Aix-en-Provence: History and heritage

Aix en Provence, it’s not just the quintessential 21st century student city where life is good. From the beginnings ofAquae Sextiae, the Roman village, in the city of Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola, Aix was built slowly, over the centuries ... and over the water, omnipresent in the city of Roy René. AT Aix, everything is history. Halfway between France and Italy, this is a unique city, which every history lover must visit, and which he certainly cannot forget. About that, Cezanne said: "When we were born there, it's fucked up nothing tells you more ».

Aquae Sextiae: the Roman city

Aix's history begins in 124 Before our era. Gaius Sextius Calvinus, Roman consul, decides to destroy theEntremont oppidum, local gathering center of the Gallic salyenne tribes. TheEntremont oppidum is still visible today, and is located north of the current city ofAix en Provence. Two years later, in 122 BC J.-C., Gaius Sextius Calvinus founded the city of "Aquae Sextiae ", At the foot ofEntremont. The Roman consul chose this site for a pragmatic and strategic reason: the location ofAquae Sextiae is located on the road between Italy and the Iberian Peninsula, and between the Mediterranean Sea and the natural border of the Durance. This is what motivated the consul Quintus Marcius Rex, four years later, in 118 BC J.-C., in the founding of the city of Colonia Narbo Martius, now called Narbonne. Originally, Aquae Sextiae had an architecture similar to that which was then present in Entremont. "Gallic town planning" was nevertheless gradually abandoned, in favor of a more Romanizing architectural practice. At Ier century BC AD, while the Roman settlement on the site is revealed to be final, the city adopts an orthogonal urban plan, according to the characteristics of the "Hippodamian plan": a cardo and one decumanus, and a forum is erected. Specifically, archaeologists have unearthed three cardines, that is, three north-south urban axes, three streets. The originality of the city ofAquae Sextiae, at Ier century BC AD, lies in its Gallo-Roman construction: if town planning is quite characteristic of Roman cities, the interiors of the habitats are very sketchy, revealing the Gallic populations of Salyans.

In the sources, the mention of the founding of ’Aix, or rather ofAquae Sextiae, is still present, despite the gaps relating to the posterity of the events described. Livy, Roman "historian" of the Ier century before our era, and Strabo, a geographer of the same period, were the first to mention the founding of the city in the sources. About that, Strabo describes it as "polite ", In the Greek sense of the term, that is to say of a" city ". Livy, meanwhile, in his Epitome, talk aboutAquae Sextiae like a "colony ", Installed in this place because of the presence"hot and cold springs », Which notably gave their name to the city. Indeed, in Latin, "Aquae Sextiae "Means"Sextian waters », Named after the founding consul. Several hundred years later, in the 6th century AD, the chronicler Cassiodorus said, in this regard, that “in Gaul a city where sextian waters are ". From the start, Aquae Sextiae must assume a role of surveillance of the region. The Salyen are renowned for being inexhaustible warriors. In this sense, the newly established city, which also saw a Roman garrison quickly settle within it, had to protect Marseille as well as the road leading to Rome. Aquae Sextiae also served as a base for the conquest of Gaul Narbonnaise, which took place four years later, and which saw the foundation of Narbonne, then called Colonia Narbo Martius, as we mentioned previously. Archaeological excavations are regularly carried out at Aix en Provence, and it is not uncommon to find traces of Roman "Aix" ancestors.

Nevertheless, the most significant event linked to the city of Aix was the Battle of Aquae Sextiae, which took place in 102 before our era, and which brought the Roman troops of the consul Caius Marius to hordes of Cimbri and Teutons from northern Europe. However, the battle did not take place in the city, but a few cables away, about ten kilometers to the east, on the southern piedmont of the Sainte-Victoire mountain, which already took on a whole dimension. historical. Plutarch, author of Parallel lives, gave an account of the battle, when he wrote his Life of Marius. This is a turning point for the city, which then developed more and more at that time. She sets up an enclosure, strengthens herself. In 2004, archaeological excavations have, moreover, revealed the presence of a theater, which makes it possible to affirm that the city was then experiencing a certain demographic development. Likewise, it is now clearly established that the city of ’Aquae Sextiae, turned from the beginning towards thermal and aquatic activity, due to the presence of numerous water sources, had thermal baths. Three aqueducts, all built by the Romans, supplied the city with water. The Roman authorities then multiplied the means of communication inside the enclosure and improved them. As we can see opposite, the cardo was found by archaeologists, and passed north of the present city, under Saint-Sauveur Cathedral. This is howAquae Sextiae became, from the principate ofAugust, a Roman city in its own right, fully integrated into the Empire.

