Listen to this piece read by Lydia Davis

What​  follows is part of an ongoing piece of writing which I can best describe as being the elaborated notes of what I have been discovering in my explorations of the history of the city of Arles – a history which goes back nearly three thousand years, so there is a lot to read. This essay began as notes taken during a visit to Arles in November 2018, when I gradually came to notice how, within the small area of the old city, over the centuries of occupation by different cultures, so many of the structures remained intact and were reused, adapted, enlarged, rebuilt etc, or if they were dismantled, the materials of which they were built were reused for another construction – this repetitive progression very well embodying the principle taught in basic science that no matter is either created or destroyed. The nuns of Santa Clara, for instance, after rehabilitating the buildings of an earlier monastic order just outside the city walls for their own use, were forced one hundred years later by the city to vacate them, at which point the stone and sand of those buildings were used to reinforce the city ramparts.

Arles is in the South of France, in Provence, on the lower part of the Rhône River, the marshy Rhône delta, on a limestone hill 25 metres above sea level. It was settled, successively, by Ligurians, Greeks from Phocaea, Celts, and in 46 BC by the Romans as a retirement colony for Caesar’s Sixth Legion. Curious outsiders have been visiting the city for hundreds of years, many of them first drawn by the most outstanding attractions: the Roman monuments and the carved portal of the St Trophime Church. Important visitors, back in the 1300s, would be taken down to see the obelisk from the Roman circus, which had recently been discovered buried in a vegetable garden. Much more recently, tourists also included in their visit the places made famous by Van Gogh’s time there, though that amounted to little more than a year.

What I have been writing about Arles takes the form of short, titled sections.

The Impression of an Earlier Traveller

Joseph Bard, in 1834, described it this way: ‘It is an old city, of an incredible opulence in debris, lost in the swamps.’

The Hillside

The city is built on a gentle slope, an outcropping of limestone, with the amphitheatre close to the top. There are perspectives up, and down, and, from the top, out over the countryside. And even as you walk down into the flatter areas, you have a sense, always, of where you are – the slope of the hill behind you, the broad river always to your right, beyond the houses. You are heading away from the Roman arena and the Roman theatre, down towards the middle of the old city; in the centre, as you rest for a moment in the very heart of it on the place de la République, you share a bench with an older woman, who has greeted you before sitting down and who, after looking for a while calmly around at the Hôtel de Ville and the St Trophime Church and the cluster of people laughing and jostling by the fountain and by the Roman obelisk which was rescued from the vegetable patch and three hundred years later brought up the hill to this square, takes a nail file out of the depths of her purse and discreetly works on her nails. Here, in this very peaceful sunlit square, you are in the historical centre of power of Arles, ecclesiastical and civic; the archbishop’s palace is also in front of you, with, out of your view, its courtyard where the lion of Arles was once kept. Then, when at last you leave the bench, taking care to say goodbye to the older woman, who nods and smiles, you go on down into La Roquette, into what once was a neighbourhood of farmers, sailors, fishermen and dockworkers, and, finally, to the end of the city, and maybe even beyond it to the old Roman circus, outside the old town, where the obelisk once stood.

The Marshes

In earlier times, the Abbey of Montmajour, on a hill about five miles away from Arles, appeared to be an island, rising up out of the marshes (marécages) that surrounded it.

The Mosquitoes of Arles

John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in France, the standard 19th-century guide, warns that Arles is unhealthy ‘at certain seasons’ because of the marshes and pools in the vicinity. Even today, there are hosts of mosquitoes clear into the month of November, and no screens on the windows, so that if you expect to have a good night’s sleep, you must swat as many of the little insects as possible against the walls and ceiling of your hotel room, where they tend to rest, and not open the window until your lights are out.

