Things to see and do - French Riviera and Monaco
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Art and Culture
Art and Culture
History of Architecture
Although the Riviera has fewer monuments than Provence, the visitor will discover a rich heritage of art in its earliest forms side by side with its most modern expressions. Whether exploring the alleys of the picturesque perched villages or strolling on the coast, you will be able to appreciate the top representations of every major architectural current throughout the centuries.
Provence and particularly the Riviera have been thriving areas since Roman times. As later generations took the materials used by the Romans for the construction of their own new buildings, only a few fragments of the ancient civilisation have survived. In the districts of Fayence, Fréjus and St-Raphaël, Roman canals are still being used to carry water.
The Roman ruins at Cimiezare extensive. At Fréjus, as well as the arena, there are traces of the harbour installations. The Alpine Trophy at La Turbie is of special interest; it is one of the few such Roman trophies still in existence. Buildings from the Merovingian and Carolingian periods include the baptistry at Fréjus and the chapels of Notre-Dame-de-Pépiole and La Trinité at St-Honorat de Lérins
In the 12C an architectural renaissance in Provence blossomed in the building of numerous churches. The Romanesque style here is more eclectic than innovative, resulting not in large buildings, such as those in Burgundy, but rather in unpretentious churches, remarkable for the bonding of their evenly cut stones with fine mortar work.
The churches are plain outside, their façades being often poor in style; the only break in the flatness of the sides comes from powerful buttresses. The square belfry and the east end are sometimes decorated with applied blind arcades, known as Lombard bands , evidence of northern Italian influence.
On entering, the visitor is struck by the simplicity and austerity of the interior which often consists of a single nave and a shallow transept. If aisles form part of the plan, the apse ends in a semicircle flanked by two apsidal chapels.
The interesting abbey of Le Thoronet contains a church of the Cistercian Order with the wide transept and bare appearance characteristic of the churches built by the Benedictines. In contrast, however, the roof of broken barrel vaulting and the semicircular apse show the influence of local craftsmen.
Gothic to Baroque
There are few Gothic buildings in the region. Provençal Gothic is a transitional style which depends heavily on Romanesque traditions. The style is represented in the powerful groined vaulting at Grasse and the remarkable cloisters at Fréjus.
In the 15C, Good King René brought numerous Italian craftsmen to Provence. But even though Provençal painting was influenced by the Renaissance, the architecture remained unaffected.
Classical buildings, however, abound (17C and 18C). Design lost its original style and became more severe and majestic. In the towns the wealthier citizens built town houses. The development of Baroque is to be seen in ecclesiastical buildings in the County of Nice at Sospel, Menton, Monaco, La Turbie and Nice. Façades are adorned with pediments, niches and statues; inside, the architectural lines are often concealed by highly ornate altarpieces, panelling and baldaquins.
The 19C showed little originality and Baroque continued to be favoured for new constructions and restorations. The Romanesque-Byzantine style was employed in the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Victoire-de-Lépante, St-Raphaël, the neo-Gothic on the west front of the church at Cimiez and neo-Romanesque for Monaco’s cathedral. Slightly later, the Casino in Monte-Carlo and the Hôtel Negresco in Nice were designed in an ostentatious style borrowed from the Belle Epoque (c 1900).
Examples of 20C works include the church of Ste-Jeanne-d’Arc in Nice, the country church of St-Martin-de-Peille and the Chapelle du Rosaire des Dominicaines in Vence (also known as the Chapelle Matisse). The Fondation Maeght in St-Paul, the Musée Marc-Chagall in Nice, and the striking property development at the Baie des Anges Marina in Villeneuve-Loubet or Port-Grimaud are other fine examples of modern architecture.
From the middle of the 15C to the middle of the 16C a school of painting, at first purely Gothic then influenced by the Italian Renaissance, flourished in the County of Nice. It is best-known through the works of Louis Bréa and Durandi .
It is said of Bréa that he was a “Provençal Fra Angelico”, praise justified by the sincerity and sobriety of his brushwork and his gift for stressing the humanity of his subjects. However, his simplicity is a far cry from the mysticism of Fra Angelico, and his colours and dull tones lack the sparkle of the great Italian genius.
These Provençal artists worked mainly for the Penitent brotherhoods, which explains why their paintings are scattered in many churches and pilgrim chapels. They can be seen in Nice (where Brea’s brother Antoine and nephew François are represented), Gréolières, Antibes, Fréjus, Grasse and Monaco.
During the same period, the humblest churches of the County of Nice were decorated with the most striking mural paintings. These are to be seen at Coaraze, Venanson, Lucéram, Saorge and Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines where Renaissance Primitive Giovanni Canavesio , working beside Jean Baleison , created Gothic-inspired works of exceptional quality.
The Classical Period
The 17C and 18C were marked by the fine pictures of the Parrocles, the Van Loos, Joseph Vernet and Hubert Robert. It is Fragonard , however, who is the pride of Provence. Rakish scenes were his favourites; he painted them with great enthusiasm and exquisite style. He often used as background to his jubilant party scenes the landscapes flooded with light and the gardens full of flowers seen round his native town of Grasse.
At the end of the 19C numerous artists, representing the main trends in modern painting, were fascinated by the radiant light of the Mediterranean South of France.
The return of Cézanne to Provence (1881) was followed by many Impressionists such as Berthe Morisot (in Nice), Monet (in Antibes) and Renoir (in Cagnes), who sought to portray the subtle effects of light on Mediterranean landscapes. Monet’s works mark the first appearance of the Riviera in painting: “I fence and wrestle with the sun” (letter from Monet to Rodin, January 1888). It’s from this period, with the “series”, that Monet begins recording the variations of light on the same subject. Renoir spent the last years of its life in Cagnes, painting flowers and fruits, landscapes and people of the South.
