The Plaça de Sant Felip Neri is a small, shaded square in the Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. The Baroque church from which it takes its name stands at one end, the walls deeply pockmarked.
Tour guides tell the story of how, during the Spanish Civil War, General Franco laid siege to the city of Barcelona. Children from the church school and refugees from Madrid had been sheltering in the church, which was functioning as a makeshift orphanage. On 30 January 1938, the Italian air force - fighting in support of the Nationalist faction in the civil war - dropped two bombs on the square, killing 42 people, most of them children, in the city’s second worst bombing raid of the war.
Subsequently the Franco regime spread a myth that the pockmarks in the stone were from the bullets of an anarchist firing squad who had supposedly executed Catholic priests in the church square. Spain took a long time to reckon with its Fascist past, and even in the late 1990s, this was the story visitors might get told. Only in 2007, Barcelona City Council installed a bronze plaque with a simple inscription, putting the story to rights.
That isn’t the only fabrication in this square, however. The entire concept of the Barri Gòtic is a fiction too, first proposed by mayor Ramon Rucabado and architect Jeroni Martorell in 1911, but based on earlier ideas of “medievalizing enhancements to the Barcelona cityscape” by Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1879. There was a desire to “give identity” to that part of the city: the 1929 International Exhibition was coming, and they wanted to transform this neighbourhood into a tourist attraction.
As such, “some of what tourists see in the Barri Gòtic is very old - but some of what visitors encounter only looks old, or is a composite of new and old parts," writes Michael A. Palgrave in Constructing Catalan Identity (2018) Dozens of major buildings in this neighbourhood were altered or rebuilt, in a process that continued as late as 1970. Much of the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, too, is a composite of other gothic buildings, moved from elsewhere in the city to make way for new developments.
These walls you see here are a hologram, the octagonal fountain in the centre of the square only fifty years old.