Thursday, June 30, 2022

Serene Streets in the South... Aix-en-Provence

Wandering around the busy streets of Aix-en-Provence in the searing heat a few weeks ago, I kept wondering about the history of the town and tried to imagine the life people led as I wove my way around the streets of majestic buildings, gazing up at the beautiful façades.
It was the clothing and antique market day on the Cours Mirabeau and the avenue of massive plane trees that lines this grand street offered welcome shade to the stallholders and visitors alike.
The colourful stands in the fruit and vegetable markets on Place Richelme and Place des Prêcheurs drew in the crowds yet I wanted to capture the strangely calm air that reigns in the elegant historical centre and allows you to imagine life there in centuries past. I spent a moment of enchantment listening to a street performer playing the piano, as notes of Chopin floated around the square in a truly magical manner.
The site Aquae Sextiae, was thus named in reference to its thermal waters and in honour of the Roman consul Caius Sextius Calvinus who founded the settlement just below the Entremont hillside fort in 122BC, in a strategic position between Italy and Spain.
The place developed and went on to incorporate all the civic features largely associated with sophisticated Roman cities, yet very little trace of the forum, baths, theatre and aquaducts have survived over the centuries to present-day Aix-en-Provence.
If the name is not familiar to you, the mountain that dominates the Aixois skyline surely will be, for Sainte-Victoire features in many of the paintings of Paul Cézanne. Little less known, perhaps, is that the mountain was given this title following a battle in the region that saw the Romans fight off Germanic invaders.
As the Christian faith gained momentum, the city grew in stature as it became a diocese from the 5th century and then the seat of the Archbishop. In the Middle Ages it was made the regional capital under the reign of the Counts of Provence, becoming their main residence from the end of the 12th century, in preference over Arles and Avignon. The following period saw the construction of new buildings to reflect the importance of Aix as a focal point for trade and the arts.
Due to its cultural significance, Aix maintained its position as the capital of Provence until the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, in spite of the religious wars, the plague years and attacks from various marauding intruders that had marked the city over the intervening years.
The university was founded in 1409 by Louis II of Anjou, and his son René - le Bon Roi René was lauded for leading the golden years of the city. It is indeed René's statue that still gazes down along the Cours Mirabeau today.
Today we simply think of the region of Provence as being the south-easterly part of France, attracting tourists in their hoards, but in fact it was originally an independant nation, with its own identity, language - Provençal - and its own culture.
Bordering Italy and the Mediterranean ports meant that it possessed an independant spirit, unlike the provinces around the Ile-de-France. Despite Provence having been annexed by the Kingdom of France following the death of King René in 1480, Aix sought to reject centralist policies and maintain a certain independance.
The city was only reined in under the rule of Louis XIV (1643-1715). Under the orchestration of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Louis XIV visited the Southern regions of the country from 1659 in the aim of engineering a unified French nation.
This was achieved through Louis' marriage to the Spanish infanta Marie-Thérèse which brought peace across the warring lands and also through the royal tour which served as a charm offensive, winning hearts and minds and in the process subduing political resistance, .
The city's religious and judiciary significance grew, and its prominence was reflected in the construction of new quarters with impressive mansions - les hôtels particuliers - of a resplendent nature.
During these years of expansion and embellishment, the key individuals of Aixois society moved out of the Medieval areas of the city and into the Quartier Mazarin, so named after the Archbishop of Aix, brother of Cardinal Mazarin. The Roman ramparts gave way to the construction of the large boulevard, bordered by grand hôtels particuliers; the Cours Mirabeau.
Thus the city centre was given a grace and grandeur that still remains today along with a stately serenity. Wherever you venture, the noise of modern-day city life is countered by the timeless sound of trickling water whilst the burning sun is offset by the dappled shade from leafy trees and bushes.
Over the 17th and 18th century, the nobility of the city continued to expand and elevate the city's status and aesthetics, with imposing façades, squares and fountains - the latter giving rise to Aix's label 'Ville de 1000 fontaines'. Baroque art served as the main inspiration for the Aixois architecture, leading to buildings of interesting forms and features in towering walls that overlook or conceal calm squares and...ever more fountains!
There may not actually be a thousand fountains in Aix, but for a future visit to the city I certainly plan to locate all the main ones as they are truly beautiful!
Some of the oldest of these have developed an impressive verdant covering of striking green moss and one of the three on Cours Mirabeau , dating back to 1666, is so overgrown that the original sculpted forms have long since been cloaked over by this emerald mass. In the summer sun, the water droplets and mist that arise from La Moussue glint and glisten in the bright light, whilst in the colder winter months, steam can sometimes be seen arising from its thermal waters as a ghostly halo...
The affluence and sophistication of Aix meant that there are more than 150 hôtels particuliers around its centre today, dating back to the 1600s onwards.
From the 17th century, the city favoured the use of curved shapes in its architecture as feminity and elegance replaced the stricter linear shapes of the Baroque.
Following the French Revolution in 1789, Aix lost its privileged position of capital of the region and fell from grace to become a mere sous-préfecture. It then seemed to shrink from sight, discreetly continuing its activities without acclaim or attention, and was casually referred to as La Belle Endormie.
In this manner, Aix was little affected by the industrial revolution that seemed to pass it by, so much so that the 19th century historian Hippolyte Taine remarked that it was "fallen or left behind by the civilisation that moves on". The arrival of a railway line linking the city to Marseille in 1877 drew Aix from its somewhat somnolent state. The grand Rotonde fountain des Trois Grâces commemorating the beaux-arts, business & agriculture and justice seems to mark a turning point in the city's history and is still one of the first sights to greet you in this beautiful city.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Doorways to the Imagination...

