A Paleolithic Treasure Under The Sea — Cosquer Cave

A Paleolithic Treasure Under The Sea — Cosquer Cave

In 1985, while diving in the Massif of the Calanques, the jagged limestone cliffs that line the Mediterranean coastline between Marseille and Cassis, local professional diver Henri Cosquer came upon a cave that caught his attention. Located at a depth of 37 meters (121 feet), it would turn out to be the portal of a deep underwater passageway.

A  Unique Discovery

The Cosquer Cave is a surreal landscape of colossal stalactites and stalagmites.

Over the next few years, he returned to progressively explore the 175-meter (574-foot) long, upward-sloping tunnel. Finally, in 1990, he and three of his closest diving partners emerged onto the hardened limestone “beach” of a vast partially submerged chamber. For the next two hours, they explored a surreal landscape of colossal stalactites, stalagmites, leaning vaults and limestone walls, orange-hued in the light of their flashlights.

The outline of a hand first caught the divers’ eye.

Here the story would have ended, with the discovery of a magnificent cave inaccessible to anyone but the most determined of expert divers, if as they were getting ready to depart, the imprint of a hand hadn’t appeared in the beam of Cosquer’s lamp. In the weeks that followed, the team returned several times and discovered an astonishing prehistoric bestiary, as well as amazingly preserved hearths. In addition to multiple figures of the bisons, horses, ibexes and stags common in prehistoric caves, they also found seals and penguins, figures until then unknown in parietal art.

Bison close-up.

The find was officially reported to the Department of Underwater Archeological Research in September 1991 and subsequently authenticated. Carbon dating showed that the cave had been intermittently frequented from 31,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE by hunter-gatherers from the last ice age, when the sea level was 120 meters (393 feet)  lower than it is today, and the coast eight kilometers (five miles) farther. During that time, the entrance of the cave is believed to have been located high on the face of the cliff, in a landscape surrounded by grassland.

A Treasure in Jeopardy

The penguins panel.

To date, a staggering number of cave art have been inventoried on the vaults and walls, including 200 animals representing eleven species: horses, aurochs (the ancestors of all cattle), bisons, a variety of antelopes (megaceroses, ibexes, chamois and saiga), one feline, seals, penguins and fish. Also discovered are geometric motifs that may evoke other sea animals thus far not identified. There are also a few rare human representations, 65 negative handprints in red (21) and black (44), and more than 200 non-figurative signs: rectangles, zigzags and dots. 

 

The legs of a horse close to the water are already being swallowed by the sea.

The uniqueness of the site, the wealth and diversity of the engravings and paintings, and its long human occupation during the Upper Paleolithic Period make the Cosquer Cave a site of global significance — and one whose preservation is a matter of urgency. The process of disintegration began some 10,000 years ago: since the end of the last glacial period, the rising sea levels have submerged more than three quarters of the cave. The quarter that has remained dry is now being nibbled away by the effects of climate change and the rise of sea level. As specially trained diver-archeologists race to document the cave’s Paleolithic art treasures, they also note the acceleration of the process. The legs of a horse close to the water at the time of the discovery have already been swallowed by the sea.

An Essential Preservation Project

The spectacular contemporary Villa Méditerranée is now the permanent home of Cosquer Méditerranée.

Given that the location of the Cosquer Cave makes it inaccessible to anyone but a handful of expert and that, in the medium to long term, its submersion is inevitable, it was clear that creating an accurate replica was the only way to preserve this world heritage site and make it accessible to the general public. Unlike other centers of rock art (Lascaux and Chauvet), Cosquer Méditerranée is located in an urban area, in the heart of the Marseille waterfront, and housed in an existing building: the Villa Méditerranée, a spectacular contemporary architecture creation inaugurated in 2013. Fitting the  2,300-square meter (24,750-square foot), figure eight-shaped cave into a square area with a surface area of 1,750 square meters (18,800 square feet) in basement level of the building presented an additional challenge.

Visitors can now experience the cave in 3D and virtual reality.

Using the latest ultra high-precision 3D technology available today to capture hundreds of laser scans and 360-degree high definition images, more than fifty versions were made to produce a replica of the cave and adapt it to the constraints of the Villa Méditerranée, into which an itinerary had to be integrated. The unified model of the cave, which was then validated scientifically and stenographically, was sent to all the key participants in the project, and in particular, the artists who made the physical replica of the cave. Cosquer Méditerranée was inaugurated in June 2022, and now offers visitors the opportunity to experience the cave in 3D and in a virtual reality tour.

A Dive Into The World of Henri Cosquer

The circuit introduces visitors to every types of rock art.

The visit begins in a replica of Cosquer’s diving club, including the gear used by professional and amateur divers at the time of the cave’s discovery, followed by an elevator ride down to the entrance of the replica. Designed to accommodate twenty-four people, the elevator evokes a nautical elevator for divers: screens simulate the descent to 37 meters as visitors are taken to an underwater station in the basement level  to embark on exploratory vehicles.  

Giant Penguin close-up.

