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Architecture and the visual arts
Traditional rural style
The Provençal country house, whether a mas, a bastide or an oustau, features the following characteristics:
- a shallow sloping roof of Roman style; curved terracotta tiles, with a decorative frieze under the eaves, composed of a double or triple row of tiles embedded in the wall and known as a génoise;
- stone walls, more or less smoothly rendered (pink or lavender), with no windows on the north side and those on the other three sides just large enough to let in light but keep out the summer heat;
- a north–south orientation, with sometimes a slight turn to the east to avoid the direct blast of the mistral; cypresses serve as a windbreak to the north, plane and lotus trees provide shade to the south;
- floors covered with red or brown terracotta tiles (mallons);
- vaulting in dried stone or masonry that completely replaced floorboards.
The Provençal mas is a large, low farmhouse rectangular in plan with a sprawling low roof covering the living quarters and annexes. The walls are made of stone taken from the fields or from the Plaine de la Crau, ashlar-stone surrounding the openings. Traditionally, it is divided into two parts by a corridor, for in times past, one side was for the master and the other for the farmer (bayle). This was repeated on the ground floor and on the upper storey.
The kitchen is level with the courtyard, and functions as the centre of the house in spite of its small size. Upstairs are bedrooms with tiled floors, and the attic. The outbuildings and other rooms are used for various purposes according to the importance of the mas and the agricultural vocation of the region. The ground floor sometimes has a vaulted cellar facing north. This could be used for stables, shed, storeroom, sheep’s pen (at times separated from the mas), bread oven and cistern. Above this, the attic space once served as the cocoonery for silkworms, and also as a barn (above the sheep’s pen) and dovecote.
The mas of the Bas Vivarais are slightly different. They have an attractive pattern of stonework and an additional storey. In a traditional farm, the ground floor, covered by solid vaulting, contains the stables for the smaller animals and the storeroom for wine-making tools. In the cold-room, harvested products as well as hams and sausages are kept. A stone staircase opens on to a couradou, a terrace that is generally covered, and leads to the stone or terracotta-tiled kitchen. The cocoonery was often off the couradou and until c. 1850 was an essential part of the Vivarais mas architectural conception. The sleeping quarters are off the kitchen, and a small wooden staircase leads to the attic. In the wealthier mas this may be a spiral staircase in a turret with the bedrooms on the upper floor.
Annexes were often added to the living quarters, such as bread oven, barn, and in the chestnut region, a chestnut dryer, clède (or clédo).
Nowadays, it is hard to find a mas occupied by a traditional farming family. Many of these properties have been bought up for use as holiday homes and have been completely transformed to accommodate modern desires: a jacuzzi where sheep once rested; a TV room where the silkworms once spun; or a microwave where the bread oven stood.
An oustau is a typical Provençal farmhouse smaller in size than a mas but with the same layout. In the upper Comtat it is called a grange. In the past these barn-like buildings were progressively enlarged to house the family, which formed a clan, and the workers. It was small but people compensated for the lack of surface area by adding upper storeys.
A bastide is built of fine ashlar-stone and displays regular façades with symmetrical openings. Most often its layout is square in plan with a hipped roof.
Unlike the mas, the bastide was not necessarily a farmhouse. Thus, its conception was more luxurious, using decorative elements such as wrought iron balconies, exterior staircase and sculpture.
The gardian’s cabin, the typical Camargue dwelling of bygone days, is a small building (10m x 5m/33ft x 16.5ft) with a rounded apse at one end. The cob walls are low. Only the front façade, with its entrance door, is built in rubble to hold a long ridge beam supported by another piece of wood sloped at a 45° angle, and crossed by a piece of wood to form a cross. Thatched with marsh reeds, sagnos, these cabins usually had just two rooms divided by a wall of reeds: the dining room and bedroom.
Ligurians and Celts settled in fortified hill sites known as oppida, such as Nages, Entremont and Roquepertuse, and created towns organised on a regular plan. Within the fortified walls stood a group of uniform dwellings, a type of hut in unfired stone and brick.
Celtic-Ligurian sculpture honoured, above anything else, the cult of the dead warrior, the town’s hero, who they represented in the form of warriors’ statues seated cross-legged with people either free-standing or in relief. An important ritual consisted of setting the severed heads of the conquered peoples, or at least the carved version, in the stone lintels. The sculpture exhibited at Roquepertuse perfectly demonstrates this Celtic form of expression.
Analysis of pottery shards confirms that Roquepertuse was densely occupied from the final Neolithic Era (3 000 BC) to around 200 BC, the date of the last destruction of the site. The most prosperous period was between the end of 4 BC to the end of 3 BC, characterised by the widespread use of delicate Mediterranean dishes (cups and pitchers of either painted or unpainted clay, and black glaze from 3C). From being confined to a single sanctuary, as was long believed, Roquepertuse, which is still the subject of detailed research, is in fact a vast complex stretching from the oppidum in the north to the sloping village in the south.
Hellenistic influence was also crucial for the region; it directly influenced the native peoples, accelerating the development of their economy and society. Greek construction techniques are evident in the building of St-Blaise and Glanum. Numerous pottery fragments and Greek black figure vases were excavated at Arles, and the stelae found in rue Négrel in Marseille are the oldest examples (second half of the 6C BC) of Greek sculpture in France.
Throughout Provence, towns were built on the Roman urban plan. They all boasted remarkable public and private buildings, some of which are still well preserved, giving them a charm all their own. Without dropping Hellenistic influence entirely, the great Provençal towns took Rome as their model.
Most of the towns were built on either native Hellenistic or Gallic sites. And yet, very often, the desire to settle in a particular spot was that of a colony of veteran legionnaires, as was the case in Nîmes and Orange, who were soon after joined by the civilian population. The urban foundation was laid according to precise rules: having determined the future town centre, two major streets were traced – the cardo maximus (north–south orientation) and the decumanus maximus (east–west orientation). This created a regular grid pattern in which the grids were squared with sides some hundred square yards wide. This geometric exactitude could appear only on sites where the local topography was suitable, such as in Orange or Arles as opposed to Nîmes and Vaison-la-Romaine.
Where previous edifices had existed, they were razed, as at Glanum, to make room for the new buildings. These towns were not surrounded with walls except at Nîmes, Arles, and Orange, which were granted the honour of surrounding themselves with ramparts (permission obtained from Rome). Defensive walls did not appear until the end of the 3C. Such walls were built with towers and gates corresponding to the main streets.
The main streets were lined with pavements, at times 50cm/19.7in high and bordered by porticoes that protected the people from sun and rain. The roadway, paved with large flagstones laid diagonally, was crossed at intervals by stepping stones laid at the same level as the pavements but between which horses and chariot wheels could pass and pedestrians could cross over above the dust and mud. Gutters also ran alongside the road and were slightly rounded.
