Roman Monuments In France
( Originally Published 1938 )
Spring hesitated on the verge of coming to Provence and the delta of the Rhone. The hot sun of Roussillon, glistening on the brightly painted boats of Collioure and a metallic sea, was a memory, and I was back where I had been a month before, when I had looked out over the tiled roofs of Carcassonne, rejoicing in its mild airs. I remembered how wonderful it had been, after the deathly coma of January in London, to wake up for the first time in the south and feel the warm breath of the morning at the open window, and to see the sunshine, a spilled radiance on the grey stones of the ancient town. As then in the valley of the Aude, the winter was over in Nimes, it was what we call spring in England, but not yet that season of settled warmth and luxuriance which they understand by that term in the south. The days were alternately cool and sunny, the nights cold, and one looked out of the window before going out without an overcoat.
I saw the Maison Carree, described as the most perfect example of a Roman temple in existence, and a favourite object of Victorian aesthetic pilgrimage, on numerous occasions and under differing skies. Let me begin by describing it, as nearly as I can, in the language appropriate to such a shrine. The building, which dates from the first years of the Christian era, and is in a magnificent state of preservation, is a pseudoperipteral temple, prostyle and hexastyle, with thirty columns of the Corinthian order, of which twenty are engaged, and stands on a high podium, or base. It measures eighty-two feet in length by forty in width, and is forty feet high; the columns, which are fluted, are surmounted by richly decorated capitals and entablature. There you have it. The Maison Carree is a connoisseur's piece, with all the merits and all the shortcomings that this implies. The Victorians rightly praised its workmanship; more than nineteen centuries of weathering have bestowed on its fabric an exquisite patine; yet somehow it remains one of those buildings which look better in photographs than they do in reality. It is beautiful, very beautiful, but it is not quite perfect; and one demands perfection from a work of art as elaborate and as deliberately tasteful as this temple.
Perhaps its situation, in a square not quite large enough to hold it comfortably, is a little against it. Photography's falsification of perspective creates an appearance of grandeur not possessed by the actual building, whose qualities are rather those of the small, the exquisite, the precious. I have heard it said that extensive restoration has made the Maison Carree more of a neo-classical building than a Roman one. But were it really a neo-classical building, it would be better placed. Still, if one cannot share the Victorian enthusiasm for the exquisite taste and perfection of this temple, one can easily understand it. Everything about the Maison Carree is very sumptuous and solid, and looks as if it had cost an immense amount of money. You may see these richly decorated capitals faithfully copied in the portico of many an early Victorian house in the more solid of the London suburbs. These are good houses, the effect is very pleasant. Would that this last link with the classical tradition had not been severed, and that the Gothic revival had never been heard of! The Maison Carree may not be perfect, but think of St Pancras Station! It is an appalling and solemn thought that the complete loss of taste and standards in all ordinary domestic architecture, which we have come to take for granted, is only about seventy years old.
Of the remaining Roman monuments at Nimes, the most interesting is the Temple of Diana. This is one of those things to which the compiler of guide-books is delighted to be able to apply the term "so-called." It was probably a nymphaeum connected with the adjoining baths. A nymphaeum was originally a shrine to the naiads of the springs. The Romans of A.D. 1 did not believe in such things, though they said they did, but built the nymphaeum just the same, and used it to lounge in, perhaps to chat in, and for the celebration of marriages, a notion that I find rather charming; for the naiads were the goddesses of the fructifying water, who gave increase to mankind for their pleasure, and the sprinkling of the bride with spring water had always been a necessary rite of the wedding ceremony. There is not a great deal of the nymphaeum left, but what there is has been very charmingly arranged, with plants in tubs and such things, and there is a good deal of pleasant greenery about, for the place stands at the edge of the lovely Jardin de la Fontaine. Despite all that one has heard of Roman materialism, it is not difficult to imagine that there still lingers in these green bowers, and among these old sun-warmed stones, the presence of a frail and amorous goddess, kind and fair. Such pretty conceits are not in vogue to-day, but I have not heard that any age was the poorer for indulging in them, or that any one is the richer for their loss. Ah, me! It is a long way back to the Greek origin of these agree-able illusions, and there is not much of the apple tree and the singing and the gold for any of us today, perhaps.
The rest of the memorials within the town itself amount to nothing very much. There are some remains of the Roman fortifications, there is the Tour Magne, of which no one knows the original use: it was probably a watch-tower. The cathedral is very old, but has been rebuilt and altered in almost every century since the eleventh. It is chiefly remarkable for an ancient carved stone frieze, in which scenes from Genesis are depicted with that sturdy laboriousness which is at the same time proper to the medium, and suggestive of an almost painfully intense sincerity. The exterior of the building is a strange jumble of styles, but looks well enough, because of the fine colour of its fabric. The indescribable beauty and richness time confers on old stone is something one is apt to forget in the grey towns of the north. The inside mostly restored in the nineteenth century, is nothing, except for the lady chapel, a charming little Renaissance salon, decorated with angels like amorini. Give it a window with a prospect, and it would make a perfect setting in which to drink chocolate and listen to a little chamber music.
