Antoni Gaudi Paid a High Price for His Genius

Death pursued Antoni always. Two of his brothers died before his birth, and then he continued to bury his other relatives all his life. At 60 years old, he was left alone. Moreover, after he was born, no one believed he would survive. But he did. In childhood, he heard a doctor tell his mother that Antoni would not live long. Again?! The future genius architect Antoni Gaudi did not understand that he had already started to pay dues for the credit of talent granted by the Supreme.

Casa Milà by Antoni Gaudi. Barcelona, Spain.
Casa Milà by Antoni Gaudi

The boy survived, but he had always been plagued by various diseases. He had suffered from rheumatism for so long that he was not able to attend school. However, Antoni kept living and expressing a keen interest in design. When finally the sickness stepped back, he and his friends spent a lot of time exploring the ruins of Poblet Monastery near Tarragona, making ambitious plans of reconstructions. Moreover, those plans were fixed on paper, not only in words. Gaudi investigated the ruins in order to understand the way this building had been constructed, and was making numerous calculations.

Oh yes, he was keen on mathematics and geometry, but as for the liberal arts—they were boring. Well, it stands to reason: he was intended to become a great architect, not a writer. However, it did not prevent him from writing a wonderful review article about an applied arts exhibition for the Barcelona newspaper La Renaixença.

Then came the period of his studying in the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture, and the genius of that young man became evident. Introducing him to the examination board his professor said, “Gentlemen, you see either a genius, or a madman.” For Antoni, his own genius was becoming an axiom as well. Very seldom he agreed with somebody’s opinion. He never copied anyone, and acted only in conformity with his understanding. Could it be otherwise? Well, it could—if you’re a mediocrity and the idea of the Sagrada Familia creation in such an unusual execution would never come to your mind.

He was abroad only twice—in Carcassonne and Toulouse, both in France—and was anything but pleased. He never left Spain again. Why? “What for? People should come to us, to Catalonia, and enjoy,” he answered.

It was the time when Antoni was reputed as a dandy. He wore expensive silk top hats and white gloves; in general, he dressed and behaved just as a young man in search of a lady should dress and behave. Yes, there were women in his life, but only two, and both of them announced at the most crucial point that they were already engaged to someone else. Antoni failed to live a life like that of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin: indulging in carelessness, oeuvre, and feminine attention. He had to pay a much higher price for the credit of his genius. In order to make ends meet he had to take any orders.

Streetlight by Pere Falques. Barcelona, Spain.
Streetlight by Pere Falques.

One day he was engaged in the decoration of a glove-shop window. He created a whole little world, a street scene: the gloves met each other, took a walk, had a rest, talked, and even flirted. Fully engulfed in his work, Antoni had not noticed that his destiny spent half an hour standing behind him and watching the creative process. Then the destiny came up to the owner of the shop and asked him to introduce him to this young man. This time, the destiny stepped forward as the richest citizen of Barcelona Eusebi Güell. Yes, the very same Güell, whose park is well known to any tourist going to Barcelona, although Güell himself is usually hardly known by anyone.

“I’ve been watching you work for quite a long time already.”
“Is it so strange?”
”No, but I see the style of a master. Here is my visiting card. Please come for dinner tonight.”

And that’s it! A flip of a switch, a turn of the steering wheel, and a course is changed sharply.

Antoni Gaudi and Eusebi Guell
Antoni Gaudi (left) and Eusebi Güell (right)

According to his contemporaries, Eusebi Güell was a man of a pure taste, who was able to choose and get the very best. As well as that, he had money, a lot of money. Such a great combination occurs very infrequently in the history of mankind: Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, Savva Morozov, Lorenzo de’Medici, Ludovico Sforza… Antoni Gaudi was lucky–the unlimited genius met unlimited funding. What more could an artist wish for?!

