ALMOST 400 SPECIMENS OF DRAGONS ADORN THE BUILDINGS OF BARCELONA
There are winged ones, ones with large jaws and terrifying tongues, with scathing scales, ferocious glare and feet with imposing claws. Other present a less threatening expression, without feet and wings, with their bodies evoking the sinuosity of the snake or the agitation of the lizard. They appear in unsuspected places, lying in wait below eaves, cornices and balconies, in the lintels of doorways, camouflaged in lamps, plinths or door handles, and behaving like rampant beings, climbers, proud, always primed to wield their mighty hooked claws.
Along the Lluís Companys avenue, between the Ciutadella park and the Arc de Triomf, the route is scattered with open-jawed dragons holding flower pots.
A curving and sinuous dragon, of wrought iron, guards the stairs of this property in Provença.
On the pinnacles of this building in the Gràcia avenue, there are twisting dragons covered in scales.
The dragons are versatile in the services they provide. In this property in calle Diputación, they adorn the ledges used to hoist furniture in removals.
The temple of the Sagrada Familia designed by Antoni Gaudí also has lizards of powerful appearance.
These are the dragons that live in Barcelona, whether representations in stone, wrought iron, wood, mosaic or trencadís. There are almost four hundred of them, and Josep Martínez, photographer from Andorra living in Barcelona, has located them all and photographed them one by one, after four years of scrutinising facades, exploring parks and receiving tip-offs from confidantes. "Eixample is the area of the city with the greatest density of dragons, possibly because that is where many modernist buildings were constructed, and modernism liked dragons”, maintains Martínez.
Some specimens figure next to Sant Jordi, the knightly hero patron saint of Catalunya, but others stand alone, and most of them are in pairs or in groups, and differ in size, shape and attitude.
"The figure of the dragon, being non-existent, was very seductive in modernism, through being an exotic character – explains the architect Juan Bassegoda Nonell, who was director of the Cátedra Gaudí for more than thirty years -, and because modernism combines the neo-gothic and the exotic.” There have been reports of dragons in the city since the Middle Ages; specimens can be seen in the cathedral and in some of the old churches.
But the singularity that Barcelona brings to the cultural and iconographic universe of the dragon is due above all to the work of Antoni Gaudí, who designed two very special dragons here: the trencadís dragon of the Park Güell, and the wrought iron one of the Güell estate, both charged with great symbolism. "Gaudì’s dragons are taken from mythology and history, and reflect the ideas of Count Güell about the Renaissance: Catalanism, mythology and religion”, clarified Bassegoda Nonell.
And so, the dragon on the doors of the Güell estate is Ladon, fierce guardian of the entrance to the Garden of Hesperides, which was killed by Hercules, according to the poem L'Atlàntida, by Jacint Verdaguer, who dedicated it to the Marquis of Comillas, Güell’s father-in-law. This magisterial dragon, with more than five metres wingspan, with jaws and jagged teeth, bat wings and spiral tail, surprises tourists with its ferocity.
And the brightly coloured dragon in the Park Güell is Python, the snake of the temple of Delphi which, according to Greek mythology, died at the hands of Apollo, who buried it in the basement of the temple, which led to it becoming the protector of the subterranean waters. "The Delphi temple was Doric, and that is why Eusebio Güell wanted the columns of the park he commissioned from Gaudí to be of the Doric order”, explains Bassegoda Nonell.
But to the cultural exquisiteness of the Gaudinian dragons must be added the small numerical landmark that there should be so many dragons in sight in a Western city such as Barcelona, always understood in their widest sense: dragons, crocodiles, snakes, lizards, salamanders and reptiles and saurians in general.
There are large ones, medium-size ones and small ones. If we exclude the much-debated dragon’s back from the roof of the Casa Batlló, the largest is that of the Espanya Industrial Park (32 metres in length and 150 tonnes in weight) and the smallest is a pair thread into the door handles of the Pati dels Tarongers, in the Palau de la Generalitat (ten centimetres and barely one hundred grams), according to the documentation gathered by the photographer, Josep Martínez.
Also remarkable are the four dragons of the patisserie Foix de Sarrià (they are of the few female dragons represented in the city); the famous Chinese dragon of the Paraigües de la Rambla, a pre-modernist building by Josep Vilaseca; the great Gaudinian lizards of the temple of the Sagrada Família; or the submerged crocodiles in the waters of the fountain in Plaza Espanya.
From all of them, even the most humble, their arrogant, fixed eyes captivate. And it is understood: the word dragon comes from draco in Latin, which in turn comes from the Greek dérkomai, which means to stare at fixedly. According to some erudites, this quality explains their status as mythical guardians of maidens and treasures – systematically executed by Gods, saints or heroes -, although other experts link the legendary battle between knight and dragon to the Indo-European myths of battles between the gods of war and the Biblical-Babylonic demon dragon.
For Catalunya, that knight is Sant Jordi, who in 1456 was declared patron saint by the Catalan court, meeting in the choir of the Barcelona Cathedral. He is also the patron saint of Aragón, England, Portugal, Greece, Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia and Georgia, amongst other places. Of Sant Jordi/Saint George, his worship is more documented than his existence, but legend locates him in the III century, born in Cappadocia or Nicomedia, and martyr due to his decapitation during the persecution of the Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian. His legend reached these lands in the XV century.
Some dragons in Barcelona therefore appear with the Saint Jordi/George of books and roses who is celebrated today, while other specimens are oriental, and denote the taste for exotic elements of the Catalan bourgeoisie in modernist times. In those days decoration was fundamental, and therefore the dragons could roam freely on furniture, doors, jewellery, curtains and bedspreads. Current tastes make their subsistence as a decorative element in Barcelona difficult, despite the growing Chinese population and despite the fact that a writer such as Carlos Ruiz Zafón may be a devotee of them, and carries one on his lapel.
Oriental dragons – beings without wings but which fly – are benevolent characters, endowed with wisdom, while Western dragons tend to be considered malevolent. "The dragon is a make-believe monster – the architect Bassegoda Nonell reminds us–, and therefore each artist has been able to appeal to his or her own imagination when creating them, and this is why they are so diverse".
The photographer Josep Martínez has followed them for a long time in order to capture their genius and their figure, which he now publishes in a book entitled Drakcelona, in which they all appear. A small selection of images can also be seen from yesterday, 7th of May, at the Art Centre gallery (Provença, 253). His dragon hunt remains active, and he requests the collaboration of readers who may be able to alert him to the existence of a hidden specimen that he may have overlooked (firstname.lastname@example.org). In this city, the dragons crouch in the most unusual of places.