The Five Main Areas of Arles

There are five main neighbourhoods within the preserved old part of Arles: the Cavalerie, in the north; the Hauture, which is the highest part, on the hilltop, in the north-east; the Cité, in the centre, where the Hôtel de Ville and the St Trophime Church are; the Méjan, in the middle, along the riverside, historically the main commercial area; and the old neighbourhood formerly of fishermen and farmers to the west of the centre, La Roquette. La Roquette used to be called the Vieux Bourg, the ‘old town’, and in the 12th century was still walled off from the rest of the city. The Cavalerie used to be called the Bourg Neuf, the ‘new town’. The Cité was the centre of power, both church and civil. The Méjan, the middle, was a district of merchants and included the Jewish quarter.

The Changing Functions of Buildings

In the Hauture district at the top of the city, the former parish of La Madeleine was once important enough to engulf another whole parish. Now, the small church building, its steeple gone, set back from the road, resembles a modest old stable. It is privately owned, used as a garage and workshop.

Notable Figures of Arles: St Caesarius

St Caesarius (c.470-543 AD) lived at a time of intersection of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Roman law was still in force, as well as institutions such as slavery.

The Camargue and its marshes still began, then, ‘at the gates of Arles’. St Caesarius describes them in his sermons as harbouring useless plants and disgusting creatures.

In his day, the common language was still Latin, and it was in Latin that he spoke to his congregation. Not all the population was Christian: there were also adherents of the Arian heresy and even pagans who still worshipped Jupiter.

St Caesarius condemned a provision of Roman law, still practised at the time, which allowed a young man to keep, before his marriage, concubines whom he would then abandon after several years in order to take a legitimate wife. ‘They do this with the support of civil law,’ St Caesarius said, ‘but certainly not with the support of heaven.’

The Roman Amphitheatre and Its Transformations

The Roman arena of Arles, built in the first century BC, was in use for about four hundred years, for gladiatorial combat of various kinds, including gladiators v. wild boars, tigers and other wild animals, and, when filled with water, for staged naval battles. We know from the remaining Roman stone seats that the width of a seat for a spectator in Roman times, of whatever social class, was just under sixteen inches. Sailors operated the movable roofs that were extended over the arena to shade the spectators or protect them from rain.

By the eighth century, the arena had been converted into a fortification, with four stone towers, three of which are still standing.

Also in the Middle Ages, the outsides of the arches were filled in, and houses were built inside the arena and up against its outer walls, so that in time, over many years, a fortified village was created within the arena, complete with streets, a public square and two chapels, one containing the remains of St Genesius, patron saint of notaries. The village continued in existence into the 1800s, described in the Murray guidebook, in harsh terms, as being ‘filled within and choked up without by an accumulation of mean hovels, occupied by the poorest and worst part of the population of the town to the number of 2000’. Then, in an upsurge of interest in the city’s Roman heritage, the decision was made to raze the houses and clear out the village. This began in 1823 and was mostly accomplished by 1844; when Stendhal visited the city in 1837, there were still a few of what he calls ‘poor dwellings’ inside the walls. Despite these remaining houses, the first event to take place in the arena after (most of) the clearing was a race of the bulls in 1830, held in celebration of the conquest of Algiers.

The Tortuous Streets of Arles: Henry James

Henry James, visiting in about 1883, in writing about Arles, complains about the streets – he calls them ‘tortuous and featureless’ just as Murray in his Handbook, some thirty years earlier, had described them as forming ‘a labyrinth of dirty narrow streets, more intricate than any other perhaps in France’. James complains about the material with which they are surfaced, which he calls ‘villainous little sharp stones’. He is referring to the stones brought to the city from the valley of La Crau, that place called by one guidebook a ‘weird wasteland’, to pave the streets.

James goes on to say, more emphatically, that ‘the rugosities of its dirty lanes affect the feet like knife-blades.’ Those stones are, it is true, sharp and small. But they no longer pave the streets of Arles, except for one short street near the top. The streets of the old centre of Arles, though still narrow and tortuous, and, many of them, once you are away from the cafés and restaurants, dark at night despite the regularly placed old-style lamps standing on lamp posts or affixed to house walls, are kept very clean except for the very occasional corner or patch of wall, where a mysterious heap of personal trash may be piled up. Every morning, early, a small white cleaning truck comes along with its revolving brushes, pausing by a diminutive metal trash bag holder for the crew to remove and replace the suspended trash bag. Supplementing this vehicle are individual men in yellow vests with brooms, working by themselves here and there during the day or in the dark just before dawn.

