Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Into the Hellenic World

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Into the Hellenic World

Day Three – We leave behind the Phoenician world to travel eastward into Hellenic country and the ill-fated seaside city of Selinunte. Some 15 kilometers inland before we reach the city, we arrive at the western Mediterranean’s most overlooked archeological site.

Cave di Cusa

Some blocks remain in nearby olive groves.

Gigantic columns intended for Silenunte’s Temple G still lay in as they were originally abandoned.

Stretched across a 1.8 kilometer (1.2 mile) long ridge, the ancient limestone quarry of Cave di Cusa was actively mined beginning in the first half of the 6th century BC, its stone used to construct the temples of Selinunte. It was precipitously abandoned in 409 BC when the city was captured by the Carthaginians. The blocks of stones in their various stages of completion have remained exactly as they were some 25 centuries ago. Along with the column sections (or drums), there are also some capitals and square incisions for quarrying square blocks, all intended for the temples of Selinunte. Some the drums that had already been extracted were found ready for transport. Others, already on their way, were abandoned on the road. Some gigantic drums, definitely intended for what is now known as Temple G, the largest in Selinunte and one of the largest in the Hellenic world, are found on the western side of the quarry, also in the state in which they were originally abandoned.

 

 

The Quarrying Process

Some massive drums were in the process of being detached from the stone mass.

Thanks to the many column drums scattered in various stages of completion, Cave di Cusa provides a clear idea of how the temples at Selinunte (and presumably elsewhere) were built. In a nutshell: a circle of a specified diameter was traced on top of the stone mass. The quarriers then chiseled downwards around the circumference until they reached a depth of the specified height of the drum, which varied for the different structures, to a maximum of 2.5 meters (8 feet). The result was a perfect cylinder surrounded by a gap in the stone of about 60 centimeters (2 feet). Finally, the base of the cylinder was chipped away until it could be levered from the mother stone underneath. These drums were then pulled by oxen to the construction site, to be hoisted into position and embellished as needed.

The Cursed City

The fortified city of Selinunte overlooked the sea.

Founded in the mid-7th century BC, Selinunte, or Selinos as it was called by the Greeks, was once one of the richest and most influential cities in the Hellenic world. At its peak, it is estimated to have been home to 30,000 citizens and at least twice as many slaves. Beautifully located on a plateau overlooking the sea, it was the western-most Greek colony in Sicily and consequently often came into contact – and conflict –  with the Phoenicians and the native Elymian people of Segesta in the west and northwest of the island.

The city was reduced to a pile of rubble in 409 BC.

Then, almost overnight in 409 BC, Selinunte went from being one of the most progressive and eminent cities in Sicily to a vast expanse of rubble. The Carthaginian, who for many years had seen this powerful Greek city as a hindrance to their own influence in Sicily, took advantage of a conflict between the Greeks of Selinunte and the Elymians of Segesta to intervene. They sent some 100,000 men to lay siege to Selinunte, which was only able to hold out for nine days. The subsequent sacking involved the massacre of some 16,000 of the town’s inhabitants while most of the remaining citizens either fled to Mazara or where taken into slavery.

Selinunte Archeological Park

The Acropolis is surrounded by the ruins of several temples.

Today, abandoned for nearly 2,500 years, Selinunte is one of the largest archaeological areas in Europe, a 270 hectare (667 acre) treasure trove of remains of one of the most flourishing classical civilizations in the Mediterranean. The park is built around a vast fortified acropolis overlooking the sea, and surrounded by the ruins of several temples dedicated to Zeus, Apollo, Athena and Hera among others. Because of the difficulty of defining most of the deities they honored, the temples are designated by letters.

The Acropolis

Only the rocky basement and the altar remain of Temples A and O. A row of columns from Temple C stands in the background.

