La Renaixença (The Catalan Cultural Renaissance)

(Nou diccionari 62 de la literatura catalana – New Dictionary 62 of Catalan Literature)

“La Renaixença” is the name given to the cultural revival movement which began in the Principality of Catalonia in the first half of the nineteenth century, thus paving the way for the contemporary period of Catalan literature.

The new intellectual climate stimulated by the Renaixença (made possible by changing social options for the local bourgeoisie with the industrial revolution and the Romantic movement that was gaining ground all over Europe) primarily consisted of a progressive diffusion of a consciousness of Catalonia’s autonomous culture (identified by use of the language) and, accordingly, a very considerable increase in Catalan literary production (and, in general, of everything that shaped the cultural particularities of Catalonia). Indeed, the two great goals of the Renaixença (giving dignity to the language and constructing a national literature) arose from the desire to assert Catalonia’s distinctive personality in the domain of culture.

The publication in 1833 of “La Pàtria” (The Motherland), the occasional poem by Aribau, has (traditionally) been considered as original impulse of the Renaixença, although this is more aptly defined as a movement that appeared as fruit of a long process of recovering from the literary and civil decadence of the sixteen and seventeenth centuries, in which some eighteenth-century Enlightenment men like Fèlix Amat, Josep Pau Ballot, Antoni de Capmany and Josep Climent were particularly active. This process gained momentum when, in the first third of the nineteenth century, a growing interest in history, favoured by the Romanticism that issued from it, stimulated an awareness, between elegiac and assertive, of the deterioration of the former social prestige of the language and literary vitality (which was so stimulating in both political and literary terms) of Catalonia. The work of Antoni Puigblanch, Pròsper de Bofarull, Fèlix Torres Amat, Bergnes de las Casas, López Soler, Aribau and others (almost all of it still in Spanish, and most of it historical and erudite) was a response to this.

The Renaixença consciousness, empowered by this revival of Catalonia’s own history and by the growing influence of a broad-minded bourgeoisie (especially that based in Barcelona), advanced significantly in the following generation, which was decidedly liberal and romantic in its beginnings and, moreover, the first that used the language with some degree of normality to achieve a serious, sustained literary production. Its most outstanding members were Marià Aguiló, Joan Cortada, Manuel Milà i Fontanals, Pau Piferrer, and Joaquim Rubió i Ors, author of one of the most lucid texts of the period, which was published in 1841 as the prologue to a collection of his poems.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Renaixença identified with Catalan cultural reform and, although clear ideological variances at its core gave rise to some disputes over the issues involved, it was unquestionably a movement that was present in the country’s media or that created its own means of diffusion, and it had the support of the Acadèmia de Bones Lletres de Barcelona (Royal Academy of Belles Lettres of Barcelona), the University of Barcelona and some sectors of the Catholic Church (represented by Jaume Collell and Torras i Bages). It promoted the most urgently-needed cultural instruments (such as grammars and dictionaries), created its own political myths (the kings Jaume I and Felip V – James I of Aragon and the Bourbon King Philip V) and literary lore (the troubadours) and extended its influence beyond erudition and lyric poetry in an attempt to Catalanise other fields such as philosophy, science, art and law.

The popularisation of the Renaixença was due in part to the restoration in 1859 of what would eventually become the supreme organ of the Renaixença, namely the literary competition known as the Jocs Florals of Barcelona which, gaining prestige with public recognition, was soon held in many other parts of the country as well. Led by Antoni de Bofarull and Víctor Balaguer, the Jocs Florals also gave rise to the emergence of a very considerable number of authors, often from among the urban petit bourgeoisie and most of them almost exclusively writing poetry.

The concurrent Renaixença movement in Provence, while lacking to some extent the politicisation that was a driving force of the Catalan movement, was always wielded as an argument for claims of progress being made by the Renaixença.