Each of these vehicles can accommodate up to six passengers for a slow, thirty-five minute 220-meter (725-foot) itinerary in semi-darkness. Wearing audio headsets that are synchronized with the panels, the visitors gradually discover the rock art panels that light up as they approach. The circuit enables visitors to see all the types of rock art and understand their significance. Everything, including the presence of bodies of water, contributes to creating the illusion of being in the real cave. 

The archaeological interpretation centre features a life-size replica of a megaceros antelope.

Visitors come back up into daylight via a large airy staircase that take them to the vast, light-filled third floor, where the archaeological interpretation centre is located. Here in addition to life-size models of the thirteen animal species represented on the cave walls, they can enjoy breathtaking views of the waterfront and the Mediterranean seascape all the way to the horizon. 

Cosquer Cave Panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By train: Marseille is easily reached by direct TGV (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3.5 hours) and Lyon (1.5 hour), as well as Geneva (3.5 hours), Brussels (5.5 hours) and Frankfurt (7 hours). By air: For air travelers, the Marseille-Provence International Airport is 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) northwest of the city. It has numerous flights throughout the day from Paris, London and other major European cities. A shuttle bus runs every 15 minutes between the airport and the center of the city.
  • Visiting — Cosquer Méditerranée is located on the J4 Esplanade, 13002, Marseille.  It is open everyday year round including holidays. Opening hours vary seasonally and are updated on the official website. Contact — tel.: +33 (0)4 91 31 23 12.
  •  Note — Photography by visitors is strictly prohibited throughout the cave. All images in the article are used by permission © Kleber Rossillon&Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur/Sources 3D MC.  

Location, location, location!

Villa Cosquer

Raoul Dufy — A Passion for Color

Raoul Dufy — A Passion for Color

One of my favorite museums in the south of France, the Hôtel de Caumont – Art Center recently opened a new exhibit focusing on the work of the French painter Raoul Dufy (1877 – 1953). Held in conjunction with the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which owns one of the largest collection of the artist’s works, the exhibition ‘Raoul Dufy: a Passion for Color’ explores the artist’s entire career, with particular attention to Dufy’s close link with Provence and the work of Paul Cezanne.

From Normandy to Provence

Yacht in Le Havre (1904). Oil on canvas, 69 x 81 cm. Le Havre Musée d’Art Moderne-André Malraux.

Born in Le Havre, a major port city on the English Channel, Dufy takes his first step as an artist at the city’s Municipal Art School before being awarded a scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts) in Paris in 1900. His early works, mainly landscapes of the Normandy coast, are Impressionist in style, until 1905 when he encounters the work of Henri Matisse and Fauvism at the famous Salon des Independents — and is briefly attracted by the power of color and the strength of drawing of the Fauvist mouvement.

Fishing Boats in Martigues (circa 1910). Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. Private Collection.

Then, in 1908, during a trip to the south of France with Georges Braque, Dufy discovers the work of Cezanne. He goes to paint at l’Estaque, a small fishing port close to Marseille, in homage to the Provencal master. While Braque turns to cubism a year later, Dufy continues to study Cezanne’s work until 1914. The blues of the sea and sky remain at the heart of his on-going exploration of his favorite motifs: coastal landscapes, boats, regattas and bathers. But he now adds the ochres, greens and reds hues of Provence to his palette. Warm orange tones also make their way into his indoor scenes, showing the extent to which the southern climate is influencing his appreciation of color.

The Cezanne Legacy

Nice Pier and Promenade (circa 1926). Oil on Canvas, 38 x 46 cm. Paris Museum of Modern Art

This newfound “Cezannism” endures in the work of  Dufy to the end of the decade. He applies it to his own places of residence,  Paris and Le Havre. After the First World War, Dufy returns to Vence. Now, while still inspired by Cezanne, he also has a short flirtation with Cubism even as his own distinctive style emerges in the early 1920’s: skeletal structures, arranged with foreshortened perspective, and the use of thin washes of color applied quickly, in a manner that comes to be known as stenographic. Dufy’s cheerful oils and watercolors depict events of the time, including yachting scenes, sparkling views of the French Riviera, regattas and musical events.

A Multifaceted Talent

The Large Bather (1913). Oil on canvas 182 x 245 cm. On deposit at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Burssels. Private Collection.

In addition to his coastal landscapes, the exhibition presents other Dufy favorite themes, among them interiors of his successive workshops, flowers and bathers. The later is a subject of infinite variations as Dufy associates the bather motif with mythological evocations of nymphs and goddesses of Greek and Roman Antiquity, such as Amphitrite or Venus. 

 

 

 

Bouquets of wild flowers, circa 1948. Watercolor and gouache on Arches vellum, 50 x 65.7cm.

He also nurtures a strong interest in flowers, to the point of specializing in the field. From 1910 to 1930, he produces a number of highly successful floral patterns for the French couturier Paul Poiret’s textile company and the Bianchini-Férier silk factory in Lyon. He excels in this area, in which ornaments, scrolls and ellipses are matched by a subtly infinite palette of colors. Then in the 1940’s, he turns to watercolor to represent wildflowers such as poppies, cornflowers, daisies, irises and anemones in seemingly careless bouquets and garden still lifes.