The forum, a large paved open space surrounded by an arcade, was the centre of public and commercial life in a Roman town. Government offices were located round the forum. These included a temple devoted to the imperial cult, a civil basilica (a type of town hall where judicial and commercial affairs were conducted), the curia or headquarters of local government, and at times, a prison.
At Arles the forum had the particularity of being lined with a vast underground gallery, cryptoporticus, the origin of which remains a mystery.
The Art of building
The art of building was very advanced with the Romans. The rapidity with which their buildings went up was due not so much to the number of people working on a site as to the special training of the workers, their organised working methods, and the use of lifting devices, such as levers, hoisting winches and tackles, that moved heavy materials into place.
For building materials the Romans used the local limestone, which was not hard to dress; stones were easily extracted and shaped into blocks. Romans originally adopted the method of using large blocks of stone without mortar: the stones were held together by their weight, and with dowels or cramps. But builders then revolutionised wall construction by introducing the use of concrete, a manufactured material not unique to any one country. Concrete could be used in the construction of buildings throughout the empire, giving a uniformity and similarity to their edifices.
They also used concrete to fill in cracks or joints, or give to a public building a uniform surface, such as at the Maison Carrée and Amphitheatre in Nîmes, or to wedge the stones together allowing the expansion of a vault.
The Roman architectural Orders derived from the Greek Orders but with some variation. Roman Doric, still called the Tuscan Order, the simplest and most solid, was found on the monuments’ lower storeys. Too severe, it was rarely used by the Romans. The lonic Order was very elegant but not ornate enough for the Roman architects. It was the Corinthian Order that Romans used frequently because of the richness of its ornamentation. The Composite Order was a combination of the lonic and Corinthian Orders.
Public buildings sometimes had rectangular-shaped roofs held by colonnades inside the rooms. But more often the Romans used rounded vaulting in corridors and galleries where the walls were parallel, groined vaulting in square rooms, and the dome in circular rooms.
The inhabitants of Roman towns enjoyed bloody combats as much as more peaceful theatrical representations.
Due to the influence of Christianity, gladiator fights were forbidden in 404. The games were abandoned at the same time.
The amphitheatre (the arena was the name of the sand floor) had two tiers of arcades on the outside surmounted by a low storey called the attic. Posts were fixed on the attic to carry a huge adjustable awning, the velarium, to shelter the spectators from the sun and rain. The arcades were divided by rectangular pillars decorated with engaged half-columns on the first storey. Inside, enclosing the arena, a wall protected the spectators in the front rows from the wild animals released in the ring. The cavea – terraces for the spectators – was divided into maenia – tiers of seats generally in groups of four, individually separated by a passage. The seats were strictly allocated, those nearest the arena being for the men with a superior social station. The first maenia were reserved for consuls, senators, magistrates and members of local guilds (such as the boatmen of Arles). In another section sat priests, knights and Roman citizens, whereas freemen and slaves sat in the attic. The arcades and three circular gallery-promenades, and the hundreds of staircases and passages, allowed spectators to reach or leave their stepped seats directly. At Nîmes it took less than five minutes for the audience of 20 000 to leave via exits known as vomitoria.
The Roman theatre, in the form of a half-circle lengthened by a deep stage, was divided into three sections: the cavea (auditorium) built in the hollow of a hillside, as in Orange, and crowned by a colonnade; the orchestra, the semicircular section in front of the stage with movable seats reserved for dignitaries; the stage flanked by side rooms, rectangular in shape, which were higher in level than the orchestra. At the back of the stage was a wall (which was as high as the cavea) with three doors through which the actors entered.
The stage wall was the finest part of the building. Its decoration included several tiers of columns, niches containing statues (the central niche contained the emperor’s statue), marble facing and mosaics. Behind this were the actors’ dressing rooms and store rooms. Beyond these again was a portico open to the garden through which the actors entered the theatre. In it, spectators would stroll during the intermissions or take shelter from rain. As in the arenas, a huge adjustable awning, known as the velum, could be opened to shelter the spectators from the sun and rain.
Theatrical scenery and machinery were ingenious. Some scenes were fixed; some were superimposed and uncovered by sliding others sideways.
The curtain was only 3m/9.8ft high. It dropped into a slit at the beginning of the play and rose at the end. The basement contained the machinery and communicated with the stage through trapdoors on which the actors could rise from or sink into the ground. Other machines, mounted in the flies, lowered gods or heroes from the heavens, or raised them into the clouds.
The effects men knew how to create were smoke, lightning, thunder, ghosts, and the accompaniment of apotheoses.
All sorts of means were used to obtain perfect acoustics. The mouths of the actors’ masks were little megaphones. The large sloping roof over the stage threw the sound downwards, and the upward curve of the seats received it smoothly. The colonnades broke up the echo, and carefully graduated sounding-boards under the seats acted as loudspeakers. One detail shows how far these refinements were carried: the doors on the stage were hollow and made like violins inside. When an actor wished to amplify his voice he would stand against one of these sound-boxes.
These were the largest public sites in the Roman world, about four times longer than an amphitheatre, one end of which was oval shaped; they were used for chariot and horse races. The one in Arles was big enough to race about 12 chariots at a time and all that remains of it now is the obelisk that stands in front of St-Trophime church, which was once the finishing line.
The temple stood on a podium surrounded by columns and consisted of two rooms: the pronaos (a vestibule) and the cella (a place for the statue of the divinity). The prime example of a temple is the Maison Carrée at Nîmes. In the countryside there were small local temples, fana (singular fanum).
The arches in Orange, Glanum, Carpentras and Cavaillon resemble the triumphal arches of Rome, raised in honour of victorious generals, but these were built to commemorate the founding of the cities in which they stand and the exploits of the veterans who settled there. They had either one or three openings. The columns decorating the four sides and flanking the central arch were all engaged; later on they became detached. The upper storey was decorated with statues, horse-drawn chariots, and their feats of arms, usually in gilt bronze.
The Roman baths, which were public and free, were also centres of physical culture, casinos, clubs, recreation centres, libraries, lecture halls and meeting places, which explains the amount of time people spent in them. Decoration in these great buildings was lavish: columns and capitals picked out in bright colours, mosaic ornaments, coloured marble facings, richly coffered ceilings, mural paintings and statues.
The bath’s functioning demonstrated the Romans’ understanding of the canalisation of water and its subsequent heating. Water was brought from the mountains via aqueducts and placed into cisterns and then distributed by a lead-pipe and cement system of canals; evacuation was conducted through a network of drainpipes.