However, the movement had little effect on popular literature (which, practically without interruption, had almost always been written in Catalan) and was looked upon with some wariness by its authors (Abdó Terrades, Anselm Clavé and Frederic Soler), who were frequently known for their political radicalisation and federal or republican views, which clashed with the increasingly conservative nature of the Renaixença. As for the more refined genres, it was necessary to promote their production in Catalan in accordance with the Renaixença plan to establish a national literature. The novel, which was already Catalan with respect to its subject material, now appeared written in Catalan for the first time in 1862 – the year in which the Jocs Florals offered its first prize for fiction – with the publication of Antoni de Bofarull’s L’orfeneta de Menargues (The Little Orphan Girl of Menargues). In the case of theatre (one of the very dynamic popular genres in Catalan and which did not become a Jocs Florals category until 1875), the first drama in Catalan (Tal faràs, tal trobaràs (As You Sow So Shall You Reap) by Vidal i Valenciano) was staged in 1865. Highbrow poetry, which had been published in Catalan since 1839 (Llàgrimes de viudesa (Tears of Widowhood) by Miquel Anton Martí), reached its apogee with the resounding success of the epic poem L’Atlàntida (Atlantis, 1878) by Jacint Verdaguer.

Fruit of the general atmosphere of the Renaixença and chief proof of its timeliness and effectiveness was the large number of first-rate writers who appeared, thanks to the Jocs Florals, in the last third of the nineteenth century, among them Jacint Verdaguer, Àngel Guimerà, Emili Vilanova, Narcís Oller, Francesc Pelagi Briz and Josep Pin i Soler, together with critics like Joan Sardà and Josep Yxart, while other previously estranged authors like Frederic Soler were also incorporated.

This generation laid the groundwork and consolidated the main instruments for popularising the Renaixença in the form of periodical publications (La Renaixensa, Lo Gay Saber, El Calendari Català, La Ilustració Catalana), publishing houses (La Protecció Literària, La Renaixensa, Ilustració Catalana), associations (La Jove Catalunya, Associació Catalanista d’Excursions Científiques, Associació Catalana de Excursions, Centre Català), et cetera, by means of an increasing yet nuanced politicisation of the movement (partly initiated by Valentí Almirall), and a now very comprehensive cultural scene.

Apart from expressing the desire for an autonomous culture, the Renaixença was also a particular form of seeking this end, with a style and themes rooted in romanticism, either academic or archaic linguistic criteria, and a moderate, liberal standpoint in keeping with its bourgeois roots. Thanks to this orientation the Renaixença was doomed by 1890 with the first signs of the vitality of the generation of Modernism which, while true to the essence of the Renaixença, succeeded it with notably different criteria and positions and a thoroughly overhauled aesthetic sense.

In Mallorca, the appearance of the new trends began in about 1833 and consolidated in Josep M. Quadrado’s magazine La Palma (1840-1841), which introduced Romanticism, favoured the recovery of old texts and made contact with similar initiatives in the Principality, although without curtailing the use of Mallorcan. Members of the subsequent generation who studied in Barcelona made their commitment to the Renaixença through the Jocs Florals. Marià Aguiló, Josep Lluís Pons i Gallarza, Jeroni Rosselló, Pere d’Alcàntara Peña and Miquel Victorià Amer were prominent in this group and took a conservative stand that rejected any evolution of the movement towards more committed political ideologies. Towards the end of the 1880s, Miquel del Sants Oliver and members of the “La Almudaina” group, who were now influenced by the new Modernist aesthetics, brought Mallorca closer to the more assertive movement and its progressive positions.

In Valencia, the Renaixença developed along similar lines, also in three stages. The first, between 1830 and 1859, saw the coming of Romanticism through El Mole, a liberal publication, as well as the contacts made by Pasqual Pérez, Vicent Boix and Josep M. Bonilla with Víctor Balaguer. The second stage (1850-1874), presided over by Teodor Llorente and the cultural society Lo Rat Penat, was markedly conservative, rejecting any political assertiveness and taking a certain Occitan-style direction. The third and final period (1874-1909), led by Constantí Llombart, was more progressive.

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