France – Avignon – The Singing Isle

AVIGNON, the “singing isle” of romance, is not particularly a part of the storied Burgundy that has survived the kings. True, there was a city here when Rodolfe decided that he would wear a crown. The Avenio of Roman times had taken the place of a Gallic town that had known the Phenicians. But the days of Avignon’s glory did not come until the kingdom of Arles had been passed along through seven generations of German emperors. Aubanel’s “Gothic Avignon,” whose “palace and towers make lace among the stars,” was a creation of the thirteenth century, when the popes came here from Rome and made of this stern rock the capital of Christendom.

Yet no survey of the devious pathways over which clattered the mailed knights of Burgundy would be complete without a visit to this ancient center of Catholicism. It is a place as awesome in its way as the walled city of Carcassone, as impressive in the vastness of its design and the simple boldness of its construction as the pyramids. The palace of the popes still rises out of Avignon, the most remarkable mass of masonry, probably, in all of Europe. It is more than a castle, more than a fortress, a great square pile that dominates the landscape and fills the sky.

Whatever else the popes did for Avignon, and there is a variety of sentiment concerning that issue, it is certain that they contributed a certain amount of the majesty of their office to the building that is their principal memorial in the city of to-day. The palace is not an architectural marvel. Its beauties are peculiarly rugged, its lack of ornamentation surprising in a structure that so clearly ex-presses great wealth and lavish expenditure. But it is a stronghold such as no king of France succeeded in building for himself, a monument that has continued to keep alive the memory of its builders down to an age when most Catholics have forgotten that there ever was an Avignon.

Seven popes, legitimately elected successors to the throne of St. Peter, ruled at Avignon: Clement V, from 1305 to 1314; John XXII, from 1316 to 1334; Benedict XII, from 1334 to 1342; Clement VI, from 1342 to 1352; Innocent VI, from 1352 to 1362; Urban V, from 1363 to 1370; and Gregory XI, from 1371 to 1378. Restoration of the capital of the papacy in Rome did not end the efforts of a certain element of the clergy to continue Avignon as a holy city, and so, during the great schism of the West, there ruled on the ringing island several antipopes, among them, Robert of Geneva, who claimed the throne as Clement VII from 1378 to 1394, and Pierre de Lune who held the palace as Benedict XIII from 1394 to 1411.

A quarrel between Philip the Fair of France and Pope Boniface VII over the seizure of French church benefices had become an open rupture in 1303: Philip, who exerted an enormous political influence over a number of cardinals, brought about the election of Clement V as pope in 1305 and, in exchange for his varied kindnesses, obtained the transfer of the holy see from Rome to Avignon. Such was the beginning of this New Jerusalem.

The French king still had many axes to grind—as, for example, the case of the Knights Templars, whose property was large enough to merit attention and envy even from a king—and he speedily made sure of his grip upon the papacy. He constructed the square tower of Villeneuve, standing to this day as an evidence of his intention to retain such favors as his political scheming had brought to him.

At the time of the removal of the papacy from Italy to France, Avignon was part of the estates of Provence which were claimed by the dukes of Anjou by right of marriage. Later the town passed to Charles II of Naples, then to Robert of Naples, and thus to Jeanne, heiress of the duke of Calabria. The character of this Queen Jeanne has been the occasion of considerable debate which need not be re-viewed here. She is said to have poisoned her husband in order to marry a gentleman more to her liking. On the other hand, she is declared to have been a lady of excellent character and docile disposition. All of that is beside the mark. It is known for certain that she disposed of her claims to Avignon to Pope Clement VI at a nominal figure, whereupon the court of the popes became one of the most splendid in all the world.

The two popes who reigned immediately before Clement are worthy of more detailed note than can be given them here. John XXII was the son of a cobbler of Cahors. He was something of a financier and perfected a taxing system that brought immense wealth into the new papal capital.

Benedict, who succeeded him, seems to have been a more human personage. He promptly expended most of the treasure that John had accumulated. He laid the foundation for the great palace and gave the building trades of the Rhone valley the greatest revival they had experienced since the departure of the Romans. His epitaph declares him to have been a Nero for discipline. Inasmuch as the epitaph was written by the ecclesiastical dignitaries most able to speak authoritatively on such a subject, it is quite likely the truth . . . and if so is probably the greatest eulogy to Benedict’s ability that has come down to us. Discipline, if the truth be told, was sadly needed at Avignon.

It was at Avignon during the days of Pope John XXII that Petrarch is supposed to have met the Laura who has figured so prominently in his poems. Some have suggested that the poetic mistress of the exiled Italian patriot was a married woman of the illustrious family of Sade. Those who have analyzed his lyrics prefer to believe Laura to have been an ideal for whom his ecclesiastical orders never permitted him to search. Baring-Gould, Headlam and other students of Provencal history, incline to the latter belief.