But about twelve miles from Nimes, at the point where the road to Uzes crosses the river Gard, stands that monument to Roman might and engineering skill which is, perhaps, the most remarkable and impressive of them all. I drove out to the Pont du Gard on a day which had some-thing of the character we understand by Spring in England. For the first time since coming south I heard birds singing among deciduous trees to the accompaniment of the sound of running water. On the previous evening the mistral had blown, I had walked shivering in an overcoat through grey streets; and the contrast of this morning's sunshine increased the resemblance to England, where good weather usually comes as a respite from bad. The day had that peculiarity we always notice on any spring day in northern Europe, that it seems like the first. "This morning," one says, "this morning the world stirs and awakes to life!"
The grandiosity of Roman ideas! one thinks, looking at the vast structure flung across the valley. This aqueduct was built to last for a millennium or two, and it has done so. Since the nineteenth century a certain amount of restoration has been done, it is true; but against this must be set the wanton damage inflicted on it at the time of the barbarian invasions, but for which no more than such customary maintenance as any building needs would have pre-served Agrippa's legacy for us in its original condition.
Everybody is familiar, through photographs, with the three tiers of arches spanning the river; but the immense size of the aqueduct, and particularly its height, are only realized when you have stood immediately below it, and then walked along the top, a hundred and sixty feet above the ground, traversing the long-disused channel through which the water supply of Nimes once ran in the course of its twenty-five mile journey from Uzes. The fact that this colossal structure, like the amphitheatre, was built without the use of mortar, apart from the cement used to make the channel watertight, gives a new meaning to such phrases as are mumbled by civic dignitaries over foundation stones. And as works of art, apart from their merits as good building jobs, both the aqueduct and the amphitheatre are superior, in my opinion, to the deliberately artistic Maison Carree. The Romans understood grandeur, but not fineness. The Maison Carree has neither the sublimity of a genuine Greek temple, nor the self-conscious elegance of a Renaissance imitation. The amphitheatre is a great, coarse, sturdy, beautiful building; the aqueduct is also sturdy, but it is graceful too. The eighteenth-century bridge which is contiguous with the lowest story detracts from the effect a little; without it one would realize better the extraordinary narrowness of the structure in proportion to its great height. No Roman or Romanesque building can ever be said to leap or soar in that restless, dynamic Gothic fashion which is often as embarrassing as the inexpert posturing of a ballet-dancer; but one might say of this one with more aptitude than of most that it is poised.
It was a nasty, cynical mistrust of restaurants close to places haunted by the tourist that led me to neglect those by the Pont du Gard, though I have no reason to suppose they are not excellent, and seek refreshment at the neighbouring village of Remoulins. Remoulins is reached by a sort of Waterloo Bridge, which is either being built or falling down, I am not sure which; and I cannot better record my opinion of the place than by saying that I do not care. In the end I lunched poorly at a wayside restaurant catering for lorry-drivers—great strong men who will crunch up a horse, bones and all, as you or I would a lark. In the afternoon I returned to Nimes. It was hot; it was a Saturday. The fair in the Boulevard Jean-Jaures was doing a tremendous business. Those little cars which career about, not quite steered by their occupants, and whose attraction lies in the sense of irresponsibility they confer, that release from the sanctions of too civilized living which the more sophisticated find in wine, women, and the Marx Brothers, were the most popular draw, as they always are. Attendants who had mastered the art of deliberately maneuvring these unruly chariots found employment in colliding with the girls who were not receiving enough amateur attention. The number of bumps sustained by a car containing an unattached young woman, or a promenading pair, is the measure of the sex-appeal of its cargo; for, even though you can't steer the thing, some sort of clumsy satyr-like pursuit is possible, which is yet another proof that love will find a way.
The thing down which one slides was the next in popularity, a proving-ground for male hardihood. There were many stalls which sold sweets and other confections, not the vile stuff one sees at fairs in England, but good wholesome-looking things; there were any number of booths at which one was invited to test one's skill in shooting, hoop-la, and so forth; but few side-shows of the old-fashioned monstrous sort, and only one of any interest. A poster depicting a terrified bather in the clutches of a hideous and terrifying aqueous creature invited one to inspect the Living Sub-marine Monster: Price of Admission, One Franc. I paid my franc to a man dressed as a sailor, who kept up a continuous hypnotic chant in eulogy of the creature's fierceness and awe-inspiring rapacity. There was a large tank in the middle of the platform. A prey to the appropriate emotions, I approached the tank. I peered over the edge: a harmless and well-disposed sea-lion looked up at me with intelligent, gentle eyes, and, at its trainer's bidding, performed a slow-motion sideways roll, displaying its gleaming innocent belly to my regard.