PLAÇA SANT FELIP NERI: A ROMANTIC SQUARE WITH A DARK PAST
One of the most beautiful and peaceful squares in all of Barcelona is the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, located near the Cathedral. Whenever we have friends or family in town, we make a point to bring them to this tiny square so that they can fall in love just as we have over and over.
Even Carlos Ruiz Zafón was inclined to use it as an important setting in his The Shadow of the Wind (any Nuria Monfort fans here?).
It’s been called Barcelona’s most romantic square, but the history of this place is a tragic one. It doesn’t take long to notice the pockmarked church walls and realize that something terrible must have happened here.
To find out what took place, we must go back to the rise of Franco and the Spanish Civil War. It was the Nationalists, their forces led by General Franco, versus the Republicans. The Republican capital of Spain was Barcelona.
Barcelona was a defiant city that Franco badly wanted to beat into submission.
Having gained support from both Hitler and Mussolini, General Franco’s Nationalists had defeated many Republican fronts. But Franco still hadn’t claimed victory in Barcelona.
In January 1938, Franco began air raids on the city. It was an offensive that would continue throughout the year and caused horrific damage. The day concerning Plaça Sant Felip Neri came on January 30, 1938. One of Franco’s bombs hit the square, killing 30 people, most of whom were children at the Escola Sant Felip Neri, trying to seek shelter inside of the Church of Sant Felip Neri’s basement. As individuals nearby came to help people out of the rubble, a second bomb hit the square, claiming 12 more lives. The bomb upended most of the buildings around the square and left the church badly scarred. Due to the destruction, the city later decided to renovate it, making it larger and opening an access point, Carrer de Montjuïc del Bisbe, which was previously sealed off.
The bombing is the most well-known story told about the square, and rightfully so. The events of the Barcelona bombings are still ripe in people’s memories here. You can find a memorial plaque in honor of the victims, installed on January 30, 2007, on the facade of the Sant Felip Neri convent below a circular window.
The square’s dark past doesn’t end here, however.
Long before Franco swooped in to batter the city, the square was a medieval Jewish cemetery, known as the Cementiri de Montjuïc del Bisbe. It served as such until the arrival of the black plague and famine in the 14th century. The city was looking for someone to blame, and the blame fell harshly, and unfairly, on the Jewish community. There was an attack on El Call (Jewish Quarter) and things only got worse for the community until eventually, in 1391, the Call was destroyed.
Following the destruction of the Jewish Quarter, the square became property of the Cathedral of Barcelona, which used the land as a cemetery as well. It was here that Cathedral parishioners, along with members of brotherhoods and guilds who had an assigned altar in the cathedral, were buried. The area also became known as the Fossar dels Condemnats (Grave of the Condemned). Any criminal found guilty was brought here to be either hanged or stoned to death and subsequently buried.
When you visit the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri today, it’s hard to imagine that this serene square has seen such horrific events. It’s true, though, that the energy you feel during the daytime is markedly different from the atmosphere generated after dark. The square takes on an almost haunting vibe. We do recommend visiting the spot during both times of day so you can see what we mean.
Now that we’ve gotten through all of that gruesome past, we’d like to change gears and offer you some less morbid information about the square.
- Antoni Gaudí was an avid churchgoer, and the Església de Sant Felip Neri was his church. On the day he was hit by a tram on Gran Via, he was on his way to attend mass here. (Okay, so that last part was morbid, but it’s interesting, right?)
- Evanescence —remember them?— shot the music video for their top hit “My Immortal” at the square (watch the video here).
- The square was also used to film scenes from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
- Atop the octagonal fountain in the square, designed by Joaquim de Ros i de Ramis, there used to sit a bronze statue of Saint Severus, but, a year after it was installed in 1962, it was stolen. A statuette called “L’estudiant i cisellada,” which was done by the same sculptor, Josep Miret i Llopart, was installed as a substitute. This was then stolen in 1970 and never replaced. Check out a photo of the statue here.
- The square became the site for the Boilermakers’ and Shoemakers’ Guilds, which help give the square its shape today. The Boilermakers’ Guild facade was moved here, stone by stone, from Carrer de la Bòria (near la Plaça dels Àngels); the Shoemakers’ facade was moved in the same manner from Carrer de la Corribia (near the cathedral). This was part of the solution to patch up and renovate the square after the civil war. (Click here to view an article about the transformation in a newspaper article from back then; includes an illustration.)
- The Shoemakers’ Guild used to house the Museu del Calçat (Shoe Museum), from 1970 to 2015. It included a shoe that was made for the Christopher Columbus statue, which was said to be the largest shoe in the world.
- Every weekday, from 10:30 to 11:30, the square blocks off both of its access points so that no one can enter. Why? Recess! The students at Escola Sant Felip Neri are given one hour of free reign over the square to enjoy some playtime without interruption.
By EMILY BENSON
Photos by ISABEL TROYA
Information gathered from: