Friday, 6 February 2015

Romanesque and Gothic: big in Toulouse

Been dragging my flu-ridden husk around south-west France, with TLC from the diplo-mate. Maybe not a great idea to have gone as I've been laid up most of this week after returning on Sunday, and spent Meistersinger class day throwing up (I'd struggled to the Frontline Club the previous Monday). Still, an outing to see Théâtre de la Ville-Paris's haunting Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Barbican on Wednesday night proved there's something of a retour à la vie, slowly. Anyway, heading off to Aix-en-Provence the Saturday before last, on the morning after the first sweats, wasn't wise, either, though I got through it and met the interesting company I was supposed to interview there as they began preparation for a festival special.

First impressions: a pretty centre, plenty of fair squares with lovely fountains, not a great deal to see; maybe my slight grumpiness, apart from general indisposition, had to do with the fact that it all looked so Italian but wasn't. And admittedly the clash of my Sunday duties with the noon opening of the Musée Granet meant I couldn't wander round an avowed gem. The only treasure I saw - since Nicolas Froment's Burning Bush altarpiece was closed up, revealing only the two outer panels in grisaille - was the altar of the Aygoysi Family from the Church of the Carmelites, now in the Cathedral (west front and tower pictured above).

The sun shone in Aix; it felt Mediterranean spring-like despite cold mornings and nights. Not so, except for a still-cold hour or two, in Toulouse and Ax-les-Thermes in the Pyrenees, where we met up with the couple of friends I married several years ago, Susannah and Jamie, in a far cry from our carefree summer romp in the wilds of central Sweden. I probably wouldn't have been up to walking if the weather had been clement, but it snowed solidly during our time there, a beauty in itself but not good for expeditions. And the train was cancelled due to a fallen tree on the way back, so we had our only delay of the trip.

Had we been back in Toulouse on time, the idea was to tear off to see the weird and wonderful cathedral at Albi. But Toulouse did deliver two monsterpieces of Romanesque and Gothic art on a vast scale, plus one of France's most delightful museums. In this city of welcoming red brick, lively with students from the university originally founded as a counter to heresy (the Inquisition had a field-day here), there are two major edifices and they don't include the lopsided, dog's dinner cathedral, though that I suppose has interests of its own.

No, clearly the more imposing basilica is St-Sernin to the north, the largest Romanesque building in France (says the Blue Guide) or the world (according to the leaflet in the church). The patron is St Saturninus, infamously dragged through the streets by a bull in 250 AC. The present building was begun another 320 years later, the choir consecrated by Urban II in 1096 just as St Raymond Girard was beginning work on the nave.

The extraordinary cluster of apsidal chapels at the east end look as if they might have been subject to the ubiquitous Viollet-le-Duc's 19th century intervention, at least as far as the corbels are concerned, but that's still a splendid ensemble on the outside.

and within, the grandest effect is in the transepts

where extensive Romanesque murals were uncovered during the restoration of the late 20th century.

Even the plainer Corinthian columns are splendid, but there are others with fine details

and the glory of Romanesque stonecarving is to be found outside on the Porte Miègeville of c.1120.

Christ ascends between angels on the tympanum

while details on the capitals either side are chunky-quirky

and there are figures of saints James and Peter higher up.

A Renaissance gateway in front of the Porte Miègeville

 is the only remaining part of the enclosure; cloisters and abbot's palace were destroyed in the early 19th century and the basilica used, like the other ecclesiastical buildings post-revolution, for storage.

Thankfully some amends were made. The Musée des Augustins converted a superb southern Gothic monastery into an exhibition space in 1793, shortly after the opening of the Louvre, and on the site of the old refectory an eclectic construction was begun in the late 1890s on another idea of Viollet-le-Duc. The modest 4 euro admission is worth the main cloister alone, which matches the various carved capitals - crude but vigorous, like this green man -

with gargoyles from the destroyed Church of the Cordeliers.

The garden in the centre must be a riot in the summer, beautifully planted, though only winter greens and greys were flourishing in the cold.

The Gothic wing houses an obvious treasure of grace and beauty, the so-called Notre Dame de Grasse about which little is known except that the motif of the Virgin and Child turned in opposite directions is fairly unusual (this obviously not my image).

About the picture collection, not much needs to be said: at its best, it's curious, as in Delacroix's  Mouley Abd-Er-Raham Leaving his Palace at Meknes (of interest to us who'd been there) and Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant's gross Entry of Sultan Mehmet II into Constantinople, an epic which made the artist (briefly) famous overnight.

It wasn't until our return to Toulouse after the snowy mountain interlude that we clocked the city's other great gape-at treasure, Les Jacobins (1229-1350) with its relics of St Thomas Aquinas and, more important, its single row of nine central columns, 29 metres high, originally segregating the monks from the public.

