Old Towns Of Provence

TRAVELERS journeying southward from Paris first meet with olive-trees near Montdragon or Montélimart—little towns, with old historic names, upon the road to Orange. It is here that we begin to feel ourselves within the land of Provence, where the Romans found a second Italy, and where the autumn of their antique civilization was followed, almost without an intermediate winter of barbarism, by the light and delicate spring-time of romance. Orange itself is full of Rome. Indeed, the ghost of the dead empire seems there to be more real and living than the actual flesh and blood of modern time, as represented by narrow dirty streets and mean churches. It is the shell of the huge theatre, hollowed from the solid hill, and fronted with a wall that seems made rather to protect a city than to form a sounding-board for a stage, which first tells us that we have reached the old Arausio. Of all theatres this is the most impressive, stupendous, indestructible, the Colosseum hardly excepted; for in Rome herself we are prepared for something gigantic, while in the insignificant Arausio—a sort of antique Tewkesbury—to find such magnificence, durability, and vastness, impresses one with a nightmare sense that the old lioness of Empire can scarcely yet be dead. Standing before the colossal, towering, amorphous precipice which formed the background of the scena, we feel as if once more the “heart-shaking sound of Consul Romanus” might be heard ; as if Roman knights and deputies, arisen from the dead, with faces hard and stern as those of the warriors carved on Trajan’s frieze, might take their seats beneath us in the orchestra, and, after proclamation made, the mortmain of imperial Rome be laid upon the comforts, liberties, and little gracefulnesses of our modern life. Nor is it unpleasant to be startled from such revery by the voice of the old guardian upon the stage beneath, sonorously devolving the vacuous Alexandrines with which he once welcomed his ephemeral French emperor from Algiers. The little man is dim with distance, eclipsed and swallowed up by the shadows and grotesque fragments of the ruin in the midst of which he stands. But his voice—thanks to the inimitable constructive art of the ancient architect, which, even in the desolation of at least thirteen centuries, has not lost its cunning—emerges from the pigmy throat, and fills the whole vast hollow with its clear, if tiny, sound. Thank Heaven, there is no danger of Roman resurrection here ! The illusion is completely broken, and we turn to gather the first violets of February, and to wonder at the quaint postures of a praying mantis on the grass-grown tiers and porches fringed with fern.

The sense of Roman greatness which is so oppressive in Orange and in many other parts of Provence, is not felt at Avignon. Here we exchange the ghost of Imperial for the phantom of Ecclesiastical Rome. The fixed epithet of Avignon is papal ; and as the express train rushes over its bleak and wind-tormented plain, the heavy dungeon-walls and battlemented towers of its palace for-tress seem to warn us off, and bid us quickly leave the Babylon of exiled impious Antichrist. Avignon presents the bleakest, barest, grayest scene upon a February morning, when the incessant mistral is blowing, and far and near, upon desolate hill-side and sandy plain, the scanty trees are bent sideways, the crumbling castle turrets shivering like bleached skeletons in the dry, ungenial air. Yet inside the town all is not so dreary. The papal palace, with its terrible Glacière, its chapel painted by Simone Memmi, its endless corridors and staircases, its torture-chamber, funnel-shaped to drown and suffocate—so runs tradition—the shrieks of wretches on the rack, is now a barrack filled with lively little French soldiers, whose politeness, though sorely taxed, is never ruffled by the introduction of inquisitive visitors into their dormitories, eating-places, and drill-grounds. And strange, indeed, it is to see the lines of neat narrow barrack beds, between which the red-legged little men are shaving, polishing their guns, or mending their trousers, in those vaulted halls of popes and cardinals, those vast presence-chambers and audience-galleries, where Urban entertained St. Catherine, where Rienzi came, a prisoner, to be stared at. Pass by the Glacière with a .shudder, for it has still the reek of blood about it; and do not long delay in the cheerless dungeon of Rienzi. Time and regimental whitewash have swept these lurking-places of old crime very bare ; but the parable of the seven devils is true in more senses than one, and the ghosts that return to haunt a deodorized, disinfected, garnished sepulchre are almost more ghastly than those which have never been disturbed from their old habitations.

