A Story of Vim and Rigor

BARCELONA by Robert Hughes; Knopf; 573 pages; $27.50

For Cervantes, Barcelona was a "refuge of foreigners, school of chivalry, and epitome of all that a civilized and inquisitive taste could ask for." For less quixotic souls, however, the Spanish city has always been something quite other, a contentious, raffish, yeasty place of shopkeepers. Catalans, as Robert Hughes sympathetically calls them, pride themselves on their pragmatism and their independent-mindedne ss: two of their sovereign virtues are mesura and ironia. And at the heart of their idealized self-image is seny, or "a natural level-headedness." The patron saint of Barcelona, St. Eulalia, is also...