The Pont du Gard--Aigues-Mortes-Nimes

By Henry James


It was a pleasure to feel one's self in Provence again--the land where the silver-gray earth is impregnated with the light of the sky. To celebrate the event, as soon as I arrived at Nimes I engaged a caleche to convey me to the Pont du Gard. The day was yet young, and it was perfectly fair; it appeared well, for a longish drive, to take advantage, without delay, of such security. After I had left the town I became more intimate with that Provencal charm which I had already enjoyed from the window of the train, and which glowed in the sweet sunshine and the white rocks, and lurked in the smoke-puffs of the little olives.

The olive-trees in Provence are half the landscape. They are neither so tall, so stout, nor so richly contorted as I have seen them beyond the Alps; but this mild colorless bloom seems the very texture of the country. The road from Nimes, for a distance of fifteen miles, is superb; broad enough for an army, and as white and firm as a dinner-table. It stretches away over undulations which suggest a kind of harmony; and in the curves it makes through the wide, free country, where there is never a hedge or a wall, and the detail is always exquisite, there is something majestic, almost processional. You are very near (the Pont du Gard) before you see it; the ravine it spans suddenly opens and exhibits the picture. The scene at this point grows extremely beautiful. The ravine is the valley of the Garden, which the road from Nimes has followed some time without taking account of it, but which, exactly at the right distance from the aqueduct, deepens and expands, and puts on those characteristics which are best suited to give it effect. The gorge becomes romantic, still, and solitary, and, with its white rocks and wild shrubbery, hangs over the clear, colored river, in whose slow course there is here and there a deeper pool. Over the valley, from side to side, and ever so high in the air, stretch the three tiers of the tremendous bridge. They are unspeakably imposing, and nothing could well be more Roman.

The hugeness, the solidity, the unexpectedness, the monumental rectitude of the whole thing leave you nothing to say--at the time--and make you stand gazing. You simply feel that it is noble and perfect, that it has the quality of greatness. A road, branching from the highway, descends to the level of the river and passes under one of the arches. This road has a wide margin of grass and loose stones, which slopes upward into the bank of the ravine. You may sit here as long as you please, staring up at the light, strong piers; the spot is extremely natural, tho two or three stone benches have been erected on it.

I remained there an hour and got a complete impression; the place was perfectly soundless, and for the time, at least, lonely; the splendid afternoon had begun to fade, and there was a fascination in the object I had come to see. It came to pass that at the same time I discovered in it a certain stupidity, a vague brutality. That element is rarely absent from great Roman work, which is wanting in the nice adaption of the means to the end. The means are always exaggerated; the end is so much more than attained. The Roman rigidity was apt to overshoot the mark, and I suppose a race which could do nothing small is as defective as a race that can do nothing great. Of this Roman rigidity the Pont du Gard is an admirable example.

It would be a great injustice, however, not to insist upon its beauty--a kind of manly beauty, that of an object constructed not to please but to serve, and impressive simply from the scale on which it carries out this intention. The number of arches in each tier is different; they are smaller and more numerous as they ascend. The preservation of the thing is extraordinary; nothing has crumbled or collapsed; every feature remains; and the huge blocks of stone, of a brownish-yellow (as if they had been baked by the Provencal sun for eighteen centuries), pile themselves, without mortar or cement, as evenly as the day they were laid together.

All this to carry the water of a couple of springs to a little provincial city! The conduit on the top has retained its shape and traces of the cement with which it was lined. When the vague twilight began to gather, the lonely valley seemed to fill itself with the shadow of the Roman name, as if the mighty empire were still as erect as the support of the aqueduct; and it was open to a solitary tourist, sitting there sentimental, to believe that no people has ever been, or will ever be, as great as that, measured, as we measure the greatness of an individual, by the push they gave to what they undertook. The Pont du Gard is one of the three or four deepest impressions they have left; it speaks of them in a manner with which they might have been satisfied….

On my way back to the little inn where I had left my vehicle, I passed the Pont du Gard, and took another look at it. Its great arches made windows for the evening sky, and the rocky ravine, with its dusky cedars and shining river, was lonelier than before. At the inn I swallowed, or tried to swallow, a glass of horrible wine with my coachman; after which, with my team, I drove back to Nimes in the moonlight. It only added a more solitary whiteness to the constant sheen of the Provencal landscape.

