The day I arrived in Arles was gorgeously hot and sunny. I had come by road across a plain rich with blossom, where it was hard to believe the mistral ever blew. Arles has a transpontine suburb, whose name sounds like the melodious clashing of tin cansTrinquetaille. From Trinquetaille one crosses the swiftest river in Europe, tremendously wide and impressive at this point, twenty-seven miles from its mouth, and enters at the same time Provence and Arles itself.
Today this city of the past is a small, untidy town, in which one comes upon the memorials of antiquity in a casual, unexpected fashion, so that one almost thinks they will not be twice in the same place. It has a sort of sunny and haphazard gaiety, a charm of atmosphere and feeling which you cannot pin down to the possession of this building or that monument. My room at the hotel was floored with those welcoming red tiles you may see in Van Gogh’s picture of his bedroom in the yellow house. One seemed to draw a superabundant energy from the warmth of the air, the lavish yellow brilliance of the sun. I was tremendously hungry.
The room to which I descended was full of healthy-looking natives, consuming hors-d’ceuvres, cold fish and mayonnaise, chickens, pommes nouvelIes rissolees, salads, cheese, fruit, wine, with meridional gusto and enthusiasm. On the recommendation of a cafe proprietor, who told me I should eat well there, I had chosen a small place, not so grand in outward appearance as to scare away the prudent and discriminating indigene. That is to say, it was not specifically an hotel for tourists, though many tourists stayed there. On the left of the entrance was the kitchen, beyond it the desk of the patronne, beyond that the inevitable lavabo and towel. Loaded with plates and dishes, the staff sped across the hall from kitchen to saIle a manger, running rings round those who entered.
It was not a very convenient or decorous arrangement, but it was a characteristic one. The amount of prominence assigned to the kitchen in French and English hotels respectively may be taken as a measure of the comparative importance attached to its activities. In England this apartment is carefully concealed from sight, while, since it relates to a natural function, its identity is usually disguised under some such euphemism as “domestic offices.” In France it occupies an honourable place, its nature is often indicated by a label, and every one takes pleasure in being reminded of its existence. You may sometimes see its master entering or leaving it, at the commencement or conclusion of his honourable labours, or emerging for a breath of air, not with the cringing diffidence of a menial, but with the assurance of an emperor. It is he who holds the well-being of everybody in the establishment in his control, and he is aware of it. In the smaller places he is usually the patron, and, where he is not, if he is not an emperor, he is a consul, for the proprietor is his colleague and equal, at his haughtiest no more than primus inter pares where he is concerned. His office is the most important in the world, for it is impossible to think of any activity (apart from the raising of crops, indeed, which in a well-ordered society would be in some sort everybody’s business); it is impossible to think of any activity which confers a greater benefit on mankind than good cooking.
When man learned to cook he emerged from his primeval savage beastliness, and became in potentiality not merely civilized, but divine. The logically minded, observing that some essential difference marks out humanity from the other animals, have long sought an explanation of this distinction in complicated theories of special creation, and so forth, failing to perceive the one obvious and inescapable difference, that man has learnt to cook his food and what we call the animals have not. If some Promethean tiger discovered the art of preparing antelope-steaks and roebuck-pies, the tigers might hope to rise to the level of humanity. As it is they will have to wait until, assisted by the tin-opener and the nut-and-grass fiend, we sink to theirs. In the meantime, good cooking remains an indispensable element of good living, a potent source of pleasure in itself, and that in which all pleasures are ultimately rooted. It is necessary to eat to live, and, except for saint or genius, it is necessary to eat well to live well. In the space of seven years a man’s body is renewed from the materials he eats and drinks and the air he breathes. He may remake his body with good material or trash, as he may feed his mind on beauty and wisdom or on ugliness and nonsense. The simplest foods will serve to sup-port life, as the simplest words will form a sentence; but the spirit craves more than the bare matter, and in the arrangement is the poem or the dish.
The cook’s art is therefore of considerable importance, for though a good soup may be easier to produce than a good picture, its spiritual value is not necessarily inferior. Unfortunately, in cooking as in the other arts, a trivial skill of hand and the ability to elaborate too often usurp the praise due to taste and judgment; and he who has learnt to decorate a poor cake with a bad imitation of a bad statue in inedible material is esteemed above the cunning seasoner of a steak-and-kidney pie. Fine cooking, which has nothing to do with such inelegant trifling, must in the nature of things be comparatively rare; .but cooking which has every virtue save the highest subtlety it only needs a little instinct and a little luck to find in France, in the south especially. Yet it is not the less worthy for that reason to be occasionally noted down; and the traveller would be lacking in proportion if he failed to remember that the splendour of his mental state may be due not solely to the beauty of this landscape or that church, but also to the excellence of this entree or that good red wine.