To heat air and water a number of underground furnaces (hypocausts) like bakers’ ovens, in which roaring fires were kept going, were used. The hot gases circulated among the brick pillars supporting the stone floors of rooms and baths, and rose through flues in the walls to escape from chimneys. In this way the rooms were heated from below and from the sides as in modern buildings. The warmest room, facing south or west, had large glazed windows and was used as a solarium. Water at three different temperatures cold, lukewarm and hot circulated automatically by thermo-siphon.
The bather followed a medically designed route. From the apodyterium (changing room), where he would have left his clothes and anointed his body with oil, he entered the palaestra (a gymnasium of sorts), where he would warm up performing physical exercises. Then came the tepidarium (a lukewarm room), where he thoroughly cleaned himself by scraping his skin with small curved metal spatulas (strigiles) that prepared him for the caldarium (hot room), where he took a steam bath. He then proceeded into the hot swimming-pool. Having been massaged, he once again returned to the tepidarium before continuing on to the frigidarium (cold bath) to tone up the skin.
Thoroughly revived the bather dressed and proceeded to take advantage of the baths’ other activities, such as lectures, sports, gossip, and the like.
The Roman townhouse
Excavations at Vaison-la-Romaine, Glanum or the Fountain quarter in Nîmes have uncovered Roman houses of various types: small bourgeois houses, dwellings (several storeys high) for rent, shops open to the street, and finally, large, luxurious patrician mansions.
Mansions had modest external appearances owing to their bare walls and few windows. But the interiors, adorned with mosaics, statues, paintings and marbles, and sometimes hot baths and a fish pond, reflected the wealth of their owners.
A vestibule and a corridor in the mansion led to the atrium. The atrium, which opened onto the street through a vestibule containing the porter’s lodge, was a large rectangular court, open in the middle, to the sky (compluvium). A basin called the impluvium, under the open section, caught rainwater. Rooms opened off the atrium: a reception room, a private oratory, a tablinum or study, and a library of the head of the family.
The peristyle was a court surrounded by a portico (a gallery with a roof supported by columns) in the centre of the part of the house reserved for the family. They reached it from the atrium along a corridor called the fauces. Here the peristyle was generally made into a garden with basins lined with mosaics, fountains and statues. The living quarters opened all around it: bedrooms, triclinium (dining room and oecus (main drawing room).
The annexes included the kitchen with a sink and drain, baths, and a flush lavatory. Other buildings housed slaves’ quarters, attics, cellars, stables, etc.
Experts are just beginning to examine this kind of dwelling. The towns must have been numerous and the settlement of these sites by Romans was done on pre-existing sites. The cadastral plan of Orange seems to show that the Romans tried to organise their territory into square-shaped lots called centuries.
The most common type of house was the villa, 40 of which have been discovered in Provence.
Grandiose like the Pont du Gard or more modest like Barbegal, aqueducts played an important role in daily life as they carried the water from their source to the town.
As soon as they settled in Provence, the Romans decided to design and build a reliable network of terrestrial means of communication that would ensure supremacy over the lands they had conquered, while at the same time encouraging the exchange of both goods and ideas. The layout of these roads usually coincided with that undertaken by the Gauls or with the paths (drailles) traditionally used by herds of cattle. They were cobbled only at the entrance to cities (country ways were surfaced with small, flat stones arranged tightly together) and dotted with stone or wooden bridges (Pont Julien at Bonnieux, Pont Flavien at St-Chamas), military milestones (1 Roman mile = 1 481m/0.92mi) and relay posts. Three great Roman roads cut across Provence: the Aurelian Way (Via Aurelia), the Domitian Way (Via Domitia), and the Via Agrippa. The first connected Rome to the River Rhône, running along the coast through the towns of Antibes (Antipolis), Fréjus (Forum Jilii), Aix-en-Provence (Aquae Sextiae), and Salon-de-Provence (Salo) before joining up with the Domitian Way in Tarascon (Tarusco). The Via Domitia, which headed towards Spain, helped link northern Italy to southern Gaul. It served the cities of Briançon (Brigantium), Gap (Vapicum), Sisteron (Segustero), Apt (Aptia Julia), Cavaillon (Cabello), Tarascon (Tarusco), Nîmes (Nemausus), Béziers (Julia Baeterrae), Narbonne (Noarb), and Perpignan (Ruscino). Finally, the Via Agrippa was a network built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa which started at Arles (Arelate) and extended towards Lyon, following the left bank of the Rhône and crossing Avignon (Avenio) and Orange (Arausio).
The brilliant Gallo-Roman civilisation took a long time to disappear after the fall of the Western Empire. The ancient public buildings remained standing and the architects of the Middle Ages took inspiration from them to build churches and monasteries.
A dark age followed (5C–10C) when few buildings were erected, of which only isolated specimens now remain, such as the small baptistries at Aix and Venasque. Early Romanesque art, which developed from Catalonia to northern Italy in the 10C and 11C, did not leave significant examples, either.
The 12C was for Provence one of its most outstanding historic periods during which it underwent a brilliant architectural renaissance. Churches, remarkable for the bonding of their evenly cut stones with fine mortar work, appeared everywhere. Their style was closely linked to a school which had evolved in the area between the River Rhône, the Drôme, the Alps, and the Mediterranean. This school knew how to capture different influences: from Roman Antiquity came the use of vaults and especially decoration; from Languedoc came the carved portals; from Lombardy came the Lombard arcade or the lions adorning the base of doors; and from Auvergne came the dome on squinches over the nave and in front of the apse.
Below are the essential characteristics of the Romanesque style, the best examples of which were the great sanctuaries in the Rhône Valley: Cathédrale de la Major in Marseille, St-Trophime in Arles, St-Gilles, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon, Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Orange, and the church in Le Thor.
Churches and chapels
Provençal Romanesque churches have descended directly from the Roman basilica and Carolingian church. Their general appearance was of a solid mass. Transepts were rare and shallow. Often there was a single nave with side chapels hollowed out of the thickness of the walls. The east end took the form of an apse with two flanking apsidal chapels, where there were side aisles. Only the great pilgrimage churches of St-Gilles (in St-Gilles) and St-Trophime (in Arles) have ambulatories.
Minor buildings (Chapelle Ste-Croix in Montmajour; St-Sépulcre in Peyrolles) present a quadrilobed plan.
The bell tower is an imposing, most often square, sometimes octagonal structure, that dominated the dome above the transept crossing.
It was sometimes placed above the bay preceding the apse or on the façade. It was decorated with blind arcading known as Lombard arcades or fluted pilasters in the Antique style, or sometimes both.
The walls were usually bare except for the cornice and the plain side doors. Massive buttresses, between which were set the windows of the nave, relieved the austere monotony of the exterior.