Dufy transferred his mythologicaldesigns onto ceramics.

Throughout his career, he also acquires a reputation as an illustrator and as a commercial artist. His engraving plates appear in books by Guillaume Apollinaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and André Gide among others. He produced a huge number of tapestry and ceramic designs. And he paints murals for public buildings.

 

 

 

The Electricity Fairy

The exhibition ends with an immersive installation of the Electricy Fairy mural.

In 1937, for the International Exposition of Arts and Technology in Paris, Dufy completes one of the most ambitious paintings ever undertaken: a monumental work of 600 square meters (6500 square feet), composed of 250 panels illustrating the social role of light, to decorated the inside façade of the Pavilion of Light and Electricity. To represent the history of electricity from its first observations to its most recent applications, the composition is organized as a liberated, lively drawing of bright blocks of color, depicting many of the artist’s favorite subjects, including yachts, flocks of birds, festive scenes and allegorical and mythological figures. The work can now be admired in its dedicated permanent hall at the Paris Museum of Modern Art. But the creators of the current exhibition found a way to bring it to their visitors: the last room of the itinerary features an immersive installation of La Fée Électricité which allow the viewer to appreciate the work in greater detail than the original display.

Dufy’s Workshop in Perpignan (1942). Oil on canvas, 65 X 85 cm. Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Dufy’s artistic legacy languished for a number of decades after his death in 1953. Critics seemed to consider that the optimistic, fashionably decorative nature of his work trivialized it. Featuring more than ninety works from French and international public and private collections to prove them wrong, the exhibition, which runs until September 18, 2022, is well worth a visit if you happen to be anywhere this summer within detour distance from Aix-en-Provence and the Hôtel de Caumont – Art Center.

The original of La Fée Electricité resides at the Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Good to Know

  • Getting There By train: there are frequent TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours) to Aix-en-Provence. The TGV train station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a bus shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. By plane: MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle as the TGV station.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.Is open daily from May 6 to September 18 from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, and from September 19 to May 5 from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: e-mail, or Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Hotel de Caumont - Art Center

In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine

In the Historic Center of Aix-en-Provence — A Gem of Contemporary Cuisine

The capital of the Duchy of Provence and a renowned cultural center throughout the Middle Ages, the city of Aix-en-Provence require no introduction. Its well preserved Medieval and Renaissance historic center, vibrant artistic life and colorful open-air markets draw visitors from the world over.

In the heart of the historic center – NIRO by Le Gambetta.

And where tourists abound, so do eateries of all stripes! Fast food counters line the cobbled alleys of the old town and bistro terraces invade its tiny squares. The food they dish out is mainly forgettable, the service often rushed. Their purpose is to provide sightseers with ready sustenance and the impression they are taking in a bit of the laid-back mediterranean vibe before they move on to their next selfie opportunity. To be fair, Aix is also home to a few restaurants where culinary excellence still flourishes, establishments where savvy patrons can enjoy leisurely three-course meals of the best contemporary fare France has to offer—places like NIRO by Le Gambetta.

Bistronomie at its Best

The inviting dining room is the perfect setting for a relaxed Bistronomie evening.

What’s Bistronomie? A culinary trend started some three decades ago by a handful of young, classically trained French chefs who saw the need to bring the traditional Haute Cuisine of the prestigious high-end restaurants — and stratospheric prices — down to earth. They focused their creative talents on simple, high quality products of the French heartland to take bistro fare to new heights. Bistronomie was born!. In the heart of the historic center of Aix en Provence, NIRO by Le Gambetta is the epitome of the Bistronomie vision.

A delicate Mousse of Shiitake Mushrooms Amuse Bouche.

In their elegantly casual restaurant, its owner Chef Damien Serre-Combe (in the kitchen) and his wife, the ever-charming Claire (in the dining room) deliver on the Bistronomie promise. The menu is modest in size only: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, with each category featuring a vegetarian option, plus a cheese board and a couple of weekly special  mains. It is enhanced by a short, well thought-out wine list, a number of choices offered also by the glass to facilitate pairings. But with every dish remarkably creative and flawlessly executed, choice is still a dilemma. This is why, over the two weeks of her recent visit, a long-time friend and fellow foodie and I determined to eat our way through the NIRO menu.

Cochon Confit with Black Garlic Cream.

Each meal began with a complimentary amuse-bouche, a few mouthfuls of a delicate treat to stimulate our taste buds while we perused the menu. One day, it was a generous dollop of shiitake mushroom mousse on a bed of creamy zucchini purée, enhanced with exotic spices and a drop of truffle oil. The next day, it was rave-worthy baby oyster mushrooms sautéed in a melange of fresh aromatic herbs. Then we got to the serious business of discovering our favorite dishes.

And The Winners Are…

Miso-glazed salmon with caramelized cumquats.

