Thursday, May 31, 2018

An Aqueduct to bridge Time and Space.... Roquefavour

 As I was staying in the countryside just along from Aix and Les Milles in Provence, a modest road sign indicating a nearby aqueduct kept catching my eye. Towards the end of a very wet Sunday afternoon, we went to investigate...

Even in the dull light, the sight from a distance was impressive, with the aqueduct spanning the whole valley, towering over the green fields and road below in the commune of Ventabren. One can only imagine the awe and wonder it inspired at the time of its construction in the mid 19th century.

In fact, this is an aqueduct that is remarkable on several counts. This is indeed the largest stone aqueduct in the world - it is an incredible feat of engineering and aesthetic beauty - from afar or up close.

Despite being even more ambitious in dimension than the Pont du Gard, Roquefavour is frequently overlooked, seemingly overshadowed by the renown of its ancient Roman predecessor. Both are set out in a three-tier design with rows of arcades that stand out so dramatically against the skyline. Roquefavour measures almost 400 metres in length and 82 metres in height, compared to Pont du Gard's 270 metres by 47... Both naturally serve the same practical function as the very first aqueducts of ancient Rome; the supply of water.

The Pont du Gard was built to cross the gorge of the Gardon river in order to convey spring water from Uzès to the Roman colony that would later become Nîmes. Some 18 centuries later, the Roquefavour aqueduct was constructed along similar lines. It successfully bridged the flanks of  the Arc river valley, carrying much-needed water from the Durance river, along the Canal de Marseille, to the city some 80 kilometres away. Marseille was continually blighted by drought, having suffered the same fate for centuries and was furthermore beset by a cholera epidemic in the 1830s. An adequate water supply was vital and the Pont du Gard served as inspiration in the solution to this problem, thus spanning the centuries between the ancient site and that of the 19th century with the creation of the aqueduct of Roquefavour.

 As the plaque on the aqueduct's pillar indicates, the watercourse was completed in a mere five-year stretch, with the project led by a young engineer (Franz Mayor de Montricher) who was but 26 years old in 1842! The  Canal de Marseille was virtually the city's sole source of water until the 1970s.

Visitors can climb up a path to reach the top of the aqueduct and then gaze across the Provençal landscape. Any plans for this were scuppered by the rainy weather that day, but even the darkest, wettest spells might lead to magic, in the form of a rainbow. And this indeed was the case, when I was treated to a perfect arc above the mountain of Sainte Victoire!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Pocket of Provence...

I headed South a few weeks ago, and arrived in the Provence region to find fields of poppies in a vegetation that was surprisingly green this year.

This was in fact down to the uncharacteristically wet weather in the region - the torrential rain I experienced when there certainly swept away any doubts I may have harboured on that theory!

Once the sun has disappeared, and the clouds settle, the temperatures drop... Fortunately, that doesn't last too long!

My friends' house is in the countryside outside Aix-en-Provence, surrounded by old platane trees, scrub and woodland, corn fields, olive groves and woodland.

The smell of the earth and the pine trees is everywhere... Everything seems heightened as time seems to go at a slower pace away from city life...

We literally follow the sleeping habits of the roosting hens - and get woken to the call the very proud and protective cockerel.

You sleep and rise to the sound of birdsong that goes from the familiar to the weird and wonderful, to the point that you even wonder where you actually are...

This all certainly makes a change from the constant hum of car traffic and the regular rumble and clanking of the trams below my flat, here in the north-east.

In fact, the intrusive noise of cars is thankfully minimal - although this time I didn't hear the song of any cigales either - probably too cold still.

 All kinds of insects are drawn to nearby hedgerows that are generally full of wild flowers...

Whilst more formal varieties grow in the garden, attracting their own collection of creatures, great and small.

Just beyond the bushes lie the pig enclosures, set in scrubland that leaves these fine black specimens - le Noir de Bigorre - free to roam.

The sows grub about in the undergrowth, amongst the tree roots, wade around in the muddy puddles and bask in the sun, surrounded by a throng of piglets (thirty at the last count!).

The boar resides in a very boggy, wild part of the scrubland and waddles around in an imposing manner due to his impressive male appendages! I couldn't cross the mud to photograph him, sadly...

And here is the most recent arrival to the menagerie, Oscar. This was his first day in his new surroundings with his new mistress! His huge paws, densely-tufted nose and beard, golden-brown eyes and white-flecked coat are characteristic of Czech gun dog breed to which he belongs - le Barbu Tchèque. 