It was said that while working under Güell’s orders, Antoni spent so much money that the bookkeeper was endlessly complaining about the enormous bills. Once, señor Güell glanced at the next monstrous bill and said, “Is that all? Antoni may spend as much as he considers necessary.” Nobody ever again bothered Gaudi with financial questions.

The Crypt in the Colonia Cuell. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.
The Crypt in the Colonia Cüell

But what was the price? Oh, it was high. Failing to build a family life, Gaudi broke down and abandoned all attempts to find domestic bliss. He immersed himself in his work. Thank God, there was plenty of it. Very often, he was constructing several buildings at once, and during the building of the house El Capricho (Comillals, Cantabria) he managed to shuttle between Cantabria and Barcelona in order to give directions in both places.

Being rather skeptical towards religion early in life, he became extremely devout later in life. Well, it’s rather typical for people who have not managed to satisfy one of the most important human needs. Gaudi stopped looking after himself, his clothes, and home. He even spent the last years of his life living and working in a tiny room under Sagrada Familia.

Probably that’s the reason why none of his mind-blowing buildings could be in any way associated with the expression, “flight of a soul.” Look at the Milano cathedral! This is the flight of a soul: white clothes, white lacy wings–an angel or maybe God himself striving upwards, to the sky. Now look closely at Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi. Notice the details. Everything is flowing down. Snakes, snails, and frogs are creeping down–the creatures that have never been associated with something sublime, but only with hell.

Duomo. Milan. Italy.
Lace of Duomo

Fragment of Sagrada Familia. Barcelona, Spain.

But nevertheless—please, forgive my inconsistency—altogether Sagrada is unbelievably beautiful and one-of-a-kind.

Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi. Barcelona, Spain.
Sagrada Familia
Fragment of Sagrada Familia. Barcelona, Spain.
Fragment of Sagrada Familia

Take Casa Batlló. At first sight it reminds one of a sea creature overgrown with shells, but then gradually you realize that the house is “built of bones” resembling human ones. There is such an oppressive atmosphere inside. Probably the reason is the crush of tourists, but you feel uncomfortable in the house. The same impression is produced by Casa Milà: everything is unusual, there is no one straight line, but the house oppresses.

You can buy the tickets to Casa Batlló online.

Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. Catalonia, Spain.
Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona
Inside of Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. Catalonia, Spain.
Inside of Casa Batlló
Casa Milà by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. Catalonia, Spain.
Casa Milà by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona

Online tickets to Casa Milà.

So, Antoni Gaudi kept building his futuristic houses, regularly paying his dues into the celestial chancellery. He was aging rapidly, looking like an adult man at twenty-five, and reminding one of an old man at forty. He made his last payment at the age of 73. On the seventh of June, 1926, Antoni Gaudi came out of his house and was hit by a tram.

Nobody hurried to provide first aid to a shabby oldster, who had only a few nuts in his pockets, but he was transported to the hospital for paupers. Nobody there strove to provide the appropriate treatment either, until the chaplain of Sagrada Familia recognized the great architect, the national treasure of Catalonia and Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi himself. But it was too late. The debt had been paid off. Antoni Gaudi departed this life, having left to Barcelona such an estate that had brought to it the world’s glory: Crypt in the Colonia Güell, Casa Vicens, Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia, El Capricho (Comillas, Cantabria), Casa Batlló, Casa Milà… There are 18 buildings altogether and not one outside of Spain.

Take home message: always wear expensive and beautiful clothes—it will not only bring you pleasure, but could save your life.

Streetlight by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. Catalonia, Spain.
Streetlight in Barcelona
On the roof of Casa Milà by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. Catalonia, Spain.
On the roof of Casa Milà
Fragment of Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona. Catalonia, Spain.
Fragment of Sagrada Familia

More about Spain:
Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi: The Sand Castle
How Arabic Toledo Revived European Civilization
Monument to Count of Torralva–Castillo de Almodovar del Rio near Cordoba

61 thoughts on “Antoni Gaudi Paid a High Price for His Genius

      1. Daniel:

        In the area of Spain where he was born we speak two languages: Spanish and Catalan. In Spanish, his name would be Antonio, and in Catalan his name is indeed Antoni.

