Villeneuve and the Broken Bridge

By Thomas Oakey


The royal city of Villeneuve, altho geographically and politically sundered from Avignon and the County Venaissin, was socially and economically bound up with the papal city. The same reason that to-day impels the rich citizens of Avignon to dot the hills of Languedoc with their summer villas was operative in papal times, and popes and cardinals and prelates loved to build their summer places on the opposite bank of the Rhone.

How silent and neglected are the streets of this once wealthy and important city! How degraded its monuments, how faded its glory! In the hot, dusty afternoon, as the cranky old omnibus rattles along the narrow High Street, it appears to awaken echoes in a city of the dead.

Making our way northward, we pass the restored seventeenth-century portal of the palace of the sainted Cardinal of Luxembourg; the weather-worn, neglected, late Renaissance portal of the so-called Hotel de Conti; the ruined Gothic portal of the palace of Cardinal Pierre de Thury, through which we pass to the old court-yard and a chapel subsequently restored and now used as the chapel of the Grey Penitents.

We pass many another relic of departed grandeur, and beyond the Place Neuve on our right come upon a great portal which opens on a vaulted passage leading to one of the most bewildering and extraordinary congeries of ruined monastic buildings in France, now inhabited by a population of poor folk--two hundred families, it is said--who, since the Revolution, have settled in the vast buildings of the once famous and opulent Charterhouse of Villeneuve. Founded by Innocent VI., three years after his elevation to the papal chair, and enriched by subsequent endownments, the Charterhouse of the Val de Benediction, the second in importance of the Order, grew in wealth and importance during the centuries until it was sacked and sold in small lots during the Revolution to the ancestors of the present occupants.

The circuit of its walls was a mile in extent; its artistic treasures were prodigious. The Coronation of the Virgin came thence; the Pieta of Villeneuve, now in the Louvre; the founder's tomb; the high altar of Notre Dame at Villeneuve, and a few other relics, alone survive of its vast possessions. The scene resembles nothing so much as a city ruined by bombardment or earthquake, but how long the wreck will remain in its present picturesque and melancholy condition is difficult to forecast. The state is slowly buying out the owners, and doubtless ere many years are passed the more valuable artistic remains will have been swept and garnished and restored.

As we return from the Chartreuse we turn left along the Place Neuve, and climb to the mighty fort of St. Andre, which occupies the most venerable site in the royal new city, for on the hill where it stands tradition relates that St. Cesarie, Bishop of Arles, was buried, and that there, in the sixth century, the first Benedictines settled. The primitive settlement, destroyed in the ninth century, was extensively rebuilt in 980, and within its walls, churches were dedicated to St. Andrew, St. Michael, and St. Martin. In the twelfth century the rich and powerful monastery, a strongly fortified, self-sufficing community, was held under the counts of Toulouse, and from their overlordship it was subsequently admitted by the counts to be within the territory of the republic of Avignon, whose consuls in 1210 compelled the abbot to demolish his walls and promise never to rebuild them.

In 1292 Philip the Fair was permitted to settle a small community there, to whom he accorded in 1293 valuable privileges and the same protection he granted to his good city of Paris. Philip, to whom the position was valuable as a frontier post, erected a castle there, maintained a royal garrison, and the new settlement became known as the New Town (Villeneuve). The walls and towers then raised were rebuilt in 1352 by John the Good, who exacted a toll, known as St. Andrew's penny, for maintenance on all merchandise that passes through the Senechaussee of Beaucaire.

Of these majestic ruins, restored in the sixteenth century and again in recent times, the Tour des Masques at the west angle with its simple battlements is the oldest portion, the massive machicolated towers that frown over the main entrance having been raised by John the Good. The ruined ravelin dates back to the seventeenth century. We enter and stroll about the desolate interior, crowned by a tiny Romanesque chapel of the twelfth century, that well deserves its name of Our Lady of the Fair View (Notre Dame de Belvezet), with a graceful apse (restored). From its summit, or from the tall old watch-tower of the monastery, a marvelous view is obtained of the gaping ruins of the Charterhouse of Avignon, the County Venaissin, the Cevennes, Mount Ventoux, and the distant Alps.

In the later years of the monarchy a post of artillery was stationed in the fort, and it was from the fire of a battery planted there that a young captain of artillery, one Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1793, overawed the city of Avignon, which was occupied by the Marseillais federalists who had declared against the Convention; and it was with the cannon seized at St. Andre that Bonaparte marched to Toulon and expelled the English from its harbor.

The papal soldiery were ever objects of scorn to the royalists of Villeneuve, who dubbed them "patachines" ("pestacchina," Ital. for slipper), and taunted them with drilling under parasols--a pleasantry repaid by the Italians who hurled the epithet "luzers" (lizards) against the royalists, who were said to pass their time sunning themselves against the hot rocks of Villeneuve.

Descending the stately stairway that leads to the foot of the Rocher des Doms, and turning to the left, we soon reach the house of the "gardien du pont," who will admit us to all that remains of the miraculous pontifical structure of the twelfth century. The destructive hand of man and the assaults of the Rhone have dealt hardly with St. Benezet's work. Ruined during the siege of 1226, it was repaired in 1234-37, and in 1349 knit to the papal fortress at the Avignon end. In 1352, when Clement VI. rebuilt four of the arches, it is described as of stone and wood; it was cut during the siege of Benedict XIII., and repaired, or rebuilt, in 1418 and 1430; in 1602 three arches collapsed; in 1633 two more fell, and in 1650 the gaps were bridged by wooden struts and planks, which were carried away in 1670 by ice-floes.

Owing to the interminable dispute between the monarchy and the papacy as to liability for its repair, each power claiming jurisdiction over the Rhone, all attempts to preserve it from ruin were abandoned in 1680, when Louis XIV. refused either to allow the legates to take toll for the necesary repairs, or to undertake them himself.

Little is known of the original bridge, which consisted of twenty-two semi-circular arches (Viollet-le-Duc gives eighteen), much lower than the present elliptic ones, which date back to the thirteenth century, according to Labaude--or to the fifteenth century, acording to other authorities--when the bridge, having proved too low-pitched, was raised to its present level, and the flood arches over the piles were built. The four subsisting arches were, with the bridge chapel, restored during the last century. The old bridge formed an elbow upstream on the Villeneuve branch of the Rhone.

The chapel of St. Nicholas, too, has suffered many vicissitudes. The primitive Romanesque building was raised to the level of the new footway by dividing the nave into two floors and building a flight of steps, supported on a squinch arch, down to what then became the lower chapel. Much battered during the sieges of the palace, it was restored and reconsecrated in 1411 and a century later the Gothic upper apse was added, whose external walls overtop the old nave. In consequence of these modifications the lower chapel has a Gothic nave and a Romanesque apse, whereas the upper chapel has a Gothic apse and a Romanesque nave.

The "Pont d'Avignon" is known to every French-speaking child, and with many variants the old "ronde" is sung and danced from the remotest plains of Canada to the valleys of the Swiss Alps. The good folk of Avignon, however, protest that their "rondes" were not danced perilously on the narrow Pont St. Benezet, but under its arches on the green meadows of the Isle de la Barthelasse, and that "Sur" in lieu of "Sous" is due to northern misunderstanding of their sweet Provencal tongue.

[29] From "The Story of Avignon." Published by E.P. Dutton & Co.