In the Main Course Category — I thought I had found it on the first day with the Cochon Confit:  succulent cubes of slow-cooked pork loin topped with a velvety cream of black garlic, garnished with a mousse of celeriac (a.k.a celery root) and hazelnuts. But the next day’s Saumon Laqué au Miso, a moist pan cooked slab of salmon, brushed with a Miso glaze and garnished with caramelized cumquats and a medley of crunchy seasonal vegetable, was pure bliss. Full disclosure: I ordered it a second time during our “challenge.”  Therefore I suppose it should be declared the winner?  But I’ll call it a draw.

The Foie Gras Maison appetizer.

Appetizers — The main course portions were so generous that wisdom dictated forgoing the starter – but my friend and I occasionally agreed on one to share, such as the intriguing Poulpe de Roche à la Galicienne: tender slices of Rock Octopus, simmered in Spanish spices, and served cold with a garlicky Aioli sauce. On an other visit I opted for the sumptuous Medaillons de Foie Gras Maison — three slices of home made Foie Gras served with toasted Ginger Bread and Mango relish. Generous enough to share or pass for a decadent main course. Definitely a winner either way!

Chocolate Millefeuille with caramelized Pineapple.

Desserts — Always the hardest of decisions, since I’ve seldom met a dessert I didn’t like, but the honor easily went to the exotic Millefeuille Chocolat-Ananas: two wafter-thin outer layers of nutty chocolate crunch holding caramelized fresh pineapple chunks and topped with coconut mousse. 

 

 

The Man Behind the Magic

Chef Damien Serre-Combe.

Born in Martiques, a picturesque little town just west of Marseille, Chef Damien spent his formative years in West Africa, where his businessman father had settled. There, he acquired his interest in exotic spices “while enjoying home-cooked meals at my local friends.” Back in Marseilles as a university student, he took a job as a dishwasher in a top local restaurant to help finance his medical studies—and discovered his passion. He started the long cooking apprenticeship process, working his way up in the kitchen and acquiring a degree in restaurant management along the way, ultimately opening his own restaurant in 2016.

Another heavenly Amuse-Bouche creation: oyster mushrooms sautéed in aromatic herbs.

It was simply Le Gambetta back then, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall named for its street address, just outside the boundaries of the old town. Already the vision of Chef Damien stood out: imaginative combinations of unusual spices and seasonal products of the highest quality, prepared with flair and served with spot-on timing. Le Gambetta quickly became a bursting-at-the-seams neighborhood favorite. Then the pandemic shuttered the entire country.

The Pear Tart on a base of pecan nuts nougat was my dessert first runner up.

Chef Damien used the downtime well, scouting and ultimately acquiring his ideal location in the much thought-after picturesque historic center of town. Here, he designed his kitchen into a coherent work space, and the “front of the house” into an inviting dining room with a remarkably efficient open service area. And he found the time to finetune his seasonally-inspired menus. “I always start with spices,” he explained, “then focus on how they can enhance the flavor of the varied seasonal products.”  He also favors the fresh catch from  nearby small Mediterranean fishing ports and the abundance of heirloom vegetables from back-country farms.  It’s NIRO now (by Le Gambetta for your loyal fans of yore) and it’s better than ever. If your travel plans take you anywhere near Aix-en-Provence, make sure to call ahead for reservations. It’s well worth a detour!

Good to Know

  •  NIRO by Le Gambetta , 37 Place des Tanneurs 13100 Aix-en-Provence, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm to 9:45 pm. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Tel.  +33 (0) 4 42 27 65 46.
  • Getting there—NIRO is located in the pedestrian historic center, a short 10-minute walk from the Cours Mirabeau and La Rotonde.
  • This cozy restaurant with its relaxing contemporary flair and off-street shaded terrace can accommodate a maximum of 50 guests. While it is still a word-of-mouth place at the time of this writing, the word is deservedly getting around fast. Reservations are strongly recommended any time and a must on weekends.

 

Location, location, location!

NIRO by Le Gambetta

Nancy — The Fountainhead of French Art Nouveau

Nancy — The Fountainhead of French Art Nouveau

Long before Nancy became famous for its spectacular Baroque architecture, it had been the seat of the Dukes of Lorraine for over 500 years. The wealth of historic landmarks in its medieval quarter, the Vieille Ville (Old Town), attest to the Duchy’s early prosperity. Then, by the 16th century, Duke Charles the Great turned the city’s landscape upside down. To accommodate the needs of a growing population, he developed an entire new town, the Ville Neuve, to the south of the medieval town, including a grand Renaissance-style Ducal Palace (now the Musée Lorrain).

The Fountain of Neptune is a Rococo-style masterpiece.

Yet it wasn’t until the mid 18th  century that the last of his successors, Duke Stanislas Leszczynski, father-in-law of the King of France, commissioned Nancy’s grand Baroque palaces and pavilions, including the City Hall, Opera House and Fine Arts Museum to surround one of the most renowned Baroque squares in Europe: the Place Stanislas. While these remarkable historic landmarks are well worth a visit, it is treasures of a more recent era that brought me here recently: the richest Art Nouveau heritage in France.