West fronts and doors
The west front was generally plain, opened by a door surmounted by an oculus as the main door was often located on the south side sheltered from the mistral. The doors were probably the architectural element most influenced by ancient Greek and Roman art; sometimes they were decorated with a fronton directly influenced by the ancient temples, such as the porch at Notre-Dame-des-Doms and the Chapelle St-Gabriel near Tarascon.
During the 12C, façades became more ornate preceded at times by a porch: a large carved tympanum over a horizontal lintel began to be featured. The doorways of St-Gilles and St-Trophime, superbly carved examples, rivalled in quality, size, and beauty the Gothic cathedral masterpieces of northern France.
Upon entering the Provençal Romanesque church the visitor is struck by the simplicity and austerity of the inside structure, enhanced only by some carved mouldings and cornices, barely visible in the dimly lit interior.
This is the part of the church reserved for the clergy. It was usually oven vaulted and linked to the transept crossing with rounded barrel vaulting.
Naves and vaults
The lofty, moderate though it was, structure of the building’s interior was remarkable for the purity of its lines.
The nave was roofed with pointed barrel vaulting in which the downward thrust was more direct than that of the rounded arches, which tended to splay the wall outwards.
The barrel vaulting had already been used in the Roman era, having replaced the easily flammable wooden roofing, used from the 5C to the 11C, which had caused the destruction of many buildings. It was buttressed by pointed arches, also called transverse arches, which came down on thick engaged pilasters in the side walls or down onto slender pillars lining the nave.
The nave was sometimes lined with aisles with quarter-circle or pointed barrel vaulting, which acted as buttresses.
Owing to the height of the side aisles there were no tribunes but a decorative band of blind arcading, made of rounded arches, with three arches to each bay, the central arch pierced by a lancet window, which let in very little light. Where the churches had but a single nave the side walls were quite thick in order to compensate for the missing side walls and balance the whole structure.
Transepts and domes
The construction of the transept was a difficult problem for the architects in the Romanesque period. The groined vaulting made by the crossing of the nave and aisle vaulting had to be of great height in order to support the heavy weight of the central bell tower; the problem was solved by placing a dome on squinches over the crossing in the style of the Auvergne School.
Interior decoration was as austere as exterior decoration: decorated capitals usually ornamented with stylised leaves, friezes with interlacing and foliated scrolls, fluting and rope moulding.
The capital with leaves of the Romanesque style was an adaptation of the ancient Corinthian capital: it was formed by a group of leaves arranged according to the style of the Romanesque period (interlacing and stylised decoration). The most picturesque of these capitals were historiated, inspired by religious stories taken from the Old and New Testaments. The cloisters offer the best examples: St-Trophime with its magnificent corner pillars adorned with statues of saints is remarkable. Fine capitals can also be found in the cloisters of Montmajour and St-Paul-de-Mausole (fantastic animals) and the apse of the church at Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer. There are also fragments of carved decoration worth seeing: in Avignon’s cathedral there is the bishop’s throne; in Apt’s cathedral there is the altar.
Provence boasts several fine abbeys. The Benedictine Abbaye de Montmajour near Arles, founded in the 10C, forms a superb architectural ensemble illustrating the evolution of Romanesque forms from the 11C to 13C. It includes two churches (an upper church and crypt or lower church), two chapels, cloisters and its annexes in the characteristic Provençal style: simplicity in the monumental size, the volumes of which were inspired by the Antique style, carved decoration similar to St-Trophime, and perfection in the stone bonding. Cistercian art was represented by three sister abbeys: Sénanque, Silvacane and Le Thoronet.
Sober elegance, austerity and lack of ornamentation were the required rules of the Cistercians, a reformed monastic order founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux. St Bernard had denounced the fanciful nature of Romanesque sculpture, which could distract the monks at prayer. The Cistercians imposed an identical plan everywhere, and they themselves directed the construction.
Romanesque art survived longer in Provence than it did in the rest of France. In spite of the relatively early appearance of Gothic, limited to two buildings (crypt of St-Gilles, porch of St-Victor in Marseille) and quadripartite vaulting as early as pre-1150, Gothic art was late in taking hold in Provence.
In the early 13C the new vaulting was used to cover buildings only in the Romanesque style. The only buildings entirely in the 13C Gothic style are to be found in Aix: the central nave of Cathédrale St-Sauveur and Église St-Jean-de-Malte, the former priory of the Knights of Malta.
In the mid-14C, there began a new step in Gothic evolution: a school of architecture called the Papal Gothic style began developing in Avignon. The popes attracted to their court artists from different regions of France, Germany, Flanders and Italy.
During the 15C the cardinals embellished Villeneuve-lès-Avignon with palaces (livrées), churches and cloisters; aisles and chapels were added to certain churches. St-Trophime was altered; the Romanesque apse was replaced by an ambulatory and radiating chapels.
The main Gothic churches include: Palais des Papes (Clementine, Grand or Clement VI Chapel), St-Didier, St-Pierre, St-Agricol, Couvent des Célestines, all in Avignon; St-Laurent in Salon-de-Provence; Cathédrale St-Siffrein in Carpentras; the basilica of St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume; the church in Roquemaure; and especially the charterhouse and church in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.
The Gothic style is marked by the systematic use of quadripartite vaulting and pointed arches. This innovative style, which originated in northern France, revolutionised construction by concentrating the weight of the structure on four pillars directed by stringers and transverse arches. Due to the absence of flying buttresses (characteristic of northern Gothic) the thrust of the vaults was assured by the massive buttresses between which chapels were built.
Inside, the nave was relatively dark, almost as wide as it was high, and ended in a narrower polygonal apse. Its width better accommodated the primary function of the church: Dominican preaching. The wall surfaces required painted decoration.
Église St-Didier in Avignon is considered the best example of southern Gothic in the region, whereas in a building like the basilica in St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume, southern and northern influences appear. The church of the Couvent des Célestines in Avignon is entirely northern Gothic in style.
Religious edifices were not the only examples of Gothic art in Provence. Civic and military buildings also held an important place. The Palais des Papes in Avignon was one of buildings in the 14C that accommodated the demands of luxury and comfort with those of defence and security.
The austere elegance of Provençal Gothic churches is underlined by their lack of decoration.
The Avignon region was for over two centuries (14C–15C) the great centre of Provençal painting. Already in the 13C the frescoes of the Ferrande tower recalled the miniatures painted during St Louis’ reign. In the 14C the popes decorating the palace sought out the great Italian masters: Simone Martini from Siena and Matteo Giovanetti from Viterbo. The charterhouse in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon also contains fine works by Giovanetti. Once the popes had left Avignon, Italian influence diminished, but artistic life underwent a renaissance in the mid-15C. Good King René was a patron of the arts and attracted master-craftsmen – artists and architects – to his court. Fresco painting lost ground to the Avignon School of panel painting. Artists from the north, Flanders and Burgundy, painted splendid masterpieces such as the Triptych of The Annunciation (1443–45) in Aix’s Ste-Marie-Madeleine Church and The Coronation of the Virgin (1453–54) by Enguerrand Quarton, which is exhibited in the Musée Pierre de Luxembourg in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.
