Catalonia. Renaixença. Cultural Rebirth.

Catalunya/ Catalonia: Renaixença. Culture and Identity.
Political Background.
The increased political, economic and artistic ferment of the end of the 19th century in Catalunya was essentially a struggle to find an identity.  No area in Spain could match Catalunya’s cultural and economic vitality, and Barcelona was the hub, a boom town. Picasso, an Andalusian, and Joan Miró, a Catalan, found inspiration there.

The cafe, Els Quatre Gats, sparkled briefly but intensely as the centre of avant garde ideas between 1897 and 1903. The conservative, nationalistic and devout architect Antoni Gaudí avoided Els Quatre Gats, but his buildings epitomise the experimentation taking place in the city.

As a dynamic minority in the country, most Catalans felt restricted under Castilian dominance, with their aspirations ignored or misunderstood. The exceptions were monarchists or those with little nationalistic feeling.

One way Catalans could express their difference was to identify their uniqueness, which was their heritage. And here we come to the nub of what became more and more insistent towards the end of the 19th century, the concept of Catalanism and the role of their culture in the community.

The First Republic (1873-74) had held out some hope of accommodation for Catalans. Its federalist programme recognised territorial “states” thus limiting the centralist control of Madrid. The failure of the Republic was a disappointment for those who still felt an attachment to Spain, but who sought a greater control of their affairs.

But in Madrid, the common sentiment was one of frustration with Catalunya, if the observations of some newspapers were anything to go by. In April 1873, El Eco de España wrote: “With the advent of the Republic, Spain has become the patrimony of Catalunya. The Prime Minister is Catalan. The Minister of the Interior is a Catalan. The Minister of Finance is a Catalan. Of the forty-nine provincial governments, thirty-two are headed by Catalans…” (Balcells 31).

It was as if Spain, the newspaper La Política trumpeted, was “a country conquered by Catalunya” (transl. from Ferret 269).  The return of the monarchy in 1875 heralded the return of centralism, which triggered an important petition of grievances (Memorial dels Greuges) sent to the king, Alfonso XII in 1885.

It was the first document to outline Catalan aspirations as well as complaints. The petition criticised Madrid for its centralising policies and its politicians for the decadence of the country. The Memorial did not advocate separation, but rather regional recognition.

The source of Catalunya’s complaints goes back centuries, but its more immediate origin dates from the beginning of the 18th century when its institutions were suppressed by the Bourbon king, Felipe/ Philip V.

But the suppression was a futile step because the roots of the community were firmly entrenched in the language that had sustained it for centuries. In other words, Catalan identity had never really disappeared, because the language and local customs were still practiced in the villages and the streets.

Without their own political institutions, Catalans who wanted to flourish under a centralist system were often obliged to communicate in Castilian. For the royalists or elites for whom money spoke louder than language, this was not difficult.  Many even preferred to speak only Castilian and if they spoke Catalan, they interspersed it with Castilianisms to distinguish them from ordinary people. For them, Catalan carried little social clout.

The Renaixença (Renaissance).
Still, there was another side to the language issue: its regeneration. The Catalans now talk proudly of the Renaixença, a cultural flowering that fed off the European Romantic movement’s love of local colour and historical exoticism.

In Spain, one of the strongest offshoots of Romanticism was costumbrismo, a deep interest in local traditions and regional history. Ironically, in Spain’s case, costumbrismo encouraged cultural regionalism that was contrary to the political centralism set forth in Spain’s liberal, first constitution (1812) and confirmed by later constitutions, i.e. it appealed to regional feelings and awoke in people an awareness of their own accomplishments.

Political liberalism, then, which did not contemplate decentralisation, was being subverted by liberalism’s appeal to local cultural differences.

In 1835, a moderately liberal Castilian politician, Alcalá Galiano, said in Cortes (Parliament): “One of the principal objectives which we must set ourselves is to make of the Spanish nation one nation, which it is not today and has never yet been” (Elliott 245).

However, by the time he made that observation, the first rumblings of Catalan linguistic “rebirth” had already been articulated.  Thanks in part to Napoleon, who wanted to drive a wedge between Castile and Catalunya by encouraging Catalan independence, a newspaper which included Catalan had appeared in 1810.