The Dazzling Daum Collection

The Musée des Beaux Arts holds the largest collection of Daum glassware in the world.

My exploration of Nancy’s artistic treasures predictably begins on the Place Stanislas, at the Musée des Beaux Arts where. on my way to the basement,  I browse through the exceptional collection of notable local artists such as  Le Lorrain, Emile Friant and Etienne Cournault, and  works by such  European greats as Caravaggio, Delacroix, Rubens Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso. Down there, within a setting of the city’s ancient fortifications, with over 600 pieces on display, more than any other museum in anywhere in the world, the Daum Collection dazzles.

Daum glassworks are famous for their use of pâte de verre.

Established in 1878 by Jean Daum (1825-1885), the Daum crystal studio flourished under his sons, August (1853-1909) and Antonin (1864-1931) to become one of the most prominent Art Nouveau decorative glass manufacturers in France. The Daum brothers soon became a major force in the Art Nouveau movement for their creative use of pâte de verre (glass paste), an ancient Egyptian method of glass casting, often combined with carving, enameling, engraving and acid etching. Several of these processes were often combined in a single piece to produce uniquely creative glass masterpieces. This permanent exhibit mainly showcases a sumptuous collection of pieces from the Art Nouveau period, but it also traces the story of the Daum glassworks from their early days to their clear crystal creations of the 1990’s.

The Ecole de Nancy

Eugene Majorelle’s famous La Mort du Cigne grand piano dominates the Corbin linving room.

Three of the biggest names in French Art Nouveau, Emile Gallé (1846-1904), the Daum brothers and Louis Majorelle (1859-1926) had their glassware and furniture manufacturing plants in Nancy. They were part of a dynamic artistic and business culture that had its origins in the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71) when artists, intellectuals and industrialists fled to Nancy, which had remained in French territory. In 1901, they founded a movement that became known as the Ecole de Nancy and was joined by other artists, notably Jacques Grüber, of stained glass installations fame.

The Veranda stained glass window by Jacques Grüber.

Today their pioneering creations are showcased in the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Opened in 1964 in the former residence of Eugène Corbin, a major patron of the mouvement who donated to the city an exceptional collection of 700 pieces of great diversity. Designed by architect Lucien Weissenburger in a vast landscaped garden with an aquarium pavilion, the villa itself has retained its original Art Nouveau charm. It provides the perfect setting for its collections of outstanding furniture and decorative objects by all the artists of the School.

The Museum of the Ecole de Nancy

Vase aux Bleuets (Emile Gallé).

Coupe Rose fe France (Emile Gallé – 1901)

A visit to the Nancy School Museum is a journey back to the Belle Époque, where architecture, furniture, lighting and stained glass immerse us into the world of Art Nouveau. Each room – dining room, bedrooms, study, bathroom – is exquisitely furnished with the creations of the architects, craftsmen and decorators who came together as the Nancy School. Bed are adorned with butterflies, lights fixtures open into translucent corollas, mahogany sideboards charm with their slender curves, and brilliant stained glass windows sparkle in a thousand and one shades.  Each object is a wonder of refinement that reminds us of the ultimate ambition of these Art Nouveau masters: transforming the living environment down to the smallest detail by drawing inspiration from the splendors of nature. Not to be overlooked in the midsts of these treasures is the magnificent collection of Emile Gallé glass. A trained botanist, Gallé planted a garden under the windows of his glassworks, La Garenne, so that the workers could “check the accuracy of their lines”. 

The Villa Majorelle

Louis Majorelle’s studio and balcony overlooked the garden.

The Villa features several spectacular fireplaces.

A short 10-minute walk away, along streets still dotted with Belle Époque buildings, the recently restored Villa Majorelle is regarded as one of the first and finest examples of the Art Nouveau architectural style in France. The flowing forms, decorative motifs and the continuous interplay between the exterior and the interior offer a brilliant example of the artistic unity advocated by a large number of artists of the period. Built around 1902 for the furniture designer and industrialist Louis Majorelle (father of Jacques Majorelle of Marrakech Jardin Majorelle fame), it served as a showcase for his own designs, as well as the work of other noted decorative artists of the day, including ceramist Alexandre Bigot and stained glass artist Jacques Grüber. The facade is composed of distinct blocks of different sizes, their decoration expressing the function of the space within. Especially notable is the western side, crowned by Majorelle’s studio, with soaring windows overlooking what was then the garden and surrounding countryside.

This unique Majorelle creation is made of Japanese ash and alder woods.

Inside, the meticulous restitution of the original decor and the furnishing of the rooms illustrates the intimate connection between architecture and decorative arts. The fluidity of the forms, the decorations inspired by nature, the play of light in the stained glass windows, every detail contributes to transporting the visitor back in time as the rooms are revealed one by one. From the dining room with its imposing flamed sandstone fireplace to the bedroom, a unique Majorelle creation made of Japanese ash and alder woods encrusted with copper and mother of pearl, the Villa offers a rare opportunity to experience an intimate home setting of the Gilded Age of Art Nouveau.