Situated on the highest point of the site, the Acropolis revolves around two perpendicular axes. In addition to the remains of five temples in various stages of preservation, it also includes a Punic sacrificial area with the sign of the goddess Tanit (Carthage’s main deity) found on the slabs. The most southerly Doric temples, O and A, dated from around 490, are dedicated to Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri), the legendary twin brothers, born from the union of Jupiter and the queen of Sparta.

Temple C stands out at the edge of the Acropolis.

Temple B and the Megaron (or great hall) show remains of Ionic columns and a Doric frieze. On the esplanade of the Acropolis, Temple C, with a peristyle of 6 by 17 columns is dated 6th century BC, and estimated to have been dedicated to Apollo. Beyond Temple D, similar to the previous one, the Agora, or business area includes a market, houses and workshops. 

The Eastern Zone

Temple E, dedicated to Hera, is the only one on the site to have been reconstructed.

Some 700 meters (half a mile) east of the Acropolis, the Eastern Zone holds three major temples. Temple E, tentatively dated around 450 BC, is the only one of the entire site to have been re-erected (in the 1960’s). This Doric style temple with a peristyle of 6 by 15 columns, measures 25 by 67 meters (82 by 220 feet). An inscription indicates that it was dedicated to Hera, the goddess of family and childbirth. Temple G was dedicated to Zeus or Apollo. With a peristyle of 8 by 16 columns 16 meters (52 feet) high, and dimensions of 50 by 110 meters (165 by 360 feet), it is one of the largest anywhere in the Hellenic world. Started in 530 BC, it was still unfinished when the city was destroyed. One of its columns, restored in 1820, still stands guard over the majestic ruin.

Temple C, believed to have been dedicated to Appolo, dominates the horizon.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — From Palermo: It’s a 90-minute, 120-kilometer (75 mile) drive via road E90/A29 from Palermo to the Castelvetrano exit. From Mazara del Vallo, it’s a 30 minute, 30 kilometer (19 mile) drive to the Castelvetrano exit.
  • Visiting — Archaeological Park of Selinunte, via Selinunte, Castelvetrano, is open every day including holidays from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 0924 46277. Cave di Cusa: via Ugo Bassi, 37, 91021 Campobello di Mazara is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm – however at the time of my visit (September 2021) the site was accessible by appointment only. Contact:  Tel. +39 0924 46277.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Cave di Cusa

Selinunte, Sicily

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Marsala to Mazara del Vallo

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Marsala to Mazara del Vallo

On Day Two of our Sicilian adventure, we linger at the western tip the island to explore the small coastal towns of Marsala and Mazara del Vallo. Originally settled by the Phoenician over 2,500 years ago, their unique character has been shaped  the diverse cultures that have succeeded them throughout the centuries.These days, Marsala is mainly known internationally for its fortified Marsala wine. But its present name, derived from the Arabic “Marsa Allah” (Port of God) gives an idea of how strategically important the town once was.

Marsala

The shaded fountain of the Old Market retains a Moorish flair.

Marsala has retained thenrich facades of its Baroque heydays.

First known as Lilibeo, it was settled in 396 BC by the Phoenician survivors of the lagoon island of Motya, which had been razed the previous year by Dionysus I of Syracuse, and soon grew into a prosperous fortified port. It became Lilybaeum when it was conquered by the Romans in 241BC, and remained a tributary city of Rome until the Empire started falling apart. Next came the Vandals, (440 AD) followed by the Byzantines (535) and the Arabs (827). Then from the end of the 11th century onward, the area was conquered successively by Norman, Angevin and Aragonese troops. Though it all, Marsala remained a thriving trading center – until the 16th  century when Emperor Charles V blocked its harbor to stop the forays of Saracen pirates. Today’s Marsala is a sleepy sun-drenched small town that has retained the shaded piazzas and streets lined with the stately buildings of its Baroque heydays.

 

Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi

A Carthaginian liburna from the Punic war times is it one of the Museum of Archeology.

The museum features remarkable variety of Roman amphoras.

