A funny thing happened to Robert Hughes on the way to writing a book about Barcelona's modernista movement--the Catalan art nouveau architecture of Antoni Gaudi and his peers. Hughes got so deeply caught up in the roots of the city's history that he dug back nearly 2,000 years. The result is Barcelona (575 pages. Knopf $27.50), an epic about Spain's least Spanish city, with its own language--Catalan--and its own unique culture. Even in the hands of such an elegant and trenchant writer, the undergrowth of dense detail may nearly defeat many general readers. But a long historic look was probably inevitable: the periods of greatest cultural flourishing in Barcelona's history are also the moments of the greatest struggle for Catalan identity and autonomy. Barcelona is not the Spain of the flamenco and the bullring: the Catalonians were hardheaded, hardworking farmers, merchants, craftsmen and manufacturers, often conservative and deeply Roman Catholic. Hughes traces the history of Catalunya from its days as an outpost of the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages, when it developed a muscular Romanesque and Gothic architecture, massive and simple next to the lacy spires of French and English cathedrals.
In a way, the book is a long overture followed by a short opera: the first half of the history is a warm-up to the 19th-century explosion of renewed Catalan pride, manifested in poetry, urban innovation and the work of the great modernista architects. Gaudi, of course, is the leading genius: his structural experiments took off from Catalan Gothic to produce amazing paraboloid arches; his rich details of fauna and flora in iron, stone or wildly colorful bits of tile drew on the work of the best Catalonian craftsmen. Hughes, Time magazine's art critic, is a scrupulous historian; the only thing we want even more of in this exhaustive history is the stinging wit of his opinions.