The Museum That’ll Make You Say, “What Did I Just Walk Into?”

A mysterious museum in the heart of Barcelona is like no other museum you’ve ever seen.

The Frederic Marés Museum is one of Barcelona’s best-kept secrets. It contains within it a juxtaposition as paradoxical as life and death — ecstatic creation and utter destruction. It’s almost too conceptually massive to write about but I’m going to give it a try because …fuck it.

An eccentric artist’s lifelong compulsion to collect, create, and preserve has filled this medieval building in Barcelona’s already-mysterious Gothic district with room after room after room of trinkets and baubles and rare, vintage oddities, the likes of which have visitors positively drooling from an overwhelm of awe and wonder. But the building itself has a freaky history.

Once used as the palace headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, its exterior is still scarred by horror. Several of the stones used to make up the building complex are, in fact, Jewish tombstones, stolen from the Jewish cemeteries on nearby Montjuic when they were destroyed. And a tower overhanging the cobblestoned alleyway between the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia (a massive, gothic wonder of a church) and the Frederic Marés Museum itself, was originally built to terrorize the local population with the threat of burning hot tar being dropped on them from above.

I suppose the logic there was, if anybody got really mad about their loved one being melted to death, the culprits could just point upwards and mutter something about how God did it.

To top it off (not with tar), the Frederic Mares Museum is hidden with a kind of blink-and-you’ll miss it forcefield of distractions. If you get stopped by the woman who’s covered herself head-to-toe in flowers or the man playing the Spanish guitar like he’d probably play your heart if you let him… you’ll miss it. If you indulge your instinct to get lost in the Medieval-era labyrinth of Barcelona’s Gothic District… you’ll miss it.

You have to stop yourself half-way down an ancient alleyway which inexplicably draws you forward. You have to turn around. You have to take notice of the little framed entryway tucked around the corner. You have to decide, “Sure, yeah, I’m up for going into a museum named after some guy I’ve never heard of before… fuck it.”

“I make sculptures to buy sculptures.” -Frederic Marés / Photo by the Frederic Marès Museum Documentation and Research Center.

Frederic Marés, like his museum, was always a bit of an amalgam.

The few photos of him in the museum reveal that, as a baby-faced young man, he looked a bit like Charlie Chaplin. He had a brief, smoldering period in his late 40’s- early 50’s, and then quickly (from our perspective) morphed into his final, most powerful form — mysterious old man standing next to creepy things.

He was born in Portbou, a small fishing town near the French and Spanish border, in 1893. He studied sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona. According to Barcelona.de, his collecting started around then.

“He was a student when his father was offered a painting from the 15th century showing Ramon Llull (mathematician, polymath, philosopher, logician, and writer of the first Catalonian work of literature), which he could not afford. Marès bought it with the prize money he got at an exhibition.”

I know better, though. That may have been the first time Marés was able to buy an item for his collection but it wasn’t when the compulsion to collect started.

I met human-ray-of-light/Gallery Manager, María del Puy Larrion when I visited the museum for the second time. Meeting her in the nearly empty museum on a Tuesday afternoon was like running into your best friend after she’s heard some juicy gossip.

We giggled at statues, she pointed out several things I would have otherwise missed, and she happily answered every single question I had in clear, patient Spanish to be sure I understood. If she didn’t know the answer to one of my questions (I asked some obscure ones), she’d disappear for a few minutes and then come bounding back to tell me what she’d found out. It’s like Marés’ own sentient enthusiasm wasn’t satisfied to have filled an entire museum after his death. It needed a wholehearted human host as well.

María del Puy Larrion, Controladora de Salas en el Museo de Frederic Marés / Photo by Katlyn Roberts

María told me Marés started by collecting delicately-wrapped little chocolates when he was a boy. When his mother noticed he never ate any of the chocolates, she suggested they take them out to the beach. He tentatively agreed and laid all his lovely chocolates out in a row in the sand so he could admire them in the sun. When they inevitably melted, he was inconsolable.

Marés made a name for himself in the 1920s, sculpting just a shocking amount of the statues you’re likely to see when you walk around Barcelona. When the Spanish Civil War hit in 1936, he dedicated himself to repairing, preserving, and replacing many of the destroyed historical monuments throughout Catalonia and Spain.

Destruction, meet Creation.

Hardly anyone knew Marés was, by now, living in piles and piles of his own accumulations. It was only after his death in 1991 that the entirety of it was donated to the city of Barcelona, as per Marés’ wishes. The organization and display of it all was a massive undertaking which took several years.