The weather the next day was equally fair, so that it seemed an imprudence not to make sure of Aigues-Mortes. Nimes itself could wait; at a pinch, I could attend to Nimes in the rain. It was my belief that Aigues-Mortes was a little gem, and it is natural to desire that gems should have an opportunity to sparkle. This is an excursion of but a few hours, and there is a little friendly, familiar, dawdling train that will convey you, in time for a noonday breakfast, to the small dead town where the blest Saint Louis twice embarked for the crusades. You may get back to Nimes for dinner; the run is of about an hour.

I found the little journey charming, and looked out of the carriage window, on my right, at the distant Cevennes, covered with tones of amber and blue, and, all around, at vineyards red with the touch of October. The grapes were gone, but the plants had a color of their own. Within a certain distance of Aigues-Mortes they give place to wide salt-marshes, traversed by two canals; and over this expanse the train rumbles slowly upon a narrow causeway, failing for some time, tho you know you are near the object of your curiosity, to bring you to sight of anything but the horizon. Suddenly it appears, the towered and embattled mass, lying so low that the crest of its defences seems to rise straight out of the ground; and it is not till the train stops, close before them that you are able to take the full measure of its walls.

Aigues-Mortes stands on the edge of a wide etang, or shallow inlet of the sea, the further side of which is divided by a narrow band of coast from the Gulf of Lyons. Next after Carcassonne, to which it forms an admirable pendant, it is the most perfect thing of the kind in France. It has a rival in the person of Avignon, but the ramparts of Avignon are much less effective. Like Carcassonne, it is completely surrounded with its old fortifications; and if they are far simpler in character (there is but one circle), they are quite as well preserved. The moat has been filled up, and the site of the town might be figured by a billiard-table without pockets. On this absolute level, covered with coarse grass, Aigues-Mortes presents quite the appearance of the walled town that a school-boy draws upon his slate, or that we see in the background of early Flemish pictures--a simple parallelogram, of a contour almost absurdly bare, broken at intervals by angular towers and square holes.

Such, literally speaking, is this delightful little city, which needs to be seen to tell its full story. It is extraordinarily pictorial, and if it is a very small sister of Carcassonne, it has at least the essential features of the family. Indeed, it is even more like an image and less like a reality than Carcassonne; for by position and prospect it seems even more detached from the life of the present day. It is true that Aigues-Mortes does a little business; it sees certain bags of salt piled into barges which stand in a canal beside it, and which carry their cargo into actual places. But nothing could well be more drowsy and desultory than this industry as I saw it practised, with the aid of two or three brown peasants and under the eye of a solitary douanier who strolled on the little quay beneath the western wall. "C'est bien plaisant, c'est bien paisible," said this worthy man, with whom I had some conversation; and pleasant and peaceful is the place indeed, tho the former of these epithets may suggest an element of gayety in which Aigues-Mortes is deficient.

The sand, the salt, the dull sea-view, surround it with a bright, quiet melancholy. There are fifteen towers and nine gates, five of which are on the southern side, overlooking the water. I walked all round the place three times (it doesn't take long), but lingered most under the southern wall, where the afternoon light slept in the dreamiest, sweetest way. I sat down on an old stone, and looked away to the desolate salt-marshes and still, shining surface of the etang; and, as I did so, reflected that this was a queer little out-of-the-world corner to have been chosen, in the great dominions of either monarch, for that pompous interview which took place, in 1538, between Francis I. and Charles V. It was also not easy to perceive how Louis IX., when in 1248 and 1270 he started for the Holy Land, set his army afloat in such very undeveloped channels.

An hour later I purchased in the town a little pamphlet by M. Marius Topin, who undertakes to explain this latter anomaly, and to show that there is water enough in the port, as we may call it by courtesy, to have sustained a fleet of crusaders. I was unable to trace the channel that he points out, but was glad to believe that, as he contends, the sea has not retreated from the town since the thirteenth century. It was comfortable to think that things are not so changed as that. M. Topin indicates that the other French ports of the Mediterranean were not then "disponibles," and that Aigues-Mortes was the most eligible spot for an embarkation.

Behind the straight walls and the quiet gates the little town has not crumbled, like the Cite of Carcassonne. It can hardly be said to be alive; but if it is dead it has been very neatly embalmed. The hand of the restorer rests on it constantly; but this artist has not, as at Carcassonne, had miracles to accomplish. The interior is very still and empty, with small stony, whitewashed streets, tenanted by a stray dog, a stray cat, a stray old woman. In the middle is a little place, with two or three cafes decorated by wide awnings--a little place of which the principal feature is a very bad bronze statue of Saint Louis by Pradier. It is almost as bad as the breakfast I had at the inn that bears the name of that pious monarch.