Good to Know

  • Getting There — Nancy is located 350 kilometers (220 miles) east of Paris, and easy 4-hour drive via the A4 highway.  However, the most efficient way to travel between the two cities is by rail: an hourly TGV (express train) connect the Gare de l’Est in the center of Paris to the Gare Nancy-Ville in the center of Nancy in a mere 90 minutes throughout the day.There are equally fast and easy highway and train connections from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland.
  • Getting Around — The center of Nancy is pedestrian-friendly, mainly flat, with good sidewalks, and most of the historic monuments are located in car-free areas, The city also has a very efficient tramway service running  from 4.30am to 1am during the week and 2.30am on weekends.
  • VisitingThe Musée des Beaux Arts, 3 Place Stanislas, Nancy is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Tuesday and major national holidays. The Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy,  36-38 rue du Sergent Blandan, Nancy, and the Villa Majorelle, 1, rue Louis Majorelle, Nancy, are  open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. They are closed on Monday, Tuesday and major national holidays.   

Location, location, location!

Nancy - Place Stanislas

Place Stanislas

The Museum of Paris History— Musee Carnavalet

The Museum of Paris History— Musee Carnavalet

The Musée Carnavalet has long been one of Paris’ overlooked treasures. Dedicated to recording the city’s history, it opened in 1880 in a grand Renaissance mansion (Hôtel Carnavalet) of the history-steeped Marais district.

Fragment of an early plaque commemorating the medieval defensive wall of Paris.

For over 150 years, as its collections illustrating the development of the city were continuously enriched, the museum expanded with the haphazard addition of exhibit spaces and finally the annexation of the adjoining Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau mansion in 1989. By the time it finally closed for long overdue renovations in 2016, its collections had grown so large that curators struggled to display it all in a coherent fashion. Its confusing layout gave this most Parisian of museums the nostalgic feel  of a Cabinets of Curiosities of a bygone era.

 

An Elegant Metamorphosis

The visit begins with a collection of ancient shop signs.

The Musée Carnavalet – History of Paris reopened in May 2021 after a four-and-a-half-year, €56 million renovation. Major structural changes, some made imperative by modern accessibility requirements, created an easy-to-follow chronological itinerary. Beginning in the fully renovated vaulted basement with displays from the Mesolithic period (9600  to 6000 BCE) to the Middle Ages, visitors then pass through areas dedicated to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and the 19th and 20th centuries, to end in today’s Paris.

The Bastille café sign (painted wood-1800)

In addition to adapting the building to current norms and redesigning the layout of the visit, the work has embellished the monument, highlighting its architecture and adding  soaring stairways for a contemporary flair. To the right of the entrance, a light-filled gallery welcomes visitors with an eclectic collection of old shop signs, from  the 17th to the early 20th centuries.

This head of Medusa decorated a door of the Hôtel de Ville.

Then the visit begins with two introductory rooms presenting the history of Paris, its symbols, key data on the history of the city, and the museum itself. They feature a number of scale models of the evolution of Paris and miscellaneous items ranging from a portrait of Madame de Sévigné, the famous aristocratic letter-writer who occupied the Palais Carnavalet in the 17th century to an early silver film photo of late 19th century rag-pickers and a massive oak door decorated with a head of a Medusa, saved from the destruction of the old Hôtel de Ville by fire in 1871 during the Commune.

 

A Walk Back in Time

A Neolithic oak wood canoe takes pride of place.

Now it’s down into the newly opened  basement. Here Mesolithic stone tools attest to the presence of a hunter-gatherers encampment around 9000 to 5000 BCE. Exceptional Neolithic remains (6500 to 4500 BCE ) follow. Found during excavations carried out in the nearby Bercy district, which uncovered a village on the edge of an old channel of the Seine, they include an oak canoe and a yew wood bow as well as numerous tools, weapons and utensils of domestic life.

Carved stone block from late Roman times city ramparts.

From there we fast-forward to approximately 250 BCE, when a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii settled in what is now the Ile de la Cité. The burgeoning city that grew from this early settlement would, after its conquest by the Romans in 52 BCE become the Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia, an evolution widely documented by imposing carved stone blocks and many decorative elements coming from different public spaces. The domestic sphere  is also well represented with a focus on tableware and everyday objects. Necropolises also contribute a remarkable insight into these times with jewels, weapons, and an exceptional set of surgical instruments dated from the 3rd century.

Into the Middle Ages

Stained glass works from medieval monasteries.

We now reach the medieval heart of Paris, where political and religious powers first came together: the Ile de la Cité. In the center of the room, a model of the island makes it possible to visualize the urban space and its density. A gargoyle from Notre-Dame cathedral dominates the room, and common objects from wooden crockery to leather shoes, all in a remarkable state of conservation, provide a striking testimony of the daily life of the period. Then we cross to the left bank of the Seine to discover the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and its royal necropolis, the Sorbonne (founded in 1257), and several prominent monasteries that attracted thousands of scholars and students, forming colleges that became the University of Paris.