The bottom two floors of the Museum are dedicated to ancient religious and historical artifacts he collected; carved coffins, Roman busts, church pillars, more larger-than-life crucifixion statues than you’ve ever seen in your entire life, and even more Mary-and-child statues than that. Many visitors wander around in religious awe. Personally, I found it a bit terrifying.

Frederic Marés Museum / Photos by Katlyn Roberts

But then you ascend.

Marés’ more personal, magical collection of trinkets and baubles and Catalonian-specific objects has been dusted off and displayed on the upper levels. The “Collector’s Cabinet”, as it’s called, consists of 17 rooms filled with… well, the informal way to put it is “stuff”.

There’s a “Women’s Room” filled with elegant hand fans and hairpins and tiaras and perfume bottles and sewing machines and good-luck pendants and victorian-era magazines.

Frederic Marés Museum / Photos by Katlyn Roberts

There’s a “Smoking Room” filled with cigars and cigarette boxes and snuffboxes and matchboxes and lighters and stamps and playing cards and rows upon rows of stunning, hand-carved pipes.

Frederic Marés Museum / Photos by Katlyn Roberts

There’s a room filled with church donation boxes and holy water basins and tiny bibles. Another room is filled with pocket watches and walking canes and opera binoculars. Another is dedicated to ceramics and glassware.

Frederic Marés Museum / Photos by Katlyn Roberts

Please allow me to wax poetic for a second. Most of these items are a bitter-sweet homage to the bygone eras before mass-production, when the every-day gadgets we used were made by expert hands — lovingly and exquisitely-crafted. Shiny gold leaf and glinting opal catch your eye every few seconds among the colorfully-painted, the expertly soldered, the patiently sculpted, the painstakingly embroidered.

You could take three of Marés’ hand-carved smoking pipes and put each one under glass, several feet away from each other, in a wide-open, stark-white museum, and you would be happy to examine each one. In a modern setting like that, you could give each pipe the time and attention it deserves. You could learn about the artist, drink in the details, wonder about their motivation…

But that’s not how the Frederic Marés Museum works.

Frederic Marés Museum / Photos by Katlyn Roberts

Here, you’re bombarded with thousands of objects (approximately 50,000), each deserving of its own display but packed in amongst everything else. It’s overwhelming. It’s exhilarating. It’s as if Marés knew he was living in the last days of the artisan and he took it upon himself to save as many remnants as he possibly could.

A particularly touching aspect of this museum is the care Marés put into saving Catalonian-specific objects. There’s a room filled with devotions to Our Lady of Montserrat, another devoted to Catalonian ironwork such as antique keys and fences. And Modernisme art, famous in the Catalonian region, is everywhere.

The Franco regime (1936–1975) saw major repression of Catalonian culture and language, so wherever Marés was hired to put up a statue, he made sure to tuck precious pieces of heritage away for safekeeping like the brave little packrat he was.

The pinnacle of the museum, for me, is the attic. He called it “Entertainment Hall”. Old fashioned bicycles with giant wheels take center stage, but you’ll soon notice the tin soldiers, the dolls with their half-lidded eyes, the dollhouses, the board games, the spinning tops, concert tickets, mechanical music boxes, gramophones, magic lanterns, and the first-ever moving picture machines — zoetropes.

It’s so effing magical I want to cry.

Best of all, though? The dioramas or “stage boxes”, built by German engraver and publisher, Martin Engelbrecht (1684–1756).

Stage Boxes in the Entertainment Room at The Frederic Marés Museum / Photos by Katlyn Roberts

Scaled to absolute perfection and so carefully constructed, each stage box is a dreamy work of art for you to get lost in. Like miniature metaphors for the entirety of this museum, the longer you look, the more there is to see.

It’s here I’m reminded of the little boy who brought his chocolates to the beach and laid them all out. I like to imagine the chocolate melted that day partly because he got distracted by the seashells and the sea glass glinting in the sand — a collector’s ultimate “day at the beach”. Off he went, hungry not for the chocolate he’d been gifted but for the pursuit of more aesthetic pleasure.

What if that melted chocolate was the first time little Frederic was confronted with the idea of impermanence? He certainly spent the rest of his life fighting against the forces of destruction. He fought the carnage of the Civil War. He fought to preserve remnants of an oppressed culture. He fought to turn a palace of torture and death into a palace of the arts.

In someone else’s hands, these items might have been lost to history, but Marés breathed eternal life into them and gave them to us as a gift. It’s a museum to get lost in, to find yourself totally in the moment. You’re reminded that appreciating the “small stuff” is no small thing.

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark. www.KatlynRoberts.com.

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