The Overlapping of Cultures

The Christian sarcophagi, from the fourth century, show figures of importance wearing Roman togas.

St Caesarius, in the early sixth century, wished to found a convent. One who aided him, in his fundraising, was Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths.

In AD 539, the Frankish king Childebert I arranged for combats of gladiators in the Roman arena.

The earliest form of the parish church of Notre Dame de la Major, on the highest eminence of the city, was built on the remains of a Roman temple to the so-called Good Goddess, perhaps an aspect of Cybele.

The Place de la République and the Plan de la Cour

The place de la République, the centre of the city, was also known, earlier, as the place du Marché, when the market was held there, or the place Royale, and then the place de l’Hôtel de Ville because that was where the Hôtel de Ville stood. It still stands there. Leaving the spacious, light-flooded square, which has been compared to an Italian piazza, you can walk straight through the atrium of the Hôtel de Ville as a short cut to the streets on the other side, and many do. You enter from the place de la République, pass under the complex and celebrated ceiling of intersecting shallow vaults, ignoring, for the moment, the little corner room off to your left from which you could, if you wanted, gain access to the damp, gloomy underground Cryptoportico, and ignoring, for the moment, up the flight of stairs to your right, on the first landing, the reproduction of the statue of Venus which was found in the Roman theatre and which Arles reluctantly gave to King Louis XIV, so that it was taken away to Versailles, and walk straight out the other side, through what used to be the main entrance, onto the Plan de la Cour, which, though narrow and short, and small now, compared to the place de la République, used to be the more important square, when the place de la République was considerably smaller than it is now.

Inside the entry hall of the Hôtel de Ville, as you stare up at the intersecting vaults of the ceiling, you see the people taking the short cut first silhouetted against the bright sunlight bathing the place de la République, then passing you, then disappearing at your back out into the bright sunlight of the Plan de la Cour. You have also watched, from a different angle, outside, a boy on a scooter take this short cut. He, with his mother, who is pushing a baby carriage containing an infant sibling, has left the daycare centre that lies on the far side of the courtyard of the archbishops’ palace, and come out of the courtyard, which also opens onto the place de la République. He looks up to ask his mother’s permission, his mother grants it, and with vigorous thrusts of his little right leg he propels himself toward the doorway of the Hôtel de Ville while his mother hurries up the street parallel, alongside the Hôtel de Ville, so that she will be there on the other side when he comes out. He is swallowed up inside the Hôtel de Ville as she disappears along the street and around the corner to meet him in the Plan de la Cour.

The Winds of Arles

The Mistral, the famous wind, is usually the prevailing wind in Arles, but it is not and was not the only named wind. There are pictures called wind roses, directional wheels showing all the winds of Provence, with their names. There were not just four named winds, or even eight, or even sixteen or 24, but, on at least one wind rose, 32 named winds, each blowing from a different direction. And in a document drawn up by the Clarisses, the nuns of the order of Santa Clara, as they prepared to sell their house in the rue Vallat, describing in detail how the neighbouring properties abutted their property, they in fact referred to certain directions using the names of the winds. One was, in Provençal, auro drecha, a direction not north by north-west, but north of north by north-west, in other words almost due north. Another direction they called marin, by which they meant south-east. More common names they used for directions were levant and couchant or ponant – in other words, in the direction of the rising or the setting sun.