When lunch was over I strolled out into the town, to form that first impression round which all subsequent notions of a new place group themselves. Arles is the complement to Nimes. I found a hundred beauties, ruins, churches, street scenes Van Gogh painted, plane trees, boats on the river, Senegalese soldiers, women wearing the chapelle, faces, the amphitheatre, gardens, the Alyscamps, men playing boule, but none of the stately, formal grandeur of the larger place. The streets of Arles seem full of girls who, with their decadent Graeco-Roman features, huge, beautifully modelled and slightly bulging eyes, seem to have stepped out of the mosaics in the museum, only they are very much and very disturbingly alive. There is a purer, straight-nosed Greek type which is rarer, and another of a more Oriental stamp. And both in Nimes and Arles you will see more girls who might have served as the model for the symbolical figure on the French notes than you would find, I should think, in any other town.
Arles arose to its zenith and vertical point, according to its predestined period, about sixteen hundred years ago, and is now, in comparison, very near the horizon, at least from the commercial point of view. As a vine d’art its reputation is never likely to be extinguished this side of Europe’s grave. A French author has called it cite de vie interieure, and this seems to me to describe as well as anything the peculiar quality of its appeal to the responsive mind. The town has a Greek or possibly Phoenician origin, and was a flourishing commercial centre when the veterans of the Sixth Legion obtained a mandate to colonize it. In the early years of the empire its population was larger than that of Nimes today, and (for what such tags are worth) the place was called the Gallic Rome. It survived a barbarian raid in the third century, and under Constantine was brought to a state of magnificence surpassing that of its earlier heyday. It is amusing to speculate on the different course that history might have followed had he made Arles, and not Byzantium, his capital, as for a time he thought of doing. But without this final distinction, Arles has a sufficiently impressive civic record, having been by turns the capital of the province of Vienna, capital of the southern provinces, capital of all Gaul, and capital of the Praefectura GaIliarum, which included Spain, all Gaul, and Britain. In the Middle Ages it gave its name to a kingdom, representing the union of Province and Burgundy. And for a time it was governed by consuls as a free city, on the model of the city-states of Italy.
The best of the memorials belong not to antiquity but to the Middle Ages. There are better antique theatres elsewhere than that of Arles; the amphitheatre I found less impressive than that of Nimes; the palace and baths of Constantine are without intrinsic interest; but the cloister and portal of the cathedral of St Trophime are superb examples of the art of their period and kind. They are unsurpassed. Two sides of the cloister are Romanesque, two Gothic, and of the latter one is considerably later than the other; but time, which is not always so obliging, has smoothed out any awkwardness that may once have resulted from this lack of unity. As a matter of fact, that elusive quality which we call the feeling of the work is remarkably maintained through-out. And of course a cloister is not like a facade, you never see it all at once with an equal glance, but by successive pictures, like one of those Chinese paintings that you unroll; and so it can have a different kind of unity, and (though the analogy does not hold here) alteration or addition need not spoil it, if those who add or alter respect the original proportions. Yet when all this has been said, and superbly lovely as the cloister is, I am inclined to say it would be even finer if all four of its walks were Romanesque.
The cloistral life is in many ways a foolish and mistaken one; yet, given as an alternative the turbulent world of action of the Middle Ages, could a person of reflective mind do better than choose to spend his time in surroundings so rich and at the same time so serene as these? Whatever the privations of his physical life might be, the monk or canon could be reasonably sure that no material object his eye rested on would be trivial or vulgar; that is an inspiration and a satisfaction which the richest cannot secure today, except at the cost of an intolerably crippling eccentricity.
The inside of the church is plain, and inoffensive where it is not good. But apart from the cloister, the chief beauty of St Trophime is its famous portal, enormous in proportion to the small facade, and elaborately ornamented with human, divine, and beastly figures, the patient execution of which must have given enormous satisfaction to every one concerned. But here no more than in the cloister does this richness destroy the general effect of serenity and harmony. Its construction dates from the same period as the north walk of the cloister, that is to say, the end of the twelfth century, when it was added to the existing church, originally built at the beginning of the seventh century, but rebuilt in its present form (if we ignore the effect of subsequent restorations and additions) in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The portal dwarfs the church, but in itself it is magnificent.