This was followed in 1813 by a Catalan grammar entitled Gramàtica I Apologia de la llengua Catalana by Pau Ballot. Its objective was to elevate the language and mediate between conservatives who favoured medieval Catalan and those who argued for Catalan as it was spoken at the time.

Still, the first call for Catalan cultural pride is usually attributed to Carles Aribau (1798-1862), an economist working in Madrid. In August 1833 he published an ode, La Pàtria (“The Fatherland”) in a Barcelona weekly, El vapor.

Written in Catalan, the poem adopts the voice of an exile who recalls nostalgically the hills (especially Montseny) of his native land (la pàtria) and extols with patriotic imagery a feudal past when Catalans defended their rights with strength and fortitude. For Aribau language was the bond that gave meaning and identity to the Catalan soul. Ironically, Aribau wrote no more in Catalan.

In 1841, Joaquim Rubió i Ors (1818-99) published a small collection of poems, Lo Gayter del Llobregat (The Piper of Llobregat) in which he issued a plea urging the recovery of Catalan as a literary language (the Llobregat is the second longest river in Catalunya). 

The introduction was a call to arms to reclaim a heritage that had a long and honoured tradition going back to the poets of Provence** (South of France) and that at one time had served as source of inspiration to numerous medieval writers, among them Dante and Petrarch.

To foster such a rebirth, Rubió called on young Catalans to write their verse in their language and urged a revival of the Jocs Florals, medieval poetry contests.

The Jocs Florals were not revived until 1859, but Rubió’s appeal did not go unheard. Lo Gayter del Llobregat was soon sold out and Rubió’s ideas were debated everywhere and contributed to the rebirth of Catalan as a literary vehicle. 

At the same time, there was a renewed interest in other links with the past: e.g. folk songs, local art, costumes, dances, and rituals preserved in villages and rural communities. Collections were made of the folk songs. Even buildings, including the Romanesque-Gothic churches, were seen in terms of cultural history.

The Catalan Flag.

So too was the countryside.  Rambling  (excursionisme) was encouraged as a means of getting to know the spirit of the country, not only in nature but also in the rural buildings, the hermitages, isolated churches or the casas pairales (patriarchal homes) dotting the countryside.

Coincidental with the rebirth of Catalunya’s cultural heritage was the popularisation or reappearance in the last 25 years of the 19th century of symbols associated with regional nationalism: the Catalan flag, the hymn of Els Segadors (The Reapers), the commemoration of Catalalunya’s national day (11 September), the sardana dance, the celebration of Catalunya’s patron saint, St George, and increased visits to the Virgin of Montserrat in the mountains behind Barcelona.

Castells –human towers—previously popular only in the region of Tarragona became more widely celebrated as an example of Catalan industriousness and cooperation.

Castells. Human towers
Jacint Verdaguer (1845-1902).
What Catalunya lacked was a voice that had an epic vision of Catalunya’s history while also demonstrating the power and flexibility of the Catalan language.

It found it in the poet-priest Jacint Verdaguer (1845-1902). Son of a peasant family, Verdaguer was something of a combative child with an early religious and poetic inclination. It’s said that when still young he used to construct little chapels in his house and, dressed as a priest, say “mass” to his sister and a group of her friends. He would also get very angry if “mass” was interrupted or someone fooled around.

At ten, Verdaguer entered the seminary of Vich, near his home town of Folgueroles. By all accounts, he was not a particularly outstanding student, failing theological exams several times. But it was here that he began to make a name for himself as a poet of satirical verse, aimed mostly at the teachers in the seminary.

From these early literary efforts he turned to more serious topics. In 1865, when only twenty, he won prizes for two poems entered in the Jocs Florals and caused a stir when he attended the prize-giving ceremony dressed in Catalan peasant clothes. It struck a popular chord and he was greeted with thunderous applause.

Although now popular, Verdaguer was not wealthy and for a while worked on the farm of some relatives. He completed his studies in 1870 and afterwards spent a couple of years as priest in a country village. A brief but serious illness took him to Barcelona for better care.