The Roman Forum and the Cryptoportico

In a newly established city or military camp, the Romans customarily laid out a main north-south road called a cardo and an intersecting main east-west road called a decumanus; in Arles, what was in Roman times the cardo is now the rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, the street that runs past the Hôtel de Ville; the decumanus is the rue de la Calade, which descends the hill from the remains of the ancient Roman theatre to intersect with the rue de l’Hôtel de Ville close to the city hall itself. The Roman forum was customarily built at or close to the intersection of these two roads, and that is the case in Arles, too, though the Roman forum itself is mostly gone. What remains are a few traces above ground and the very extensive Cryptoportico underground, which once supported the arcades of columns above ground and which is almost fully visible, with its double arches, though rather dark and in certain seasons wet and muddy underfoot, and on the whole forbidding for its gloom and emptiness and the continuous drips from its ceiling.

It was along the old Roman north-south cardo, now the rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, that the young mother with her baby carriage hurried, almost running, to meet her small son who was passing swiftly on his scooter through the shadowy atrium of the Hôtel de Ville out the other side into the sun-bathed old Plan de la Cour, once the grand square before the main entrance.

Individual Citizens of Arles We Encounter in the Histories

The homeowner in the rue Balze who, in 1654, tried to prevent the construction of a chapel by the Jesuits across the street from him, complaining that it would block his light and sunshine: this was Gaspard Reynaud.

The man whose house was bought in 1884 and torn down to clear a site for the Amédée-Pichot fountain that greets visitors to Arles if they enter the city from the direction of the railway station, walking up the rue de la Cavalerie: this was a wigmaker named Sautecoeur.

The man whose hand was eaten in 1407 by the lion of Arles, as reported by Bertran Boysset in his chronicle: this was Johan Envezat, who survived the incident and lived on thenceforth with two arms but only one hand.

The man and woman who sold their property in 1368 to the Jewish community for a cemetery inside the city wall close to the Porte du Marché Neuf: these were Renouard de Ville, an apothecary, and his wife, Jacquette Guigue.

The fisherman whose house by the Rhône was bought and torn down to clear a site for the defensive tower called the Tour de l’Écorchoir, erected in 1372: he was Estève Léon. The tower, for this reason, was sometimes known as the Torre del Leonet.

The man whose wife owned a malformed white hen that had three legs and feet on one side and one on the other in 1397, as reported by Bertran Boysset in his chronicle: this was Juanet de Poquieras, probably of the Vieux-Bourg neighbourhood.

The man who, with his wife, was hired in 1442 to act as guardian of the Jewish cemetery at Bourg-la-Crau after marauding wild animals became a problem there: this was Berengarius Barrani.

The butcher who, in 1453, was paid twenty florins for providing the meat for the lion of Arles kept in the palace courtyard of the archbishops, the courtyard through which, many centuries later, the young mother, baby carriage and boy on scooter passed on their way from the daycare centre: his name, in Latin form, was Hugonicus Davidis.

The Rue des Carmes

There is a short street near the place de la République called the rue des Carmes. It has a dog-leg bend in it, and just at the bend is the doorway of a bookshop specialising in small-press poetry books. You learn that when you walk down this street, south from the rue de la République, which is at your back, you are walking down the centre of what used to be the nave of a large church, the Church of the Carmelites.

Between that bookshop and the rue de la République, where the street originates, on the east side, there are several buildings owned by a chef whose restaurant is located in one of them. He has another restaurant, through an archway and across a courtyard. On the far side of the courtyard, to the right, you see a line of smaller arches now filled in, and one half of an arch. Later you realise that this is part of the cloister of the old church. It was falling into ruin and was sold to a neighbour.

It was after the Revolution that the church was taken down. The crypts, which had served as burial places, were either simply abandoned or filled in with rubble. For a time, because of the now disused crypts below, where the dead had lain, the newly created public street, running down the line of the centre of the nave, was called the rue des Morts, or ‘street of the dead’. On a day of fair weather, a cool, sunny day, the windows and doors of the houses and shops now lining the street will be left open. Then you can look into them and see stone vestiges of the old church – bits of the chapels’ vaulted ceilings, columns or capitals.