However he shares the same traits as any other puppy, with his burning desire to gnaw at any kind of footwear, an insatiable appetite for any remaining food scraps, and steely determination to settle on any soft furnishings. And of course, the skill for getting himself into all kinds of scrapes...

My favourite moments of the day are perhaps as dusk grew closer, or in the early morning, when all the sights, sounds and smells seem to grow in intensity and the mountain backdrop stands out more than ever.

 Who would have thought that a penpal scheme from secondary-school French classes would lead to over forty years of friendship?!!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Thieving Magpies....

As I was travelling along a very humdrum bus route to an equally uninspiring shopping centre, this striking magpie mural caught my eye. Painted on an otherwise unremarkable wall at the end of a street of samey detached houses, this is the kind of creative gesture that I love coming across. Placed high up this plain expanse of wall, it might not initially be visible to all - certainly not car-drivers, but there it is, a discreet little gem that seems to have been 'stolen' from somewhere else. Almost as if a thieving magpie had lifted it from its rightful home....

It is a pleasure to see something that has emerged from the simple desire to leave a curious trace of beauty in a place where it is least expected. Art for art's sake, serving no other purpose other than that of marking aesthetic interest without any form of gain, sometimes seems rare indeed. Apparently this was painted in 1997, in which case it is standing the test of time very well and did remind me a great deal of the colourful façades in Rue Crémieux, Paris.

This in turn reminded me of one of my favourite groups in the 80s - Marillion - with their The Thieving Magpie album. The overture of the opera La Gazza Ladra by Rossini (1792–1868) was used at the opening of their concerts during the Clutching at Straws tour 1987–1988. The group was introduced to me as a logical step-up from Genesis (with Peter Gabriel) but I thought, and still do, that Marillion was generally better in terms of lyrical content... I did see them at Hammersmith when Fish was still lead singer, but I can't even remember the year now which is quite weird. However, listening to the tracks today teleports me back to that whole period... which actually feels even weirder still because it brings back everything - the social settings and circumstances, sounds, sights, smells - the lot!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Forbidden fruit... Palais du Tau in Reims...

The original sin. - Adam and Eve
The temperatures have literally plummeted by about 20°! To compensate the thermal shock, a bit of sinful indulgence was called for. This involved the drinking of champagne and eating chocolate in a spontaneous act of greedy pleasure between colleagues. It reminded me of the Gothic sculptures of the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.

Eve born of Adam....
These pieces are centuries old, and yet the expressive nature of their gestures, on their child-like, innocent bodies is just as powerful today as when first created to map the fall of Man.

Adam and Eve at peace in the Garden of Eden....
The simple existence in the Garden of Eden is not enough for Eve, who is tempted to taste the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I love her greedy expression here!

Encouraged to commit the original sin by the whisperings of the serpent, Eve's act of disobedience soon leads to Adam's downfall, and the expulsion of the shamed couple from the garden, by the archangel Michael. Paradise is lost. Actually, Adam doesn't appear too crestfallen here as he has to face the music and Eve looks as if she's trying to keep intrusive paparazzi at bay during this walk of shame!

Adam and Eve hiding their shame... as the archangel Michael leads them out of Paradise.

Ancien Collège des Jésuites...

One of the great buildings from 17th century Reims is no longer freely accessible to the general public, although its doors have been open to hundreds of students since 2010, when it was inaugurated as one of the provincial campuses of the Institut d'études politiques de Paris.

Sciences Po, as it is commonly known, is one of the most selective institutions in French academia - a grande école - that specializes in social science and international studies.

As I spend a few hours each week at this historic site, I like looking at the traces of its previous lives, still visible beyond the glossy finish and sleek surfaces that mark the transformation of a weathered and worn vestige of centuries past into an illustrious academic setting for the 21st century.

The site used to accommodate the Planetarium, until this was rehoused in another part of town in 2013.

I can barely remember how it was then, beyond the rich wooden panelling, mullion windows and majestic architecture that was in need of restoration.

Although many of these key features have been conserved, albeit in a highly-renovated form, there is no mistaking that today this is, above all, a modern school that meets requirements.

All the spaces have been adapted to offer the best teaching and communal facilities. Classrooms stem off from the beamed corridors - themselves branching off from the imposing stone stairwells.

A new glass-covered concourse runs parallel to the former chapel - itself transformed into a modern entrance hall and reception area - and leads to the vast, modern library.