Little by little the eye becomes accustomed to the bareness and grayness of this Provençal landscape ; and then we find that the scenery round Avignon is eminently picturesque. The view from Les Doms—which is a hill above the Pope’s palace, the Acropolis, as it were, of Avignon—embraces a wide stretch of undulating Champaign bordered by low hills and intersected by the flashing waters of the majestic Rhone. Across the stream stands Ville-neuve, like a castle of romance, with its round stone towers fronting the gates and battlemented walls of the papal city. A bridge used to connect the two towns, but it is now broken. The remaining fragment is of solid build, resting on great buttresses, one of which rises fantastically above the bridge into a little chapel. Such, one might fancy, was the bridge which Ariosto’s Rodomonte kept on horse against the Paladins of Charlemagne, when angered by the loss of his love. Nor is it difficult to imagine Bradamante spurring up the slope against him with her magic lance in rest, and tilting him into the tawny waves beneath.

On a clear October morning, when the vineyards are taking their last tints of gold and crimson, and the yellow foliage of the poplars by the river mingles with the sober grays of olive-trees and willows, every square inch of this landscape, glittering as it does with light and with color, the more beautiful for its subtlety and rarity, would make a picture. Out of many such vignettes let us choose one. We are on the shore close by the ruined bridge, the rolling, muddy Rhone in front ; beyond it, by the towing-path, a tall, strong cypress-tree rises beside a little house, and next to it a crucifix twelve feet or more in height, the Christ visible afar stretched upon his red cross ; arundo donax is waving all around, and willows near; behind, far off, soar the peaked hills, blue and pearled with clouds; past the cypress, on the Rhone, comes floating a long raft, swift through the stream, its rudder guided by a score of men: one standing erect upon the prow bends forward to salute the cross ; on flies the raft, the tall reeds rustle, and the cypress sleeps.

For those who have time to spare in going to or from the South it is worth while to spend a day or two in the most comfortable and characteristic of old French inns, the Hôtel de l’Europe, at Avignon. Should it rain, the museum of the town is worth a visit. It contains Horace Vernet’s not uncelebrated picture of Mazeppa, and another, less famous, but perhaps more interesting, by swollen-cheeked David, the ” genius in convulsion,” as Carlyle has christened him. His canvas is unfinished. Who knows what cry of the Convention made the painter fling his palette down and leave the masterpiece he might have spoiled? For in its way the picture is a masterpiece. There lies Jean Barrad, drummer, aged fourteen, slain in La Vendée, a true patriot, who, while his life-blood flowed away, pressed the tricolor cockade to his heart, and murmured ” Liberty I” David has treated his subject classically. The little drummer-boy, though French’ enough in feature and in feeling, lies, Greek-like, naked on the sand—a very Hyacinth of the Republic, La Vendée’s Ilioneus. The tricolor cockade and the sentiment of upturned patriotic eyes are the only indications of his being a hero in his teens, a citizen who thought it sweet to die for France.

