On Wednesday morning I went in search of a tiny square, hidden away in a knot of streets and alleyways which so well characterises the Barrio Gotic. Although I went armed with a map, finding it was by no means easy, as is also the case with the memories conserved in this place- difficult to unearth and often seemingly surrounded by a heavy mist of discretion.
Finding the square
It’s 9 o’clock and I’m in Catedral square. According to my map San Felipe Neri square is located within its immediate vicinity. I ask a few passers-by; many answer that they don’t know it, others that it is nearby but they don’t know exactly where, and one gentleman, although extremely kind, gives me incorrect information. In the end, I go up a small, narrow alleyway which has a slight inclination and is located right next to the Cathedral. Obviously, it is riddled with bends, and given that it is still early there is a tomb-like silence which worries me a little. The little road comes to an end with an archway from which you can reach San Felipe Neri square.
The atmosphere in the square
Silence. After the lively and crowded Cathedral square I find myself immersed in a tiny square where not even the birds sing. It might be because it’s still early in Barcelona but there is not a soul around, and just for a minute time stands still. Everything is very simplistic here: there is the museo di Calçat Antic (the ‘old shoe-maker’s museum’), a small baroque church, a convent, the hotel Neri H&R, with a bar and some tables, and in the centre just a fountain in the shade of two acacia trees. Personally, its charm is exactly this, a disarming simplicity. Words are not needed here. Only the overriding peace and tranquility are able now to give voice to the tragic events that took place here.
A little history
Not everybody knows that where today the square is in the Medieval period stood a Jewish cemetery. During the Renaissance two buildings were erected, the casa dels Calderers, the former headquarters of the calderai corporation, and the casa dels Sabaters, the house of cobblers, which nowadays houses the aforementioned Museu del Calçat. Between 1721 and 1752 the baroque church was constructed, designed by the architect Pere Bertran and assisted by the builder Salvador Ausich i Font. The church comprises only one nave, an element that serves to focus the visitor’s attention on the magnificent high altar, which dates from the end of the Eighteenth century. The façade of the church, however, remains disfigured by one of the many bombardments that took place during the Spanish Civil War.
The commemorative plaque states that in this square on the 30th January 1938 a bomb fell that was to cause the collapse of the underground part of the church of Sant Felip Neri, causing the death of 42 civilians, including 20 children, who were taking refuge here. It was not, however, the most severe bombardment in the history of the city- according to memorials, the real terror was to strike between the time of 22.08 on the 16th March and 15.19 on the 18th March 1938. These 41 hours of terror, with 12 huge attacks and the indiscriminate detonation of 44 tons of bombs on the civilian population brought the city to its knees. However, the death of so many innocent civilians and the still-disfigured façade of the church give the square a melancholic air that strikes you right to the heart and, in its own way, makes the square fascinating.
A few curious facts
It seems that Barcelona’s modernist artist par excellence, Gaudí, often went to this square and according to many he was run over by a tram whilst he was on his way to the church of S. Felipe Neri for mass.
In Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s bestseller, “Shadow of the Wind”, the square of San Felipe Neri is a small opening of light in the maze of lanes of the barrio gótico, close to the ancient Roman walls. Shots of a machine gun, going back to the time of the civil war still slash the walls of the church. That morning, a group of little children played at war, indifferent to the secular memory of the stones.
The same scene of children playing in this square where many others have lost their lives can also be seen in the video for “My Immortal” by Evanescence, a perfect musical representation of the melancholic charm of this tiny, silent area of Barcelona.