The Jewish Cemeteries: The Second, at Porte du Marché-Neuf

Not far from the site of the church and cloister of the Carmelites, you go in search of a shoe-repair place that might be able to sew up your watchband. There is one just south of the intersection of the rue de la Rotonde and the rue du Président Wilson. The shop is a very small place. Just two people inside, standing at the counter, fill the space entirely, and a woman approaching the shop outside, coming along the sidewalk, turns away quickly when she sees that it is full. You later learn that when you crossed the intersection, on your way to the shoe-repair shop, you were walking directly over the ground of what used to be a cemetery of the Jewish community in Arles, their second cemetery.

This cemetery lay just inside the medieval ramparts, in an area which then had the strange name of Old Lettuce. To create the cemetery, in 1368, the Jewish community bought a piece of land from an apothecary and his wife for fourteen florins.

The Jews of Arles had not only their own school, baths, cemetery or cemeteries and charitable institutions, but also their own gallows, first across the river outside the village of Trinquetaille, then on the road that led to the village of Raphèle.

Architectural Terms You Learn When in Arles: Dripstone

A ‘dripstone’ is a moulding over a door or window that deflects rain and decoratively enhances the opening, typically in medieval architecture.

A dripstone may also be called a ‘hood mould’. A hood mould may terminate in a ‘head-stop’ – a small sculpted head.

Reuse in Les Alyscamps

Near the Roman necropolis of Les Alyscamps, which lay outside the city on the Aurelian Way, in 1852, on the neighbouring farms, cattle drank out of stone troughs which were in fact empty sarcophagi. The lids of the coffins were used as little bridges over the ditches.

At the far end of Les Alyscamps is an early church, St Honorat. Parts of St Honorat were built using pieces of stone from the sarcophagi.

Three early Christian sarcophagi were brought into the Church of St Trophime. One, dating back to the fourth century, was set into the northern gutter-bearing wall and serves as an altar for baptisms.

Starting in 1848, railway yards and locomotive sheds were built in the middle of the Roman necropolis, wiping out one of the handsomest burial grounds of antiquity. Also occupying the grounds of the necropolis were, later, factories, a canal and a housing estate. Of the nineteen chapels once standing in the cemetery, only two are left. One of them serves as the ticket booth from which admission to the cemetery is sold.

In the 1860s, the young Frédéric Mistral and his friends were wandering there one night after drinking at a tavern, when they heard a sepulchral voice issuing from the depths of one of the coffins. It was a homeless person using the sarcophagus as a place to sleep.

Notable Figures of Arles: The Lion

The lion of Arles was a symbol of the city depicted on various coats of arms and other decorative elements. The oldest seal of the community depicts the lion on its reverse. There was also an actual lion in the history of Arles, or rather, a succession of lions, kept by the city in the courtyard of the palace of the archbishops, and there enclosed within an iron fence. One lion was given to the city by the count of Provence, and at that time he paid for its upkeep. Later, the city assumed the expense of its upkeep, and there exists a receipt, dated 1453, from the butcher who furnished the lion’s meat, called, in the Latin of the document, ‘nutrimenti leonis’.

The lion was made to engage in fights, one with a bull in the courtyard of the archbishops’ palace, and one with a ram, also inside the lion’s enclosure. The lion once tore off the arm of an incautious locksmith, who died of his wounds, and once ate the hand of another man, who survived.

By the mid-16th century, the city had decided the lion cost too much to maintain and eliminated it, we don’t know how.

Fourches Patibulaires

Bertran Boysset, the 14th-century surveyor and chronicler of Arles, describes a hanging, in 1394, across the river on a hill in Trinquetaille, now a part of Arles but then a separate fortified village. When he refers to the ‘forks of elm wood’ used for the hanging, it is not immediately clear what he means. Later you understand: two forked poles or tree limbs would be fixed in the ground, and a transverse pole of wood laid between them, and from this the condemned person would be suspended.

Boysset writes:

The forks of elm wood had been planted on an elevation of earth or a height… . On this elevation of earth or height no one had ever before seen forks or a hanged person. The man remained on the forks for a year; then he was taken down and buried, at night, in the cemetery of Saint Pierre de Trinquetaille with the permission of the archbishop of Arles. The forks remained planted in that spot until they fell of their own accord because their bases had rotted.

