IT RISES LIKE A MANY-PEAKED mountain from the heart of the city. Caverns on its steep slopes hold Bible scenes. Birds, plants, frogs, and insects inhabit this landscape too. It’s the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia—the Church of the Holy Family—in Barcelona, Spain. And it’s one of Europe’s biggest tourist attractions. I stood in a long line, clutching my ticket, waiting in the hot sun to be admitted. When I was inside, at last, the heat and the wait were forgotten. The vast interior pulsed with light in a thousand shades. With each step, breathtaking vistas opened, immense columns branching like trees in an otherworldly forest. All of it based on the vision of an astonishing genius, Antoni Gaudí.
In downtown Barcelona on June 7, 1926, a shabbily dressed old man was struck by a tram. Passersby stopped to stare at the crumpled form. Frayed trousers, threadbare jacket, much-patched shoes, unkempt white beard— one of the city’s many beggars. “He’s alive!” someone shouted. Men picked up the unconscious tramp and carried him to the closest clinic.
His injuries were far too severe to handle there. A nurse searched his pockets for identification. In one, she found a handful of raisins and peanuts. In another, a much-thumbed copy of the Gospels. Nothing else. The injured man was taken by ambulance to the paupers’ hospital, but doctors there could do nothing either. He lay on the narrow iron bed, dying, like so many in that place, homeless and nameless.
Elsewhere in Barcelona, an increasingly urgent search was going on for one of the world’s most famous living architects. He was not in his workshop at La Sagrada Familia, where he also lived. Workers and friends were contacted; he had no family. Despite debilitating arthritis that had plagued him since childhood, the 73-year-old architect had never missed a day of work. At last, hospitals too were searched. When inquiries finally reached the paupers’ hospital, Gaudí was still breathing but too weak to move. And so he died in a crowded ward among the city’s poorest.
WHICH, I THINK, WOULD have been fine with him. Although his work had made him a wealthy man, he’d grown up in poverty, the youngest son of a humble coppersmith near the industrial Spanish city of Reus. When Antoni’s arthritis kept him from walking, his father would carry him to the forge where he beat out the great cauldrons that hung in every Catalan kitchen. For hours little Antoni would watch the swirling shadows cast by the smith’s fire.
The family-owned a small plot of land outside the city. Antoni would perch on a donkey for the hour-and-a-half walk. There, while the others dug and weeded, Antoni would watch spiders weave their incredible structures, and study the design of flowers and the spirals of snails.
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