An example of the desire to align the old with the new is the structure of the library building, constructed around an open-air, central island with a growing tree.

Beyond the cour d’honneur and the cour de l’église lies the huge cantine whilst toilets (somewhat few and far between) are tucked away under vaulted ceilings in the cellar areas and odd corners. And yet for all the hustle and bustle of this millennial establishment, a hint of the old rises from the stones themselves.

Behind the noisy throng of students’ talk in their pan-American accents, the bright lights, bay windows, smooth flooring and fully operational central heating, resides a contemplative, calm mood.

This strange atmosphere pervades the place as does a very slight mustiness released from the old walls, not unlike that of museums or champagne house cellars, several of which are in the vicinity.

In fact, the buildings that make up the complex of Sciences Po today have always been devoted to learning and were part of the Ancien Collège des Jésuites. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Lord Chancellor of France, a certain Nicolas de Brülart de Sillery, requested of Henry IV the permission for the foundation of a Jesuit college in Reims.

The Society of Jesus was a male Catholic order created in 1540 by the Basque soldier-turned mystic, Ignatius of Loyola. The society was involved in the Catholic resurgence against the Protestant Reformation – the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Revival and was devoted to the care of souls in life through teaching, and preaching the faith.

After the foundation of the first colleges in Sicily and Rome in the mid 16th century, others were set up in France – firstly in the centre of the country in the Puy-de-Dôme region and then Paris, Caen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon.

The request for a rémois college was granted and a large private house was bought in 1608. Several thousand books were provided to create a place of learning in line with the Jesuit belief that intellectual development was part of spiritual growth.

The college was further extended over the site of the Place Museaux from 1617 to 1678 to result in the chapel and central court surrounded by buildings, still visible some four hundred years on.

The grounds favoured and reflected the teaching practices of the Jesuit faith ; study, prayer and the work of the land. The order was known for its commitment to practicality and discipline, to the extent that its members were often called ‘God's soldiers’.

The extensive court area was devoted to the cultivation of vines and the maintenance of vegetable plots. Whilst the latter appear to have fallen away, in favour of lawns and seating areas, vines still thrive in the chalky soil.

Indeed, these very plants, date back to a centuries-old grape variety from Palestine and have even been classified as part of the historical monument.

One of the jewels of the ancien collège was, and still is, the old library. Set under the mansard roof, this French baroque work of art, built between 1670-80 housed the precious book collection.

Richly sculpted woodwork decorates the shelving and coffered ceiling alike, giving you the impression of entering the captain’s quarters of a gallion ship.

The expanse is punctuated by the dormer window recesses, that provide small study areas that look out over the court area.

Over the centuries, the same carved angels have peered down from the garland-festooned beams onto an ever-changing population.

It should come as no surprise that the library has already been used as an historical backcloth in the film industry – with Isabelle Adjani in the role of La Reine Margot (1994).

Leading up to this magnificent library is the imposing stone stairway that is usually eerily empty, so that you are free to let your mind travel in time, even more so when one of the students is practising the flute or piano – and music drifts along the corridors and winds its way up the steps.

On the ground floor the wooden panelled refectory now serves as an auditorium, where students rehearse their presentations or film themselves putting the world to rights, largely unaware or indifferent to Ignatius of Loyala and François Xavier – key figures of the Jesuit society –  above them.

Indeed, the former devotion rooms are now fully converted for purely academic purposes in a secular setting, offering students areas in which they can busy themselves with numerous co-curricular or extra-curricular activities.

 In fact, apart from the insignia IHS, representing the first three letters of the Greek spelling of Jesus, which are traced on wooden beams and stonework, there are few functional marks of the Jesuit origins.

The old chapel has become the main entrance hall with a central wooden seat (‘la péniche’) that echoes the one in Paris, whilst the altar has been rehoused in a museum.

The wooden pulpit still stands, set between two stained-glass panels, but is now just part of the academic decor, largely overlooked after an initial appreciative glance.

Now our eyes are caught by the shiny ‘Sciences-Po-red’ panels of the lift, transporting us up to higher levels, albeit literally rather than spiritually. Such audacious changes have met with praise and criticism in equal measure.

Meanwhile other aspects of the present establishment have brought to the fore resentment and rivalry not unlike those that emerged when the Jesuit college was first founded.