At the edge of the old town, a well-preserved ancient Baglio (winery complex fortified around a vast central courtyard) holds Marsala’s main attraction: the partially reconstructed remains of a Carthaginian liburna (warship) sunk off the nearby Egadi Islands during the First Punic War and discovered in 1969. Displayed alongside objects from its cargo, the ship’s bare bones provide the only remaining physical evidence of the Phoenicians’ seafaring superiority in the 3rd century BC, offering a glimpse of a civilisation extinguished by the Romans. Among the objects found on board the ship and displayed here are ropes, cooking pots, corks from amphorae, a brush, a sailor’s wooden button and even a stash of cannabis. In an adjacent room, the impressive wreck of a Roman merchant vessel dating to the 3rd or 4th century AD is also displayed. A third room showcases other regional archaeological artefacts including a superb marble statue known as La venere di lilybaeum (The Venus of Lilybaeum) and some mosaics from the 3rd and 5th centuries AD.

Mazara del Vallo

The North African influence still permeates the Casbah. neighborhood.

Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the south, the city of Mazara del Vallo, founded as a Phoenician outpost in the 9th century BC, evolved through the familiar tide of invaders that shaped the history of Sicily. It prospered as a port facility for the nearby Greek city of Selinunte, but it is under the Arabs that it realized its full potential. Located barely 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Tunisian coast, it flourished not only in its traditional maritime and commercial activities, but also as a major political and cultural centre second only to Palermo. The North African influence permeates the streets of Mazara to this day, especially noticeable in the warren of narrow alleys of the historic Casbah, where a sizable community of Tunisian descent lives and works to this days.

Cathedral del Santissimo Salvatore

The cathedral is an harmonious blend of Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles.

In the center of the city, the Cathedral del Santissimo Salvatore (of the Holy Savior) is uniquely evocative of the cultural journey of Mazara. Originally built by the Normans in the 11th  century on a site where a mosque previously stood, it evolved over the century into a harmonious mix of Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles. The adjoining Bishop’s Palace with its distinctive two-tiered arched Baroque facade is connected to the western transept of the Cathedral by a high Tocchetto (arched bridge covered by a loggia).

Il Satiro Danzante

Il Satiro Danzante stands 2.5 meters high.

But the jewel in Mazara’s crown can found an easy 5-minute walk away in the deconsecrated shell of the Chiesa de Sant’Egidio (Church of Saint Egidio), repurposed as the Museo del Satiro Danzante (Museum of the Dancing Satyr). The museum revolves around its central exhibit, a magnificent overlife-size bronze statue known as the Dancing Satyr, hauled from the depths of the Mediterranean by local fishermen in the late 1990s.

Detail of the Hellenic bronze casting masterpiece.

This rare original casting from the Hellenistic era (3rd and 2nd centuries BC) depicts a bacchanalian satyr in mid-leap, dancing wildly, arms outstretched, back arched, hair swinging with the movement of his head. The facture is highly refined, with the white of his eyes rendered in alabaster inlays. Although two millennia in the depths have taken their toll and the arms are well as one of the legs where not recovered, the power of the work remains intact, and in itself would warrant a visit to Mazara.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Palermo: The most convenient entry point to the Western part of Sicily is Palermo. The international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights from most major cities in Western Europe as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city. From there Marsala is an easy 125-kilometer highway drive west. Mazara del Vallo is located 25 kilometers south of Marsala via SS115. Driving time can vary from 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic.
  • Visiting — Marsala: Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi, Lungomare Boeo 30, Marsala (TP) is open Tuesday through Sunday 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Mazara del Vallo:  Museo del Satiro Danzante, Piazza Plebiscito, Mazara Del Vallo, is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Marsala

Mazara del Vallo

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — From Segesta to Motya

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — From Segesta to Motya

On the southern tip of Italy, Sicily, the largest of the Mediterranean islands, has been since ancient times a melting pot for a number of ethnic groups whose warriors and merchants sought its shores. 

