities in Hispania.
After the Romans, ‘Catalonia’ was controlled for 200 years by the Visgoths, until 718, when the Moors absorbed the region into the Al-Andalus province. The Muslims were ousted in 801 after the Frankish Empire took Barcelona and a period of stability fell across the region.
Using ‘Catalonia’ as a buffer between them and the Moors, the Frankish empire divided up the region and installed ‘Counts’ to oversee them. In 987, Wilfred the Hairy, brought the entire region under his control and created the first Kingdom of Catalonia. Catalonia was then untied with the Kingdom of Aragon by the marriage of Ramiro II to Queen Petronila.
From here the influence grew to include the Kingdoms of Valencia and Mallorca, Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica and for a period of 80 years the Dutchy of Athens.
The Glory Years
In 1489 King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile married and this was the beginning of modern-day Spain. The ‘Catholic Monarchs’ were a powerful force and quickly swept the remaining Moors from the South and established Catholicism as the official state religion. The Spanish empire now included territories in North, South and Central America and the Caribbean. In 1516 Charles I (grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella) became the first king to rule all the territories in his own right and three years later he was elected Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Still under control of the Crown of Aragon, Catalonia rebelled, with French help, in reaction to the increasing Spanish oppression of Catalan rights. The so-called Reapers’ War (1640 to 1652) although won by the Spanish, re-established the rights of the Catalan population. From here until the fall of Franco’s dictatorship in 1978, Catalonia got involved in several major European and national conflicts, but in an amazing run of bad luck, managed to be on the loosing side every time!
Resigned to a ‘lack of freedom’, Catalonia settled down to work. (if we cannot be free, we might as well be rich) and in the 19th century, the region was the industrialised powerhouse of Southern Europe, particularly textiles. The strong historical Caribbean connections, saw rise to some very powerful Catalan families, including Gaudi’s benefactor Eusabio Guell and the Bacardi clan. (yes, the rum) It was also during this period that Catalonia began to rediscover and celebrate its past.
This romantic revival dates from circa 1830 and lasted almost 60 years, spawning other cultural movements. Although not defined by one particular discipline, this period focused on the height of Catalan power during the middle ages. Music, Art, Theatre and Literature all promoted and celebrated the rich Catalan history. The Jocs Florals (Floral Games) became a kind of cultural Olympics and a showcase of all things Catalan. Perhaps the most famous name to appear in this period was the, still much vaunted, poet Jacint Verdageur.
Following the European trend, but heavily influenced by the Renaixenca, Modernisme is the 20th century Catalan version of Modernism. Lead by architecture, Modernisme also enveloped painting, sculpture, design and decorative arts (ceramics, glass, precious metals etc). The latter especially so, as they are essential to Architecture. Gaudi of course is the most famous of the architectual crew, but Domenech i Montaner, Josep Puig, Josep Maria, Guastavino and Nieto all contributed to this explosion of building work.
In 1936, General Francisco Franco led a military coup against the government of the Spanish Republic. His Nationalist forces, backed quietly by Hitler and Mussolini and with the blessing and support of right-wing groups like the Catholic Carlists and Fascist Falange, organised national uprisings across Spain. Quickly the country was split into two sides. Republicans, loyal to the democratic government and Nationalists led by Franco. Catalonia remained Republican and was the last area of Spain to fall to Franco’s forces. With his victory in 1939, Franco and his regime set about persecuting any Republicans they could find.
It was a bloody time, not just in Catalonia but across Spain. Figures are very disputed, but about 250,000 people were either killed or executed during or just after the conflict. The war ended officially on April 1, 1939 and the Franco regime ruled until 1978.
Catalonia did not get away lightly by opposing the Nationalists in the civil war. The language was excluded from the school system and street names were re-written in Spanish. The autonomous rights enjoyed under the Republic were swept away and any slight sign of revolt was brutally put down by the army and secret police. The Catalan culture went underground and the only public manifestation of Catalanism was at the football. FC Barcelona was, and still is, a focal point of Catalan nationalism and any victory against Franco’s team Real Madrid was seen as a victory over the oppressors.
Olympics and on
Hosting the 1992 Olympic Games was a turning point in the history of Barcelona and Catalonia. The city went through a massive urbanisation scheme and the world was focused for two whole weeks on Catalonia. It has remained in the global psyche ever since.