12 January 2017
Emilie Capulet continues her musings on Aix, following a trip to the city this Christmas during which she prepared for her new ACE tour in April, Festival de Pâques in Aix-en-Provence.
Emilie Capulet reports back from Aix...
When I was 11 years old, I left my village primary school to study at the Aix Music Conservatoire and the Collège Mignet. Too far to travel in every day from home on the famous Nationale 7 road, we bought a small apartment under the eaves in one of Aix’s old buildings, only minutes away from the Cours Mirabeau. It certainly got very hot under the roof in the summer but we had magnificent views over the red tiles of the city!
Every day of the week, I would walk to school down Aix’s famous central tree-lined avenue, the Cours Mirabeau which was originally created in 1652 along the walls of the city, to separate the old city to the north from the ‘new’ Mazarin quarters to the South. Cafés line the north side, their popular terraces facing the warmth of the sun, and on the shady south side which I used to walk down, one can find banks situated in the elegant 17th century residences (called hôtels particuliers). Aix is a town of beautiful warm ochre hues and this is particularly noticeable along the Cours. These historic residences were mostly built out of the distinctive warm-toned stone taken from the Carrières de Bibemus, a quarry near the Sainte-Victoire Mountain used since the Roman times and painted by Cézanne. A striking feature of many of the hotels particuliers were the giant Caryatids, holding up the world and making sure the first floor balconies would not fall down!
Image: Cours Mirabeau
Le Bon Roi René
The legacies of the Bon Roi René (1409-1480), whose statue is to be seen at the top of the Cours, are wide and far-reaching. He had a very great impact on the city in terms of its arts and culture and you can still buy today the traditional ‘calisson’, a small diamond-shaped sweet made with ground almonds, which are said to have been created by one of his chefs. The Roi René statue dominates the top of the Cours. It was inaugurated in 1823. Some say however, that the sculptor, David D’Angers, ran out of time to complete the commission and sent a representation of Louis XII instead! The Aixois had indeed a good idea of what the Roi René looked like as he was depicted in Nicholas Froment’s Le Buisson Ardent triptych, commissioned by the King himself. We will be able to see the triptych during our visit to the Cathedral and you can make up your own mind as to whether the statue looks like the painting…
The Roi René was the second son of Louis II (who had founded the University in Aix). At the death of his elder brother, René inherited the Comté of Provence. The death of his cousin Jeanne II suddenly made him King of Naples, but he lost Naples in a fight to the King of Aragon. He returned to France without a kingdom but kept his title and set up his palace in Aix, capital of his Comté de Provence. Whilst the Roi René’s father, King Louis II, had founded a University in Aix in 1409, the town truly became a cultural centre when Roi René, great patron of the arts, invited painters, musicians and poets to stay with him.
Image: Statue of Roi René
Les Deux Garçons
Though there must be over 20 cafés lining the Cours Mirabeau, near the top of the Cours is the famous Deux Garçons café, known as ‘Les deux G’. Situated in one of the historic hôtels particuliers of 1660, the café itself dates back to 1792. Two of its waiters (or ‘garçons’), Guidoni and Guérini, bought it in 1840 and gave it its current name. In the 20th century, it was frequented by Raimu, Minstingett, Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Milhaud, Zola, Churchill, Piaf, Cézanne, Francis Poulenc, Sartre, Blaise Cendrars, Trenet, Delon, Belmondo and all the singers who performed at the Aix Summer Opera Festival. Following on in this tradition, I once had drinks in this café with the Chilean painter Julio Fabres, a long-standing friend of my family, after a particularly successful exhibition of his works in the town hall.
Strolling down the Cours, you will notice that the waters of the town spring out of the three 17th century fountains, one which is completely covered in moss and often seen steaming in the winter months. At the bottom of the Cours is a large fountain in the Art-Deco style, erected in 1860.
Image: Deux Garçons café
One of the festival concerts of Baroque religious music by Pergolesi and Vivaldi will be taking place in the splendid surroundings of the St Sauveur Cathedral. St Sauveur is steeped in history, having been built on the original Roman forum. Indeed, Aix takes its name from the camp of the Roman Consul Caius Sextius Calvinus. His garrison destroyed the original Celtic-Ligurian tribe of the Salyens in 122BC who had established their capital, Entremont on the high ground. The Roman camp was subsequently built in the plain on the site of the current Cathedral, by the warm thermal springs and named Aquae Sextiae Salluviorum, in reference to both the waters of Sextius and those Salyen inhabitants who escaped slavery.
It is in the open quadrant of the Romanesque cloister that I gave my first piano recital aged 14. I performed Beethoven and Chopin! Dating from the 12th century, the cloister has beautiful columns with sculpted capitals. At the four corners, you can see representations of the four evangelists in animal form.
Image: Cathedral cloister
At the back of the Cathedral, one can still see the Roman paving stones which covered one of the principal roman arteries of the city. The octogonal baptistry was built in the 5th or 6th century during the Merovingian period on the Roman forum. The columns which surround it were probably taken from the Roman temple of Apollo situated nearby. The Baptistry received the warm waters of the Roman baths.
The Romanesque parts of the building were built in the 11th century though integrates many gallo-Roman walls. The façade was defigured during the French revolution though luckily the three ornate walnut door panels of 1505-1508 were preserved.