There, in 1874, thanks to the recommendation of a friend, he became chaplain on a transatlantic ship belonging to Antonio López, Marquis of Comillas, an influential shipping magnate and financier.

It was during this time that he wrote one of the best known Catalan poems: L’emigrant, inspired by the many emigrants fleeing poverty for the promises of the New World.  The poem is a nostalgic and sentimental evocation of the Pyrenees and their valleys: “Beautiful valley, cradle of my childhood,/ white Pyrenees/ Banks and streams, hermitage hanging in the sky,/ Good-bye forever!/ Harps of the forest, goldfinches,/ Sing, sing./ In tears, I tell woods and valleys: Farewell” (Eaude 65). 

Two years later, in 1876, Verdaguer became resident chaplain to the Comillas family, living in their palace on the Ramblas, Barcelona’s best known and most prestigious avenue. It was a symbiotic relationship: Verdaguer enjoyed the good life where he rubbed shoulders with Catalan high society and travelled extensively with his hosts.  For the Comillas family, they basked in the prestige of housing Catalunya’s most popular poet as well as having a personal priest.

Verdaguer’s transatlantic voyages became the inspiration for his first epic poem, L’Atlàntida. Written in ten cantos plus an Introduction and Conclusion, L’Atlàntida (1877) is an epic vision fusing the sinking of Atlantis, Hercules’s (Alcides in the poem) search for the Garden of the Hesperides and Columbus’s discovery of America. 

In the poem, Atlantis was drowned when Hercules split the mountain of Calpe, which joined Africa to Europe, causing the waters of the Mediterranean to surge over Atlantis.  The disappearance of Atlantis was balanced by the creation of new lands and islands in the Mediterranean: from the death of one came the birth of another. In the last canto, Hercules fulfills a promise made in the first: that he would found a new city, Barcelona.

Framing the mythological tale is a fictionalised historic narrative joining the Introduction and Conclusion.  The Introduction introduces us to a young Genoese sailor, none other than Christopher Columbus, the only survivor of a naval fight between a Genoese ship and a Venetian ship off the Atlantic coast of Andalusia.

An ancient hermit helps Columbus, and then seeing him gazing at the ocean begins the tale of Hercules and Atlantis to distract him.  The Conclusion returns to Columbus, who imagines a new world beyond the sea. After a fruitless journey to Genoa, Venice and Portugal, Columbus receives a favourable reception from Queen Isabella of Castile who, inspired by a dream, supported his plan to cross the Atlantic in search of India.

By linking the legendary myths of Atlantis and Hercules to Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic, Verdaguer casts Columbus as a new epic figure. Columbus was historically and officially received by the Catholic Monarchs in Barcelona, the city founded by Hercules .

L’Atlàntida was an immediate success and won first prize at the 1877 Jocs Florals. Although its theme touched only peripherally on Catalunya, L’Atlàntida gave decisive linguistic evidence that Catalan was capable of expressing heroic subject matter.

Its sweeping vision, its vivid imagery, its sonorous, rhetorical flourishes written in powerful Alexandrine lines (i.e. of 12 syllables) showed the beauty and expressive richness of a language that for centuries had been suppressed and viewed as inferior.

With L’Atlàntida, Catalan had once again come into its own as a literary force after being dormant for centuries.  (During the Franco dictatorship  –1939-75— Catalan was dismissed as a mere dialect of Castilian). We can, perhaps, interpret Verdaguer’s poetic role as that of a literary Columbus, bridging the old world of classical literature to Catalunya’s new literary birth, its renaissance.

In 1886, Verdaguer published a second epic poem, Canigó, subtitled Llegenda pirenaica del temps de la Reconquista  (A Pyrenean legend from the time of the Reconquest). A long, complex poem, its action is set in the Pyrenees in the 9th century with the heroic battles of Catalan knights against invading Muslim forces that resulted in the birth of Catalunya.

It is a world which encompasses chivalry, love, magic, enchantments, fairies, betrayal, rage, murder, vengeance, remorse and redemption, all set within the lyrically evoked landscapes of the Pyrenees and northern Catalunya.