The Phoenicians left enduring marks on the Sicilian landscape.

The Greeks were the first to leave their mark when, between the 8th and the 6th centuries BC, they founded  a number of important cities on the eastern and southern coastline of the island. Meanwhile, the Phoenicians and later the Carthaginians settled along the western and northern coast, establishing trading communities around Palermo and Marsala. The dividing line between the Greeks in the southeast and the Carthaginians in the northwest shifted frequently, following the vagaries of alliances with the local tribes. These fluid associations and ensuing conflicts have left an enduring stamp on western Sicily, the destination of a recent road trip.

Segesta

The Doric-style Segesta Temple is remarkably well preserved.

It is 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Palermo, where we landed the previous night, to Segesta, once a major city of the Elymian nation (said to be descended from Trojan settlers who took refuge here after the fall of Troy in 1183 BC). Hardly any traces of the original town remain, and what little there is has yet to be unearthed. But what Segesta does have is one of finest and most impressive Doric temples to be found in Sicily, and one of the best preserved anywhere in the West.

The temple’s Doric entablature has remained intact.

The Temple dominates an isolated hilltop.

Perched on a 305-meter (1000-foot) high hill a 15-minute walk from the entrance to the Segesta Archeological Park, the 5th century BC temple commands an impressive view of the surrounding countryside. Construction began around 420 BC on the site of an earlier cult building, Raised on a three-step base, the 26 meters (85 feet) by 61 meters (200 feet) structure consists of six columns on each facade and 14 columns along the sides. The columns are 9 meter (30 foot) high. Why an Elymian site would replicate so precisely the architecture of a Greek Doric temple is much debated amongst scholars. So too is to which god or cult the temple may have been intended. What is known, however, is that following the sacking of the Greek city of Selinunte to the south in 409 BC by the Carthaginians, the construction of the Segesta temple came to a halt and was never resumed. Meanwhile its imposing colonnade has remained intact through the ages, harmoniously integrated to the bucolic surroundings of its isolated hillside.

The Theatre

The  theater could accommodate close to 4000 spectators..

Another 1.5 kilometer (one mile) uphill to the top of Mount Barbaro (shuttle access available), the Hellenistic-style theater commands a spectacular view of the countryside and the Gulf of Castellamare. Built in the 3rd century BC, it originally had 29 rows of seats (of which the lower 21 rows remain) and a capacity of approximately 4000 spectators. The amphitheater-style structure is supported by a containing wall of limestone blocks. It now hosts theatrical  and musical performances throughout the summer months.

Motya

The sea-salt harvesting tradition endures on the lagoon.

After lunch, we resume our westward journey to the very tip of Sicily: Lo Stagnone, the largest lagoon in Italy. Now a marine reserve, Lo Stagnone is home not only to the time-honored tradition of sea-salt harvesting, but also to the ancient city of Motya. First established by the Phoenicians on the smallest of the four islands of the lagoon in the 8th century BC, the settlement gradually flourished into one of the most affluent cities of its time, naturally protected by the lagoon as well as high defensive walls – until it was razed to the ground in 397 BC by the Greek Tyrant Dionysios of Syracuse. Motya never recovered. Even after the Romans conquered Sicily (265-241 BC), it seems to have altogether disappeared from history.

The recently excavated Temple of Kothon overlooks the lagoon.

Then in 1902, the island, which by then was known as San Pantaleo, was purchased by John Whitaker, the archeologist heir to a British family that had settled in Sicily and made its fortune in the trade of Marsala wine. His studies and archeological digs brought back to light the Phoenician grandeur of Motya, including the Temple of Kothon, dedicated to Baal Addir (which the Greeks identified with Poseidon), part of an archaic necropolis and the fortifications of the North and South Gates. Also recently excavated are the remains of a 4th century BC residential complex with elaborate black and white mosaic floors that earned it the moniker of House of Mosaics.

The Whitaker Museum

The Motya Charioteer is the most notable exhibit of the Whitaker Museum.

