Friday, September 23, 2011

Talking to the stones

Call me jaded. Spoiled if you prefer. It isn't that I don't appreciate Arles' many amazing Roman monuments, I adore them. It is just that I spend so much time amongst them that I tend to not think on their history; I don't carry it around in my pocket. I pass more time admiring their bones. Just another extension of my love for patina, I suppose. Not to mention that I find in their age a sense of comfort and calm for they are worn but beautiful.

At the entry to the Théâtre Antique this morning, the pin-striped blonde gazed up at me with an erased expression as I handed over my passport as well as my free entry pass to the monuments that all Arlesians are entitled to have. She handed it back to me in silence. "C'est bon?" I finally stammered. She blinked. "Oui." I do hope that she is more charming with her paying visitors. 

Ben was with me, welcome as long as he is on his leash and soon he was scrabbling ahead over the pock-marked plaza encasing the arched remains.  The Antique Theatre was edified in 1 BC as part of an effort by Emperor Augustus to develop the urbanization of what was then called Arelate. And what a project it must have been. It was one of the very first such Roman theatres to be built entirely in stone and the cavea or hemicycle could hold ten thousand people! For those of you that know the theatre in Orange, it was just as large, if not even more ornate in its presentation. Alas, time was not nearly as kind to our theatre. By the 5th century AD, the stone was quarried for the construction of a Christian basilica, one that was located where St. Trophime rises today. Along the back wall of the stage, hundreds of columns lined three levels, only two of which still stand. Of the statues that filled the walls niches, happily, the Vénus d'Arles was dug up in 1651 and offered to Louis XIV. Today, she is one of the Louvre's stars. 

By the 7th century, the walls they were a'tumblin' down. Housing for the towns ever expanding population spread across the area. Miraculously, the Jesuits established a college, one later occupied by the Souers de la Miséricorde, in which the two columns were left untouched in a courtyard. Further archeological finds were added to the small garden and it was opened to the public from 1755-1789. The theatre was slowly uncovered starting in 1828 thanks to the efforts of then mayor, the Baron de Chartrouse, who was the first to rally around the importance of saving Arles' historic monuments. In 1981, it was listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, guaranteeing its protection well into the future.

Can you hear the Roman ghosts calling in the orchestra? As much as this former actress would like to think so, I have to say no. It is just the twittering of birds and tourists that fill the air. But what a bunch of beautiful dust. While a group poses on the proscenium of the stage, Ben and I climb up to meet the sun. Ben loves this, me less so but it is worth it for the breathing space at the top, the view opening beyond and on to the neighboring Arena. Amazing to think of the cries of the actors mingled with the shouts of the gladiators in Roman times. The audiences wandering between the two in an overstimulated daze.

I am always moved by the details, the carving that has been nearly smothered by the wind, column bases giving only the barest of hints of former glory. Amazing to imagine its height doubling upwards from where I sit. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the theatre is still used for many events. But that is superficial, just traipsing figures, passing shadows. So in the morning light, I sit with my sleeping dog and talk to the stones, hoping that they have some wisdom to share with me.


  1. Hello Heather:
    Oh, how wonderful all of this is. How we should long to be with you to breathe the past, to brush the patina of age and, as you so vividly express it, to talk to the stones. Let us, by all means be sightseers, but pray let us be discerning ones.

  2. Thank you dear Jane and Lance. This is my favorite time of year in Arles, the light practically caresses the stones, so warm. Is it the same in Budapest? And I do believe that the last phrase of your comment could end up being a motto on how to live life!

    PS. I was very excited to discover two really amazing blogs today--and when I clicked to comment on the first, French Sampler, there you were! the second is Un Femme d'un Certain Age, which is just so straight on witty and perfect. If you don't know it, I do believe that you would get a kick out of it!

  3. Hello Heather
    Your outing today which also included your dog reads like a very memorable special day

    I smiled at your reference to the gatekeeper and her"erased expression" a beautiful prelude to the patina and lines and crevices you write about
    Have a wonderful weekend

  4. I sit here shaking my head in disbelief that you can be surrounded by so much ancient history, and yet it is just part of the everyday landscape. Coming from such a country as Australia, where our ancient human history is only apparent in very few places {Kakadu, for example, which is mind blowing but very remote} and where all of our cities are very, very young, this idea of just being able to pop out for a walk to see these ancient stones is one that completely, utterly fascinates me.

    And importantly, did the stones impart the desired wisdom? I bet they did, because you were in the right frame of mind to be open to contemplation. Virginia x

  5. How beautiful Heather and I have to say I a tad jealous that you get to sit among all those stunning ruins. Just think of the hands that did all those beautiful designs so long ago I love this kind of history that lives on to tell another tale! Enjoy your weekend!

  6. Heather,
    Love your history lessons!Tell me are you toting a camera around or are you using your phone?The photos are stunning!You have made me want to come to ARLES with your gorgeous photos.Think I'll forget Paris and just come to your neck of the woods!Would BEN be available as a tour guide??!!!!

  7. Thank you so much for all of your comments ladies. Helen--you make me look smarter than I am--that juxtapostion was, sadly, unintentional. :)
    Virginia and Debra, having grown up in the Mid West of the States, I don't take all of this for granted, especially as it is the reason why we moved to Arles in the first place.
    And yes, La Contessa, Ben would be available for a small fee. He definitely knows all of the best spots!

  8. Heather what a lovely evocative post, There is just something about Roman architecture that sends us back into time, maybe it's because we know so much about the Romans thanks to all the evidence, heritage and culture they left behind. One thing is for sure, those stones that have witnessed so much do speak to us.

  9. What a vision...the ageless work of ancient times, remaining ornate, much more lost for all eternity. Thank you for walking us through your adopted home with such reverence. And Remi's work is fabulous! What an honor to be a part of such a noble project! Merci!

  10. Dash, I realize that I don't know as much as I thought that I did whenever the finesse in the details from that time. True, on the social scale we have advanced but artistically? Not really that much when you think on it...

    Chris, it is so true, if this is what is left, what must have it been like then???

  11. Heather, a fabulous post; all of the images and your thoughts are wonderful glimpses of the past. Arles, a place I would love to visit.

    You are the winner of my giveaway from Interieurs. Please send me your mailing information to pass along to Francine.


    Art by Karena

  12. Oh my goodness! I am so excited! I can't believe it!! Hooray!!!

  13. Bonjour Heather. Thank you for visiting my blog this morning and leaving a comment. You are welcome anytime ;-) I have become a follower of your blog. Truly enjoyed today's visit in ancient and lovely Arles. You write beautifully and are also a talented photographer! It seems there is not much you can do ;-) A bientôt, Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  14. Merci Véronique! C'est tellement gentil, ça! Je trouve que la façon qu'on s'exprime c'est un peu pareil, non? And trust me, there is so much that I can't do--I don't even know how to drive! At 42(more about that soon actually)!

    I am fascinated by Seattle--what a fabulous parcours you have had. Do you know Ally who has the blog From the Right Bank?
    She is a nomad, like me and moved from the Right Bank to Seattle and then on to Atlanta...


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