The Güells leave their mark on the Ramblas. We travel back to the second half of the 19th century to discover what life was like for the families that lived in four palaces, all of which were located around an avenue that was becoming Barcelona's main thoroughfare.
A city undergoing transformation
A stroll along the Ramblas is one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiences Barcelona has to offer, and that is so whether you are a native of the city or a visitor. A stroll down this world-famous avenue from the Plaça Catalunya to the sea is a highly-satisfying experience everyone.
You might think that the time that has elapsed since it was built, over a century ago, would have radically altered its character, but in fact, if you ignore the way people are dressed, their constant use of mobile phones and the sound of the traffic, you can still sense the frenetic rhythm of the pace of life that was also a feature of the 19th century. It was a time when the changes being made to the city's layout meant that the Ramblas became a great showcase for the city as, indeed, it still is. It was the place where people of all walks of life went for recreation and, after the ecclesiastical confiscations carried out by Mendizabal, its appearance began to change with the construction of buildings which are today some of the city's most famous landmarks, such as the Liceu Opera House, the Boqueria market and the Plaça Reial. Theater of the Liceu of Barcelona (Antonio Esplugas Puig).
The burgeoning Catalan middle classes and the nouveau riche started to turn their backs on the fading luxury of the palaces in Carrer Montcada in preference for the new buildings and cultural offerings that were available around the Ramblas which, having ceased being a fetid drain, now attracted the great and the good of society at the time, and they started establishing their residences there.
Just as the city was undergoing this transformation, two famous families would bind their destinies together through the prominent Barcelona marriage of Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi (son of Joan Güell i Ferrer, economist and industrialist) with Isabel López Bru (daughter of Antonio López y López, known as the marquis of Comillas, businessman, ship owner and banker who has amassed a vast fortune in the Americas, despite his extremely humble origins).
Photograph of Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi at the age of 24 (Collection of the Güell i Sentmenat family)
Photograph of Isabel Güell (Collection of the Güell i Sentmenat family).
Photograph by Isabel Güell (Collection of the Güell i Sentmenat family).
The first palace: the dinasty commences
The ceremony was held at the Palau Moja, Carrer de la Portaferrisa 1, the family residence of the Lópezs and the headquarters for the marquis’s business activities. Eusebi's reputation soon started to flourish. As well as investing in some of the most ambitious industrial projects of the day, investments that would provide him with very substantial returns, he also started to actively participate in Catalonia's cultural and political life, as a committed and erudite Catalan bourgeois.
So commenced the founding of a dynasty with the couple producing a total of ten offspring. The first-born, Isabel, a renowned musician and composer of religious music, was born in the so-called white room of the palace. In fact the Catalan writer, Josep Carner has an anecdote about her in one of his illustrated books in which he tells the tale of how she, after marrying Carles de Sentmenat i Sentmenat, marquis of Castelldosrius, commissioned Antoni Gaudí with the decoration of her new abode, and how Gaudí advised her, very diplomatically, to devote herself to the violin, given that her grand piano would not fit in her room. Photograph of Eusebi Güell and Isabel López, 1871 (Collection of the Güell i Sentmenat family).
Construction of the building in which the wedding was held, the Palau Moja, was completed in 1784. Josep de Copons, the marquis of Moja, had commissioned it from the architect Josep Mas. Originally it combined Baroque and Neo-classical styles and notable from this period are the Great Hall, decorated with frescoes by Francesc Pla “The Vigatà”, and the facade, overlooking a stream that would later be covered upon the construction of the Ramblas. The building underwent various refurbishments when the marquis of Comillas acquired it in 1870 and commissioned Joan Martorell, the architect of the Palau de Sobrellano, with the works. Notable features of this refurbishment are the main marble staircase and the incorporation of the Blue, Pink and Green rooms.
These days the walls of the palace give a good indication of the kind of lifestyle led by the upper-middle classes of 18th and 19th century Barcelona, and are a constant reminder of the family dynasty that had just started to make its mark.
Photograph of the Palau Moja at the beginning of the 20th century (Arxiu Mas. Fundació Institut Amatller d'Art Hispànic).
Photograph of the façade of the Palau Moja (Agència Catalana del Patrimoni Cultural).
Vigatà room of the Palau Moja (Eva Magalef).
Main marble staircase of the Palau Moja (Eva Magalef).
The second palace: Eusebi Güell's nightmare
In 1874 the family was blessed with the arrival of the third child, Joan Antoni Güell i López, the future marquis of Comillas, count of Güell and of Ruiseñada. It was time to take a step forward with the acquisition of the adjoining building, the Palau Fonollar, in order to make it the main family residence. It was built in the 18th century and was the property of Ignasi Maria Despujol, count of Fonollar and marquis of Palmerola. The transaction was undertaken by Antonio López, whose intention it was to connect the two palaces.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan, but nothing could have been further from the truth because this marked the beginning of many years of litigation with the tenants of the Palau Fonollar, the industrialists Rosés i Masriera, who rented various floors of the building. The conflict arose because Despujol had signed a contract with them giving them the preferential right of purchase in the event of the building being sold. But this clause of the contract was not respected. Despite all the legal manoeuvres, Güell came out on top systematically and in 1880 the courts of Barcelona declared definitively in his favour, and the long-running case was considered to be closed. Map of the Palau Fonolla (Arxiu Municipal Contemporani de Barcelona, Ajuntament de Barcelona).