Impressionism gave birth to a new school, Pointillism , a method of painting created by Seurat , which consisted of dividing shades into tiny dots of pure colour, distributed so as to intensify the effect of light.
Paul Signac , Seurat’s disciple, established himself in St-Tropez in 1898 and many of his friends followed him, namely Manguin, Bonnard and Matisse.
Matisse and Dufy, who had settled in Nice, reacted against Impressionism and, through the use of pure and brilliant colours, juxtaposed in simplified forms and perspectives, tried to express not just the fleeting sensation evoked by the spectacle of nature but the very thoughts and emotions of the artist.
Picasso , co-founder with Braque of Cubism – an art concerned above all with form – was in his turn seduced by the Riviera, and lived in Vallauris in 1946, then in Cannes and finally in Mougins.
Braque spent his last years painting in Le Cannet, while Fernand Léger , another Cubist painter, lived in Biot.
Dunoyer de Segonzac was tireless in his portrayal of St-Tropez.
Chagall found the light and flowers of Vence a marvellous stimulus to his multicoloured dreams.
Other artists, such as Kandinsky in La Napoule, Cocteau in Menton, Van Dongen in Cannes, Magnelli in Grasse and Nicolas de Staël in Antibes, although not spending much time in the region, nevertheless marked their stay in an unforgettable manner.
At the same time in Nice in the 1960s a group of artists including Arman , César , Dufrêne, Hains, Klein , Raysse, Rotella, Spoerri, Tinguely and Villeglé formed the Nouveau Réalisme joined later by Niki de Saint Phalle, Deschamps and Christo. They were reacting against Abstraction , which was the prevailing artistic trend after the war, and experimented with new approaches to reality making use of objects found in the modern industrial and consumer world. Alongside these innovators were the members of the Nice School , who each sought his own vision ( Ben , Bernar Venet, Sacha Sosno); and Bernard Pagès and Claude Viallat , who, closely linked to the theories of Conceptual Art, led to the creation of the Support-Surface in the 1970s (for more on contemporary movements.
The fine climate and natural beauties that so appealed to artists throughout the centuries also worked their magic on writers and poets from around the world. Tobias Smollett, whose Travels Through Italy and France was published in 1766, was an early visitor who helped put the Riviera on the literary map. In the second half of the 19C, the area acquired its other name when French author Stephen Liégeard published his guide to the Provençal coast called La Côte d’Azur .
By now, the tide of visiting authors had become a flood. Some came for the sake of their health, others to escape unhappy marriages or persecution or heavy taxes, and still more for the way of life. These literary refugees include some of the art’s greatest names: D H Lawrence, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Berthold Brecht, Katherine Mansfield, W B Yeats, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, W Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, H G Wells, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber.
For some, the Riviera provided a comfortable place in which to write about distant places; the list of titles written along the stretch of coastline is vast. Others, such as F Scott Fitzgerald in his tragic Tender is the Night (1934), were inspired by the people and landscapes they found there.
Not all the writers who flocked to the Riviera were foreign, however. Jean Cocteau arrived on the Côte d’Azur at a young age, spending much of his life around Menton, while Colette lived in St Tropez for ten years in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Riviera’s association with moving pictures is almost as long as the history of film itself. In 1895, the pioneering brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière shot several of their first works in and around their summer residence, the Villa du Clos des Plages in La Ciotat, including L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), which so alarmed early audiences. The seaside town’s cinematic credentials stop there; the Eden Theatre, which opened soon after, is the world’s oldest surviving movie theatre.
During the early decades of the 20C, the ‘seventh art’ put down firm roots in the Riviera, with stars and directors alike lured by the light, the climate and the way of life. The Victorine, the area’s first film studio, opened in Nice in 1919, around the same time that Hollywood was setting up shop. Its acquisition six years later by Hollywood director Rex Ingram established it as the focus of the burgeoning European film industry, with local film-makers such as Jean Cocteau, among others, setting works in the area.
The launch of an international film festival in Cannes in 1946, originally planned for 1939, served to confirm the Riviera’s place in the cinematic universe and heralded a ‘golden era’ for film-making in the region. The following decades produced US and French classics such as Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (1956) starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, while Roger Vadim’s Et Dieu... créa la femme of the same year catapulted both Brigitte Bardot and the fishing port of St Tropez into the limelight.
Since the 1970s, increasing competition from other parts of Europe – particularly after the fall of Communism in eastern Europe from the late 1980s – has helped to create a more challenging era. However, the industry’s leading lights still flock to Cannes each May for the festival; more than 300 of them have added their handprint and signature to the Pavement of the Stars in front of the Palais des Festivals since its inception in 1985. Nice’s Victorine studio still attracts international as well as local stars: Robert de Niro in Ronin , John Travolta in Swordfish and Jean-Claude van Damme in Maximum Risk among them.
Though eclipsed by a starrier literary and cinematic heritage, the Riviera has a musical tradition, too. The gaboulet-tambourin , a cross between a flute and a tambourine thought to date from the 13C, is an intrinsic element of the local traditional songs and dances, in particular the farandole. On the classical side, Nice’s Opera opened in 1776, and hosted many of the south’s most famous concerts; the lyric society of Nice was founded in the 19C, and still organises private concerts as well as weekly open-air free concerts in the Albert 1er garden.