In fine weather a visit to Vaucluse should by no means be omitted, not so much, perhaps, for Petrarch’s sake as for the interest of the drive, and for the marvel of the fountain of the Sorgues. For some time after leaving Avignon you jog along the level country between avenues of plane-trees; then comes a hilly ridge, on which the olives, mulberries, and vineyards join their colors and melt subtly into distant purple. After crossing this we reach L’Isle, an island village girdled by the gliding Sorgues, overshadowed with gigantic plane-boughs, and echoing to the plash of water dripped from mossy fern-tufted mill-wheels. Those who expect Petrarch’s Sorgues to be some trickling poet’s rill emerging from a damp grotto may well be astounded at the rush and roar of this azure river so close upon its fountain-head. It has a volume and an arrow-like rapidity that communicate the feeling of exuberance and life. In passing, let it not be forgotten that it was somewhere or other in this “chiaro fondo di Sorga,” as Carlyle describes, that Jourdain, the hangman-hero of the Glacière, stuck fast upon his pony when flying from his foes, and had his accursed life, by some diabolical providence, spared for future butcheries. On we go across the austere plain, between fields of madder, the red roots of the “garance” lying in swaths along the furrows. In front rise ash-gray hills of barren rock, here and there crimsoned with the leaves of the dwarf sumach. A huge cliff stands up and seems to bar all passage. Yet the river foams in torrents at our side. Whence can it issue ? What pass or cranny in that precipice is cloven for its escape? These questions grow in interest as we enter the narrow defile of limestone rocks which leads to the cliff-barrier, and find ourselves among the figs and olives of Vaucluse. Here is the village, the little church, the ugly column to Petrarch’s memory, the inn, with its caricatures of Laura, and its excellent trout, the bridge and the many-flashing, eddying Sorgues, lashed by mill-wheels, broken by weirs, divided in its course, channelled and diked, yet flowing irresistibly and undefiled. Blue, purple, greened by moss and water-weeds, silvered by snow-white pebbles, on its pure smooth bed the river runs like elemental diamond, so clear and fresh. The rocks on either side are gray or yellow, terraced into olive-yards, with here and there a cypress, fig, or mulberry tree. Soon the gardens cease, and lentisk, rosemary, box, and ilex—shrubs of Provence—with here and there a sumach out of reach, cling to the hard stone. And so at last we are brought face to face with the sheer impassable precipice. At its basement sleeps a pool, perfectly untroubled : a lakelet in which the sheltering rocks and nestling wild figs are glassed as in a mirror—a mirror of blue-black water, like amethyst or fluor-spar-so pure, so still, that where it laps the pebbles you can scarcely say where air begins and water ends. This, then, is Petrarch’s ” grotto ;” this is the fountain of Vaucluse. Up from its deep reservoirs, from the mysterious basements of the mountain, wells the silent stream ; pauseless and motionless it fills its urn, rises unruffled, glides until the brink is reached, then overflows, and foams, and dashes noisily, a cataract, among the boulders of the hills. Nothing at Vaucluse is more impressive than the contrast between the tranquil silence of the fountain and the roar of the released impetuous river. Here we can realize the calm clear eyes of scnlptured water-gods, their brimming urns, their gushing streams, the magic of the mountain-born and darkness-cradled flood. Or again, looking up at the sheer steep cliff, eight hundred feet in height, and arching slightly roofwise, so that no rain falls upon the cavern of the pool, we seem to see the stroke of Neptune’s trident, the hoof of Pegasus, the force of Moses’ rod, which cleft rocks and made waters gush forth in the desert. There is a strange fascination in the spot. As our eyes follow the white pebble which cleaves the surface and falls visibly, until the veil of azure is too thick for sight to pierce, we feel as if some glamour were drawing us, like Hylas, to the hidden caves. At least, we long to yield a prized and precious offering to the spring, to grace the nymph of Vaucluse with a pearl of price as token of our reverence and lova.

Meanwhile nothing has been said about Petrarch, who himself said much about the spring, and complained against these very nymphs to whom we have in wish, at least, been scattering jewels, that they broke his banks and swallowed up his gardens every winter. At Vaucluse Petrarch loved and lived and sang. He has made Vaucluse famous, and will never be forgotten there. But for the present the fountain is even more attractive than the memory of the poet.

The change from Avignon to Nismes is very trying to the latter place ; for Nismes is not picturesquely or historically interesting. It is a prosperous modern French town with two almost perfect Roman monuments—Les Arènes and the Maison Carrée. The amphitheatre is a complete oval, visible at one glance. Its smooth white stone, even where it has not been restored, seems unimpaired by age ; and Charles Martel’s conflagration, when he burned the Saracen hornet’s nest inside it, has only blackened the outer walls and arches venerably. Utility and perfect adaptation of means to ends form the beauty of Roman buildings. The science of construction and large intelligence displayed in them, their strength, simplicity, solidity, and purpose are their glory. Perhaps there is only one modern edifice—Palladio’s Palazzo del-la Ragione at Vicenza—which approaches the dignity and loftiness of Roman architecture ; and this it does because of its ab-solute freedom from ornament, the vastness of its design, and the durability of its material. The temple, called the Maison Carrée, at Nismes, is also very perfect, and comprehended at one glance. Light, graceful, airy, but rather thin and narrow, it reminds one of the temple of Fortuna Virilis at Rome.