Nicolas Froment, King René’s court painter from Languedoc, painted the famous Triptych of the Burning Bush (in Aix’s Cathédrale St-Sauveur). Avignon’s Petit Palais contains a remarkable collection of lovely 14C and 15C paintings (Avignon and Italian Schools).
In the 14C, sculpture consisted of recumbent figures (John XXII in Avignon’s Notre-Dame-des-Doms, Innocent VI in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon’s charterhouse, and Cardinal Lagrange in the Petit Palais in Avignon), corbels, keystones and slender capitals. Archaic in style, they tended to draw on the Romanesque tradition.
Although the Rhône Valley was the principal route by which personalities of the Italian Renaissance entered France, Provence remained virtually untouched by the movement.
The 17C and 18C, by contrast, produced a large number of buildings. They were dignified and austere in design without distinctive regional characteristics. The so-called Jesuit style developed in the Comtat Venaissin churches, bringing with it Italian monumental features such as ornate retables or altarpieces, panelling and baldachins, often obscuring the church’s architectural lines. Avignon became the major centre once more, with local artists such as the Mignards and Parrocels producing religious pictures and Jacques Bernus of Mazan carving for churches throughout the region.
In the Gard, there was a great drive to rebuild churches damaged during the Wars of Religion (Église St-Gilles). An entirely novel element was the building of townhouses by the old and new moneyed nobility, the magistracy and others: a few remain in Avignon and Nîmes but the finest line the streets of Aix. These well-proportioned, dignified stone houses are distinguished by doorways coroneted with ironwork balconies often supported by robust caryatids or muscular atlantes. The artists of these works were sculptor-decorators Jean-Claude Rambot (1621–94) and Jean Bernard Toro (1672–1731), both contemporaries of Pierre Puget, the 17C Baroque artist and architect from Marseille.
The 18C saw the continuation of the towns’ and cities’ embellishment programme, which had begun the previous century: in Nîmes the engineer J-P Mareschal designed the splendid Jardin de la Fontaine.
Among the painters of that period, two stand out: Carle Van Loo, who was susceptible to Provençal charm, and Claude Joseph Vernet, the painter of seascapes and ports.
The art of architects and civil engineers was mostly practised in the Marseille region where Henri-Jacques Espérandieu erected the new Cathédrale La Major and Basilique de Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, in the fashionable late-19C Romano-Byzantine style, and Palais Longchamp. Roquefavour Aqueduct is a superb civil engineering project that brings to mind the ancient Roman Pont du Gard. The Rove Underground Canal also represents an incredible feat.
Around this time painting benefited from an explosion of talented artists all fascinated by the luminous beauty of the Provençal countryside. The first to study the landscapes of Provence were J A Constantin (1756–1844) and François-Marius Granet (1775–1849). The Landscape School inspired by Émile Loubon (1809–63) also explored the notion of light with painters such as Paul Guigou (1834–71), a forerunner of Impressionism, and the Marseille artist Adolphe Monticelli (1824–86). This School ceased to exist around 1870 and was replaced by the painters known as “Naturalists“: Achille Emperaire (1829–98) and Joseph Ravaisou (1865–1925) in Aix; Clément Brun (1868–1920) and Paul Sain (1853–1908) in Avignon; Joseph Garibaldi (1863–1941), Jean Baptiste Olive (1848–1936) and Alphonse Moutte (1840–1913; strong realistic scenes of local fishermen) in Marseille. Finally Félix Ziem, a resident of Martigues, one of the first to paint in the hills beyond the fishing village of L’Estaque, chose to use colour in its own right and not to create light effects.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–90), son of a Dutch Calvinist pastor, admirer of Millet and Rubens and influenced by the art of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, was attracted to Impressionism, and brought his strong personality to his work.
In February 1888, he decided to settle in Arles, seeking a “different light”. The two years he spent discovering Provence (Arles, Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Les Baux, St-Rémy) correspond to an intense period of creativity: he sought to express with colours and dramatic forms the “terrible human passions” that tormented him and caused him to suffer. He painted intensely the light and forms of Provence: landscapes (View of Arles with Irises, The Alyscamps, Starry Night over the Rhone, Crau Plain, Boats along the Beach) and portraits (Portrait of an Old Provençal Peasant, L’Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux). His quarrel with Paul Gauguin, who had joined him in October 1888, plunged him into despair and madness; he was cared for at St-Paul-de-Mausole near St-Rémy-de-Provence and continued to paint (Wheatfields, Cypresses, Starry Night, Olive Trees, Self-Portrait). He returned to Paris in May 1890 and committed suicide two months later. He left an enormous legacy of work, of which his Provençal period is perhaps the most intense and fascinating.
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), unlike Van Gogh, was from Provence. Son of an Aix-en-Provence banker, he left his studies to take up painting. Introduced to the Parisian Impressionists by his friend, the writer Émile Zola, he began as a Romantic studying Delacroix, whose theory of colours he adopted. Having assimilated the Impressionist techniques, he rapidly went beyond them as early as 1879 and began his constructive period; he experimented with large dabs of luminous colour and simple geometric forms. “Everything in nature is modelled after the sphere, the cone and the cylinder”, he wrote. He painted still lifes and portraits where colour and form determined the painting’s organisation.
After 1890, he hardly ever left his native Provence and devoted all his energy to capturing the Montagne Ste-Victoire on canvas, painting it some 60 times without ever being entirely satisfied with his work. His research continued until his death and opened the way to Cubism.
Clearly, for Cézanne, it was impossible for a painting to convey the full brilliance and subtleties of light; only colour could presume to fulfil that role. These views gave rise to a movement that influenced many late 19C and early 20C painters. Provence was now attracting many artists who settled in L’Estaque, following in the footsteps of Cézanne. First Paul Signac (1863–1935), who applied his Pointillist technique to Provençal colour (instead of the fine brushwork used in the north of France, here he opted for square, oblong touches, more suitable for catching the vivid sunlight). The Fauves found inspiration in this radiant Provençal setting. Their works played with colours and lines ignoring perspective and chiaroscuro. Matisse, Dufy and Derain all spent time in Provence, together with native artists from the region like Charles Camoin (1879–1965), Auguste Chabaud (1882–1955), Alfred Lombard (1884–1973) and Louis-Mathieu Verdihan (1875–1928). Around 1906–08, L’Estaque became the privileged meeting place of those artists who were later dubbed the Cubists. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso worked together closely in Sorgues; the product of this joint venture was revolutionary, pictorial compositions touching on abstraction.
