One of the things that the curators tried to incorporate into the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance Galleries was the idea that the past survives, often in evocative fragments, all around us in the modern city. At various points since, artists and designers have chosen to go back and take inspiration from those fragments. And one of the most interesting things that I find while travelling around Europe is to see the very different ways in which that inspiration has manifested itself. Works inspired by gothic art, or medieval buildings here in Britain look very different from medieval-inspired architecture in France, or Spain.
This trend was especially noticeable in the late nineteenth century, when artists were especially keen on developing ‘national’ styles that reflected local traditions and techniques. Often, artists working in this style had close links to the literary scene, and to nationalist and localist politics, both left wing and right wing. One of the best examples is Catalunya. I was recently in Barcelona, and while of course I had to go and see the wonderful medieval and renaissance art displayed at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (a long walk uphill to the area called Montjuic), I ended up spending most of the holiday doing walking tours around the city to see the buildings of the Modernista period, roughly contemporary with the Art Nouveau style throughout the rest of Europe.
The artists and architects of Barcelona, concerned with their Catalan, rather than Spanish, identity, had a particularly intense relationship with their local historic building styles. The buildings of the Eixample district in Barcelona often display fanciful references to medieval building styles, but at the same time, they are eclectic, and usually built using the most up-to-the-minute engineering and construction techniques. The medieval look is only skin deep!
The first photo here shows you part of the street facade of the Casa Amatller, one of the more prominent Modernista buildings in the city. It was designed by Designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, with ironwork designed by Manuel Ballarín, sculptural reliefs by Alfons Juyol, and stained-glass windows by Eduard Amigó. Puig i Cadafalch was one of Barcelona’s leading architects, and this apartment building, constructed at the turn of the century, was designed to resemble a medieval palace. In the photo, you can see that the facade is entirely covered in tiles, a pointed reference to local Catalan building techniques.
The second photo is of one of Puig i Cadafalch’s rather more austere buildings. Whenever I look at this, I’m reminded of its cousin in London, Saint Pancras station. Both buildings take their inspiration from fifteenth-century northern European castles, particularly in the round towers with their pointed roofs. In this case, though, the spectacular ironwork is a strongly Catalan element. This building is known as the House of Spikes (Casa de les Punxes)!
The last image is one of my favourites. Everyone has heard of Antoni Gaudi, who’s become probably the most famous of Barcelona’s turn of the century architects. But among aficionados, another name is often mentioned: Lluís Domènech i Montaner. This architect’s undoubted masterpiece is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, not far from the Sagrada Familia church. The site has been closed for ages now, but recently, work has started on restoring the buildings, and as a result, limited guided tours are available. If you get the chance, then I can heartily recommend it. Even in a degraded state, the Hospital is hugely impressive. The photo below shows you just one of the ward pavilions. And immediately, you get a sense of how the architect was throwing together ideas from a whole variety of medieval and renaissance building styles to create something new. The tiled onion dome looks Byzantine. The arches are inspired by romanesque churches, while the tall columns and window forms come from a variety of gothic architectural sources. More subtly, I think, the integration of architecture, sculpture and pictorial representations on the outside of the building reflects the inspiration of the unashamedly ‘multi-media’ approach of medieval buildings. Walking around this hospital complex, I had a real sense of how the past could be used creatively to make beautiful and useful buildings and objects for the future.