Boysset’s Orchard at the Porte de la Roquette

In the days when Bertran Boysset was writing his chronicle, this gate in the medieval rampart was called the Porte de Sainte-Claire, or, as he wrote it in Provençal, ‘lo portal de Santa Clara’. He records that on 3 December 1384 he planted, inside the wall, on the east side of the gate, a white poplar.

Ten years later, on 18 December 1394, he planted in the same place, which was an orchard belonging to him, a walnut tree.

Two Notes Concerning the Language of Arles

In the sixth century, the most commonly used language in Arles was still Latin, though the city was for periods under Visigothic and Ostrogothic control, so that some Gothic may have been spoken as well. It was in Latin that St Caesarius, for example, delivered his sermons, adopting a less formal style in order to communicate effectively with his congregation. In the streets, conversational Latin would, over the following centuries, evolve into something like present-day Provençal.

Alphonse Daudet, in the 1860s, listening to his friend Frédéric Mistral read aloud to him some of his verses, remarks that the ‘beautiful Provençal language’ is ‘more than three-quarters Latin’.

Van Gogh and the Hôtel Dieu

When Van Gogh temporarily lost his reason on the night of 23 December 1888, cutting off the lobe of one ear, which he took to a prostitute of his acquaintance, who fainted at the sight of it, he was transported to the Hôtel-Dieu, also known as the Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Esprit. This was a set of buildings, including a two-storey arcade, forming a rectangle around a courtyard planted with trees and flowerbeds and including a fountain and a well. It was founded in the 16th century to bring together under one roof all of the city’s 32 charitable institutions. It accommodated not only the sick but also abandoned infants, impoverished children, and orphans. The buildings continued to function as a hospital until 1974. In 1986, the complex was turned into a cultural centre and it now houses a multimedia library, the municipal archives, a literary translators’ college, and a part of the University of Arles. It also contains, on the ground floor of one wing, two gift and souvenir shops and a crêperie.

It was a petition on the part of his neighbours that caused Van Gogh to be incarcerated a second time in the same place. They were disturbed by his peculiar appearance and behaviour.

The Signing of Acts in Arles

Acts and other legal documents, created over the centuries and deposited in archives, included not only signatures and dates, but also records of the places in which they were signed. This is sometimes our only source of the information that such a place existed.

Church documents were often signed in a room occupied by a church official which had many functions but included that of bedroom (camera, in Latin).

They could also be signed by a church official in a corridor (corritorio).

The act granting the Jewish community a new cemetery – not their second cemetery, which now lies several feet beneath the intersection of rue de la Rotonde and the rue du Président Wilson, with its busy foot traffic, but their third cemetery, in Plan-du-Bourg, outside the city walls – was signed in the home of the Jewish scholar Izak Nathan.

The People of La Cavalerie and Their Petition of 1864: The Plantings of the Place Lamartine

One of several requests to the city by the petitioners of La Cavalerie in 1864 was that the plantings of the place Lamartine, then known as the place de la Cavalerie – the same (trapezoidal) square on which Van Gogh’s ‘yellow house’ would later look out – be improved, and this request was granted, resulting, eventually, in a growth of lush thickets and mature shade trees. These plantings were to provide Van Gogh, 24 years later, with a subject for painting that was right across the street from his house. The traffic circle that exists there still has several mature shade trees on it, and some grass, but none of the thickets and winding paths that Van Gogh painted. Another part of the former gardens, on your right-hand side as you walk up to the old city from the railway station, is now for the most part paved over in concrete and, at least part of the year, obstructed by the shuttered booths of an out-of-season funfair.

A Single Sheep and a Doorway

Because we have photographic evidence, in a postcard photo of a flock of sheep filling the rue du Quatre Septembre many decades ago, and because we can recognise, in the photo, a certain doorway that still exists, we can walk up to this doorway, in the now empty street, look at its threshold, and know that on that spot, many decades ago, a single sheep, out of a flock of several hundred, paused to turn her head and look back at the rest of the flock coming up behind her.

