After a rousing introduction that touches on the Spanish Civil War and MirÃ³, GaudÃ, and the Barcelonese mania for design and its folk-pride in ""seny"" (well-proportioned common sense), coexisting with its ""tradition of intense, wrenching civic change, of long-shot gambles and risky endeavors,"" Hughes plunges into the history of the city and of Catalunya entire--and is all but lost in its swamp thereafter. Understandably wishing to replicate his deserved success with The Fatal Shore (1986), Hughes takes Barcelona chronologically. But where the Australian epic of the earlier book was one of remade identities and turbulent national narration, Hughes here is faced with more frozen layers of culture and provincial self-regard. He goes at it painstakingly--all the names and dates are here, from the Romans onward--yet the result is deprived of Hughes's signature clash and vector. There are fine historical cameos--ever hear of Narcis Monturiol and his pioneering submarines, proof of Barcelona's helpless but also wonderful addiction to modernity?--but Hughes also must address himself to literature (the Catalan language being so important a determinant to the culture), and when he does this he seems to lose the confidently acerbic snap that his visual-art and architecture prose has (""The language of L'Atlantida is rich, sonorous, imbued not only with rhetorical grandeur but with intimate precision of observation and feeling""). The GaudÃ section, which is very good, comes only at a very long book's end, by which time you are weary, and less involved than its great subject merits.