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Architecture in Aix-en-Provence  
Architecture bears the stamp of its orgins expressing the spirit and matter prevailing at the time of its creation. From the primitive stone igloo shaped shelters, bories, of the Vaucluse to Le Corbusier’s "machine for living" in Marseille and the "barres" that circle the city to the north of Aix, a succession of styles, of intention and accident, tell the story of Provence’s encounter, sometimes clash, between man and nature. Superhighways split elegant domains in two, the T.G.V. railroads its path through vineyard and meadow, and the rubble of venerable ramparts lies beneath low-cost, high-rise apartments, alien both to the countryside that surrounds them and the towns within.
Visitors come, however, not to bewail the conflict, but to celebrate the truce between man and nature, landscape and manscape. They may deplore misbegotten creations of the twentieth century, and ponder their familiar ugliness, the dereliction of our age, but, mercifully, the beauty of Provençal streets, squares, fountains, and perched villages, transcends time. Village, town, and city still cluster around church, town square, and château-town-hall, and many have preserved their stout walls that attract more visitors than they ever discouraged invaders.
The "pays d’Aix" alone offers a rich sampling of architecture dating from its pre-Roman foundation on the hill to the north now known as Entremont. Springs, some thermal, emerge at the natural crossroads below known to shepherds, merchants, and travellers on their way north, south, east, and west from time immemorial. Celto-Ligurian military and civil architecture dating from the fourth century B.C. still crowns the hill, its ramparts still stand, and its streets, dwellings and public places have been excavated and restored over the past fifty years.
The conscientious thoroughness with which the Romans applied their recipe for "peace through deletion" has left intact and visible more of Entremont today than have the generations that have succeeded the thriving Roman castrum and colonia on whose site Aix now stands. Entremont’s Salluvian town planning, sculpture, olive presses, and military fortifications are now distributed unequally between the Musée Granet and the site, with its vast area still "undug" intra muros. Arles, Nîmes, le Pont du Gard, Glanum, Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine, are the most celebrated of Provence’s "Roman" cities. Less ostentatious though perhaps more evocative are stretches of Roman road that remain with, here and there lost in the countryside, the empty shell of Roman temples whose stones have served and served again to build the walls of neighbouring houses, farms, and châteaux. Our present concern, however is with Aix-en-Provence, ancient archbishopric and capital.
Neglect and abandonment are probably less responsible for the disappearance of Roman monuments and historic buildings than periodic prosperity that spurs present ambition and knows no scruples in exploiting elements that have been quarried from an earlier age. Aix’s Middle Ages, like its Gallo-Roman era, lie safely embedded in its walls. The cathedral baptistry, for example, happily combines fifth century foundations with columns "borrowed" from a Roman temple or basilica, and a sixteenth century cupola.
The cathedral itself, with its west wall of Roman "pierre taillée", its twelfth century cloister, Romanesque portal, and Romanesque nave nestling against its junior, taller, and less lovely Gothic cousin, stand in uneasy imbalance with the opposing nave of Notre-Dame d’Espérance, to the north. Contemporary with the central nave, but combining baroque, neoclassic, and mediaeval architecture in bewildering propinquity, this nave is a jewel for the student of art history, a nightmare for the purist. Had a seventeenth century architect had his way, it is assumed that he would have "improved" the romanesque construction of the other, southern flank thus achieving symmetry at the cost of one of the cathedral’s most lovely attributes.


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