Now housed in the former residence of the family, the Whitaker Museum showcases a fine collection of these archeological finds including a remarkable display of Phoenician stele as well as domestic and religious potteries. The most spectacular piece of the collection is the Motya Charioteer,  a unique 1,80 meter (70 inches) tall white marble statue of the Greek Classical Period (fifth century BC), which was discovered in the area of the Northern Gate in 1987.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Palermo: The most convenient entry point to the Western part of Sicily is Palermo. The international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights to and from most major European cities as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles)  from the center of the city, There are frequent train and bus connections between the city and the airport from 5:00 am to midnight. Segesta: It’s an easy one-hour drive from the center of Palermo via highway A29 (direction Trapani) to the Segesta exit and the Segesta Archeological Park. Motya: It’s a further 30-minute drive west on highway A29 from Segesta to Marsala and the edge of the Lo Stagnone Lagoon. 
  • Visiting — Segesta: The Archeological Park consists of two separate areas, the temple, easily accessible on foot, and the theatre, located on top of Mount Barbaro. While the theatre can also be reached on foot, a private shuttle bus service is available at a cost  of 1,50 € round trip. The park is open daily starting at 9:00 am. Closing time varies with the seasons. See the official website for details. Motya: There are frequent water shuttles from the small pier at the Saline di Ettore Infersa waterfront for the pleasant 10-minute ride across the lagoon to the Whitaker Pier on San Pantaleo island. Cost is 5 € round trip. The island and the Whitaker Museum are open daily from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. There is an entrance fee of 9 € to visit the island and the museum.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Motya

Segesta

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

The Sainte Chapelle — The Other Gothic Gem In The Heart of Paris.

The Sainte Chapelle — The Other Gothic Gem In The Heart of Paris.

The Ile de la Cité, the largest of the two islands in the middle of the Seine River is where Paris began. 

The Conciergerie — one of the oldest medieval remains of the Palais de la Cité — shields the Sainte Chapelle from the river.

In the early 6th  century, Clovis, the first Merovingian king of what would eventually become France, established his residence on the 22-hectare (55-acre) island, on the site of a Gallo-Roman fortress that had once been the residence of the Roman governors. Throughout the medieval times, the place grew into the sprawling Palais de la Cité, which remained the seat of the Kings of France and their government until the 14th century. It is to this day the beating heart of Paris and the home of its two most remarkable Gothic treasures.

Notre Dame de Paris

On April 15th, 2019, a catastrophic fire claimed the entire roof of Notre Dame.

On April 15th, 2019, a catastrophic fire claimed the entire roof of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame (Our Lady), the great Gothic cathedral built in the 12th  and 13th centuries on the eastern tip of the island, was to become over time the most visited monument in the city — Until the fateful April 2019 evening when the world watched in horror as a catastrophic fire claimed its entire roof. Fire-fighters ultimately succeeded in saving the main bell towers and outer walls from collapse. Now, after two years of intense efforts to secure the building, the work of restoring the legendary jewel of Gothic architecture to its original grandeur has finally begun.

Under the shelter of scaffolds and opaque netting, the reconstruction of Notre Dame is underway.

On a recent visit to Paris, shortly after the city finally reopened to visitors after the long Covid-induced travel hiatus, I couldn’t resist dropping by the Ile de la Cité to check how The Lady was faring. There wasn’t much to see, with most of the structure now protected by a giant set of scaffolds neatly wrapped in opaque netting. On the street bordering the construction site, optimistic signs updated passersby on the progress of the work going on inside, and that it would be completed by 2024. What to do in the meantime, to assuage my yearning for the magic of morning sunshine filtering through the jewel-like wonder of medieval stained glass? Head for the Sainte Chapelle.

La Sainte Chapelle

The Sainte Chapelle is concealed within the courtyard of the Palais de la Cité.