But if Nismes itself is not picturesque, its environs contain the wonderful Pont du Gard. A two or three hours’ drive leads through a desolate country to the valley of the Gardon, where suddenly, at a turn of the road, one comes upon the aqueduct. It is not within the scope of words to describe the impression produced by those vast arches, row above row, cutting the deep blue sky. The domed summer clouds sailing across them are comprehended in the gigantic span of their perfect semicircles, which seem rather to have been described by Miltonic compasses of deity than by merely human mathematics. Yet, standing beneath one of the vaults and looking upward, you may read Roman numerals in order from I. to X., which prove their human origin well enough. Next to their strength, regularity, and magnitude, the most astonishing point about this triple tier of arches, piled one above the other to a height of one hundred and eighty feet above a brawling stream beneath two barren hills, is their lightness. The arches are not thick ; the causeway on the top is only just broad enough for three men to walk abreast. So smooth and perpendicular are the supporting walls that scarcely a shrub or tuft of grass has grown upon the aqueduct in all these years.

And yet the huge fabric is strengthened by no buttress, has needed no repair. This lightness of structure, combined with such prodigious durability, produces the strongest sense of science and self-reliant power in the men who designed it. None but Romans could have built such a monument and have set it in such a place —a wilderness of rock and rolling hill scantily covered with low brushwood and browsed over by a few sheep—for such a purpose, too, in order to supply Nemausus with pure water. The modern town does pretty well without its water; but here subsists the civilization of eighteen centuries past intact : the human labor yet remains, the measuring, contriving mind of man, shrinking from no obstacles, spanning the air, and in one edifice combining gigantic strength and perfect beauty. It is impossible not to echo Rousseau’s words in such a place, and to say with him : ” Le retentissement de mes pas dans ces immenses voûtes me faisait croire entendre la forte voix de ceux qui les avaient bâties. Je me perdais comme un insecte dans cette immensité. Je sentais, tout en me faisant petit, je ne sais quoi qui m’élevait l’âme; et je me disais en soupirant, Que ne suis-je né Ro-main !”

There is nothing at Arles which produces the same deep and indelible impression. Yet Arles is a far more interesting town than Nimes, partly because of the Rhone delta which begins there, partly because of its ruinous antiquity, and partly also because of the strong local character of its population. The amphitheatre of Arles is vaster and more sublime in its desolation than the tidy theatre at Nismes ; the crypts and dens and subterranean passages suggest all manner of speculation as to the uses to which they may have been appropriated; while the broken galleries outside, intricate and black and cavernons, like Piranesi’s etchings of the ” Carceri,” present the wildest pictures of greatness in decay, fantastic dilapidation. The ruins of the smaller theatre, again, with their picturesquely grouped fragments and their standing columns, might be sketched for a frontispiece to some dilettante work on classical antiquities. For the rest, perhaps the Aliscamps, or ancient Roman burial-ground, is the most interesting thing at Arles, not only because of Dante’s celebrated lines in the canto of Farinata :

Si come ad Arli ove ‘I Rodano stagna, Fanno i sepolcri tutto ‘l loco varo ;

but also because of the intrinsic picturesqueness of this avenue of sepulchres beneath green trees upon a long, soft grassy field.

