Picturesque Tarragona


The Colonia Iulia Urbs Triumphalis Tarraco was founded in BC 218 as an important Roman defence point against the Carthaginians headed by Hannibal and Hasdrubal. Later on during the Principate, Tarraco became the capital of the province Hispania Tarraconensis, the largest province of the whole Roman Empire. In the 18th century, Tarragona was part of an itinerary of European travellers visiting Spain from France, yet it was never a proper touristic destination. In 1775 Henry Swinburne described the city as a poor little town now enclosed within a small part of the still standing imposing Roman walls, the half-buried ruins of its splendorous past were still visible all around.

This engraving  appears in Voyage Pittoresque et Historique de l’Espagne (Paris 1806) and shows the so-called Tower of the Scipions.This is one of the most important Roman funerary monuments preserved in the Iberian Peninsula. This tower-shaped monument dates to the first century AD and is located around seven km from Tarragona near the ancient Via Augusta that connected Rome with Gades. The travellers of the 18th and 19th centuries still believed that the two warrior figures on the monument represented the famous brothers Cneus and Publius Cornelii Scipiones who died during the Second Punic Wars.

The text that accompanies the current engraving, dating to 1806, describes the haunting location of the monument, surrounded by a wood of pine trees and the rhythmic sound of nearby waves breaking on the rocks. This scene was particularly impressive in those nights when the moon projected its pale light on the eerie statues that were believed to come to life. All this created a perturbing atmosphere. It was not by chance that, during the so called Peninsular War against Napoleonic France (1808-1814), the Tower of the Scipions became, owing to its special location on the route between Tarragona and Barcelona, a secret midnight rendezvous point for traitors and conspirators from both factions. A mysterious Latin inscription on the surface of the monument is addressed directly to the traveller and tells us about its original function and purpose: ‘You should praise the works that he left: forgetting about himself, he ordered to build one tomb for his family, where they should remain forever’.

[Marta Garcia Morcillo]