He died a pauper’s death but the genius of Gaudi lives on in his wonderfully designed buildings and churches in Spain.
It was a balmy June afternoon in 1926 in Barcelona, north-eastern Spain. Cars and trams bustled along the busy streets of this prosperous city. An old man moved hesitantly along Gran Via in the centre of the city, his head bowed, his mind elsewhere. He was on his way to Sant Felip Neri church, as was his custom. He could have been mistaken for a tramp, with his mane of white hair and unkempt beard. His coat was too big; the cuffs of his trousers were frayed. Perhaps he never saw the tram that knocked him down and seriously injured him. A crowd gathered. Some tried to get a taxi to take him to a hospital. The driver refused. He would pay a fine later for refusing to help one of the city’s most famous and respected residents.
Dried nuts and the Gospels
The injured man was carried to a nearby clinic. Aides looked for identification. All they found was a handful of dried nuts in one pocket and a book of the Gospels in another. He mumbled out his name, “Gaudí”, and then lost consciousness again.
He was transferred to a charity hospital for the city’s poor and homeless. The name Gaudí meant nothing to the nurse who noted it down, but that was not the case with many others. The next day, the hospital chaplain recognised the dying man. He was Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, the city’s famous and controversial architect and the visionary force behind Barcelona’s most emblematic building, the still unfinished church of the Holy Family, or La Sagrada Familia.
His funeral silenced the city
Gaudí’s injuries proved fatal for the frail 73-year-old. He died on the 9th June, still in the charity hospital amongst the poor and the workers of the city he loved so much. His funeral silenced the city. The procession was half a mile long, and along the two and a half mile route from the hospital to his burial place thousands lined up to pay their last respects. Gaudí was buried in the crypt of his unfinished church, La Sagrada Familia.
Over the years since his death, hundreds and thousands of people have come to see the church, surely one of the most unusual in Christendom. Many others have come to pay respects at Gaudí’s tomb, seeing him as a possible saint.
Antoni Gaudí was born the 25th June 1852 in Reus, a prosperous city near Barcelona. His father was a coppersmith with a good trade. Antoni was the fifth and last child of Francesco and Antonia. By the time of his birth, two of his siblings had already died.
At five, Gaudí was diagnosed with articular arthritis. This led him to spend many productive, happy hours, sitting quietly while others worked and played. He observed and watched the natural world far more closely than others. This perspective would influence his later work, with its colours and curves and snail shapes and turtles as bases of pillars. Biographers suggest that his observations of spider’s webs and tree trunks and branches formed the basis of much of his later work.
Work and study
From an early age, the young boy joined his father in the workshop. His father was a coppersmith who made tubes and pipes and boilers for distilling liqueurs. Gaudí probably helped his father with small tasks, but times were not always good and he had to work for pay as well. He was hired out to a cotton mill. It was hard work seven days a week. The owner of the mill found young Antoni reading a maths book. Impressed by the boy’s intelligence he suggested to the father that the young Gaudí study. Not for the last time in his life, Gaudí was helped by wealthy, caring sponsors.
At eleven, he entered a progressive monks’ school which taught positive sciences: Newton, Euclid and Linnean. He wasn’t a brilliant student, but he did well in geometry. His character was independent, withdrawn, stubborn and reflective. But he was good with his hands. He drew very well and had an eye for details, especially in old buildings. He found a jewel of an old building thirty kilometres from his school. It was the deserted 11th century monastery of Poblet. He and two close friends would make trips to it, sketching how it was, and how it could be again.
A strong Catholic faith
His ramblings over the monastery would fill him with a vision of Catalan nationalism and a love of the glories of the Middle Ages. The monks also built in him his strong Catholic faith. He said later that at school he learned the “value of the divine history of the salvation of man through Christ incarnate”. Rather like the boy Jesus, he grew also in strength and stature during this time.
In 1868, Gaudí moved to Barcelona to enter the University. In addition to architecture he studied philosophy, history and aesthetics. He felt that architecture depended on the social and political atmosphere as well as the strength of materials. Again, he was not an outstanding student, but he worked hard and attracted the attention of his teachers.
In 1878 he earned his license as an architect. Gaudí now made Barcelona his home, taking in his now-widowed father and his niece Rosa. Photos show a handsome well-built man with fine features and light hair. Apparently, he had deep blue eyes which flashed when he was angry. His temper was his great fault and he would later abandon projects because of it.
