We’d already seen this monumental building in the square, or Place du Palaises , which turned out to be the Palace of the Popes, or Palais des Papes. It is a 14th Century gothic fortress exuding power with a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. The massive walls tower above the other large buildings around the perimeter of the Place, and even dwarf the large Place itself. The few and very small windows add to a sense of impenetrability. There is nothing about it that looks like ‘suffer the little children’… Once inside the walls, the scale of the courtyards and halls continue to loom, and would strike fear and awe into any visitor, regardless of rank, underscoring the papal claim to supreme power on earth as well as the keys to heaven and hell.
It is now mostly bare inside, but when it was the papal residence, it was an exhibition space for untold wealth and incredible luxury – emphasising the difference between this mortal and any other. One pope actually saw art and beauty as the pinnacle of worship. Nothing was spared to ensure the very best tapestries, furnishings and art and music, sacred or secular, continued to amaze and humble those who visited within the walls. Though another, of Dominican persuasion, was appalled by this and attempted to tone things down a bit while he was ensconced…
Yet it seemed significant to me that the golden Mary (Avignon was decreed a Marian city) atop of the cathedral next door, was and is outside this holy of holies. It was quite frightening in a way, all about power and manoeuvring for power, and definitely not a place where women had any place. The building is empty now except for some effigies of dead popes, broken noses and all, and models and diagrams of its architectural development. The popes and their courts are all long dead, and their seat of power returned to Rome. All the luxurious art and beauty once here, also long gone. I kept thinking of Shelley’s Ozymandias and wondering what it was it all for…
I’m wondering too, if back in those days people who were totally unthreatening to the powerful (or could perhaps be manipulated by the powerful?) were much more likely to become saints, like the shepherd Bénezet of the bridge. Hmmm… this may mean there’s hope yet…
Coming back from the Palaise de Papes and feeling quite exhausted and overwhelmed by it all, we happened upon Monique’s cute and quiet little restaurant Mets Délices – with her amazing ‘sandwiches’ which brought us back to the here and now. Well, we ordered these ‘sandwiches’ and she came out laden with these sort of half size baguettes stuffed with goodies. We said we couldn’t possibly eat all that, and she a bit concerned, then replied emphatically that we certainly could. So we tried, and found that actually we couldn’t stop, so it wasn’t really a problem at all – nor was the tart citron that followed! So keep her in mind when you’re next in Avignon! She is a really lovely person, the food was excellent and very reasonably priced.
Then, more magic! As we ambled back through the streets we came across this beautiful old church with exquisite carving both in the stone and the doors so stopped for a closer look. Then the pipe organ started up! We were wrapt! The organist was having a bit of a practice, but there were also lots of flowers in the church and a couple of chaps dressed up with pink ties, and we thought something festive was about to happen. The organist finished and a guitarist and singer started warming up as we went outside to see a bunch of guests started arriving all dressed up walking across the little square. Then coming down the narrow lane towards and past us was the bride! On foot, on the cobblestones, with her brood of young attendants milling around her. Of course we had to stop again as she peered around the corner wondering where her dad was and her mother, looking very chic, came to make sure she was OK. She waved people into the church (though they were too busy with triple cheek greetings for obedience) and kept her enthusiastic brood in check. She has to be a teacher!! The bells started ringing, the organ playing again, and the happy crowd all went inside – smiles and happiness all around, so we thought it was time to discreetly depart.
Here, church was still a place of beauty, but one of joy, community, celebration and inclusion which seemed to have little to do with where we’d been earlier.
The Petit Palais www.petit-palais.org/ – (It would be grand rather than petit, I am sure, if it weren’t facing onto the same Place as the Palais de Papes!) The Petit Palais houses an exceptional collection of Provencal and Italian art from the 13th-16th centuries including paintings and sculpture. The work is religious art, arranged by school and century so you can clearly see the development from Middle Ages and ‘iconic’, to the more humanistic Renaissance. And the development between different ‘schools’, and even the different painters within a school – Venetians, Florentines, French, Spanish and Provencal artists. I didn’t expect to be so absorbed by all this! I loved it. AND I am sure I saw paintings by Andrea Bartolo – a lone female presence in an art world dominated by a masculine academy and a masculine perspective and ethos on art.
And I discovered my first painting of St Antoine! (St Anthony – who always finds me good parking spaces!) Someone told me he has been de-sainted now, but that’s OK by me because he won’t be so busy with everyone else, and I am sure he hasn’t changed, so I am very happy to have him more to myself. I would have loved to have taken a pickie, but anyway, he looks very wise and kind.
It is also strange to see how odd Mary often looks – quite distorted anatomically – in one painting one of her breasts looks to be under her arm and another almost under her chin, and often her facial features are lopsided! And I know they were trying to portray the baby Jesus as wise beyond lifetimes, but so often he just looks like a grotesque old man… quite spooky. With time he develops into a real baby, and Mary too is visually treated much better. I think they needed more women artists perhaps a little sooner!
There was so much else to see in Avignon which will have to wait til next time. We’re still enjoying France and things French, but there are times I go into overwhelm. Seeing really famous art just lying all over the place – all the postcards springing to life every time I walk out the door, the ‘buskers’ being really good musicians, – just everything. Sometimes I just need to catch my breath, remind myself I will never see or be able to experience it all, but to just soak it up like mad – as much as I can while I can. Seize the day, the moment. It’s no dress rehearsal.
On the way back to the bus an Australian voice called out ‘Tina!!’ in the crowds. We looked around, thinking, there couldn’t be another one here, yet not believing they were really calling Tina either. And there was a friend we hadn’t seen for quite a while. A lovely surprise! She is on a cycling tour around the region with friends before going to Italy for a Vespa tour and other frivolities, so I am sure she’s having a fab time. In all the rush with us catching our bus we didn’t swap phone numbers or anything so had no way of following up! We’ll just have to swap notes when we get home.
And another magical thing. One of my very favourite sculptures, so a really special memory of Avignon. Miquel Barceló’s huge bronze gran elephant dret in the Place de Palais while we were there. I’d origianlly seen a picture of it in an art magazine when it was on exhibition in a sculpture garden in New York. I just love its hugeness and its joy. So it was the most wonderful surprise coming into the Place and seeing it right there in front of me – children climbing up the dais around it and hugging its trunk, the little train taking off in front of it, sort of thumbing its nose at the Palais de Papes, and Mary shining gold in the hot blue sky smiling down on him and he doing a handstand for her – sorry, a trunk stand!
Heather and Tina