Thursday, January 19, 2012

Art and antiquities

I never take my splendid surroundings for granted. Every day, I walk through history, passing monuments of incredible importance as I go. Such it is to live in Arles. 

And of course, I am far from being la seule, the only person who knows what treasures can be found here. The Musée Départemental Arles-Antique (or the Musée Bleu as it is affectionately called by the locals in reference to the shining blue exterior) is home to one of Provence's most important collections of Roman antiquities. Last Tuesday, while the museum was closed to the public (save for groups of giggling students), Remi had a phenomenal opportunity to photograph its masterpiece and I happily agreed to be his assistant. 

The discovery of a bust of Julius Caesar in the waters of the Rhone River made headlines around the world. Although its provenance has been disputed, it is generally considered to be the oldest such bust and one of the few that was carved during his lifetime. We were able to spend hours in front of it and never tired to be under the Emperor's gaze. His brows are furrowed, from one side he appears victorious, the other defeated. Under the pop of the studio lights he seemed alive, as if he could bark out orders for us plebeians to bow out of his fine presence. Several times I was mere inches from his face. It was as good as dancing with the Mona Lisa.

Caesar and the rest of his formerly underwater companions, such as the bearded Neptune below and the floating Victoire, will be featured in an exhibition at the Louvre this March, following the monumental success of "César, le Rhone pour mémoire" in Arles in 2009. But the museum is not resting on its laurels, far from it. The archeological digs in the Rhone have continued, including the Arles Rhone 3 project that Remi is documenting for National Geographic. Currently on display is the work of Jean-Claude Golvin, an archeologist with the National Scientific Research Center that has given 1000 of his incredibly precise watercolor paintings to the museum.

The paintings have been installed to great effect. A long funeral procession enlarged to life-size lines the sculpted sarcophagi and throughout the watercolors are organized by theme to create a greater understanding of the Roman way of life. Jean-Claude Golvin's exhibition is running until May 6th in Arles and I highly recommend it. For further information, please see the Museum's website.

When Remi wasn't in need of a helping hand, I left him alone with Caesar and wandered the museum alone. What an incredible luxury to have so much beauty all to myself. I have long been fascinated by the enduring appeal of mosaics and always see something new each time I gaze at the museum's floors, found while renovating a home in Trinquetaille on the other side of the Rhone. The flow of a toga, the curve of a leopard's back...

As the afternoon wore on, the light slid across the roof, sneaking in the windows, pulling long shadows on the maquette or model that depicts what Roman Arles looked like. I could practically smell the fires burning and hear the cries emanating from the Arena.

Certainly there were elements of brutality to those times but the overwhelming sensation while regarding the artifacts is one of finesse. Such delicacy was used in the creation of even the most common objects. How much we have lost in that regard, thinking that everything is disposable with often a weary nonchalance for the seen and unseen world around us. Two steps forward, one step back, a different kind of dance. As we packed up our lights, I felt the weight of Caesar's expression one last time before the security glass separated us and wondered what he would say today if only he could speak.


  1. Fantastic photos!
    When I wander through a museum I often think of what we will leave behind, if anything at all. Nothing is meant to last as long anymore. Our economy depends on things not always lasting and so we need to buy more - cars, homes, buildings, streets, clothes, it is interesting to wonder about what will be around to represent us in thousands of years from now...plastic is the only thing I can think of.

    The Wanderfull Traveler

  2. I couldn't agree with you more Murissa, let's hope we are wrong and try to make it so!

  3. Hello Heather:
    What a marvellous opportunity to appreciate the museum's collection alone and at such close quarters. We should have loved to have been able to do that too.

    Your wonderful photographs convey the sense of place to us very strongly and we are struck by the way in which the museum seems to present its collection in a most imaginative and creative way.

    An uncle of ours many years ago had a collection of Roman lamps and glass. The glass in particular has stayed in our minds ever since as it had the most amazing myriad of colours after so many decades. The beauty and delicacy of these wonderful antiquities does, as you say, take one's breath away quite literally.

  4. What fantastic modelling and shaping on those sculptures - the photography shows it so well. Roman art can be both inspiring and formidable, and you're right - the finnesse is incredible and very basic to the image.

  5. How beautifully you have made this visit come to life for us, your readers, transported on each sentence and photograph as if we were there with you too. I can hear the whispers of soldiers past, I can see the furrowed brow and I can imagine the intense quiet of a space beholden by so few, just for a frozen moment of perfect reflection. How lucky are we to benefit from the 19th century incredible notion of a museum? As distinct from earlier peoples who simply tossed aside these treasures - such an extraordinary idea! Virginia x

  6. Terrific post and so well-timed -- our weather took a turn for the worse with an unexpected ice storm this morning and it's still coming down. Roads are terrible and outside is fit for neither man nor beast... and I'm starting to get a little stir crazy! Thanks to you, I feel like I just popped over to Arles and stood in awe gazing at Caesar and the wonders of the Romans. How marvelous! And Heather, I have to say how glad I am we've struck up our blog conversation! I'm enjoying it so! XO

  7. Heather I wish I could write like you and be able to bring things to life as you do. I felt like I was right there enjoying history at its fullest. After working for a decade in a museum I miss the quiet halls of the empty building and envy you your peace to gaze. Those urns above and how they're displayed is amazing. Thank you for taking us along.


  8. How utterly amazing! I wish I could be there to see it. Thanks for sharing your innermost thoughts & some pictures.

    ~ Clare x

  9. Thank you for my marvelous vicarious visit to the museum. I would never have known about many of these artifacts or history. What a beautiful evocative piece!

  10. Oh, I step away from the blog for a few hours and look at all of these wonderful comments that are here to greet me when I come back!

    Thank you so much everyone and am hoping that you all have an excellent weekend...

  11. Merci for the beautiful rich post. I am yet to see the museum, I attempted to visit it last year in February and it unfortunately was closed. My husband was not being cooperative in my attempt to stroll along the arenes, as the Mistral was being quite on a rampage that day with frigid temperature.
    Will you be going to the Avignon deballage? I don't think I will have enough time to make it to montpellier as i promised my parents a couple of days touring around Provence.

  12. Francine, if only we had known of each other then. :) And I don't blame your husband in the least--my poor Mom and Sister have only visited at Christmas when there is always the Mistral. Nonetheless, I hope that you enjoyed your time in Arles and if you decide to visit again, we will do our best to get you in to the museum whether it is open or not!

    Yes, we will plan to go to the Avignon deballage. I know that your parents are with you on this trip but if you would like to meet there, Remi and I would be delighted. Feel free to email me at so that I can send you my cell # (After ten years, I finally have one again!) and I would be all too happy to make suggestions about your time with them here in the area--it is precious indeed...

  13. What a wonderful way to spend your time. The older I get, the more I am fascinated by history and the skills and resorcefulness of those who have gone before us. There is a tendency to forget that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it ".
    P.S. Been away from my computer this week so I'm catching up this morning- time is too tight.

  14. Time is always too tight. Isn't that what your quote was also saying?

  15. Hello Heather
    You lucky girl! Being at the museum by yourselves must have been an incredible experience. I am sure just watching Remi photograph also provided you with additional highlights which one might otherwise not see.
    The images are fantastic and thank you for sharing this intimate day at Musée Bleu

    Helen xx

  16. Heather this would be a dream come true for me! This museum is splendid in its richness of historical finds.

    Art by Karena


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