After World War I, a new generation was experimenting with novel theories, such as Expressionism and Surrealism. André Masson, father of spontaneous drawing (a technique that enabled him to break from figurative conventions), settled in the Aix region until his death in 1987 and drew a series entitled Provençal Landscapes. Victor Vasarely (1906–97) opened a foundation at Gordes to continue his research into optics and kinetics.
Today, many of the region’s young artists have studied at the École d’Art de Lumigny in Marseille. Two contemporary art museums showcase recent works: the MAC in Marseille and the Carré d’Art in Nîmes.
It was during the 15C that Provençal furniture, until that time considered to be of unsophisticated design, began to follow the lead set by Italy, with the introduction of delicate sculptures, finished off with a Spanish-influenced style of heavily chiselled wrought iron and copper keyholes. The 18C and beginning of the 19C heralded the grande époque of Provençal furniture, with the main production centres scattered between the lower valley of the Rhône and the mid-section of the Durance. The period from the Second Empire onwards was characterised among other things by excessive sculptured decoration.
In lower Provence, the Louis XV style reigned absolute from the middle of the 18C onward. Artisans preferred working with walnut, resorting if necessary to the use of box, olive, cherry or pear wood. The pieces of furniture, with their irregular curves, pronounced bends, and curled legs and bases are generally of quite slender proportion, with an abundance of storage units. They include: the paneiro or openwork bread bin; manjadou or meat safe decorated with ornamental spindles; estagnié or pewter cupboard; verriau, for glasses; and saliero or salt container. The following original items also stand out: the elegant buffet à glissants, or sliding sideboard; radassié, a large straw-seated sofa adorned with esparto leaves or sprigs of rye, such as those of the à la capucine armchairs, distinguishable by their trapezoid seat, setback arm rests, and concave-strutted back. Ornamentation is based on abundant and deep mouldings and sculpted motifs with overriding importance given to vegetation in different forms: acanthus leaves, flower baskets, branches of olive or oak; and the addition of small, curved candle-rings to the angles and to the crest tops. The best-known decorative style is from Arles, a production centre of particular character, where the paneiro or bread container, the first mobile cabinets, and à la capucine chairs originated.
In upper Provence, sombre lines and decor triumph over furniture of a more rustic style, remaining steadfast throughout the period of influence of the Renaissance and Louis XIII styles. Craftsmen in this part of the region preferred working with mulberry, pine or limewood. Furniture not seen in lower Provence, such as the vaisselier or dresser, and the banc à dossier or backed bench, are a testimony to the influence of the neighbouring Dauphiné. Simple wall cavities also tend to replace the use of small storage units in evidence in lower Provence.
The Supremacy of clay
The abundance of excellent quality clay in Provence has given rise to a number of large ceramic centres in the region: the mottle decoration of Apt and Avignon faience; Allemagne-en-Provence and Moustiers; La Tour-d’Aigues; and above all, Marseille, where clay has been worked into vessels, both useful and decorative, since ancient times. Under Louis XIV, the wars that emptied the kingdom’s coffers resulted in the banning of the use of gold and silver dishes, thus providing an opportunity for the faience industry.
In 1679, the Fabre pottery works at St-Jean-du-Désert between Aubagne and Marseille transformed its production to that of faience under the influences of Joseph Clérissy, who was from an Aubagne family that had moved to Moustiers. Its blue “Chinese-style” cameos drew inspiration from the first pieces of porcelain imported into France from China. Although St-Jean-du-Désert saw its importance decline after the Great Plague, other earthenware works started to spring up, many of which employed the sharp fire technique. Fauchier created fleurs jetées, designs of flowers painted in a seemingly haphazard fashion, and used a distinctive yellow enamel background decoration. The works of Leroy are recognisable for their fantastic creatures and human figures set on a background of star-like flowers.
The second half of the 18C represented the zenith of Marseille earthenware, mainly as a result of the activities and talent of Pierrette Candellot, a colourful personality originally from Lyon, and the wife of the Marseille pottery manufacturer Claude Perrin. Following his death in 1748, his widow, known as La Veuve Perrin, guided the family business towards the mild firing technique, consequently obtaining pieces of exceptional quality. She perfected the ornamental Marseille style, introduced fish motifs and sea landscapes, and developed an unusual sea-green background. She also drew inspiration from contemporary trends in jewellery design.
After Veuve Perrin, the last great Marseille earthenware producers were Joseph-Gaspard Robert and Antoine Bonnefoy, both of whom were able to give to faience an ornamental refinement that until that time had been the prerogative of porcelain. Bonnefoy is famous for his trademark bouillabaisse motifs and pastoral scenes reminiscent of the Rococo paintings of François Boucher. Robert created floral motifs set off by black butterflies and a gold border; his dishes bordered in red, white and blue were the last great series to come out of Marseilles. Ultimately, a combination of the competition from porcelain makers, the Revolution, and the blockade by the English naval fleet sounded the death knell for Marseille’s faience industry.
The Christmas crèche
Christmas cribs (crèche means crib) have a long tradition in Provence although it was not until the late 18C that they became common and developed a typically local character. A few 18C groups, often highly original and beautifully modelled, may still be seen at a collector’s or in a church, but most are now in museums (Musée du Vieil Aix, Musée du Vieux Marseille, Museon Arlaten in Arles, and the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris).
Christmas was not an important festival in the early church. Nativity scenes did not form part of the medieval celebrations except for rare low reliefs of the Adoration of the Shepherds or the Kings as in the St-Maximin crypt.
In 1545 the Council of Trent sought to advance the Counter-Reformation through the encouragement of popular piety. The practice of setting up a crib in church arrived in Provence from Italy in the 17C. There is a particularly beautiful crèche from this period in the church of St-Maximin; the carved figures, about 50cm/20in high, are of gilded wood. In the 18C, bejewelled wax figures were introduced with glass eyes and wigs.
Only the head, arms and legs were carved and attached to a richly dressed articulated frame. In the 19C, new materials were introduced, including printed or painted cardboard cut-outs with gaily coloured clothing, figures made from spun glass, cork, clay and even bread dough. By then, all the Provençal churches had adopted the Christmas crib of dressed figures. This kind of Christmas crib can still be seen today.
At Midnight Mass in many churches – Séguret, Allauch, Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Marseille – a Nativity play is performed. In Gémenos, children in costume place an infant Jesus in a straw-filled manger. In Les Baux, a little cart, decorated with greenery and bearing a newborn lamb, is drawn into church by a ram and accompanied by shepherds. The procession is headed by angels and fife and tabor players, while the congregation sings old Provençal carols.