This door gives on to the Place de la Republique, in which there are some good Renaissance buildings, notably the Hotel de Ville, which has an entrance-hall with a vaulted ceiling having a flat arch, very curious. On the other side of the church is the antique theatre. Not a great deal of this remains, for it was partly pulled down in the fifth century, and its material used for building churches; and, of what escaped such lootings, and profaner ones, the best has been removed to the Musee Lapidaire, which during the period of my stay was undergoing a drastic reorganization. But enough remains to give one an idea of the vast extent of the seating accommodation, and two pillars of the colonnade that made the background of the scene still stand. Most of the entertainments were probably unworthy of their setting, for one gathers that a kind of play which only a greater pungency placed above the level of the modern musical comedy or revue was the usual thing. And in the Roman Empire every night, it seems, was boat-race night, since “as noisy as a theatre” was a phrase used to point to an appalling din.
The amphitheatre is a little larger than that of Nimes, and because it has a Doric lower story and a Corinthian upper one, many people think it finer. Personally I find the former amphitheatre the more impressive, since one can get a more distant and therefore more comprehensive view of it, for one thing; for another, the towers added to the amphitheatre of Arles in the eighth century, when it was used as a fortress, detract a good deal from the unity of its appearance. There was a conference of agriculturists, a feast of Gallic oratory, in progress here on the day of my arrival. There is one French taste whose classical derivation no one will dispute! In the summer, as at Nimes, they use the amphitheatre for bull fights. Many people imagine that only a mitigated form of this sport, in which the bull is not killed, is ever held in France. They are mistaken. All the glories of the corrida de muerte are celebrated in the arenas of Nimes and Arles, though there are less bloody Provencal variants of the sport which are held here as well. It is easy to imagine the intense excitement of the occasion. Everything in the construction of the amphitheatre concentrates interest on the arena, so that a man could not walk across it on the most trivial errand without his progress being followed with fierce eagerness by thirty thousand pairs of eyes. One pictures the scene, the bright yellow sand in the hot sun, the gorgeous costumes, pink and gold and scarlet, the warm grey stone, the intense luminous blue southern sky above, and everything made twice as actual because the senses are quickened by the imminence of death. But this is a spectacle which requires the hot splendours of high summer for its accomplishment, and to-day I have the amphitheatre to myself.
There are no Van Gogh originals in Arles, though the Musee Arlesien has a good collection of reproductions. But the streets are full of things he painted, three-dimensional Van Goghs. It is strange how like the reality seems to its presentment even by so individual and eccentric a painter: we see Nature through art, as more primitive people see it through religion. Van Gogh’s house, the yellow house, is now a cafe of the humbler sort: a plaque commemorates his residence. The public garden close by, which he painted so often, and where he quarrelled with the intolerable Gauguin, has been reduced to a dusty open space, without grass or flower beds.
There are more antiquities: the Alyscamps, the Roman fortifications, the Forum (of which almost nothing but the name remains), some more churches. The Alyscamps is an avenue of tombs, which marks the site of one of the most esteemed burial-grounds of the Middle Ages, whose sanctity was cheerfully invaded by a less pious generation, in search of desirable building land, or something of that kind. A reverence for history rather than for religion has led to the collection of the scattered sarcophagi and their arrangement here and in the Musee Lapidaire. I have heard it called an eerie place; but in me it induced no such pleasing shudder as did my first sight of the recently excavated prehistoric avenue at Avebury. It is a favourite Sunday promenade of the inhabitants. There are some tombs dating from the first and second centuries, of a staggering solidity. They were originally lined with lead, like the most expensive modern coffins; and a small oil lamp was placed inside to burn up the oxygen, thus pickling the body in carbon dioxide and nitrogen as we pickle apples. The unfinished church of St Honorat, at the remote end of the avenue, contains many interesting fragments of different periods and styles. One of the chapels has remains of paintings on the walls.
Of the churches in the town, the most interesting, apart from St Trophime, is the small and incredibly ancient-looking Notre-Dame-la-Major. The present building, which looks as old as time itself, dates from the middle of the twelfth century, and replaces an earlier one in which the council, or synod, of A.D. 452 was held. For Arles was once the religious as well as the prefectoral capital of all the Gauls, and indeed, the first General Council of the Western Church was summoned here by Constantine in 314, and was attended by thirty-three bishops, of whom three came from Britain. How is the glory of the town declined since then! But even for the traveller, Arles is more than these material witnesses of former grandeur. It is the sunshine and the food, the wine, the faces of its women, farmers in from the Camargue, the men who fish for driftwood in the swirling yellow waters of the Rhone, the tiles in my room; the strange sweet unreverberating chime, like a few notes of the harpsichord, which is the last sound I hear each night before I fall asleep.