At the beginning of the month I went to Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon, to immerse myself in golden light and elegance just before catching my train for La Provence - for a break in Aix-en-Provence, passing via Marseille. This illustrious station is indeed "comme un port sur la Méditerranée dans Paris, et les trains sur les quais d’embarquement sont comme des navires en partance vers des stations rêvées." (Jean-Marie Duthilleul, Architect)
After the beautiful Belle Epoque bas-reliefs that frame and highlight the vast frescos and chandeliers in the restaurant, I came across some of their Southern counterparts on the façades of the grand buildings around le vieux port district of Marseilles.
The dazzling sun illuminating old architecture was offset by the intense blue skies overhead in the most stunning fashion, whilst the shade and shadows lent an enigmatic air to the figures of the façades.
Many of these are in reference to the city's nautical role and its religious beliefs... yet the average 21st century passer-by (myself included) is no longer able to read the full meaning of these, of course, assuming that they manage to lift their eyes up from a screen long enough to actually notice them!
The nobility of the 19th century Neo-Classicist busts, gazing out across the elegant boulevards with a mysterious air is then countered by the sculpture of other periods, styles and moods.
Yet the same elegance permeates the grandiose buildings that tower over the streets, punctuated by their ornate balconies with intricate wrought-iron features.
Each set of tall windows, style fenêtre Haussmanniene, is flanked by shutters, essential in a region where the degree of heat and luminosity soars in the extended summer months.
In Aix-en-Provence, elegance and a charm provençal are apparent everywhere, and majestic doorways lead you to imagine what lies behind and beyond in the present day, and more interestingly, in the past.
Who inhabited these incredible buildings and what kind of life did they live?
The sculpted forms that decorate the doorways, along with the Caryatids and Atlantes that bear imposing architectural features, all create an effect that finds no equivalent in any modern building that I know of.
I wonder what the strange, often grotesque, mascarons could tell us of their history, as they look down from their vantage point, warding off evil for those passing the doorway they guard over, just as they surely have for centuries.
And what or who looks out for us today, who can tell us our stories in an age when we invest ourselves wholly in a digital world?
This seems to be a barely chartered universe that draws us into a complex game of mirrors, offering tantalizing images of self, which we are encouraged to then present to a vast virtual public in order to continue the process of image, illusion, delusion.
The unique quality that these beautiful architectural features possess, allows us to see ourselves as just another piece in ongoing history - our own history in the making - in a strangely reassuring manner.
And I would far rather gaze on these, and open the door to my imagination than mindlessly stare at staged selfies, which would surely slam that shut!

Sunday, June 19, 2022

A Mermaid's Longing...

Here is the beautiful Medieval mermaid, long-ago carved onto a pew at Zennor church near my old home in the countryside in Cornwall. I would love to see it again and wander over moors as we used to as children, then taking it all for granted and now longing to appreciate wth adult eyes the expanses of rugged land, granite outcrops and the sea.
Above is a poem written by my Dad some time ago; one that he had actually forgotten about until it rose up from the past, washed up into present consciousness, like an unexpected treasure from the oceans of memory that a long lifetime holds. Happy Father's Day!
I myself had forgotten having mentioned The Forsaken Merman by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold in one of my early blog posts. This was apparently a poem my grandmother used to recite to her children - one of those being by Dad of course - and it had in turn inspired him to write his own version of the tale, as shown here. PS - The underwater background photo by Vincenzo Di Giorgi on Unsplash
And finally one of my hoards of seashells, which along with sea glass - 'mermaids' tears' - are truly precious finds of such beauty. These are still guarded over by a rather faded, felt mermouse that used to be accompanied by a little collection of land-bound mice dressed in their frounced finery, all of whom I made quite a number of years ago for my children... all slightly worn and ragged now from the seas of time!