The rigourous yet open-minded nature of Jesuit education was demonstrated by its application of Classical teachings of Renaissance humanism within the structure of Catholic thought. Jesuit pupils were grounded in grammar, rhetoric, philosophy but also encouraged to appreciate the arts – music, dance and drama - and fencing.

The Jesuit saying « Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man » was based on several core values. The first of these was cura personalis - the educational objective of caring for the whole person ; secondly there was the concept of magis from the Jesuit motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the Greater Glory of God), driven by spiritual exercises, and finally the notion of being ‘men for others’.

The scope of education offered by the ancien collège thus appeared to outshine the efforts of the university, set up in 1548. Spats occured, as Jesuit students were refused the means to obtain their diplomas, and this competitive note did not subside.

Sciences Po has drawn criticism for the funding it has received since proportionally speaking, each of its students has what is felt to be an unfair advantage over their counterparts who study at the Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne….

I am not sure how much the present students know of the Jesuit past of the Sciences Po site, or if they are aware that the present Pope Francis is of the Society of Jesus, but the history of this faith is worth observing.

Perhaps the most famous portrayal of one chapter of its past is shown in Roland Joffé’s 1986 film, The Mission. Here we see the devastating effects of European intervention on the native peoples of the Western Hemispheres. The spiritual desire to save souls was matched by the mercenary drive to plunder and annihilate.

The well-intended ‘good’ of missionaries was thus paralleled by the evil deeds of colonizers for whom no act towards the indigenous populations was ever deemed to be that bad. As we should surely know by now, once settlers have a foothold on land that belongs to no one but the Earth itself, the rest is soon history, tracing out a model in blood and fire that has been replicated over the centuries, across the entire planet.

In the film we see the full beauty of Man’s spirit and its very opposite. We watch the tragedy unfold when goodness unwittingly leads the good into the vice-like grip of the worst traits of human nature. I won’t talk about religion here because I have never felt any affiliation whatsoever to any spiritual form or faith.

However, having just watched The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán), it is sad to think that decent men could open up a pathway that would let in all the ills of the world. The navigation of Captain FitzRoy in HMS Beagle in the 1830s around the southern-most lands of South America led to the hydrographic survey of Tierra del Fuego and the discovery of the natives.

Fast forward several decades and the indigenous populations of the land of ‘ice and fire’ had largely been decimated by forces similar to those that wiped out North and South American indian tribes alike, along with Australian Aboriginal groups. Ultimately the only place of sanctuary was offered by the missionaries. The Jesuit station (or ‘reduction’) in The Mission offers the only form of protection left to the converted Guarani in the Paraguayan jungle against Spanish and Portuguese slave-drivers and mercenaries.

Likewise, Dawson Island seemed to be the last resort of the natives of the waterways of Tierra de Fuego. Incidentally, this same island was used by General Pinochet to cleanse Chile of its political dissidents following the 1973 Chilean coup d'état. Over a relatively short time span we go from reductions to populations being reduced to nothing….

In the mid 18th century, the Jesuit order was suppressed. It had faced criticism from its own side - the Vatican - for having attempted to adapt Christian doctrine to the patterns of other civilizations, rather than imposing the less flexible Roman Catholic line. Likewise, it drew hatred from governments who resented papal control and therefore its faithful supporter – the Society of Jesus. The Jesuit success in trade also brought them the envy and ire of rivals.

Pope Clement XIV, finally gave in to the demands of  the monarchies of  Spain, France and Portugal to suppress the order. It was first banned in Portugal in 1759, but by 1773 the ban was extended to all Catholic countries.

The Jesuit college in Reims was duly dismantled in 1762 and its library books given to the city collection. The library itself was used as a hospice until 1972. The Magneuses foundation occupied part of the former college from 1791 in order to house and educate impoverished girls and finally it was used to accommodate law students until 1967. Amazingly, the grounds do not appear to have suffered during the First World War, which had proved so fatal to most the architectural heritage of the city. The Church of Saint-Maurice was, however, burnt in 1942.

Pius VII restored the Jesuit order in 1814 – the age of republicanism – but the ancien collège in Reims never recovered its initial function. As for Jesuit teaching in Reims today, this is now offered by the private school Lycée Saint-Joseph.

Since taking the majority of my photos, the weather has transformed everything on the grounds of Sciences Po! I was shivering outside just a few weeks ago, and now the vines are even developing tiny grapes in the warmth of the sun against the ancient walls of the Ancien Collège, just as they have every year over the centuries. Meanwhile, I am off to watch La Reine Margot again…