Built in the mid-13th century in the courtyard of the royal Palais de la Cité, the Sainte-Chapelle is considered one of the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. It was commissioned by King Louis IX (later known as Saint Louis) to house his collection of Passion relics, including the Christ’s Crown of Thorns, one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom. While the exterior shows many of the typical characteristics of the Rayonnant Gothic style — deep buttresses surmounted by pinnacles, crocketed gables and soaring windows, the exterior gives few hints of the sumptuous interior.

The Sainte Chapelle holds one of the most extensive 13th century stained-glass collection in the world.

The Sainte Chapelle holds one of the most extensive 13th century stained-glass collection in the world.Now the earliest surviving building of the palace, the Sainte Chapelle holds one of the most extensive 13th century stained-glass collection anywhere in the world. A total of 15 windows surround the chapel, each soaring to an improbable height of 15 meters (49 feet) the stained-glass panes depict over one thousand scenes from the Old and New Testaments, illustrating the history of the world until the arrival of the relics in Paris.

The Lower Chapel

The lower chapel was reserved for the courtiers, servants and soldiers of the palace.

The sanctuary actually consists of two chapels, with the lower one originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary and reserved for the courtiers, servants and soldiers of the palace.  Here, under a low, vaulted ceiling supported by elegantly arched buttresses, the wide center aisle is flanked by two narrow side aisle. The columns are painted with alternating floral designs and the castle emblem of Castille – in honor of Blanche de Castille, King Louis IX’s mother. The  original stained glass of this lower chapel was destroyed by a flood in 1690. The present glass depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary was designed during the extensive restoration of the chapel in the 19th century.

The Upper Chapel

Installed in the 15th century, the rose window represents the Book of Revelation.

Narrow stairways fitted within the towers of the lower level lead to the upper chapel, where the sacred relics were kept. It was reserved exclusively for the royal family and guests. The structure is simple; a rectangle 33 meters by 10.7 meters (110 by 36 feet) with an apse at the east end. The most dazzling features are the walls, which appear to be almost entirely made of stained glass — a total of 670 square meters (7,200 square feet) of it, excluding the rose window at the west end, which was installed in the 15th century. The ensemble is considered among one of the finest of its type in the world. The supporting stone surface is reduced to little more than a delicate framework for the thousands pieces of jewel-tone glass that fill the space with great splashes of color gradually changing in intensity with the external light.

High in the apse, the elegant baldaquin once held the reliquary.

There are two small arched alcoves set into the walls of the chapel, topped with richly decorated painting and sculpture of angels. These were the places where the King and Queen worshipped during religious services: the King on the north side, the Queen on the south. Today, all that remains of the sacred relics is the elegant baldaquin placed high in the apse, where a long silver and gilded copper reliquary was displayed. The church was secularized during the French Revolution (1789-1794) and the relics transferred to the treasury of the Notre Dame Cathedral (n.b. the treasury was salvaged from the recent fire and is currently on view at the Musée du Louvre).

Good to Know

  • Getting there — the Sainte Chapelle is located on the Ile de la Cité at 10 Boulevard du Palais, 75001, Paris. The closest metro station is Cité (ligne 4) is a mere 5 minute-walk away.
  • Visiting — The Sainte Chapelle is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm from May 19 to September 30, and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm for the remainder of the year.  It is closed on  January 1, May 1 and December 25. Due to the current Covid situation, visiting conditions may vary – check the official website to prepare your visit.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Sainte Chapelle

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The Night Never Falls – Zao Wou-Ki in Aix-en-Provence

The Night Never Falls – Zao Wou-Ki in Aix-en-Provence

After the endless Covid “Winter of our Confinement”, spring has finally come to Europe. Everywhere, monuments, museums and galleries are reopening, and long-awaited temporary exhibits can finally be enjoyed, such as the brilliant, recently inaugurated exhibit at the Hotel de Caumont Art Center in Aix-en-Provence: Zao Wou-Ki – Night Never Falls.

