Monday, 6 July 2015

The Papal Palace in Avignon and Following Van Gogh

Walking towards the Palais des Papes or papal palace in Avignon
It's really hot in the south of France today, hitting 34 degrees, but a friend back in Hong Kong told me temperatures are between 33 to 35 degrees plus humidity. However mornings and evenings are nice here in en Provence, though it's scorching hot during the day.

The Avignon Bridge inspired by Saint Benezet
Before going into the papal palace or Palais des Papes, we saw the Avignon Bridge that spans the Rhone River. It was built due to the inspiration of Saint Benezet, a shepherd boy who heard the voice of Jesus Christ tell him to build a bridge over the river.

He was ridiculed at first, but was soon believed after Benezet miraculously lifted a giant boulder. The bridge was built from 1177 to 1185 and when Benezet died, his body was interred in the chapel above the bridge. It has since been moved to another chapel.

The papal palace was also a fortified fortress
However, the bridge does not go across the river completely -- the water there runs so fast that it was difficult to keep rebuilding the bridge and the lack of funds resulted in giving up on completing the bridge and it has been left as it is since 1669.

The bridge is also famous for the song, Sur le Pont d'Avignon... but I barely remember the lyrics from when I sang it in elementary school!

After a few pictures of the bridge, we visited the papal palace that began construction in 1252. Pope Clement V was elected in 1305 and at the time two Italian families sparked a civil war in Italy, making it unsafe for the pope, and so he chose another place that was a state for the church, that happened to be Avignon.

The palace was also a fortress, and the tower in particular is very protected, as the pope's living quarters were there, as well as the treasury where gold, jewellery and his clothing were kept, and the other "treasury" was the wine cellar.

The Langlois Bridge that van Gogh painted
The pope's living quarters were very lavishly decorated -- there are lots of blue colour on the walls, which originated from lapis lazuli, a semi precious stone, and the floral motifs include lots of birds, as it was believed these creatures were symbols of paradise. Green colours were made from vegetables, notably spinach. His library also contained 2,000 books which was a lot during the 14th century.

Seven popes stayed here and during this time it led to the Papal Schism, where there was a pope in Avignon and one in Rome. Our guide said the two popes had similar outlooks so it wasn't too much of a problem.

But the last pope, Antipope Benedict XIII (antipope meaning the opposition to the pope in Rome), finally returned to the Vatican after Catherine of Siena convinced him to return, and the next pope was elected in 1378.

The amphitheatre is still being used for events like bullfights
The papal palace also has a large austere room where the cardinals gathered to elected the next pope. Instead of smoke, the bells were rung to signal a new pope was elected.

While the last pope took all the tapestries, gold, wine and furniture back to the Vatican, it was sad to hear that during the French Revolution the papal palace was severely damaged, with frescoes destroyed and statues beheaded.

We also got to see the "haute cuisine", or a large room with holes where spits would have been to roast up to seven or eight whole cows at a time to feed 300 people. The French came up with the word "barbecue", as barb means "head" and queue for "tail".

The hospital in which van Gogh stayed in and painted
In the dining area, there was a fireplace to heat up food, and the pope sat opposite the fireplace. He also had an instrument to test food for poison. The pope also figuratively didn't sleep lying down -- it meant death -- so he slept in a chair...

Our next stop was Arles, which was one time was a Roman colony in the 1st century BC. We saw some reminders of the town's Roman history -- the amphitheatre, circus and arc of triumph are still standing and continue to be used today.

Theatres are still used for performances, while the amphitheatre, formerly the location for gladiator fights and races, is now the place for bull fights, with one coming up on July 18.

At the asylum in St Remy is van Gogh's bedroom
But the other important historical importance of Arles is that Vincent van Gogh spent a year here in 1888 and was inspired by the brilliant colours he saw here, and felt the sky was bluer here than in Paris.

He painted such works as Bedroom in Arles, The Night Cafe, Cafe Terrace at Night, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers. We also saw the Langlois Bridge that van Gogh also painted.

Painted Paul Gauguin visited van Gogh, who hoped the two could paint together, but after a while they quarreled, and Gauguin left, due to personal differences (Gauguin was arrogant and domineering, while van Gogh admired him and desperate to make their friendship work).

This was the view from his studio across from the bedroom
Van Gogh ended up in a hospital here, a yellow and blue-trimmed building with a nice courtyard filled with colourful flowers. However he didn't stay there long as other patients felt he was too crazy.

He then went to Sainte Remy in 1889, in an asylum that was a former monastery. It's set in the middle of nowhere really, some Roman ruins nearby, and olive trees. Inside there is an arched hallway and another pretty floral courtyard.

Then upstairs we saw the small bedroom van Gogh lived in, the small bed and the tiled rustic floor, and the window had a view of the countryside -- and in our case we saw a small patch of lavender in the backyard.

The fragrant lavender bushes grown behind the asylum
He also had a small room across his bedroom in which he could paint, and it looked down on the courtyard, though he was also allowed to paint outside with an escort. It's a pity the small museum only houses photographic reproductions of his paintings, not even decent copies like Monet's house in Giverny.

Nevertheless, it gave us a good idea of where van Gogh spent another year here, seeing what he saw, and imagining how he was inspired by his surroundings.

Tragically a year later, van Gogh's mental state deteriorated and on July 27, 1890, he apparently shot himself in the chest, though the gun was never found and there were no witnesses. He died 29 hours later.

A bronze statue of van Gogh with sunflowers
In the last few years of his life van Gogh was prolific, making 43 self-portraits and a number of his now famous works that can be found in Musee d'Orsay, and MOMA to name a few.

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