Gaudí on a Natural High? The Argenteria waterfall, Congost de Collegats, Lleida

It’s not been so very long ago that a trip to the upper Noguera Pallaresa valley, beyond the town of La Pobla de Segur, was quite an adventure. The conditions of the roads were ‘as built’ and with numerous patches and repairs. Anyone with experience of pre-EU Spanish roads will know what that means, patches on patches on patches! Furthermore, the road itself was ‘engineered’ sometime between 1886, when the road arrived at La Pobla, and 1924, when the road over the Port de Bonaigua and into the Val d’Aran was opened, so the curves were, shall we say, interesting! Almost the first obstacle one encountered was the Congost de Collegats ravine, where the road twists and turns for what seems like miles, ducking down to the river or lurching along precipitous cliff faces, where the telephone lines were fixed directly onto the rock wall and a dementedly driven Pegaso truck seemed to lurk around every blind corner. Throughout years of short holiday trips the pretty village of Gerri de la Sal seemed a good enough goal to aim for, as indeed it still is. But, even more, the ravine itself contains a hidden treasure. It’s ironic that since the new road was blasted through the ravine during the early 1990′s (almost all of it through long tunnels thanks to the sterling efforts of environmentalists reclassifying the ravine as a protected area), and the original road is now an official footpath, one of the region’s few ‘tourist attractions’, which even rates ** ‘worth a detour’ in the Michelin Guide, has been eclipsed. Notwithstanding a rather forlorn looking car park at the end of the north tunnel and one of the ubiquitous hideous brown heritage signs pointing to it, the fact is the sub-species Homo sapiens michelinnus won’t get out of their cars and walk a few hundred yards for anything that isn’t spoon fed to them – poor fools!

Needless to say, having a genuine, Michelin starred attraction in their midst has led certain less scrupulous locals, with an eye for the main chance perhaps, to be rather hyperbolic. But the urban myth surrounding the Argenteria waterfall has a touch of genius. Not only does the idea that Gaudí’s design for the Nativity Façade of the famous Sagrada Familia temple in Barcelona was inspired by it has a grain of credibility but also, as Gaudí did indeed travel around Catalonia during his early years as a participator in the contemporary trend for Excursionisme, it is at least theoretically possible that it’s true!

It is axiomatic that Gaudí incorporated themes and elements of the natural world into his work and he is known to have been influenced by such luminaries as John Ruskin and William Morris. Moreover his work bursts with representations of nature, especially in the Nativity Façade , so why not this example? (courtesy of www.gaudiallgaudi.com NB I don’t like copying images so crave your indulgence by opening the complementary images in a new tab) The immediate evidence is in the physical impression of similarity a visit to both sites gives. Sadly this doesn’t come across at all well in the photographs but it’s to do with the scale and the sense of power that both structures share. This is heightened by the means of arriving at both sites; as many readers will know the S.F. hits you right between the eyes the first time you come across in, lurking as it does behind the corner of a perfectly ordinary street, or nowadays as you emerge from the glass lift from the new metro station there. Similarly, the Argenteria seems to pop out of the rest of the cliff face only as one passes it close by; otherwise it is swallowed up within the grandeur of the whole scene.

Then there is the devil in the detail. Compare this element in the Façade (with thanks to Barcelona Photoblog) to these views of the Argenteria: Here in the globular looking masonry that frames scenes from the Nativity has the look of melted candles, giving an impression in stone of fluidity. These ‘arches’ of ‘melted rock repeat throughout the whole Façade. This conical form is repeated in the Argenteria; although this is a result of water erosion rather than an igneous process, the conical shape has a vivid similarity. This is reinforced with repetition up and across the rock face as it does in the Façade. Furthermore, little ‘vignettes’ of vegetation, nesting birds, etc. under the frames formed by the rock resemble the various Nativity scenes in the Façade.