Nevertheless, in the third century, Aquae Sextiae is slowly getting stuck in a demographic decline, which seems to become more and more inevitable as time goes on. Homes, domus, are little by little abandoned, abandoned. In 1842, archaeological excavations were carried out, and the researchers were able to observe the extent of the "damage": houses richly decorated, but for the most part abandoned, sewage system that had become inoperative, destruction, etc. Nevertheless, it is advisable to qualify this not very idyllic picture corresponding to a neglect of the city of ’Aquae Sextiae. The city remains, however, at this time, the capital of the Narbonnaise Seconde, and is de facto "superior" politically to Antipolis (Antibes) or Julii Forum (Frejus). The major turning point took place at the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries, in a general context of the expansion of Christianity in the West. Aquae Sextiae was no stranger to the phenomenon: the Roman forum was destroyed, and replaced by a small episcopal group, notably composed of a baptistery that can still be seen today (it is in the Saint-Sauveur cathedral). The city takes, little by little, in the sources, the name of "Aix », At the very moment when it was erected into a bishopric. From then on, the city of Aix became an essential political place, central in the region.

The Provencal capital

Aix also undergoes the "barbarian invasions". In 477, it was invaded by the Visigoths, then by the Ostrogoths in 508. In the 6th century, the Franks and Lombards took the city. Finally, we can attest to the presence of the Saracens in the 8th century. Consequently, the political role of the city diminished: after the invasion of the Franks in 536, it was removed from the status of capital of the Narbonnaise Seconde which was its own, in favor ofArles. It was not until the 8th century and the Carolingians that the city ofAix regains its former splendor. The city therefore entered a phase of demographic redevelopment, and grew little by little. Three distinct towns can then be identified - the town of Tours, the count town, and Saint-Sauveur - and each have fortified walls. However, Aix had to wait until the 12th century to fully regain its past luster, and more precisely the year 1189, who saw the installation of the Counts of Provence in the city. Aix then took his revenge on Arles, and distinguished himself fromAvignon. This is the beginning of the "beautiful story" ofAix, which for six centuries becomes the capital of Provence, the county and the province.

In the 15th century, René Ier from Anjou gave a major boost to the city ofAix. The "good king René", who was also count of Guise, duke of Bar, duke of Lorraine, duke of Anjou, count of Provence and Forcalquier, king of Naples, king of Jerusalem, and king of Aragon - excuse du little! - was a fine manager, and made prosper all the cities where he stayed, Angers and Aix on your mind. In a renaissance and Italianate context, the King René maintained a court of letters to Aix. His father, Louis II of Anjou, had also created in 1409 a university in the city (this is the current Institute of Political Studies, located opposite the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral), which celebrated with great pomp its 600 years in 2009. The sovereign is also considered, even today, as the "protector" of the city, as the most emblematic character in its history. In this regard, one of the main arteries of the city bears his name - the "Boulevard du Roy René - and his statue is placed at the top of the Cours Mirabeau, the emblematic avenue of the city. Moreover, in the twenty-first century, it is not uncommon to speak of the "City of Roy René" in connection withAix en Provence. Rein Ier settled in 1476 at Aix, where he died. A man of culture, he wrote numerous poetic works, drawing inspiration from the genre of courtly romance. He was also, in accordance with the Renaissance tradition, a patron: he was, in this respect, the painter's protector Nicolas Froment, who also produced the famous triptych of burning bush, where he staged the King René and the Queen Jeanne. In a way, the King René is the Aix incarnation of the Renaissance, of that transition which then took place between the Late Middle Ages and the modern era.

In 1486, Provence lost its independence. The county of Provence and Forcalquier then became a province attached to the Kingdom of France, placed under the supervision of a governor. Fifteen years later, in 1501, the king Louis XII of France created the Parliament of Provence, which was installed in the city of Roy René (nowadays, the Parliament Chamber is still visible, and is located at the Town Hall). Aix, despite the change of sovereignty that took place at the end of the 15th century, therefore retained a preeminent role at that time. It goes from the status of capital of the county of Provence to that of capital of the province of Provence. Nevertheless, the subjection to the French monarchy was badly experienced and perceived by the local elites. The wars of religion in the 16th century did nothing to improve the situation. Indeed, at the time when the king Charles IX of France organizes its "royal tour" and rallies the city of Aix, the city is plagued by unrest, in revolt against the governor of Provence, considered to be too close to the Huguenots. Likewise, Louis XIII visited Aix in 1622. The city, deeply Catholic, greeted the sovereign with undisguised enthusiasm. The originality of the city ofAix, between the 16th and 17th centuries, lies in the ambiguity that it adopts and maintains with regard to royalty: opposed to royal power, it nevertheless celebrates it when the latter fights the Protestants. The Sling (1648-1653) has, moreover, been very influential in the region. Once in power, the king Louis XIV, on the path of Marseilles, whom he punishes for his participation in rebellious events, stopped at Aix, where he stayed for a while at the Châteaurenard mansion, in the old center of the city. At that time, Aix was no longer considered a seditious city, as "Provencal". She loses her identity in favor of the celebration of the pomp of Louis XIV. Aix rallies, under the reign of the "Sun King", the French domination. It was also at this time, in the 17th century, that the last major urban expansion of the city occurred, under the leadership of the cardinal Michel Mazarin, brother of Jules Mazarin. With the permission of Louis XIV, Mazarin knocked down the southern rampart of the city ofAix, and created a new district, which later bore his name, and which still exists today. The local elites are settling there little by little, and, not wanting to have to "endure" the vision of the more humble dwellings in the old center of the city, ask the architect Jean Lombard to create a long walk. This is the artery that has become 1876 the "Cours Mirabeau", the showcase of the city of Aix, as well as its new front door - to which was added the "Rotonde", a majestic fountain.