But as at Avignon and Nismes, so also at Arles, one of the chief attractions of the place lies at a distance, and requires a special expedition. The road to Les Baux crosses a true Provençal desert, where one realizes the phrase, ” Vieux comme les rochers de Provence”—a wilderness of gray stone, here and there worn into cart-tracks, and tufted with rosemary, box, lavender, and lentisk. On the way it passes the Abbaye de Mont Majeur, a ruin of gigantic size, embracing all periods of architecture, where nothing seems to flourish now but henbane and the wild cucumber, or to breathe but a mumble-toothed and terrible old hag. The ruin stands above a desolate marsh, its vast Italian buildings of Palladian splendor looking more forlorn in their decay than the older and austerer mediaeval towers which rise up proud and patient and defiantly erect beneath the curse of time. When, at length, what used to be the castle town of Les Baux is reached, you find a naked mountain of yellow sandstone, worn away by nature into bastions and buttresses and coigns of vantage, sculptured by ancient art into palaces and chapels, battlements and dungeons. Now art and nature are confounded in one ruin. Blocks of masonry lie cheek-by-jowl with masses of the rough-hewn rock ; fallen cavern vaults are heaped round fragments of fan-shaped spandrel and clustered column-shaft ; the doors and windows of old pleasure-rooms are hung with ivy and wild fig for tapestry ; winding staircases start midway upon the cliff, and lead to vacancy. High overhead, suspended in mid-air, hang chambers —lady’s bower or poet’s singing-room—now inaccessible, the haunt of hawks and swallows. Within this rocky honeycomb—” cette ville en monolithe,” as it has been aptly called, for it is literally scooped out of one mountain block—live about two hundred poor people, foddering their wretched goats at carved piscina and stately sideboards, erecting mud-beplastered hovels in the halls of feudal princes. Murray is wrong in calling the place a mediaeval town in its original state, for anything more purely ruinous, more like a decayed old cheese, cannot possibly be conceived. The living only inhabit the tombs of the dead. At the end of the last century, when revolutionary effervescence was be-ginning to ferment, the people of Arles swept all its feudality away, defacing the very arms upon the town-gate, and trampling the palace towers to dust.

The castle looks out across a vast extent of plain over Arles, the stagnant Rhone, the Camargue, and the salt-pools of the lingering sea. In old days it was the eyrie of an eagle race called Seigneurs of Les Baux ; and whether they took their title from the rock, or whether, as genealogists would have it, they gave the name of Oriental Balthazar—their reputed ancestor, one of the Magi—to the rock itself, remains a mystery not greatly worth the solving.

Anyhow, here they lived and flourished, these feudal princes, bearing for their ensign a silver comet of sixteen rays upon a field of gules — themselves a comet race, baleful to the neighboring lowlands, blazing with lurid splendor over wide tracts of country, a burning, raging, fiery -souled, swift-handed tribe, in whom a flame unquenchable glowed from son to sire through twice five hundred years, until, in the sixteenth century, they were burned out, and nothing remained but cinders—these broken ruins of their eyrie, and some outworn and dusty titles. Very strange are the fate and history of these same titles : King of Arles, for instance, savoring of troubadour and high romance ; Prince of Tarentum smacking of old plays and Italian novels ; Prince of Orange, which the Nassaus, through the Châlons, seized in all its emptiness long after the real principality had passed away, and came therewith to sit on England’s throne.

The Les Baux in their heyday were patterns of feudal nobility. They warred incessantly with counts of Provence, archbishops and burghers of Arles, queens of Naples, kings of Aragon. Crusading, pillaging, betraying, spending their substance on the sword, and buying it again by deeds of valor or imperial acts of favor, tuning troubadour harps, presiding at courts of love, they filled a large page in the history of Southern France. The Les Baux were very superstitious. In the fulness of their prosperity they restricted the number of their dependent towns, or places baussenques, to seventy-nine, because these numbers in combination were thought to be of good omen to their house. Beral des Baux, Seigneur of Marseilles, was one day starting on a journey with his whole force to Avignon. e met an old woman herb-gathering at daybreak, and said, “Mother, hast thou seen a crow or other bird ? ” “Yea,” answered the crone, ” on the trunk of a dead willow.” Beral counted upon his fingers the day of the year, and turned bridle. With troubadours of name and note they had dealings, but not always to their own advantage, as the following story testifies. When the Baux and Berengers were struggling for the countship of Provence, Raymond Berenger, by his wife’s counsel, went, attended by troubadours, to meet the Emperor Frederick at Milan. There he sued for the investiture and ratification of Provence. His troubadours sang and charmed Fredcrick ; and the emperor, for the joy he had in them, wrote his celebrated lines beginning-

Plas mi cavalier Francez.

