Casas de Indianos: Barcelona’s Colonial Legacy

During the cultural walk that I organized for my Mediterranean Heritage students in Barcelona, we explained several heritage elements that included the Renaixença (the 19th century Catalan Renaissance), els Jocs Florals (Floral Games involving poetry contests), la Sardana (a traditional Catalan dance), the Tertulia (cultural salon), the Castellers (human towers), and the Casas de Indianos, which I explain in more detail in this post.
Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Spain referred to the native Americans as ‘Indios’ (Indians), inspired by Columbus’ famous original misconception, thinking he had discovered India, rather than a new continent. Eventually, many explorers, navigators, and soldiers-of-fortune would follow the example of Columbus and try their luck in the New World, hoping for money or fame: Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Hernando de Soto and Alonso de Ercilla are just a few examples. The Age of Discovery had begun, and so did Spain’s ‘Siglo de Oro’ (the Golden Century).
Scores of Spanish men, young and old, saw the New World as an opportunity to accumulate riches. The sugar and the coffee industries were among the most flourishing businesses in America, and many Spaniards managed to accumulate riches in Mexico, Chile, Cuba, Puerto Rico and elsewhere before Spain finally lost its last colonies overseas during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Those Spanish adventurers and business men that came back to Spain having made a fortune in the Americas came to be known as ‘Indianos’. Those rich Indianos used their fortune to wield power and prestige: they tried to buy noble titles, gain social status by patronizing artists and poets (like Eusebi Gϋell becoming the patron of Antoni Gaudí) and building fancy houses and palaces in the colonial style. These houses came to be known as Casas de Indianos, and they share certain characteristics: the use of marine motifs (like the anchor, the trident of Poseidon, sea serpents, etc.) and native American inspirations (most commonly the head of a chief or a slave with feathers and arrows, but also exotic fruits and brids) as decorative elements; the cultivation of palm trees in their gardens (if they have one), and the use of porticos or colonnades or other elements of colonial architecture.
In Barcelona, we visited the most elaborate example, namely Casa Xifré in Passeig d’Isabel II, which dates back to 1840. The house, which shows clear masonic inspiration, features a very interesting iconographic program that includes, in addition to marine motifs and native American faces, a row of medallions featuring the busts of Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus and many other iconic explorers and navigators from Spain and Portugal.
Though many Indianos were involved in illicit trade, trafficking and promoting slavery, their contribution to cities like Barcelona and other parts of Spain was overwhelming. In addition to their own houses, they undertook urban projects, promoted the industrial revolution, built banks and educational institutions, sponsored art and culture, introduced new traditions and tastes to their native communities and -in some cases- even left us a body of literature chronicling their endeavours and offering us a first-person glance into the Americas.
Barcelona is a city that has a lot to offer, and yet, most tourists and inhabitants skip the colonial legacy of the city (which inspired a whole musical genre known as the Habaneras, named after la Habana or Havana, the capital of Cuba) in favour of the usual suspects that include the Gothic Quarter and the Modernist architecture of Gaudí and Co.
Below are images of Can Xifré and a nearby Casa de Indianos in El Born.

 

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