the bells bcn home
Since medieval times, the sounds of ringing bells have soared through the air to mark diverse occasions of European life. From the sonorous and melodious to the ominous and mournful, bells have pealed across the rooftops to signify weddings, births, religious ceremonies, deaths, wars, attacks, storms, fires, uprisings and the simple passage of time. Historically, bell towers have served as the voice of a community, a far-reaching and simple method of communication. Visually, they act as unique additions to the city skyline and landmarks in neighbourhoods for navigating windy, narrow streets.
However, with the shifting nucleus of modern life moving away from religion, and with the development of mass communication devices, the importance of the bell tower in daily life has waned. Today, especially in cities, the sounds of the bells may seem just to be a flourish, a quaintly lovely, but quickly forgotten moment. How often do the bells break through the background noise of cars, motos, horns, sirens and construction to enter our consciousness? Do people ever stop for a moment and wonder what the sound means and where it is coming from?
Mikael Bouckaert, a teacher who recently moved to Barcelona from New York, finds the bells a comforting reminder of a slower pace of life. Bouckaert was born in rural Belgium, and said that hearing the bells of Barcelona was one of the first indicators that he had returned to what he affectionately calls “Mother Europe,” after a 22-year absence. “I was walking around the Barri Gòtic, about a month after I had come here,” Bouckaert recalled. “I was probably walking at the aggravated, fast New York pace I’m accustomed to, when the bells chimed. For some reason it struck a deep chord. It reminded me that I’m in an older place, with older traditions, where time is measured differently.”
Barcelona has many bell towers—campanarios in Castilian and campanars in Catalan—each with a unique history and purpose. The most prominent still in use today are in Plaça Rius i Taulet in Gràcia, the Cathedral de la Seu and the Palau de la Generalitat.
In the midst of a bustling city day, it is pleasant to stop for a moment when the bells of Barcelona ring and contemplate their rich sounds, the tones of history and a voice of the past calling to modern ears, remembering that the inscription on the bell Eulàlia reads: “By me, the neighbours eat; by me, they get up; by me, they pray; by me, their tasks start; by me, they rest; by me, they leave for school; by me, the shows are governed; by me, the curial class wins; by me, the doctors cure; by me, the clergymen sing; and by me, the man Jesus brings you to glory.”
La Campana de Gràcia
In the heart of Gràcia lies the Plaça Rius i Taulet, home of the Ajuntament de Gràcia and a clock tower that houses the famous bell, La Campana de Gràcia. Constructed by the municipal architect Antoni Rovira i Trias between 1862 and 1864, the octagonal tower rises 33 metres and is topped with a clock on four sides. The town council of Gràcia built the tower in Rius i Taulet because none of the parishes in the neighbourhood during that time had tall bell towers, and the central location would ensure all Gràcia residents had a view of the clock. The clock’s mechanism was created by a Swiss clockmaker Albert Billeter, who also constructed the clock for the Cathedral.
The Campana de Gràcia, also known as ‘La Marieta’ or ‘Ladybug,’ rose to fame during the early 1870s, a time of various popular uprisings on behalf of Catalan nationalism. One of these was l’Aldarull de les Quintes, in 1870. Legend has it that rebels in Gràcia kept the bell ringing for five days via a pulley attached to the bell from a neighbouring rooftop. General Eugenio Gaminde bombed the rebellious town and a cannonball struck the bell, forever altering its sound. Nevertheless, it was also used to sound revolts in 1873, 1874 and subsequent years. The damage to the tower was repaired in 1882. The people of Gràcia rose up again in 1929 to save the 1200-kilogramme bell from being melted down by the city to form several bells for the International Exposition. To the people of Gràcia, it is an emblem of freedom and democracy, the unstoppable cry of the libertarian ideals of its citizens.
Today, visitors to the Plaça Rius i Taulet will see cafégoers and children drawing in chalk and playing football by day, while young people gather with cans of Estrella, dogs and guitars at night. The bells are rung mechanically to mark the time, ringing once at quarter past, twice at half past, and so on.
L’Esquella de Prima
In the Catredal de Santa Creu i Santa Eulalia, or Cathedral de la Seu as it is also known, there are 21 bells, some of which have been retired due to their antiquity. The oldest bell in the Cathedral, and one of the oldest bells in Catalunya, is L’Esquella de Prima hailing from 1321, while the youngest bell is the hefty 3,000-kilogramme Montserrat, created in 1998. The largest bell is the enormous Eulàlia weighing over three tons. At the end of the 18th century, two towers were constructed, according to the Gothic design, at opposite ends of the arms of the cross, the transepts. The octagonal towers are 53-metres tall and have separate bell-ringing duties. One of the towers calls out the time, with the monstrous Eulàlia ringing in the hours and the Honarata marking the quarter hours. The structure outside is magnificently ornamented ironwork finished at the end of the 19th century in the Modernist style. The other tower is responsible for ringing the ecclesiastic hours; it contains 10 bells, all with feminine names. All the bells in the Cathedral have been mechanically rung since 1929.
Visitors to the Barri Gòtic on a Sunday afternoon may be treated to the cascading sounds of the carillon of the Palau de la Generalitat, played by Anna Maria Reverté, currently the official Palace carillonist. The carillon is said by many to be the heaviest musical instrument on earth, consisting of multiple cast bronze cup-shaped bells played one after another to play a melody, or sounded together to play a chord. The carillon in the Palau de la Generalitat has 49 bells and a total weight of 4,898 kilogrammes. It is played by hand with a baton keyboard while pressing the keys of a pedal keyboard with the feet. The keys activate levers and wires connected to the metal clappers striking the bells, allowing the musician to vary the intensity of the note by varying their application of force. The carillon of Barcelona has been played regularly since 1976, shortly after the reinstatement of the Catalan government. Reverté performs concerts at noon on the first Sunday of every month in the Pati dels Tarongers-Galeria Gòtica del Palau of the la Generalitat. Every year in July, famous soloists from all over the world come to Barcelona for an international carillon festival, and this July saw the 15th Festival Internacional de Carilló de Barcelona.