Love lingers, it seems. Petrarch has been dead these many years, and folks are still quarreling over his distant and unrequited amour.

Little by little the walls of the palace were thickened and the ramparts strengthened during the fifty years in which Avignon continued to be a religious capital. One by one there sprang up the spires of the sixty churches whose chimes caused Rabelais to call this “l’isle sonnante.” The reason for the stout walls of the great stone blocks that sprang out of the Rocher des Doms became evident toward the end of the French papacy. The free companies, itinerant soldiery and bandits, of whom one group was led by the doughty du Guesclin, levied tribute on the holy city during the reign of Urban V and forced the pope to pay a considerable tribute.

It was under Urban that the first overtures for a return of the holy see to Rome were made. Urban, however, did not live to carry out his plans. Gregory XI in 1378 took his glittering panoply out of the mighty palace, em-barked aboard river-craft, and dropped down the Rhone and out of Provence for ever.

Avignon passed to the Holy Roman Empire along with other territorial possessions of Burgundy in 1033. Of the Roman period in the history of Avignon virtually nothing remains.

Some of the churches, notably Notre Dame des Doms and its adjacent abbeys, were buttressed to this rocky island centuries before the coming of the popes. The sense of their antiquity has been lost in the atmosphere of their associations. The papal palace and Notre Dame seem always to have stood where they are to-day. Their own pretentious antiquity makes that of older monuments seem insignificant.

Out in the Rhone, apart from the city of Avignon as it is apart from the chronicle that gives the New Jerusalem of France its chief fame, stands one of the most notable of the relics of Provence. It is the bridge of St. Benezet, ruined monument to a shepherd boy’s faith.

Four arches only of the twenty that formerly carried the wide causeway across the river to the foot of Philippe le Bel’s tower have survived the swift currents. On one of them the little chapel that a grateful community erected to the honor of the inspired builder remains intact and is still the scene of an annual pilgrimage when sleepy old Avignon bestirs itself and comes here to mark the saint’s feast-day.

There was no lack of good engineers in the early centuries of European civilization. The vaulting of the great cathedrals, the construction of aqueducts after the fashion introduced by the Romans, the building of roads and the draining of swamps, all presented a field for mechanical talent. But as late as 1178 the surging Rhone, lashed to spume below Avignon, remained unbridged.

In 1178 came Benezet, a shepherd boy who had had a vision. He proceeded to the palace of the bishop of Avignon and announced that he had been selected to build a bridge which would end the toll of lives annually exacted from the gild of ferrymen by the river.

The bishop declined to give his consent to the shepherd’s enterprise. Whereupon Benezet went out into the town, picked up a stone—which legend says was much larger and heavier than himself and carried it from a point near the bishop’s residence to the river, a distance of more than a mile. He pushed it down the bank and rubbed his hands triumphantly as it sank into the silt.

“That,” he said, “will make a good starting-point for the bridge.”

So the bishop withdrew his objection. Benezet organized the Avignon company of the Freres Pontifs, a brotherhood of amateur engineers consecrated to a necessary public service, a group as strangely contradictory to the spirit of its age as it might be considered surprising in this. Span by span the bridge stepped out across the Rhone, and, unlike other bridges attempted in the same place, it defied the spring floods. It was well along toward completion and assuredly a success when Benezet died. It carried the scarlet processions of papal ceremony from Avignon to Villeneuve more than a hundred years later. It would be standing to-day and in use save for the neglect that ruined so many structures in the south of France in the seventeenth century.

Modern Avignon is a setting for Andalusian opera. There is a Spanish character in its sun-baked streets due more to a soporific atmosphere than to any single epoch of history. The people are darker here than those of the towns farther north, and they exhibit traits essentially southern.

As in Spain, curtains close the shops, each owner’s name emblazoned on his share of tentage. And, as in other warm climes, false modesty vanishes in direct ratio to the rise of the mercury. On hot summer nights whole families move out into the streets to sleep.

On both sides of the town the olive-groves, bent by the mistral and only partially protected by towering hedges of cypress, make a striking background to the glaring whiteness of tower and roof and wall. Against the sky to the northeast rises Mont Ventoux in majestic isolation from the rest of the Alps.

On days when the mistral is blowing the country-side, gray-green under a coating of dust, fades quickly into the scintillant, dancing distance. On such days Avignon is a phantom, a ghost city, unreal, intangible. . . . And then, it seems, the Rocher des Doms is in its proper element.

What is Avignon but a city of dreams and ghosts’? The dreams of a king who would have controlled a papacy . . . the ghosts of men who would have built here a city of God which might outrival that of Solomon . . . the ghost of the gentle Benezet, who also dreamed his dream and, unlike them, saw its accomplishment.