'The painted imitation of the brickwork is unfortunate,' opines my Blue Guide, and it's kind of true, but it does accentuate the fan vaulting spreading out from the easternmost column ('le palmier').

The outside is mostly red-brick massive, like the earlier St-Sernin

but it does have charming animals ferreting around the foliage on the south door.

After this further exploration, we returned on the morning train to Paris, braved the filthy, sleety cold and grey which made the city look rather dispiriting - it seems to me to have lost so much lustre in recent years - and had a jolly tea with friends Hélène and Olivier in their apartment opposite Barbès-Rochechouart metro and the Luxour Cinema before catching the Eurostar back to London.


Susan Scheid said...

Poor you! ‘Tis the season, I fear. (Certainly it is here—we are piled high with snow, and more to come.) I thought I had it bad with an aggravating chest cold. I had the Edu-Mate throw me on a train a day ahead, as I was not about to miss Sarah Cahill's "piano party" in NYC (as I did the last time she was in town), which I managed to do, as was not so for all the other festivities we had planned. Ah well. It was a very nice event, of which I continue to have fond memories.

I can't imagine, really, how you pulled this all off, wise or not, and have come back with a packet of interesting photographs, to boot. I think my favorite, though there are many to choose from, is that of the Romanesque murals—that they were uncovered in a late 20th century restoration is certainly part of the fascination. I wonder how much else still lies hidden all over Europe, waiting to be found? Those 12th C stone carvings are magnificent, and how beautifully they seem to be preserved, at least to my uneducated eye.

Last not least, I do hope you are well on the road to recovery by now.

David said...

'I wonder how much else still lies hidden all over Europe, waiting to be found?' Not quite Europe, but did you see the stunningly beautiful mosaics just uncovered in the ancient Greek city of Zeugma, in Southeast Turkey near the Syrian border (key searchwords should bring up a photo of the key treasure)? Haste was the watchword, as the whole area was about to be inundated by another of those pesky dams.

Hope your chest cold has abated. I was wheezing around Toulouse, but the night rattling seems to have abated. If only I could get my appetite back! Am attending a reunion of Edinburgh friends tonight at a lovely unpretentious Covent Garden restaurant run by two brothers from the Marche, Rosso di Sere, and fear I won't do the menu justice.

wanderer said...

Lovely pics and I never cease to be amazed at your tireless admiration of the churchy stuff. I weary after one and a half.

For all the obvious reasons, we only go in (European) summer though I am told that there is much winter beauty in the great cities, Paris and Venice especially, if the elements can be overcome.

Your comments on Aix resonate. And the town centre always seemed to me to be crippled by the motorcar, further skewing what somehow felt (we went over four years for the BPO Ring) a town without a focal point, not that there weren't contenders. Perhaps it's glory is the great Roman Viaduct one glimpsed every day driving in from our lifestyle friendly farmhouse just north.

Do get better. And the old advice of staying in bed with a hot something and lots of fluids does come to mind.

Susan Scheid said...

I hadn't seen a thing about Zeugma, many thanks for noting those mosaics. "Another of those pesky dams" is putting it mildly, isn't it? Frustrating not to have your appetite back & hope you muster enough to enjoy your evening. (My first request upon regaining my appetite here was duck in pomegranate molasses. We love our Moro cookbook!)

David said...

Venice in winter is a lucky dip, wanderer, but if it's clear and bright rather than foggy, then there's nothing like it. Especially if some of the outlying canals are frozen over.

I imagine Aix has been more pedestrianised since you went. Same applies to Toulouse - so pleasant to walk the old streets without traffic.

And thanks, Sue, last night in Rosso di Sera was a delight - convivial company and surroundings, as well as food I could actually taste and relish. And now the Mastersingers epic starting this afternoon...

Willym said...

It's been many years since I was Aix I'd have to look up my programme for the year - Berganza, Murray and Masterson in Alcina conducted by Raymond Leppard and Dame Janet in Dido conducted by Charles Mackerras. I'm sure both the town and the Festival have developed since then - I recall the traffic as La Rotonda was always horrendous.

As always you let me travel vicariously through your pictures and words and your eye for those little enchanting details is always a joy.

By the way the Six Characters sounds incredible!

Hope you're feeling better by now - just coming down with something myself at the moment. A bit run down what with the family events and work of the past few weeks - that and the -32c temperatures.

Do take care of yourself.

David said...

Gosh, Will, such times. I know Dame Janet in Cavalli at Glyndebourne was an absolute high-spot for you and I can understand why.

Aix's urban sprawl is surprising for so small a centre. The rehearsals for the ENOA (European Network of Opera Academies) project I was attending take place in a warehouse in an industrial park some 17km away.

Feeling close to normal after two weeks of extreme under-parness: rejoiced at the fabulous ENO Mastersingers last night, which would be worth anyone's flying to London to see.