You may walk round the enceinte of Aigues-Mortes, both outside and in; but you may not, as at Carcassonne, make a portion of this circuit on the chemin de ronde, the little projecting footway attached to the inner face of the battlements. This footway, wide enough only for a single pedestrian, is in the best order, and near each of the gates a flight of steps leads up to it; but a locked gate, at the top of the steps, makes access impossible, or at least unlawful. Aigues-Mortes, however, has its citadel, an immense tower, larger than any of the others, a little detached, and standing at the northwest angle of the town. I called upon the casernier--the custodian of the walls--and in his absence I was conducted through this big Tour de Constance by his wife, a very mild, meek woman, yellow with the traces of fever and ague--a scourge which, as might be expected in a town whose name denotes "dead waters," enters freely at the nine gates.

The Tour de Constance is of extraordinary girth and solidity, divided into three superposed circular chambers, with very fine vaults, which are lighted by embrasures of prodigious depth, converging to windows little larger than loop-holes. The place served for years as a prison to many of the Protestants of the south whom the revocation of the Edict of Nantes had exposed to atrocious penalties, and the annals of these dreadful chambers during the first half of the last century were written in tears and blood. Some of the record cases of long confinement there make one marvel afresh at what man has inflicted and endured. In a country in which a policy of extermination was to be put into practise this horrible tower was an obvious resource. From the battlements at the top, which is surmounted by an old disused lighthouse, you see the little compact rectangular town, which looks hardly bigger than a garden-patch, mapped out beneath you, and follow the plain configuration of its defenses. You take possession of it, and you feel that you will remember it always.

In general Nimes is poor; its only treasures are its Roman remains, which are of the first order. The new French fashions prevail in many of its streets; the old houses are paltry, and the good houses are new; while beside my hotel rose a big spick-and-span church, which had the oddest air of having been intended for Brooklyn or Cleveland….

What nobler ornament can there be than the Roman baths at the foot of Mont Cavalier, and the delightful old garden that surrounds them? All that quarter of Nimes has every reason to be proud of itself; it has been revealed to the world at large by copious photography. A clear, abundant stream gushes from the foot of a high hill (covered with trees and laid out in paths), and is distributed into basins which sufficiently refer themselves to the period that gave them birth--the period that has left its stamp on that pompous Peyrou which we admired at Montpellier. Here are the same terraces and steps and balustrades, and a system of water-works less impressive, perhaps, but very ingenious and charming.

The whole place is a mixture of old Rome and of the French eighteenth century; for the remains of the antique baths are in a measure incorporated in the modern fountains. In a corner of this umbrageous precinct stands a small Roman ruin, which is known as a temple of Diana, but was more apparently a nymphaeum, and appears to have had a graceful connection with the adjacent baths. I learn from Murray that this little temple, of the period of Augustus, "was reduced to its present state of ruin in 1577;" the moment at which the towns-people, threatened with a siege by the troops of the crown, partly demolished it, lest it should serve as a cover to the enemy. The remains are very fragmentary, but they serve to show that the place was lovely. I spent half an hour in it on a perfect Sunday morning (it is enclosed by a high grille, carefully tended, and has a warden of its own), and with the help of my imagination tried to reconstruct a little the aspect of things in the Gallo-Roman days.

I do wrong, perhaps, to say that I tried; from a flight so deliberate I should have shrunk. But there was a certain contagion of antiquity in the air; and among the ruins of baths and temples, in the very spot where the aqueduct that crosses the Garden in the wondrous manner I had seen discharged itself, the picture of a splendid paganism seemed vaguely to glow. Roman baths--Roman baths; those words alone were a scene.

Everything was changed; I was strolling in a jardin francais; the bosky slope of the Mont Cavalier (a very modest mountain), hanging over the place, is crowded with a shapeless tower, which is as likely to be of medieval as of antique origin; and yet, as I leaned on the parapet of one of the fountains, where a flight of curved steps (a hemicycle, as the French say) descended into a basin full of dark, cool recesses, where the slabs of the Roman foundations gleam through the clear green water--as in this attitude I surrendered myself to contemplation and reverie, it seemed to me that I touched for a moment the ancient world. Such moments are illuminating, and the light of this one mingles, in my memory, with the dusky greenness of the Jardin de la Fontaine.