The 18C passion for marionettes was adapted to produce talking cribs in which mechanical figures enacted the Nativity to a commentary and carols. People came from far and wide to see and hear the talking cribs of Marseille and Aix. Characters were added to the already numerous cast and, as imagination ran wild, historical accuracy and relevance vanished: reindeer, giraffes and hippopotamuses joined the other animals in the stable, and the pope was made to arrive in a carriage to bless the Holy Family. It must have been a sight to see a Napoleon puppet, accompanied by his soldiers and a man-of-war firing salvoes, arriving at the manger! Another new idea came to those presenting a crib close to Marseille station: the Three Kings travelled to the scene in a steam train!
The santon cribs are the most typical of Provence. They first appeared in 1789 at the time of the Revolution when the churches were closed. Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764–1822), a church statue-maker from Marseille, had the idea of making small figures that families could buy at little cost. Labelled santouns (little saints) in Provençal, and santoni in Italian, abbreviated from santibelli (beautiful saints), these figurines had an immediate and wide appeal. They were modelled in clay, fired and naïvely painted in bright colours. Limited at first to biblical personages, they were soon joined by men and women from all walks of life, dressed in local costume: the Holy Family, the Shepherds and their sheep, the Three Kings, the knife grinder, the fife and tabor player, the smith, the blind man and his guide, the fishwife, the wetnurse, the milkmaid, the huntsman, fisherman and even the mayor!
So great was the figurines’ success, as virtually every family began to build up a collection, that a Santons Fair (Foire des Santonniers) was inaugurated in Marseille, which is still held on the Canebière from the last Sunday in November to Epiphany. Aubagne was also famous for its santons. Santon makers established workshops in towns throughout Provence, whereas in the country, men and women made figures in the long winter evenings. The craft reached its peak in the 1820–30s, which is why so many of the characters appear in the dress of that period.
The santons of Provence are now known the world over and many families like to add to their collection of characters each year and set up displays during the Christmas holidays.
Provence is an ancient civilised land, Greco-Latin then Occitanian, which has never stopped influencing poets and writers alike, who expressed themselves in Provençal.
Language of the troubadours
The Romance languages evolved out of Vulgar Latin spoken at the end of the Roman Empire. These were Italian, Romanian, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, and in France, the Oïl language (langue d’oïl) in the north and the Oc language (langue d’oc) in the south. “Oïl” and “Oc” were the words used for “yes” in the north and south, respectively. This distinction, which was formed as early as the Merovingian period, was advanced enough in the 10C and 11C for the two languages to enter into literature separately. Occitan, which appeared in Latin texts for the first time in the 11C, owed its place and influence to the success of 12C courtly literature. The art of the troubadours, which developed in the feudal courts of Périgord, Limousin and Gascony, was not confined purely to Provence but encompassed all of Occitania, from Bordeaux to Nice.
These troubadours (trobar means to find) were inventors of musical airs, both melodies and words in the Oc language, and they created a linguistic community independent of political divisions: Jaufré Rudel from Blaye, Bernard de Ventadour from Limousin, Peire Vidal from Toulouse, and from Provence, Raimbaut of Orange, the Countess of Die, Raimbaut of Vaqueiras and Folquet of Marseille.
Under the Provençal or Limousin name, Occitanian was appreciated by noble foreigners and most of the European courts. The essential inspirational force of the troubadours was love, not passionate love but courtly love, where the patience and discretion of the poet-lover finally won over the lady who accepted the homage of her vassal. Using sound, word pattern, and stanza-structure these poems told of the troubadours’ anxieties and hopes.
Prose and poetry
The courtly poem declined in the 13C, its themes having been exhausted. It was replaced by satirical poems known as sirventès and prose that told of the lives of the troubadours (the famous vidas). This period is marked by the European influence of French, by the setting up of the Inquisition, and by the expansion of the Capetian monarchy.
Occitan, nevertheless, retained its importance. It is said that Dante (c. 1265–1321) almost used it to write his Divina Commedia and that it was the language spoken at the pontifical court of Avignon. With Latin, Occitan was, in the Middle Ages, the only written administrative language. And yet beginning in the 14C regional differences began appearing in written texts and French was gradually adopted in its place.
Occitanian literature became popular in Italy where it was revived thanks to Dante and returned in force into the Rhône Valley in the form of a sonnet with Petrarch (1304–74). Exiled in Avignon, Petrarch fell passionately in love with the lovely Laura de Noves in 1327. His Il Canzonière (1348) were a group of sonnets where he expressed his unrequited love for her. The poet, who had retired to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, also wrote descriptions of Provençal life in his letters; he spoke of shepherds, the Sorgue fishermen, and his climb to Mont Ventoux.
The fatal blow fell upon the Occitan language in 1539, with the adoption of the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts, which decreed that for all administrative purposes the French language, the dialect spoken in the Île de France, and thus Paris, should be used. In spite of that, Occitan survived until the 19C in the theatre, poetry, short stories and legends, chronicles, and didactic and erudite works (dictionaries and anthologies).
One of the regional popular writers of the 16C was Bellaud de la Bellaudière. Born in Grasse around 1543, he lived a very active life as a soldier; he was also opposed to the Huguenots. When he was in prison he wrote 160 sonnets, his Œuvres et Rimes. His poetry – inspired by Marot, Rabelais and Petrarch – was essentially personal, owing to its familiar realism. His work renewed the Occitan language and he inspired and was joined by Claude Bruey, Raynier from Briançon and François de Bègue.
In the 17C, when the moralist Vauvenargues was born in Aix, and Madame de Sévigné resided at Grignan, Nicolas Saboly was composing Provençal Noëls: charming, simple works of popular poetry. These happy yet pious canticles, touching and devout, depicted the entire world running in the night towards the newly born baby Jesus. In Saboly’s lifetime, church services were still held in Occitan in rural villages as well as in the cities. When French dramatist Jean Racine resided in Uzès in 1661 he had a great deal of difficulty making himself understood. Until the Revolution, Occitan was the language spoken daily; only a small elite spoke French, and even then they were bilingual. And yet, the use of Occitan declined steadily, breaking up into different local dialects.
In the late 18C, Occitan, weakened by the centralised state, was reborn through literature. In 1795, Abbot Favre made history with his Siège de Caderousse (Caderousse’s Seat), a satirical poem written in dialect, amusing because of its Rabelais-like truculence. In the 1840s Occitan experienced an explosion: Joseph Roumanille (1818–91), a teacher in Avignon and the author of a work Li Margarideto (1847), awakened in the young Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914) a passion for Provence, its culture, history and Oc language.