Stele commemorating the death of Prince Louis of France, heir to the throne, in 1260.

Where were the dead buried in Paris during the Middle Ages? The question is answered with tombstones and steles from two major cemeteries: the Innocents, in the current district of Les Halles, which was used for nearly seven centuries, and the Jewish cemetery on the Left Bank, testimony of the large Jewish community established in Paris in the 12th and 13th centuries. And how were the living governed? Paris gradually becomes a municipality with powers distributed among many: the landlords, the king’s provost, the provost of bourgeois merchants, the aldermen… The section ends with King François I, who in 1533 orders the construction of a town hall, on its current location.

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Guest Salon of the Hôtel d’Uzes (1768).

Salon Demarteau (1765 to1770) by François Boucher.

The overall narrative of the 16th to 18th centuries exhibits highlights the evolution of the intellectual influence of Paris and the main actors of the Age of Enlightenment. But for Decorative Arts lovers, that is eclipsed by the magnificent “period rooms”, some 20 of them, salvaged from mansions and shops that no longer exist. These are stately interiors, fully reconstructed and decorated with their original furnishings, such as the office of the Hôtel Colbert de Villacerf, the Guests Salon of the Hôtel d’Uzès, designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in a grand neoclassical style, the exquisite Demarteau lobby designed by Boucher and decorated with animals and flowers by Fragonard and Huet, and the ceilings at the Hôtel de la Rivière painted by Charles Le Brun. All lead to the breathtaking flight of stairs of the Hotel de Luynes, with its upper landing gallery murals by Paolo Antonio Brunetti. Here, in a majestic colonnaded decor, figures in various poses seem to watch visitors climbing up the stairs.

 

Beyond the Revolution

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789).

A painting of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the era’s key civil rights document, marks the entrance the next gallery. We are reaching the 19th century, an especially tormented period of Paris history, when the storming of La Bastille on July 14, 1789, ushered in successive revolutions leading to imperial regimes, attempts at democracy and even the brief, ill-fated utopian socialist government of the Paris Commune, some 150 years ago.  And I am reaching cultural overload.

The ballroom of the Hôtel de Wendel (1925).

This is clearly a two-visits museum. But for now, I hasten my pace, determined to give at least a passing glance to the 19th and 20th centuries. For my reward, I come across the exquisite de Wendel ballroom, commissioned in 1925 by the de Wendel couple for the ballroom of their Parisian mansion.This decorative composition representing the Queen of Sheba atop a white elephant, preparing to leave her kingdom to meet King Solomon, is the work of Catalan artist José Maria Sert, recognized as the greatest muralist his time.

Jewelry Fouquet (1901) by Art Nouveau icon Alfons Mucha.

The final highlight of my visit is the Bijouterie Fouquet, designed by Czech Art Nouveau icon Alfons Mucha for society jeweler Georges Fouquet, himself best known for his Art Nouveau creations. Mucha conceived every elements of the shop – both exterior and interior, including the furniture, light fittings and display cases, as a complete work of art, to provide a harmonious environment for Fouquet. Drawing inspiration from the natural world, he gave pride of place to two spectacular peacocks set against glowing designs in stained glass. In 1941 Fouquet donated all the pieces of Mucha’s revolutionary design to the Musée Carnavalet for safekeeping. In 1989 the museum completed the painstaking job of reconstructing the boutique, which remains one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau decorative design anywhere.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — The Musee Carnavalet, 16 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris 75004, France, is a five-minute walk from the Saint Paul metro station.
  • Visiting — The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. It is closed on Monday and public holidays. It is one of the 14 museums run by the City of Paris, and like all other city-run museums, entrance to the permanent collection is free of charge (Visitors are only charged for temporary exhibitions).  
  • Health Guidelines — Due to health restrictions in order at the time of this writing advanced reservation through the museum official site  for a specific day and time was necessary, as was presentation of a valid European Health Pass or the usual proof of negative RT-PCR or antigénic négatif test within the past 48 hours. Mask were mandatory throughout the museum.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée Carnavalet

Musee Carnavalet

The Maeght Foundation — An oasis of Modern Art in the Hills of Provence

The Maeght Foundation — An oasis of Modern Art in the Hills of Provence

Perched on a rocky outcrop some seven kilometers (4.5 miles) inland from the Mediterranean coast, Saint-Paul de Vence, the most charming of the hilltop villages of Provence, has long been a favorite day trip for visitors to the French Riviera.

Saint-Paul de Vence is the oldest of the medieval hilltops villages of Provence.

Any time of year, its winding cobbled alleyways, arch gateways and tiny shaded squares are teeming with tourists eager to experience this medieval wonder enclosed within its mighty 16th century fortifications. They browse the art galleries now housed behind the ancient stone facades that line its narrow central street, or settle at a cafe terrace at the edge of the ramparts to enjoy the exceptional views of the hillsides sloping down to the sea. But few realize that a mere 10 minutes away, secluded in a lush forest of umbrella pines, the Maeght Foundation Is home to one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in Europe.

The Maeght Foundation

The gardens feature several fountains.