Barcelona was a cosmopolitan city made rich on shipping and textiles. It was full of nightlife and entertainment. Gaudí styled himself a dandy at this time, wearing the best clothes he could afford. He involved himself in Catalan nationalism and observed trends in architecture. But he had a different vision from others, and he wanted to express it.
Expressing his vision
Similar to artists in the Middle Ages, he found a patron in a rich industrialist, Eusebi Güell. He was to be a life-long friend and supporter of Gaudí. The young architect went on to design houses and apartment blocks, a bishop’s palace, and some of the interior of the Cathedral in Mallorca. He began the development of a housing colony that was to respect the contours of the hills in an area where no trees were cut down. It was one of the first environmentally friendly projects in Spain.
His greatest work was neither his to begin or to finish. It occupied him for 43 years and will be his for ever: La Sagrada Familia.
The church was an outgrowth of a renewed devotion to Saint Joseph and the Holy Family that began in Barcelona in the late 1800s and was to be privately funded. The original architect, Senyor Villar left the project. Through one of his professors, Gaudí was offered the job in 1883. He accepted eagerly.
Supporters and detractors
By now, Gaudí had a studio, assistants, a reputation – and detractors. His buildings combined too many styles; there were too many curves and too many colours. He used second hand materials, exceeded height restrictions and put columns out onto the sidewalks where they shouldn’t be. But he got his way.
He disliked being photographed, didn’t write for professional journals, and now avoided society. His father had died by now, and he put his ill niece in a home. He was alone except for the workman on the sites, his priest friends, and the church.
In 1911, he became so ill that he made his will. But he regained his health and from that point on, he took no more commissions. He devoted his life to the building of the Sagrada Familia.
La Sagrada Familia
And what a building it is – even unfinished! On first view, tall thin cones seem to grow from the construction site and bits of plaster and coloured shapes appear to be stuck here and there. But take a closer look and the genius of the design begins to come together. The steeples of the Nativity façade (the only façade completed in his lifetime) stretch far towards the sky, all soft lines and gently moulded textures. It looks like melted wax or a child’s drip castle at the beach. Figures abound, and words are etched on stone. Stone Sanctuses ring the steeples. The columns twist and turn. Flying buttresses are “crutches”, and Gaudí designed new ways for walls to support their weight.
The museum of the church shows the models he loved to work from and the techniques he developed to test stress on columns. He took nature as his guide and both nature and God are in the details of the church. He used workmen suspended on crosses as models for Christ. He rejected a fine donkey offered as a model for the beast that carried the infant Jesus and Mary to Egypt. Instead, he found a forlorn beast on the street and used that as his model.
La Sagrada Familia is one of the most visited sites in Barcelona. The admission fees of over a million visitors help to pay for the continuing construction. The church is a working construction site and training ground for stone masons and other craftspeople. Hard hats and cement mixers and huge cranes jostle with the four completed towers. The church will be covered by 2010, but much work remains. It’s clearly the work of a genius.
Reputation for sanctity
The process to sainthood takes as much time moving through the halls of Vatican bureaucracy as completing a cathedral. A group has put Gaudí’s name forward and has promoted research into his cause. Every aspect of his life is being examined and documented. In 1999, the Vatican accepted the cause.
Gaudí’s faith has never been in question. He might not have been such a strong Catholic in his early 20s, but he certainly was in later life. His friends talked of his love of God and of others. He had a love for the workmen and for his friends. He was also pious, finishing off the highest parts of his buildings with a cross. He attended daily Mass and Communion. When he explained the designs of the façades of the Sagrada Familia, it was always in terms of the Gospel narrative. He could have lived a far more prosperous life, but he chose poverty. “Poverty,” he said, “leads to elegance and beauty.”
He did, however, have his detractors. He certainly struggled with his temper. He was hard-headed, and he walked off projects when he disliked the way they were evolving. But those who knew him best saw him as a saintly man.
Saint? Genius? Madman? Only God knows. He left no ‘school’ of architecture behind. His vision was too personal, too individual. No one knows what the final design of the Sagrada Familia was to be. Those who continue the work have only a general instruction to guide them.
But to stand at the base of the huge towers that soar like cypress trees to the sky is exhilarating. Whern people asked how Gaudí when his masterpiece would be finished, he used to answer, “My master is in no hurry”. I’m sure that the slow workings of beatification would bother him even less.
This article was first published in The Word, a publication of the Divine Word Missionaries.