Here it is in all its neo-mudéjar glory, the best money could buy for the Universal Exhibition of 1888.
Now wait a minute. A Catalan triumphal arch? Celebrating what victories? The whole shtick of Catalan nationalism, as of so many other varieties, is victimhood. We were betrayed, including by perfidious Albion in the form of the British Tory administration that negotiated the Peace of Utrecht in 1714 and let the Bourbons keep the Spanish throne, by every government in Madrid since then, and no doubt a whole list of local quislings. The last real triumph of Catalan arms was SFIK Jaime of Aragon’s annexation of Valencia in 1238.
In fact the Barcelona arch is entirely pacific. The friezes are so PC as to be nearly comic. This is “The Apotheosis of Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce”, for which Antoni Vilanova was paid 1,530 pesetas.
The arch seems to say: look, never mind about the defeats, we have made a success in culture and the economy! Take that, you gun-nut Bourbons! It makes me feel better about Catalan nationalism, though I see no reason to take back my strictures on its extensive wishful thinking and bad faith about public expenditure.
Should we see the arch then as a clever piece of irony at the expense of the militarists? This is a much harder question, and calls for some digging.The older form for a statement of vainglory is the clearly phallic obelisk or column (like Trajan’s or Nelson’s). It is a nice Oxzymandian irony that the three Egyptian pharaonic obelisks transported to London, Paris and New York by imperial adventurers commemorate the 3,200 year-old victories of Ramses II to passers-by in these remote cities: in a way that is entirely incomprehensible to them. Serve him right, as the London and New York obelisks were originally erected by Hatshepsut and her co-regent Thutmosis III, and the cheapskate Ramses just added the inscriptions two centuries later.
The Washington Monument in the Mall of the US capital does not even have secondhand inscriptions, so it makes no clear statement of anything but Trumpish braggadoccio. Am I alone in finding this structure vulgar and empty-headed? Washington had many virtues, but he was very far from the GröFaZ.
A triumphal arch is at first sight a vaginal yin counterpart to the obelisk’s emphatic yang: a gate of welcome and emergence. So why did the Romans use it as a symbol of the ultimate in machismo, military victory and the destruction of their enemies?
This they certainly did. The oldest triumphal arch extant is the one built by Domitian to commemorate his brother Titus’ crushing of the Jewish revolt in AD 70. A later one was built by Constantine for similar purposes. Alexander Severus built one in North Africa.
The actual triumphal ceremony, a very important one, involved the procession passing under a triumphal arch: though nobody knows whether this was a specific building no longer extant, a temporary structure, or simply a repurposing of one of the city gates. The procession included both the victors – the general and his troops – and the vanquished, destined for slavery or in the cases of their generals like Vercingetorix and Simon Bar Giora, execution. For the Romans, especially highly educated ones like the geekish Domitian, the arch carried echoes of the ancient Republican practice of forcing defeated enemies to march under a yoke of spears, marking their humiliation and enslavement. Symbolically, their emasculation and feminization. Gates can still be entrances to places of death and horror, like Dante’s Hell or its instantiations at Auschwitz or gulags like Tuol Sleng.
That does not quite settle it for militarism. For the first known major Roman commemorative arch was the Arch of Octavius. Here is the entire Wikipedia entry:
The Arch of Octavius (Latin: Arcus Octavii) was a triumphal arch on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It formed part of the sanctuary of Apollo adjoining Augustus’s residence. It formed one of the entrances to the Area Apollinis, on the south side, turned towards the Murcia valley. It was built at the same time as the rest of the sanctuary, around 28 BC. According to Pliny the Elder, Augustus also built the arch in honour of his father Gaius Octavius. It was decorated with statues of Apollo and Artemis by the Greek sculptor Lysias. It supported an aedicule ornamented with columns and bearing a statue dedicated to Gaius Octavius. …
So this structure had an entirely civilian symbolism, and functioned as a gate to a civic-religious sanctuary including a major library.
The pacific Barcelona Arc de Triomf thus has a respectable and non-ironical pedigree in antiquity. So let’s hear it for the Gran Cony (Big Pussy).