Inaugurated in 1964, the Foundation is the brainchild of a visionary couple of publishers and art dealers, Aimé Maeght (1906-1981) and his wife Marguerite (1909-1977). They represented and were friends with some of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, including George Braque, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, Wassily Kandinsky, Barbara Hepworth, Fernand Leger, Joan Mirò and Germaine Richier. The Foundation, entirely conceived and financed by the Maeght, was intended to create a space to present Modern and Contemporary Art in all its forms, and provide a retreat where artists could visit, exchange ideas and create, as well as exhibit their work.

The Foundation is a masterpiece of Modernist Architecture

The Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert, who was charged with the project, designed a masterpiece of Modernist architecture where diverse forms of art harmoniously coexist within the natural landscape typical of Provence. He maximized the use of indirect, natural light for viewing artworks, and created a spacial layout conducive to contemplation. 

Joan Mirò ceramic mural.

Painters and sculptors collaborated closely with the architect by creating monumental works integrated into the building and gardens. With only 850 square meters (9,150 square feet) of enclosed spaces, the Foundation offers a unique, flexible arrangement of volumes and spaces, interiors and exteriors. The result is a spectacular environment that integrates natural light with archetypal forms, colors and geometries to create endless possibilities for visitors and artists alike to enjoy this unique oasis of creativity.

 

 

 

The Ultimate Sculpture Garden

The Giacometti Courtyard.

The sculpture garden was conceived to present modern and contemporary art in all its forms. Particularly striking is the Giacometti Court, the Foundation’s inner courtyard overlooking the French Riviera, which features an exceptional ensemble of works by the artist. A sculpted head and several walking figures, including L’Homme qui marche (Man walking -1960), project their silhouettes on the tiled ground, almost like sundials marking the passing of time in this Surrealist haven.

Les Renforts is a monumental free-standing sculpture by Alexander Calder.

The Catalan artist Miró created a playful labyrinth, where visitors can wander among the numerous sculptural pieces. Additionally, monumental mural mosaics by Chagall and Tal Coat can be found in the exteriors, together with a pool designed by Braque. The garden also features a rotating selection of works by Calder, Takis and Arp, which seamlessly interact with the surrounding environment. 

 

 

The Interior Exhibition Space

La Vie (Marc Chagall – 1964) is a centerpiece of the permanent exhibition.

With over 13,000 works in its catalog, the Foundation holds one of the largest collection of paintings, sculptures and works on paper of Modern and Contemporary Art in Europe. Other than a limited number of monumental pieces, such as La partie de campagne (The picnic – Fernand Leger – 1954. Oil on Canvas  254 cm x 301 cm), L’été (Summertime. Pierre Bonnard – 1917. Oil on Canvas 260 cm x 340 cm) and La Vie (Life. Marc Chagall – 1964. Oil on Canvas 296 x 406,) the curated selection of works exhibited in the indoor galleries show the collection in rotation. And it is enhanced by a rich program of temporary exhibitions.

Le Chien (Alberto Giacometti) takes pride of place in the Family of Creators exhibition.

At the time of my recent visit, “The Giacometti: a family of creators” held sway. The exhibition highlighted the famous dynasty of artists from the Swiss village of Stampa, starting with Alberto Giacometti, the most famous member of the family, known for his emblematic threadlike sculptures. But it also showcased the talent and originality of his father, Giovanni, and his cousin, Augusto, both painters, as well as his two brothers: Diego, the middle brother, sculptor and designer, and Bruno, the youngest, architect. 

Based on several dozens of major sculptures, drawings and paintings from the collection, rounded out by archived photographs and objects, this exhibit brought to light the unique story of five artists from the same family who left their mark on 20th century art. 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Saint-Paul de Vence is located inland from the Mediterranean, approximately 20 kilometer from the coastal towns of Nice to the East and Antibes to the West respectively. By road: it is easily accessible via the coastal highway nº A8 to Cagnes-sur-Mer (Exit 48), then follow local road nº D436, direction La Colle-du-Loup/Vence Saint-Paul de Vence. Parking: Motor vehicles are not allowed in the village. Several metered  parking areas with are available for visitors before reaching the village. By public transportation: frequent regional express trains (TERs) offer fast services between all of the main towns along the French Riviera from Cannes to Ventimiglia. Stop: Cagnes-sur-Mer, then take Bus nº 400 in front of the train station (Direction Saint-Paul de Vence). Stop: Aix Village.  
  • Reaching The Maeght Foundation By Road: the well-indicated turn-off to the Foundation is located shortly before the entrance to the village. Parking is free, subject to availability. By bus: Bus nº 400. Stop Fondation Maeght, then a 10-minute uphill walk to the Foundation entrance gate.
  • Visiting — The Maeght Foundation , 623, Chemin des Gardettes, 06570 Saint-Paul de Vence, France, is open every day from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm in July and August and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm the remainder of the year. Contact; tel: +33 (0)4 93 32 81 63, email: info@fondation-maeght.com .   

Location, location, location!

Fondation Aimé et Marguerite Maeght