And when Berenger made his request he met with no refusal. Hearing thereof, the lords of Baux came down in wrath with a clangor of armed men. But music had already gained the day ; and where the Phoebus of Provence had shone, the Aeolus of storm-shaken Les Baux was powerless. Again, when Blacas, a knight of Provence, died, the great Sordello chanted one of his most fiery hymns, bidding the princes of Christendom flock round and eat the heart of the dead lord. ” Let Rambaude des Baux,” cries the bard, with a sarcasm that is clearly meant, but at this distance almost unintelligible, “take also a good piece, for she is fair and good and truly virtuous ; let her keep it well who knows so well to husband her own weal.” But the poets were not al-ways adverse to the house of Baux. Fouquet, the beautiful and gentle melodist whom Dante placed in paradise, served Adelaisie, wife of Berald, with long service of unhappy love, and wrote upon her death The Complaint of Berald des Baux for Adelaisie. Guillaume de Cabestan loved Berangêre des Baux, and was so loved by her that she gave him a philter to drink, whereof he sickened and grew mad. Many more troubadours are cited as having frequented the castle of Les Baux, and among the members of the princely house were several poets.

Some of them were renowned for beauty. We hear of a Cécile, called Passe Rose, because of her exceeding loveliness ; also of an unhappy François, who, after passing eighteen years in prison, yet won the grace and love of Joan of Naples by his charms. But the real temper of this fierce tribe was not shown among troubadours, or in the courts of love and beauty. The stern and barren rock from which they sprang and the comet of their escutcheon are the true symbols of their nature. History records no end of their ravages and slaughters. It is a tedious catalogue of blood—how one prince put to fire and sword the whole town of Courthezon; how another was stabbed in prison by his wife; how a third besieged the castle of bis niece, and sought to undermine her chamber, knowing her the while to be in childbed ; how a fourth was flayed alive outside the walls of Avignon. There is nothing terrible, splendid, and savage belonging to feudal history of which an example may not be found in the annals of Les Baux, as narrated by their chronicler, Jules Canonge.

However abrupt may seem the transition from these memories of the ancient nobles of Les Baux to mere matters of travel and picturesqueness, it would be impossible to take leave of the old towns of Provence without glancing at the cathedrals of St. Trophime at Arles, and of St. Gilles—a village on the border of the dreary flamingo-haunted Camargue. Both of these buildings have porches splendidly incrusted with sculptures, half-classical, half-mediaeval, marking the transition from ancient to modern art. But that of St. Gilles is by far the richer and more elaborate. The whole façade of this church is one mass of intricate decoration ; Norman arches and carved lions, like those of Lombard architecture, mingling fantastically with Greek scrolls of fruits and flowers, with elegant Corinthian columns jutting out upon the church steps, and with the old conventional wave-border that is called Etruscan in our modern jargon. From the midst of florid fret and foliage lean mild faces of saints and Madonnas. Symbols of evangelists with half-human, half-animal eyes and wings are interwoven with the leafy bowers of Cupids. Grave apostles stand erect beneath acanthus-wreaths that ought to crisp the forehead of a laughing Faun or Bacchus. And yet so full, exuberant, and deftly chosen are these various elements that there remains no sense of incongruity or discord. The mediæval spirit had much trouble to disentangle itself from classic reminiscences; and fortunately for the picturesqueness of St. Gilles, it did not succeed. How strangely different is the result of this transition in the South from those severe and rigid forms which we call Romanesque in Germany and Normandy and England !