maritime reassessing history
History is a matter of sifting through often incomplete data and interpreting it in order to reach a conclusion. Sometimes new evidence comes to light and what was once dogma must be rethought and reinterpreted. This process has occurred with Barcelona’s Drassanes Reials, or the Royal Shipyards, over the course of two years of excavations. Located at the end of La Rambla near the Columbus monument and housing the Museu Marítim, the Drassanes is one of the city’s most emblematic buildings.
Over the centuries, the building has served as military barracks, arsenal, munitions factory and even as part of the city’s perimeter wall. It was transferred to the Generalitat in 1936 with the intention of establishing a maritime museum, but the Civil War interfered with these plans and the Museu Marítim didn’t open its doors until 1941.
The Drassanes was constructed to build, repair and store ships for the Crown of Aragon. Archival evidence suggests there was a shipyard on the present site prior to the 13th century. But, the current structure was built during the reign of Pere el Gran, between 1282 and 1285. It consisted of a series of long, covered bays under which ships could be assembled or repaired and was located just to the west of the city and outside of the city walls that roughly followed the line of the present-day La Rambla. The Drassanes was built on the beach so that ships could be easily launched or recovered and, in the winter, was used to store the ships of the King’s fleet because Barcelona lacked a proper harbour. As the fleet grew during the 14th and early 15th centuries, the shipyard was expanded and the city walls were also expanded so as to encompass the Drassanes.
For decades, history books and tourist guides have touted the Drassanes as one of Europe’s most important examples of industrial Gothic architecture, but the recent archeological and archival investigations have forced a reevaluation of the building and its site. Instead of being a Gothic structure from the 13th century, most of the actual building is now considered to have been built later “in the Gothic style.”
The majority of the still-existing structure dates from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Although Barcelona lacked a proper port, a spit of land, where Barceloneta is today, provided ships a measure of protection from north winds. Unfortunately this also led to erosion of the beach in front of the Drassanes and as a result the medieval building was demolished and a new one built partly on the same location but further inland. The recent archeological excavations have revealed the foundations of the piers of the older structure. The new Drassanes was also built in the Gothic style and this is what had confused historians: a building in the Gothic style but built later. Presumably, the original structure was found to be functional and when the new Drassanes was built, the same architectural style was used. This has explained some discrepancies that arose from the study of old documents. For example, how the Drassanes was depicted in Anton van der Wyngaerde’s well-known 1563 image of Barcelona had raised doubts about the painting’s accuracy. But research and excavations have shown that Wyngaerde’s image likely depicts the older building and not the present-day structure.
The larger Drassanes also implied advances in the art of ship building between the 13th and 15th centuries. By the 15th century ships were getting bigger. Among the ships built here was the Real which served as Don Juan of Austria’s flagship during the pivotal battle of Lepanto in 1571 between Islamic and Christian forces. At the time, the Real was the largest galley in the world. In the 1970s the Maritime Museum built a full-size replica of the ship and it occupies one of the Drassanes central naves. It is the Maritime Museum’s showcase exhibit and the only piece not removed during the archeological and restoration work.
The work has also added to our knowledge of Barcelona of two millennia ago. The archeological excavations under the building revealed a large Roman necropolis. The graves of more than one hundred individuals dating from the first and sixth centuries grant new insights into the Barcelona waterfront under the Romans. One important conclusion is that the land on which the building was obviously dry and some distance from the shore during the Roman era—the dead would not have been buried on an unstable beach. Another conclusion that can be drawn from the presence of the burial ground is that there was probably a road following the shoreline, as Roman cemeteries often lined the roads leading to the gates of a city. So, it’s likely that the Drassanes is situated on or near one of the old gates into Barcino, as the city was known under the Romans. A familiar example of the Roman custom of placing graves to line a roadway, are the Roman graves visible in the Plaça de la Vila de Madrid in the Barri Gotic. Also uncovered during the excavations were the remains of a mausoleum which will remain visible to museum visitors.
This latest restoration work is the last phase of an ongoing project that began over 25 years ago. Excavations on the site and the restoration of the building began in 2010 and ended in 2012. The building itself has been upgraded with new heating and ventilation systems, an insulated roof and a new library and classroom spaces. The museum’s permanent exhibits were moved into storage during the work and the museum was reopened to the public in 2012 with temporary exhibitions only. It is expected that the museum’s permanent exhibits will be back on display later this year. We suggest you go and take a look.