A Brief History of Barcelona
The Early Years
Barcelona's history dates back to Roman times. But first, there were the early Iberian and Celtic cultures who planted the area around Barcelona with vines before Greek and Phoenician traders began to arrive. Around 15 BC, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, the Romans established their settlement of Barcino where the city’s Barri Gòtic now stands.
The more developed ports of Taracona and Empúries overshadowed that of Barcino for the rest of the Roman occupation, which ended when the Visigoths overran the city in the fifth century and briefly established it as a capital. During the eighth century the Moors occupied the area for a brief stint until a Frankish army under Charlemagne halted their northward advances at the Pyrenees and eventually pushed them farther south, setting the stage for Cataluña’s first taste of self-rule.
Rise of Cataluña
When the Frankish control began to fragment, much of what is modern day Cataluña was consolidated by Guifé el Pilós (Guifé the Hairy), who founded the House of Barcelona in 878 to rule this newly independent state. By the 11th century its power had expanded considerably with the establishment of a port and successful Mediterranean shipping industry under Count Ramon Berenguer III. In 1137 his successor, Ramon Berenguer IV, married Petronilla, heiress of neighboring Aragón, creating a formidable union to rival Castile in the west. While Madrid was still just a sleepy despot of bandits and itinerant farmers, Barcelona was the head of a powerful, expanding nation. Valencia and the Balearic Islands were claimed from the Moors and soon the mighty Cataluñan navy had spread its control as far as Athens. Uprisings in the many conquered lands along the way, coupled to the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragón to Queen Isabella of Castile in 1479, which united Spain’s two kingdoms and undermined Catalan power, spelled the end of Barcelona’s golden age.
Castilian dominion under the Hapsburgs led to unrest in Cataluña and a series of unsuccessful revolts, the first of which was the Reapers’ War of 1640 that resulted in an eight-year occupation by the French. During the Spanish War of Succession (1702-1713) the Cataluñas, still bitter from the Reapers War, aligned with Karl of Austria rather than the French Bourbon’s Felipe V, who had been willed the throne by the last Hapsburg king. Some 600 years of Catalan self-rule had officially come to an end when Felipe V was enthroned and a Castilian-French contingent laid siege to the city until it fell over a year later. The Catalan governing body, the Generalitat, was abolished and Cataluñans were forbidden from practicing their language or customs, hastening a period of decline.
19th Century: An Era of Prosperity
Retribution came at the beginning of 19th century when Cataluña was allowed to participate in the prosperous trade of the Americas by shipping cotton from Cádiz to Italy and other Mediterranean countries. The influx of wealth insured that Barcelona would be the first Spanish city to experience an industrial revolution. New industries were created and the city grew rapidly as Spaniards from poorer regions flooded into the city, fostering an unhealthy situation marked by overcrowding and disease. To cope, the city’s medieval walls were destroyed to allow for expansion and in 1869 work was begun on the Eixample, a master-planned urban extension that became the abode of Barcelona’s bourgeois class but did little to ameliorate the problems confronting the poor and working class. The Eixample became the canvas of the great Modernisme architects who emerged toward the end of the 19th century and successfully capitalized on the period known as the Renaixenca, or revival.
With its prosperity ensured, the fierce Cataluñan nationalists began to assert their cause once again in hopes of creating an independent nation. All the while, conditions for factory workers were becoming increasingly inhumane. This, coupled with the attempted mobilization of Catalan soldiers to assist in an occupation of Morocco, brought about the terrible events of the Semana Trágica in 1909 when an anarchist revolt led to the destruction of almost 70 buildings and the death of over 100 workers. The ensuing popularity of workers’ unions only exacerbated tensions in the workplace and, fearing that continued upheavals might lead to a concerted push for Cataluñan independence, the fiercely anti-Catalan General José Maria Primo de Rivera imposed martial law on the city from 1923 through 1930. When the General was finally ousted, Catalan nationalist leaders called for a democratic Spanish republic in which Cataluña would be an independent state. Though the Spanish republic was never realized, Cataluña declared itself autonomous nonetheless, resulting in a popular backlash at the national polls in 1933. A right-wing government was elected and Cataluña’s so-called autonomy was repealed, soon after which an attempted secession was brutally put down in the streets of Barcelona by Spanish troops. The election of the Catalan- supported Leftist Popular Front fostered a short-lived autonomy in 1936, but by then Franco had begun to creep into the picture.
Cataluña’s fierce nationalism set the stage for some of the bloodiest battles of the Spanish Civil War. The city was bombed for the first time in late 1938 and had fallen to the rebels a few months later. Franco came down hard on the city for its ideals. Cataluñan leaders were beheaded or shot dead in their tracks while others were forced into exile. Use of the Catalan language or any manifestation of regional culture was explicitly banned and the rule was brutally enforced.
Post Franco Era
By the 1960s unrest was once again a daily feature in the streets of Barcelona; protests were common as the Catalan quietly began to reclaim their culture; when Franco finally died in 1975, Barcelona wasted little time in erasing his name and image from its street signs and storefronts. It was a period of exultation capped in 1978 by the establishment of the Autonomous Community of Cataluña with Barcelona as its capital. While the region is still under control of the national government with respect to currency and foreign policy, it enjoys broad powers over regional industry and trade, education, tourism, language and the many other cultural traditions that the Catalans pride themselves on. After hosting the Olympic Games in 1992, for which the city gave itself a thoroughly successful makeover, Barcelona had fully established itself as the Spanish capital of style and spectacle, even if it might never be the capital of an independent Cataluñan nation.
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