Who is Zao Wou-Ki?

Hangzhou Landscape (1946). Oil on canvas, 38,2 x 46.3 cm. Private collection,

Sunken city (1955). Oil on canvas, 89 x 146 cm. Private collection.

Wou-Ki means “no limits” in Chinese – a prescient name for an artist who was to become a prominent figure of the mid-twentieth century European Lyrical Abstraction movement for his ability to unite multiple artistic traditions within a single abstract work. Born in Peking  (Beijing) in 1920 and raised in Shanghai where his father was a banker, he began learning calligraphy from his  grandfather at an early age. Then, at fifteen, his precaution talent earned him admission to the prestigious Hangzhou National College of Art (now the China Academy of Art). There, in addition to traditional Chinese drawing, painting and calligraphy, he discovered Western art and oil painting, and developed an enthusiastic interest in Post-Impressionism.

In 1946, the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy in China and an early champion of Zao’s work, Vadime Elisseeff, arranged for twenty of Zao’s works to be shown at the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, in a major Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese paintings. He also  encouraged him to relocate in France. Zao subsequently obtained French citizenship in 1964.

A Master of Contrasts

Still Life with Apples (1935-1936). Oil on canvas, 46 x 61 cm,. Private collection.

The current exhibition at the Caumont Art Center highlights the various stages of his career and life, from his youthful, still figurative works, to the exceptional mastery of colors, dynamic lines and expressive freedom of his later works. Central to his artistic journey is his on-going quest for light, which is not only reflected in the construction of luminous spaces and the use of vibrant colors, but above all in his exploration of contrasts made visible by his study of light.

Night Never Falls – Diptych (2005). Oil on canvas, 195 x 260 cm. Private collection.

The scenography of the entrance to the exhibition is a striking metaphor for Zao’s artistic journey . The very Cézannian “Still Life with Apples” reflects the influence that the Master from Aix had on the fifteen-year-old Chinese painter. Seventy years of painting, relentless work, various influences and experimentation separate this work from the 2005 monumental diptych Il ne fait jamais nuit (Night never falls). Exhibited together, these two works show the evolution of the artist and the development of his work with light.

 

An Artist’s Journey

Sketchbook sheet painted at Saint-Jeoire-en-Faucigny (July–August 1950). Watercolor on paper, 23.5 x 31.3 cm. Private collection.

A Tribute to Cézanne – 06.11.2005 (2005). Oil on canvas, 162 x 260 cm. Private collection.

The contrasts between day and night are first evoked in his watercolors of the 1950’s. Inspired by the style of Paul Klee (himself influenced by Chinese landscape painting), Zao develops his unique style marked by contrasting colors, that views Chinese art through the lens of Western abstraction. Next come the contrast between empty and full spaces, which begins to gain dominance in this canvases and India ink works of the 1970’s.

Then there here are the contrasts between the happy and the difficult periods of this life, his travels, his experience of exile, romantic relationships, relation with his family, bereavement, all are represented on his canvasses through a complex relationship between light and shadow. Zao Wou Ki’s never-ending exploration of light thus enabled him to produce  throughout his long career remarkably harmonious works that straddled the line between figurative and abstract, and East and West, to bring forth his own complex inner world.

This exhibition, which can be seen until October 10, 2021, is organized in collaboration between the Caumont Center for the Arts and the Zao Wou-Ki Foundation. It regroups almost eighty works by Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), dating from 1935 to 2009, a majority of them on loan from private collections and rarely shown in public. It spectacularly highlights the evolution of the artist’s major creative themes: the invention of new forms of spacial representation through his experimentation with color and the representation of light.

A Tribute to A Tribute to José Luís Sert – 14.07.88 (1988). Oil on canvas, 100 x 300 cm. Private collection.

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 station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a 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 bus as the TGV station.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.Is open daily from May 1 to October 10 from 10:00 am to 7:30 pm. Contact: e-mail. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Hotel de Caumont Art Center