Aix also experienced the troubles of the French Revolution. At the forefront of contestation, the city of Roy René quickly developed a passion for revolutionary and anti-revolutionary struggles. Finally, in 1790, the Departmental Assembly of the Bouches-du-Rhône department is created, and replaces the former Parliament of Provence, which is dissolved. In short, despite the troubles that hit France, Aix kept a prominent role. In a way, since ancient times the city seems to have been invested with the "protection" of history. Nevertheless, despite the revolutionary fury that befalls the city, Aix gradually enters a political decline. The city, so flourishing in modern times, is increasingly discredited by administrators. And even if Jean-Marie-Etienne Portalis, from Var who studied at Aix and editor of Civil Code, has helped to restore the city’s image, it is not. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that the city of Aix emerged from its lethargy.

In the footsteps of Cézanne ... until Vasarely (XIXᵉ - XXᵉ centuries)

City of water since Antiquity, Aix in the 19th century became a "city of art". Cezanne still haunts the alleys of the city of King René. The proof is that, nowadays, we can follow the painter's journey through the city, bronze plaques being fixed to the ground, in the streets, allowing visitors to reach the places he frequented (see opposite). Thus, in the second half of the 19th century, Aix proves to be the breeding ground for talented artists and illustrious men: Paul Cézanne, Emile Zola, Adolphe Thiers, Joseph d´Arbaud, Francois-Marius Granet or Darius Milhaud constitute a thin section of the local pantheon. At the same time as it is experiencing a revival of intellectual interest, the city seems to be opening up to the world, and abandoning the ambient conservatism that has characterized it since the fall of the monarchy at the end of the 18th century.

It is in this particular context that the municipality Aude, in 1848, decided to destroy the medieval and modern ramparts of the city of Aix. The gates and ramparts were then destroyed, to such an extent that today little or nothing directly testifies to their past existence in the city. The only visible part of the historic wall is to the north of the old center, on the site of the current "ring road": it is a single tower, which has survived, posing as a real challenge to the ravages of time and history. The destruction lasted nearly a quarter of a century, ending in 1874. Nevertheless, at that time, Aix remained a very compartmentalized city, isolated from the rest of the region and the means of communication. We had to wait 1870 so that the city is endowed with the railway, while the PLM (Paris-Lyon-Marseille) rallied Paris at Marseilles since the 1840s. Seven years later, in 1877, the city was - finally - connected to Marseilles. From then on, the delay accumulated by the city was gradually filled, and Aix saw a revival of consideration. The arrival of the train allowed travelers from all walks of life to take an interest in the charms of the region, and in particular the Sainte-Victoire, painted ad infinitum by Paul Cézanne. The city prospered, and suffered only relatively the troubles of the two world conflicts.

The 1970s, however, marked a real turning point for Aix, which opened outward. New higher education establishments are being established, including three universities (University of Provence Aix-Marseille I; University of the Mediterranean Aix-Marseille II; University Paul Cézanne Aix-Marseille III). Under the municipality Ciccolini, large housing estates were erected, and the Aix population fell from 54,000 inhabitants in 1954 to 137 000 in 1982. Aix also benefited, at this time, from the installation of high-tech industries, in the Etang de Berre in particular, and the nuclear studies center of Cadarache. At the same time, the city of Aix becomes a tourist hotspot: in 1948 the Lyric Art Festival was created, which today enjoys international renown. The city is expanding considerably, and is proving to be one of the most dynamic in France. A city of economy, it is also becoming a large-scale university center and a cultural capital for the entire region, since it has seven museums ... and the Vasarely foundation, named after the famous Hungarian painter, installed in the new Jas-de-Bouffan district in 1974. Vasarely chose the location of his "museum" in Aix because of his dynamism, as he also expressed it: "The choice of Aix-en-Provence - apart from the gesture of the municipality and the dedication of the personalities of the city was dictated by the rich past of Aix-en-Provence, its artistic and architectural activities, its famous festival, its exceptional motorway network, finally, my admiration for Cézanne: indeed, the Foundation is located at a place called “Jas de Bouffan”, where the brilliant initiator of the visual arts of the present lived. »

In short, in the twentieth century, Aix has been able to take over its cultural and political heritage - the Court of Appeal is still there - but also economic. In this, and for all these reasons, this is a city that we invite you to discover. In recent years, in addition to municipal political unrest - the municipal elections of 2008 were annulled by the Council of State - the city maintains "its" legacies. Become a major university city - nearly a third of the Aix population is students -, Aix is a very dynamic municipality, which arouses both the interests of its big neighbor Marseilles, and sometimes even his jealousy ...


- CHRISTMAS Marie-Nicole, Aix-en-Provence: discovering a city and its history, Aix-en-Provence, Edisud, Coll. Travel Notebooks, 2009.

- BOUYALA D’ARNAUD André, Evocation of old Aix-en-Provence, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, Coll. Old Paris, 1964.

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