        Gaudi was known to prefer speaking in Catalan and even had issues with bully policemen that would try to force him to speak Spanish when he thought he didn’t have to. He was happy to speak Spanish to polite people that wouldn’t have enough knowledge of Catalan to follow a conversation, though. So out of respect for his own preferences, I’d rather call him Antoni.

        It is true, though, that he signed official documents as Antonio – however that’s likely to be that in those times Catalan didn’t have an official status and he had to sign legal documents in the official language. In the other hand, the name over his tombstone is Antonius, because in those times Latin was the Catholic church preferred language.

        In any case, both Antoni and Antonio work depending on what matters most to you: law or personal preferences.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Poetic with a sense of humor, your article is brilliantly conceived and helpful. Thank you for writing it. You are perceptive to connect the melancholic aspects of Gaudi’s work with his personal proximity to death. Usually he is celebrated for his joyful and eccentric exuberance. When I think about it, it is that very “memento mori” in his work that grounds its more capricious aspects, as in all great art. Your comparison of the Nativity Façade with the Milan cathedral is illuminating in this respect. Material seems to be melting down the lines of the steep triangular entrance so that the towers may rise all the more triumphantly. I expect you have an opinion about the Passion Façade (as well as the rest of the subsequent additions). I am afraid that all I see when I look at it is the great gulf that separates it from Gaudi’s genius. The imposition of that blockheaded and banal cubist aesthetic on Gaudi’s organic sensibilities is a travesty. Its austerity does not offend me; I read somewhere that Gaudi felt compelled to build the Nativity first because he feared the public would be appalled by the total contrast of what he was planning for the other side. But your observations about the Mila and Batllo houses persuade me that a better realization of his intended austerity was quite possible using Gaudi’s organic idiom of bones, skulls, masks, etc.

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    1. Hi David,

      Thank you very much for such an amazing, thoughtful comment. It was a big pleasure to read it.

      I know Gaudi left drawings of interiors and exteriors of Sagrada, and I read that Josep Maria Subirachs made the Passion façade different. Is it better? I prefer not to judge artists. I think they must do what they want to do without regard to our opinion. Otherwise our world would be gray and boring.

      I know one thing, every time in Barcelona, I stand in front of the “melting” facade enjoying and recalling my sand castle https://victortravelblog.com/2011/12/20/sagrada-familia-antonio-gaudi/
      I even don’t enter into the cathedral. This facade is enough for me.

      Thank you again for the excellent comment.

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  2. Thought I’d drop by to see how my internet buddy Victor is doing and what he’s up to when I found this great little gem on Antoni Gaudi. Just so happens that today I’m running a three-part series on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. What a coincidence.

    Take care, Victor. Nice to see you’re still blogging away with your great photography.

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  3. Always a good read. I love Barcelona! One of the cities I intend to live in one day. I love Gaudi’s works, the only one in Barcelona that I am not sure about is actually Sagrada di Familia. Sure its details are amazing, but I’m not sure about the rest. I love his house, it is so cool and surreal. Another artist I love from Barcelona is Joan Miro, have you seen his work?

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  4. That is a fascinating story of a great man, thank you for all the research you have put into this post then presented it in such an interesting way with beautiful photos to compliment the story.

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  5. This is absolutely fascinating. I shared this blog post with my stepdaughter, who visited Spain for the first time last year and visited Sagrada Famila. She and her fiance, who is from Catalonia, plan a return visit this Christmas – she will enjoy reading this. Thank you so much for sharing all that you know with us.

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      1. I will ask her, Victor. She told me about this place and others they visited in Spain and how much she loved the entire experience. I’m not sure if she’s read your blog yet – she hasn’t mentioned it, but it is a work week for some! I’ll get back with you.

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