Another example is in the way strange reptilian beasts leer down from on high on the Façade, seeming to emerge from the molten rock as if out of the primordial slime itself! Similarly, strange glowering forms left by calcium deposit dotted around the edges of the Argeneria leave an equally eerie impression. In fact the Argenteria gives a strong feeling of the power of elemental forces. Perhaps the most striking element is the contorted strata of the exposed face of sedimentary rock right alongside. To get an idea of scale, note the fully-grown trees dotted around the structure. That such huge sections of solid rock are twisted and torn like so many sheets of paper is truly awe inspiring. Perhaps it is beyond the scope of this blog (it’s certainly beyond my scope!) to posit that Gaudí drew parallels between the Nativity story and the Creation. This portrayal of the latter in terms of the emergence of animals and plants from a morass has so much resonance with the imagery of modern ideas of the origin of life on earth that it is certainly too tempting to suggest an influence there; that would be a very big leap indeed! Apart from anything else the timeframe is all wrong; Darwin talked about the Origins of Species not the origins of life itself.

Back to the Urban Myth idea, a quick Google search reveals the nature of the beast. Here’s an entry by an anonymous contributor to the MisPueblos, a sponsored blog about villages in Spain (NB. errors in translation are all mine):

me dijo un historiador que aquí venía Gaudí en bicicleta para inspirarse y coger croquis de de los encantos de la roca para realizar la Sagrada Familia y su Arte.”
” I’m told by a historian that Gaudí came here by bicycle to take sketches of the charms of the rocks and to be inspired for the Sagrada Familia and his Art.”

A more inclusive entry on a commercial travel site, turismeacatalunya.com, includes the poet Jacint Verdaguer  (1845 – 1902), Catalonia’s emblematic dead poet, who devotes a few lines to the Argenteria in his epic poem Canigó of 1885:

Així trobem: l’estret de Collegats amb l’Argenteria, que fou font d’inspiració per a Gaudí i Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer . . .
“Here we find: the Collegats ravine with the Argenteria, which was a source of inspiration for Gaudí and Friar Cinto Verdaguer . . .”

A personal report comes from a pair of tourists, Laura and Jordi, writing in Gallician and Mallorcan respectively, on their voyage along the Pyrenees:

Paga la pena aparcar el cotxe al congost i fer una excursioneta fins a l’Argenteria, una formació rocosa que, segons diuen, va inspirar a Gaudí a l’hora de construir la Sagrada Família.”
“It’s worthwhile to park the car and take a short walk to the Argenteria, a rocky formation which, so they say, inspired Gaudí’s idea for the Sagrada Familia.”

Now the Lleida tourist board description:

“. . . la Argenteria, lugar en que dicen se inspir Antoni Gaudí para crear la fachada del edificio de la Pedrera.”
“. . .the Agenteria, the place which is said to have inspired Gaudí to create the façade of the La Pedrera building.”

Note the subtle change to the La Pedrera building in Passeig de Gracia. This has led to a change of direction recently. Here’s a description in English from pyreneestourism.org, which looks like an NGO but is in fact a “tourism interactive .com LTD business” – and very good of them to point this out in miniscule writing!

“The Catalan intelligentsia have been coming to admire the scenery here for well over a century, and the portion of the canyon labelled L’Argenteria, with its sculpted, papier-mâche-like rockface streaked with rivulets, supposedly inspired Antoni Gaudi’s La Pedrera apartment building in Barcelona.”

I can’t quite see the similarity to La Pedrera, but I’ll take their word for it – as far as I take anyone’s! There are altogether too many passive references that fail to identify the source for my liking; and that, “supposedly”, in the final description certainly looks suspicious! I’ve no doubt at all that all of these remarks have been made in good faith, however, I heard the myth back in the 1980′s long before people started writing blogs or building tourist websites, but maybe it’s now time to seek some clarification. I’ll be visiting Barcelona in September to have another look at the subjects in question. Meanwhile, at least the Verdaguer poem is carved in stone on a monument at the site. As for Gaudí, well it’s August, we’re in Spain and my only source of an actual definitive life of Gaudí is in the library, which is closed for the duration. So see this blog in a few weeks’ time for The Truth!