Avignon in literature

inspiration for the writers

“View of Avignon and the Saint-Bénezet Bridge” Isidore Dagnan

oil on canvas – 1833 (50 x 74 cm)

Calvet Museum – Avignon

Already in the 14th century we find writings about Avignon by Francesco Petrarch who lived there.

But it was from the 19th century onwards that famous French authors stopped here and revealed the city.

Some excerpts bear witness to this …

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo (1802 -1885)

Referring to his stay in the fall of 1839, he wrote:

” … Arriving in Avignon, in a beautiful autumn setting sun, it is an admirable thing … Autumn, the setting sun, Avignon, they are three harmonies. “

” …From afar, the admirable city, which has something of the fate of Rome, has something of the shape of Athens. Its walls, the stone of which is gilded like the August ruins of the Peloponnese, reflect Greek beauty. Like Athens, Avignon has its acropolis; the popes’ castle is its parthenon.

As you approach the city, the ancient Greek figure of old Avignon changes, without disappearing, and the Catholic idea takes shape and emerges. The steeples are multiplying; Gothic needles pierce this magnificent collection of architraves; the popes’ castle becomes to the eye a sort of gigantic Romanesque cathedral, which has seven or eight enormous towers for its facade and a mountain for its apse. Warheads appear here and there in the fortified enclosure; Arab fins attach to both sides of the massive dungeon doors; at the top of the walls appear loopholes of a remarkable shape: the murderess of the popes is a cross …

” …Now that the tide is withdrawing from it, Avignon is no longer just a small town, but it is a small town with a colossal appearance.

I got there around evening. The sun had just disappeared in a fiery mist; the sky already had that vague and clear blue which makes Venus so divinely shine; a few men’s heads, brown and tanned, appeared on the high walls as in a Turkish town; a bell tolled, boatmen sang on the Rhône, a few barefoot women ran towards the port; I saw through a pointed door going up a narrow street a priest carrying the viaticum, preceded by a beadle loaded with a cross and followed by a gravedigger loaded with a beer; children were playing on stones at the water’s edge at the bottom of the quay; and I cannot say what impression for me resulted from the melancholy of the hour mixed with the grandiose of the spectacle … “

” …Yesterday I was in Lyon, it was raining heavily. At five o’clock this morning, I left Lyon, which was shivering with cold under a big cloud; at five o’clock tonight, I was here. It’s a wonderful trip. In twelve hours I went, not from Lyon to Avignon, but from November to July… “

Things seen, September 25th, 1839.

Stendhal (1783 – 1842)

In 1854 he published a collection of travelogues through several towns “Memoirs of a Tourist”

” When you enter Avignon, you think you are in a city in Italy… “

” …The view from the top of the Rocher des Dons is one of the most beautiful views in France: to the east, we discover the Alps of Provence and Dauphiné, and Mont Ventoux; to the west, we follow a large part of the Rhône basin. I find that the course of this river gives the idea of power; its bed is strewn with islands covered with willows: this verdure is not very noble, but, in the midst of this dry and stony country, it rejoices the eyes.

Beyond the Rhône and the ruins of the famous Avignon bridge, half of which it carried away in 1669, rises a hill, crowned by Villeneuve and the fortress of Saint-André; their walls are surrounded by woods and vineyards. The Comtat is covered with olive trees, willows and mulberry trees so tightly packed that in some parts they become forests; through these trees we can see from afar the pretty ramparts of Carpentras… “

Prosper Mérimée

Prosper Mérimée (1803 – 1870)

During the construction of the railway which will link Avignon to Marseille, the city council proposes to destroy part of the ramparts. It was then that Prosper Mérimée, inspector of historical monuments opposed this project. In 1835 he spoke of Avignon as a Spanish city.

” Here, as in Spain, the shops are closed with a curtain, and the merchant’s signs, painted on canvas, float suspended along a rope like the flags of a ship. The commoners, dark-skinned, with jackets thrown over their shoulders as a cloak, work in the shade or sleep lying in the middle of the street, heedless of passers-by, because everyone on the public road thinks he is at home. The street is the ancient forum; this is where everyone goes about their business, concludes their deals or chats with their friends. The people of Provence seem to see their house only as a temporary shelter where it is ridiculous to stay when the weather is good.

Notes from a trip to the south of France, 1835.

Alphonse Daudet (1840 – 1897)

The famous Nîmes writer only lived a year of his life in Fontvielle near Les Baux-de-Provence. He never lived in the famous mill visited by tourists from which he was inspired for his collection of short stories “Letters from my mill”. It is against the backdrop of medieval Avignon that he places one of them, The pope’s Mule.

” Who has not seen Avignon in the days of the Popes, has seen nothing. For cheerfulness, life, excitement, the holiday season, never a city like this. From morning to evening, there were processions, pilgrimages, the streets strewn with flowers, carpeted with high lices, arrivals of cardinals by the Rhône, banners in the wind, galleys decorated with flags, the Pope’s soldiers singing Latin on the squares, the rattles of the begging brothers; then, from top to bottom of the houses which thronged, buzzing around the great papal palace like bees around their beehive, it was again the ticking of the lace looms, the comings and goings of shuttles weaving gold chasubles, the little hammers of cruet chiselers, the soundboards that were adjusted by luthiers, the hymns of warpers; over it the sound of bells, and still a few tambourines that could be heard snoring, over there, on the side of the bridge. Because with us, when the people are happy, they have to dance, they have to dance; and as at that time the streets of the city were too narrow for the farandole, fifes and tambourines were stationed on the Avignon bridge, in the cool breeze of the Rhône, and day and night people danced there, people danced there. danced there… Ah! happy time! happy city! Halberds that didn’t cut; state prisons where the wine was cooled. Never a famine; never war… This is how the Popes of Comtat knew how to govern their people; that is why their people regretted them so much!…

The Pope’s Mule, 1868.

alphonse daudet
alphonse daudet

Jean Aicard (1848 – 1921)

The Var poet, published Les poèmes de Provence in 1874. He devotes one of his poems to “Avignon”:

” … Avignon has walls from the time of the epics,
Serrated battlements through which the white old men,
Weeping, watching the harsh blows of the swords,
Raising their trembling arms to the silent sky.

The grave and dark middle ages are still alive
In its oval enclosure where towers stand,
Jaquemarts standing in their sonorous bell tower,
Spiers, porches, palaces, domes with black outlines.

At the highest peaks and in every crack,
Flowers mingle their grace with the festoons of granite,
And even the wild fig tree ventures there
At the gnarled foot of which the swallow has its nest … “

“ … Avignon shines in a past of glory;
Petrarch in his name alone appears to me and smiles,
And its present is beautiful to keep the memory
About talking about the elders, one word of which softens me … “

Vue depuis l'île de la Barthelasse



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