Reuse: The Tour de l’Écorchoir

At the far end of the old city, the downhill end, the south-westernmost end, the Tour de l’Écorchoir, known first as the Torre del Leonet, ‘Leonet’s tower’, after the fisherman whose house was demolished to make way for it, was built in 1372 as a defensive tower on the site of the fisherman’s home, to defend the city of Arles at its south-west corner from attacks coming from the river, on whose banks it stood. It was later renamed Torre Nova, ‘new tower’, at a time when it was undergoing reconstruction and repair.

The Tour de l’Écorchoir was for a time also known as the Torre Santa Clara, after a nearby city gate by the same name. The city gate, the Portail Santa Clara, was, in turn, named after a nearby convent which was occupied in the 13th century by the Clarisses – the nuns of the order of Santa Clara who were eventually to be required to leave their convent.

After it ceased to be used for the defence of the city, the tower became a slaughterhouse and was renamed the Tour de la Boucherie, ‘tower of the butchery’, or the Tour de l’Écorchoir – an écorchoir being a place where the carcasses were flayed. After it was no longer needed as a slaughterhouse, it was used to store furniture.

By 2018, but presumably long before, it was in partial ruin and overgrown with vegetation. One could walk up to its darkened window hole on the ground floor, look in, and see signs of occupation by campers or the homeless – sleeping bags, collapsed tents and various personal possessions strewn among the rubble in the dim light on the tower floor.

Reuse: Two Old Buildings Outside Town

Two structures on what used to be the northern slope of the Mouleyrès hill, outside town to the north-east, were known as La Morgue and La Poudrière – ‘the morgue’ and ‘the powder-house’ – and still existed in 1992. They were at that time being used for storage by the Municipal Service for the Distribution of Garbage Bags.

Hypothesis about Pompeii and Arles

We read a study of the remains of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii and wonder if, by closely examining what is known about Pompeii, we can tell something about the types of structures and the layout of the shops, homes, workshops and streets, including the widths of the streets, of Roman Arles, which was about 134 years old at the time Pompeii was buried under volcanic ash. The side streets in Pompeii that ran off the broad main Via dell’Abbondanza varied in width, but most were three to five metres wide. These widths easily correspond to the widths of the smaller streets of the old centre of Arles.

The Roman Roads: Buried

In the city of Narbonne, another important Roman colonial city of Provence, a section of Roman road has been uncovered and is on display in the main square, before the Hôtel de Ville. It is conceivable that throughout the old part of Narbonne, and also throughout the old part of Arles, the Roman roads remain, three or four metres below the surface of the present-day pavements.

The Vanished Parish Church

Where cafés, houses and shops now line the east side of the place du Forum, including the famous café now painted yellow that Van Gogh depicted in his Café Terrace at Night, there once stood a parish church, St Lucien, and its cemetery. We walk downhill through a narrow street in the evening, with the intention of entering the place du Forum and passing through it on our way to dinner. The street we walk down to reach the place du Forum, having been mostly straight all the way downhill, when it is nearly there strangely bends to the right and then to the left again just before it reaches the place. What it is doing is skirting the spot where the old cemetery was. The same road, as it was a few hundred years ago, swung wide of the cemetery, and so does the road as it is now, though the cemetery is no longer there. ‘Historiographic tradition’ has it that the foundations of this church date back to the sixth century. Parts of it, specifically the lower, southern side of the nave, are preserved in neighbouring houses. And if you go into the Hôtel de Ville, which is nearby, and down the metal staircase into the gloomy, damp Roman Cryptoportico, and walk through it to its northern gallery, you will be able to see, underground, the apse of this church and the base of the altar of the lower chapel.

Brief Notes

Little girls of the sixth century might wear gold earrings and bracelets, and might chatter among themselves in church.

