The Arc de Triomf in Barcelona

An anti-militaristic arch.

Here it is in all its neo-mudéjar glory, the best money could buy for the Universal Exhibition of 1888.

Credit Wikimedia

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.

Egyptian Obelisk in Central Park, New York
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).

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

6 thoughts on “The Arc de Triomf in Barcelona”

    1. Thanks for this.
      Update: Image posted for you – I’m sorry the software does not allow commenters to do this.

  1. Depending on how reliable you credit Robert Hughes, he has a terrific description of the history of the obelisks in Rome. The sweep of history indeed; the wikipedia entries do not do them justice. Carved in Karnak or Heliopolis, over a thousand years earlier, and then moved to Imperial Rome, most of the ones in Rome were "lost", and then "rediscovered" in the middle Renaissance. Staggering amounts of capital and human labor were applied by several Popes(!!) to restore them. The whole saga of the obelisks, including the "Cleopatra" needles in NYC, London, and Paris, is utterly fantastical. It is an intense annoyance to me that I knew none of this history when I visited Karnak, Rome, or London. I am going to fix the Rome problem next year with several lengthy city hikes.

    Hughes also wrote a terrifically entertaining mostly artistic history of Barcelona, FWIW. I didn't know about it until *after* spending a week in Barcelona. GRRRRRRR! Life is too short.

    1. That is indeed an amazingly erudite book, which I had the good fortune to read just before going to Barcelona for the first time to teach.

  2. ISTR the Romans built temporary arches for triumphing generals to pass under from an early date. The innovation with the Arch of Octavius was that it was built of permanent materials and wasn't torn down when everybody went back to work after the holiday.

  3. … and I am reading today Juan The Landless, by Goytisolo. On p. 56 in an eruption of a discussion on masculinity and femininity, obliquely refering to the successful (or not) union of the natures, both the obelisk and the Arc de Triomphe appear, in *exactly* the context James discusses in his post. (Also King Kong.) I love it.

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