It is filled with religious feeling, beginning with the entry into the hermitage of San Martí on the slopes of Mount Canigó*** of three protagonists, Count Guifré**, his brother Count Tallaferro and his nephew Genil. It ends following the death of all three, and a plea by Guifré that a cross be placed at the summit of Canigó. The death of the heroes is balanced by the defeat of the Moors and the birth of Catalunya.

[**The name of Guifré resonates in Catalan history: Guifré el Pilós, ca. 840-897, is credited with being the founder of Catalunya. ***Mount Canigó is actually on French side of the Pyrenees (in French: Mont Canigou). In the 9th century, however, the border at eastern end of the Pyrenees was very fluid and there were literary and linguistic bonds between Catalunya and Languedoc or as the area is sometimes called: French Catalunya. A rugby league team based in Perpignan is known as the Catalan Dragons.]

In March 1886, Verdaguer was crowned “Poet of Catalunya” by the bishop of Vic in the ancient abbey of Ripoll. However, the favourable position he enjoyed with the Comillas family became strained shortly after he became their almoner (distributor of alms) in the late 1880s. First, he started distributing excessively large sums of money to needy families, and second he became obsessed with exorcism.

Monument to Verdaguer on top of (Mount) Mare de Deu del Mont in north east Catalunya. He stayed at the sanctuery there in 1884.

In 1893, after several unsuccessful attempts to talk sense into him, Verdaguer was banished by the Bishop of Vic to the countryside.

He returned to Barcelona two years later without the bishop’s permission, got caught up in a scandal (he lived in a house with a widow and two daughters) and was suspended from the priesthood.

Socially ostracised, he defended himself vigorously in a series of articles which split public opinion.  For his supporters, he was a great poet persecuted by the establishment; to his detractors he was a fanatic who had turned upon his benefactors.

He was reinstated when he recanted in 1898, but only as assistant priest in a poor parish church across the Ramblas from the Comillas palace where he had once lived. His health suffering, he moved in 1902 to Joana, an old farmhouse at the foot of Mount Tibidabo. (Located now on the northwest outskirts of Barcelona, Joana houses a Verdaguer museum.) There he died later that year. In pouring rain, his coffin was followed by around 100,000 to Montjuic cemetery.
The movers of the Renaixença were not the peasants or working class but a relatively small cultural elite with knowledge of Catalunya’s history and a determination to demonstrate Catalunya’s rich linguistic and literary heritage.

Writing in their own language, they forged an identity that liberated them culturally from the dominance of Castile.Their success was a vital step towards a Catalan voice and inspired a cultural vitality that was equivalent to Catalan industrial vigour compared to Castilian business backwardness.

The return to medieval sources for these Catalan writers was therefore not merely a Romantic escape. In recalling the Middle Ages, they revived a period when Catalunya flourished both culturally and as a powerful political force with its own Mediterranean empire.

The Renaixença was one part of the jigsaw of 19th-century Catalan life, practiced mainly by a literary, scholarly minority. Nevertheless, language was never far from politics, and the matter of cultural identity inevitably coalesced with other Catalan concerns, particularly economic protectionism and dissatisfaction with Castilian centralism.

These concerns sparked a push for some form political expression: autonomy or limited self-government.  This was particularly so after the failure of the first Republic (1873-74), three of whose four presidents had been Catalans. It is during the post-republic period, i.e. the Restoration, that momentum grew for the recognition of some special status for Catalunya.

Balcells, Albert    Catalan Nationalism London 1996
Elliott, J. H. The Spanish World London 1991.
Ferret, Antoni    Compendi d’Historia de Catalunya 6th ed. Barcelona 1984
Hughes, Robert    Barcelona New York 1992
Reguant, Montserrat  Etapas reinvindicativas de la teoria nacional catalana New York 1997
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London 1990
Web sources:
For a concise description of the Renaixenca, see
Photo of Verdaguer by DavidianSkitzou in
Photo of castells by ca:User:Baggio in
Catalan flag by Pablo Saludes Rodil – Flickr in,_S._Cugat_del_Vall%C3%A8s)_01.jpg
To see the sardana danced, click  By Corine