Unlike other triumphal arches around the world, the Arc de Triomf in Barcelona, which crosses over the wide central promenade of the Passeig de Lluís Companys leading to the Parc de la Ciutadella, is non-military and does not celebrate any military victory of the country. Designed by architect Josep Vilaseca and built of reddish brickwork in the Neo-Mudéjar style, the 92 feet (30 m) tall arch gateway, standing at the end of the Saló de Sant Joan, served as the main entrance to the 1888 Barcelona World Fair, held in the Parc de la Ciutadella and was thus intended to welcome people. The monument, classical in shape and featuring groundbreaking sculptural and decorative finishes replete with symbolism, has become one of the iconic landmarks of the city of Barcelona.
The Roman triumphal arches like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris were built in major cities throughout the world to symbolise victory, power and national pride. However, Barcelona has its own Arc with a striking and unique identity, much like the city itself and the Spanish reply to the more famous Arc de Triomphe.
The French Arc is made in a Neoclassical style, commemorating the French soldiers, but the Spanish one is made of brick, instead of marble, according to the traditional model and salutes the role of agriculture and industry.
The 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition was, in a way, a festival of nations, showcasing the finest in Catalan and Spanish art and architecture, visited by more than two million people, even from the far away countries like the US and China, to view the exhibits. Accordingly, the Arc de Triomf in Barcelona was designed as an allegory of the celebration that the city of Barcelona arranged for the participating nations and provinces of the Fair.
The monument is decorated with four monumental friezes. The frieze overlooking the Passeig de Sant Joan depicts the city of Barcelona, illustrated as a woman welcoming the nations to the Exposition and on the opposite side, facing the park, portrayed her presenting medals to the participants on the festive occasion. Interestingly, the ritual of welcoming with laurel wreaths of victory represents a tradition which dates back to Roman times and shows the adaptation of a pagan tradition of the winged victory to meet the Christian idiom.
There are reliefs on the southwest façade symbolising agriculture and industry, while the northeast side displays images of art and commerce, signifying the combined forces that led to the expansion and prosperity of the city. Apart from that, the top of the arch is decorated with the shields of the 49 Spanish provinces, presided over by the coat of arms of the city of Barcelona.
The twelve angels surrounding the arch represent fame and the pillars held by the lions are known as the Pillars of Hercules, the ancient name given to the Strait of Gibraltar. Under the lion stands the words, Plus Ultra, a motto, which means Further and Beyond in Latin.
It may seem ridiculous, but some stone bats also adorn the triumphal arch of Barcelona, which provide further clues as to its symbolism. History says, the bat was the emblem of James I the Conqueror, the King of Aragon, who liberated Valencia, Menorca and Mallorca from the Moors and under whom Barcelona flourished economically. The bat is still the emblem of Valencia and thus, the arch links the medieval past of the city to its expansionist future.