As early as 1851, Mistral began writing Mirèio. In 1852 the first congress of future Félibres was held in Arles. On 21 May 1854, at the castle of Fort-Ségugne, seven young poets writing in Provençal (Roumanille, Mistral, Aubanel, Mathieu, Tavan, Giéra and Brunet) founded the Félibrige. Félibre was a word taken from an old song meaning doctor. Félibrige was an association whose goals were to restore the Provençal language and to codify its spelling. It published a periodical Armana Provençau, which spread its ideas.
In 1859 Mistral published Mirèio, an epic poem of 12 cantos that brought him immense success . Lamartine praised his work and Charles Gounod made it into an opera in 1864. Mistral’s literary works included: Calendau (1867), Lis Isclo d’or (1875), Nerto (1884), La Reino Jano (1890), The Song of the Rhône (1896) and Lis óulivado (1912). In 1904 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mistral was also a fine philologist who patiently collected the scattered elements of the Oc language and recorded their spelling in a monumental dictionary Lou Trésor du Félibrige, published in 1878–86. It still serves as a reference book. The Félibrige brought together Occitanian poets and novelists as different as Alphonse Daudet, Paul Arène, Félix Gras, Baptiste Bonnet, Joseph d’Arbaud, Charles Rieu, Dom Xavier de Fourvière, Jean-Henri Fabre, Folco de Baroncelli-Javon and Charles Maurras (political theorist). During the same period, renowned writers of French included: Jean Alcard (a member of the Academy, who wrote Maurin of the Moors); Émile Zola, who went to secondary school in Aix and who in his Rougon-Macquart series described the evolution of a family from the south; and Edmond Rostand, born in Marseille, who wrote the unforgettable Aiglon.
Although Provence is always present in their works, many of the contemporary writers have gone beyond the regional level and joined the ranks of the top French writers: Jean Giono from Manosque; Marcel Pagnol (Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources) from Aubagne; René Barjavel from Nyons; acclaimed poet René Char from Isle-sur-la-Sorgue; and Marie Mauron.
Provençal as a spoken language regressed while as a language of culture – successor to the troubadours and Félibres – it progressed. Admittedly the local dialects remain but they are most often ignored by the young and are more prevalent in rural than in urban areas. At the same time, the centralising and unifying role of the state has enhanced the language: the Oc language is recognised in official teaching programmes.
Continuing with the work of the Félibrige society, the goal of the Institut des Études Occitanes(Institute of Occitanian Studies), while still promoting the use of authentic everyday speech, is to seek the unity of a common language, and to restore to Occitania the status it enjoyed in Middle Ages when it extended beyond political limits from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
Legends and tales
The legends and tales of Provence are a colourful account of its history and geography. These stories depict regional people, customs, institutions, lifestyles, beliefs, monuments and sites. The Greco-Roman heritage shows in Provençal legends where the wondrous accompanies daily life in its humblest activities, where the gods are omnipresent and miracles occur at their behest.
For the ancient Greeks, the western Mediterranean was awe-inspiring, yet at the same time, frightening. Each evening the sun set with Apollo’s chariot. Heracles, Zeus’ son, had been to this land and had married Galathea from Gaul. Endowed with incredible strength, he had opened the passages through the Alps. To protect his son’s passage through Provence, Zeus showered his enemies with stones and boulders, which became a desert, the Crau. The attraction of this western Mediterranean land inspired the Phocaeans later to found a colony here. The legend of Protis and Gyptis illustrates this episode. The Marseille navigator, Pytheas, is said to have sailed in 4 BC, between the columns of Heracles (Straits of Gibraltar), across the waters to Cornwall and on to Iceland.
Legends of the Saints
Christianity, too, brought its collection of stories. A thousand-year-old tradition ascribes the conversion of Provence in the 1C to the miraculous landing of a boat from Judaea bearing Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Martha and disciples of Christ. With St Victor and Cassien they formed a sort of mystic Provençal state and are credited with many wondrous acts. Among the most dramatic is Martha’s defeat of the Tarasque monster.
Local saints were not in short supply either. Legend has it that St Mitre, the beheaded martyr, picked up his head, kissed it, and bore it to the cathedral. Then there is St Caesarius, who captured a puff of sea air in his glove and carried it back to Nyons country. From that moment, a light wind began to blow over the region; the local people took heart and started to cultivate the land. The prosperity of Nyons country dates from this period, and the advantages of the local climate have made it a perfect place for growing olives.
The legends of Provence were inspired by epic poetry (chansons de geste) and courtly prose.
Pierre of Provence, a valiant knight and talented troubadour, lived at his father’s court in the Château de Cavaillon. Seeing her portrait, the knight fell in love with Princess Maguelone, daughter of the King of Naples, and set out to find her. Received at the Neapolitan court, he was victorious in a series of tournaments where he wore Maguelone’s colours. But one day Pierre was kidnapped by Barbary pirates and taken to Tunis where he was imprisoned for seven years. Having served his term, he was finally able to set sail for Provence, but not far from Aigues-Mortes, his boat sank. Mortally wounded, he was brought to the local hospital, headed by Princess Maguelone herself, who had sought through charitable works a way to forget her unhappy love. The lovers met and recognised each other. Pierre was cured.
Not all endings were so happy. One day Guillem de Cabestaing, a son of a noble and well-known troubadour, came to sing at the court of the lord of Castel-Roussillon, an ugly, vulgar old man who had a lovely young wife named Sérémonde. Love kindled quickly between these two young people. The lord, having discovered this, killed the handsome Guillem in an ambush, ripped out his heart, and served it to his wife for dinner. Sérémonde responded with: “My lord, you have served me such delicious fare that nothing could ever equal it and so I swear before Christ, in order to keep the taste fresh for all time, I will never eat again.” She then threw herself from the top of a cliff in Roussillon. As her blood spread it coloured the soil, bringing about the origin of ochre.
A great number of Provençal legends recount the memorable exploits of children and adolescents gifted with a force and extraordinary ingenuity. They generally appeal to Almighty God, the intervention of the saints or magic. This is the case of the shepherd boy Bénézet, who built the bridge at Avignon after experiencing a vision in 1177. Jean de l’Ours, so-called because he had been brought up with a bear, was another. At the age of 12 he conceived the idea of journeying round France. He forged himself a stout iron staff and, thus armed, killed the horrible dragons that kept a young princess in an enchanted castle. Guihen l’Orphelin (the orphan), thanks to his mysterious white hen, which he would stroke while murmuring a special incantation, could become invisible. He was able to free a king and the king’s daughter, both whom had been imprisoned by a wicked baron. To thank him the king promised his daughter to Guihen and they lived, of course, happily ever after.