Within the famous and much visited St Trophime cloisters, with their finely carved and not uniform pillars, the central space, now a rectangle of mossy gravel and crisscrossing paths, was once the canons’ cemetery.

In the 15th century, some of the Jews of Arles, in their wills, would include legacies of olive oil for lighting lamps in the synagogue.

The Gallo-Romans were great consumers of bread and gruel (bouillie de gruau).

French writers writing about France and French history sometimes refer to the country as ‘our hexagon’.

In the vestibule of the chapel of the Blue Penitents, one could still see, in the 18th century, a door which was once that of the synagogue. But the destruction done to the Chapel of the Penitents in the late 19th century during the construction of the waterworks wiped out the last vestiges of the synagogue.

From Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in France, Part II (1884 edition): ‘The country about Arles is solitary, and suspicious-looking tramps are often seen prowling about. A good thick stick, therefore, is an appropriate companion for a pedestrian.’

Murray’s Handbook notes that the Camargue, in its climate, soil and even fauna, resembles Africa and the borders of the Nile more than it does France.

The Plan de la Cour, in the 18th century, was once laid with fine polychrome paving. Carts, carriages and wagons were not allowed into the courtyard, only people on foot.

Most of the buildings of the old part of Arles are from the 17th and 18th centuries.

In official documents of the Middle Ages, at least some of them, nobles were always identified as nobles, at each mention of their name, and Jews always identified as Jews.

At the time of the Revolution, there was a well called the Puits de la Trinité in the rue de la République, in front of the Hôtel Laval-Castellane, a private house that is now a museum, the Museon Arlaten. It was the last public well in Arles, and was gone by the late 1800s.

The stone mouldings under the windows of some houses are renderings of the drapery hung out on special occasions, for royal visits, for instance. Arles at least twice hosted kings of France – Louis XIII in 1622 and Louis XIV in 1660 – after the visit of the sickly young Charles IX in 1564.

In the 17th century, the Angelus used to ring daily from about forty churches. We heard the bells just once, soon after our arrival.

Shipping along the river was mainly of stones, wheat, salt and fish.

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Vol. 43 No. 17 · 9 September 2021

In her piece about Arles, a city on a very small hill in the southern Rhone valley, Lydia Davis mentions an old photograph depicting a sheep turning back to look at its flock (LRB, 12 August). Sheep are as central to Arles as its many named winds. In a passage on transhumance and nomadism in early modern Europe in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), Fernand Braudel explains:

Arles in the 16th century, and possibly for four or five centuries previously, was the capital of large-scale summer transhumance, controlling the flocks of the Camargue and especially of the Crau [hills to the east of the city], sending them every year along the routes of the Durance valley to the high pastures of the Oisans, the Dévoluy, the Vercors, and even to the Maurienne and Tarentaise. This was a real ‘peasant capital’: it was where the ‘capitalists’ lived – the top sheep farmers were still known by that name in recent times – and it was where notaries drew up and registered contracts.

The transhumance carries on, although the sheep of the Camargue are now more usually ferried to upland pastures by lorry. Some flocks are still driven on by shepherds and dogs, and I have seen them in the fields east and west of Apt in the spring, heading for the higher ground. In the vast unenclosed prairie lands north of Banon, on the slopes of the Alps of Haute Provence, flocks of sheep are protected by dogs trained to see off foxes and rustlers, and to scare lone walkers from their paths. Meanwhile, the capitalists of Arles tend not to have the same interest in sheep as they did five hundred years ago.

Inigo Thomas
London NW1

Lydia Davis tells us of St Caesarius (c.470-543 AD) at Arles but doesn’t mention the Synod or Council of Arles in 314 AD, whose record in textually variable recensions of the Acta Concilii Arelatensis gives the first direct reference to British bishops, three of whom attended (two of them from York) together with a number of lesser clergy. This is the clearest evidence of the significance of Arles then as a centre of Western Christianity, already widespread even though Constantine had legalised freedom of worship only the year before by the Edict of Milan.

Peter Fox
Husthwaite, North Yorkshire

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