The process for evicting the tenants therefore commenced and the project for refurbishing the palace was given the definitive go ahead. The project had been commissioned from Camil Oliveras in association with famous designers such as Alexandre de Riquer.
The former tenants, however, never gave up their fight and they took their case to the High Court of Justice in Madrid where, towards the end of 1883, and to everybody's astonishment, the court decided in their favour. The first sale of the Palace was therefore annulled and Josep Rosés was then able to acquire it, leading now to the definitive eviction of the Güell family. Central hall of the Outumuro studio (Jordi Puig).
The third palace: a change of perspective
Despite their obvious frustration with the outcome of these bizarre proceedings, the events acted as a stimulus for the family, as the following years would demonstrate. Eusebi Güell, Isabel López, their seven children, and all the furniture and decorations they had planned for the rooms of the Palau Fonollar, moved to the southern side of the Ramblas.
This was in the middle of the 1880s, the city walls had been demolished and the city was changing shape at a frenetic pace to become the new Barcelona. At that time the Eixample district, or 'Expansion' was full of works that would mark the character of the city's streets and architecture for ever. The only wide street that remained from the former Barcelona was the Ramblas, which was divided into various parts: the Rambla of Canaletes, of Estudis, of Les Flors, of the Caputxins, of Santa Mònica and Mar. For the first time the Ramblas approached the coast, and it was there that one of the most iconic of the city's monuments was erected, the statue of Christopher Columbus.
Portrait of Eusebi Güell and Bacigalupi, 1888 (Paciano Ross).
The Casa Güell i Ferrer, what would be the new Güell family house, is located in the Rambla dels Caputxins, 35-37. The building, however, is of such little architectural interest that it would not be noticed at all if it were not for the fact that it strategically adjoins what would become Eusebi Güell's great personal project, the Grand Palace. This now became his obsession, to build a unique palace that would mirror his vision, be enormous, luxurious, and leave the city gaping in astonishment.
Photograph of the interior of Casa Güell (Direcció General de Patrimoni Cultural).
Photograph of the interior of Casa Güell (Direcció General de Patrimoni Cultural).
The fourth palace: the grand palace
We move on, therefore, a few metres, to Carrer Conde del Asalto, the present-day Nou de la Rambla, where the Güells bought two buildings, at numbers 3 and 5, in order to demolish them and fulfil the family desire to link the father's palace with that of the son.
It was in 1885 when, enthused by his grand project, he commissioned a young Antoni Gaudí for the works. It was no easy matter because all the relevant administrative procedures had first to be completed. Nevertheless, he soon fell under Gaudí's spell, a spell that lifted Güell from his torments and convinced him that they had embarked on a work that would be absolutely unique. In spite of the fact that this was Gaudí's first main commission, and despite his youth, the project produced an absolute jewel in the crown of Barcelona's architecture. Photograph of Antoni Gaudí, 1878 (Pablo Audouard Deglaire).
It was built between 1886 and 1888 and, in 1888 was the setting for a number of events held to mark the Universal Exposition. And of course, the building was also full of the shouts and games of the couple's ten children, the last of whom was born in the building.
The building had seven floors, each with a different purpose: the basement was the stable; the ground floor was the main entrance; the first floor housed the library and is where Eusebi Güell had his office; second floor is where social events were held for which there were all kinds of facilities such as a reception room, billiard room, smoking room, a spacious foyer and a magnificent concert room equipped with a large organ, chapel and parabolic dome with celestial motifs. The third floor was the family's private space and the loft contained the kitchen and servants' quarters. Finally, there was the roof terrace, where Gaudí unleashed all his fabulous and intoxicating imagination, making use of trencadís, or broken tile mosaics, for the first time.
Map of the exterior floor of the Palau Güell(Arxiu Mas. Fundació Institut Amatller d'Art Hispànic).
Photograph of the interior of the Palau Güell (Col·lecció Família Bertran de Caralt).
The work can, therefore, be interpreted as a sign of the awakening of an artist who is finding his métier where nature, morphological shapes and meticulous wrought-iron works and carpentry assume full importance. It is, therefore, an iconic building, but one that would not have been possible without the family's tour around other palaces and the Ramblas.
In the light of this story, it is interesting to note that every third Sunday of the month the Palau Güell organises a visit entitled, 'The Güells in the Ramblas. Four connected palaces', based on research by the critic and art historian, Josep Casamartina i Parassols, which was published by the Diputació de Barcelona in 2017 in the third issue of the Palau Güell collection, Un palau dins d'un altre. De Portaferrissa a Nou de la Rambla (One palace inside another one. From Portaferrissa to Nou de la Rambla). The visit is highly recommended so as to observe the steps of this prominent family through these four outstanding palaces. A stroll down the Ramblas today is one that resonates with echoes from former times, echoes that remind us that the past, and the here and now, are more closely connected than you might think.