The fountain proper--the source of all these distributed waters--is the prettiest thing in the world, a reduced copy of Vaucluse. It gushes up at the foot of the Mont Cavalier, at a point where that eminence rises with a certain cliff-like effect, and, like other springs in the same circumstances, appears to issue from the rock with a sort of quivering stillness. I trudge up the Mont Cavalier,--it is a matter of five minutes,--and having committed this cockneyism enhanced it presently by another. I ascended the stupid Tour Magne, the mysterious structure I mentioned a moment ago. The only feature of this dateless tube, except the inevitable collection of photographs to which you are introduced by the doorkeeper, is the view you enjoy from its summit. This view is, of course, remarkably fine but I am ashamed to say I have not the smallest recollection of it; for while I looked into the brilliant spaces of the air I seemed still to see only what I saw in the depths of the Roman baths--the image, disastrously confused and vague, of a vanished world. This world, however, has left at Nimes a far more considerable memento than a few old stones covered with water-moss.

The Roman arena is the rival of those of Verona and of Arles; at a respectful distance it emulates the Colosseum. It is a small Colosseum, if I may be allowed the expression, and is in a much better preservation than the great circus at Rome. This is especially true of the external walls, with their arches, pillars, cornices. I must add that one should not speak of preservation, in regard to the arena at Nimes, without speaking also of repair. After the great ruin ceased to be despoiled, it began to be protected, and most of its wounds have been drest with new material. These matters concern the archeologist; and I felt here, as I felt afterward at Arles, that one of the profane, in the presence of such a monument, can only admire and hold his tongue. The great impression, on the whole, is an impression of wonder that so much should have survived. What remains at Nimes, after all dilapidation is estimated, is astounding.

I spent an hour in the Arenes on that same sweet Sunday morning, as I came back from the Roman baths, and saw that the corridors, the vaults, the staircases, the external casing, are still virtually there. Many of these parts are wanting in the Colosseum, whose sublimity of size, however, can afford to dispense with detail. The seats at Nimes, like those at Verona, have been largely renewed; not that this mattered much, as I lounged on the cool surface of one of them, and admired the mighty concavity of the place and the elliptical sky-line, broken by uneven blocks and forming the rim of the monstrous cup--a cup that had been filled with horrors, and yet I made my reflections; I said to myself that tho a Roman arena is one of the most impressive of the works of man, it has a touch of that same stupidity which I ventured to discover in the Pont du Gard. It is brutal; it is monotonous; it is not at all exquisite.

The Arenes at Nimes were arranged for a bull-fight--a form of recreation that, as I was informed, is much dans les habitudes Nimoises and very common throughout Provence, where (still according to my information) it is the usual pastime of a Sunday afternoon. At Arles and Nimes it has a characteristic setting, but in the villages the patrons of the game make a circle of carts and barrels, on which the spectators perch themselves. I was surprised at the prevalence, in mild Provence, of the Iberian vice, and hardly know whether it makes the custom more respectable that at Nimes and Arles the thing is shabbily and imperfectly done. The bulls are rarely killed, and indeed often are bulls only in the Irish sense of the term-- being domestic and motherly cows. Such an entertainment of course does not supply to the arena that element of the exquisite which I spoke of as wanting.

The exquisite at Nimes is mainly represented by the famous Maison Carree. The first impression you receive from this delicate little building, as you stand before it, is that you have already seen it many times. Photographs, engravings, models, medals, have placed it definitely in your eye, so that from the sentiment with which you regard it curiosity and surprise are almost completely, and perhaps deplorably absent. Admiration remains however--admiration of a familiar and even slightly patronizing kind. The Maison Carree does not overwhelm you; you can conceive it. It is not one of the great sensations of antique art; but it is perfectly felicitous, and, in spite of having been put to all sorts of incongruous uses, marvelously preserved. Its slender columns, its delicate proportions, its charming compactness, seemed to bring one nearer to the century that built it than the great superpositions of arenas and bridges, and give it the interest that vibrates from one age to another when the note of taste is struck.

If anything were needed to make this little toy-temple a happy production, the service would be rendered by the second-rate boulevard that conducts to it, adorned with inferior cafes and tobacco-shops. Here, in a respectable recess, surrounded by vulgar habitations, and with the theater, of a classic pretension, opposite, stands the small "square house," so called because it is much longer than it is broad. I saw it first in the evening, in the vague moonlight, which made it look as if it were cast in bronze. Stendhal says, justly, that it has the shape of a playing-card, and he expresses his admiration for it by the singular wish that an "exact copy" of it should be erected in Paris. He even goes as far as to say that in the year 1880 this tribute will have been rendered to its charms; nothing would be more simple, to his mind, than to "have" in that city "le Pantheon de Rome, quelques temples de Grece." Stendhal found it amusing to write in the character of a commis-voyageur, and sometimes it occurs to his reader that he really was one.

[32] From "A Little Tour in France." By special arrangement with, and by permission of, the publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Co. Copyright, 1884.