Several months ago I visited the Colosseum in Rome. I expected to be impressed by this grand, ancient structure. I wasn’t disappointed.
I’m delighted by the ancient Roman ruins throughout France, especially by the functional arenas in Nimes and Arles and the crytoportico beneath Arles’ City Center. Throughout southern France aqueducts, ruined walls, and magnificent stone monuments pay tribute the Roman influence on their French neighbors.
Set in a remote area, the ancient Roman bridge/aquaduct rises from an otherwise tranquil and beautiful landscape. And perhaps this adds to the awe it inspires. Nearly 1,000 feet long and 164 feet high, the three-tiered structure spans the River Gardon, which reflects its majestic display of arches.
This artistic tribute to Roman architecture served a functional purpose for nearly five centuries. It is the best preserved and most impressive portion of a 31-mile aquaduct built in the middle of the 1st Century A.D. to supply water to the fountains and baths of Nemausus, known today as the City of Nimes. In studies of Roman aquaducts, it has been discovered to be one of the empire’s highest capacity water systems. In later centuries, rich landowners garnished income by charging tolls to those who traversed the river using the lower level.
Records do not name the original architect, although some have attributed the building of the pont to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a general in Octavia’s army and a close friend of the future Emperor. After his successful military career, Agrippa returned to Rome and became responsible for improving the city’s physical infrastructure, including repairing aquaducts and building fountains. More recent excavations have led researchers to believe, however, that the aquaduct of Nimes was built later, around 40-60 A.D., because the water utility bypassed certain tunnels known to have been built by Augustus.
For the future monarchs of France, the pont became a way to associate themselves with the former greatness of the Roman empire. Napoleon III ordered renovation to the bridge. Charles IX of France and Louis XVI included visits to the Roman structure on their tours of France.
The bridge inspired artists and many writers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:
“One asks oneself what force has transported these enormous stones so far from any quarry, and what brought together the arms of so many thousands of men in a place where none of them live. I wandered about the three storeys of this superb edifice although my respect for it almost kept me from daring to trample it underfoot. The echo of my footsteps under these immense vaults made me imagine that I heard the strong voices of those who had built them. I felt myself lost like an insect in that immensity. While making myself small, I felt an indefinable something that raised up my soul, and I said to myself with a sigh, “Why was I not born a Roman!”
Today the bridge is one of France’s most visited ancient sites. Visitors can walk the bridge to view the handicraft of masons and laborers who quarried the yellow limestone from the river banks and stacked, rather than mortared, precisely cut stone. The site surrounding the pont is beautifully and naturally preserved. Several miles of carefully cultivated land allow explorers to revisit the agricultural history of the Mediterranean and see others parts of the aquaduct, most of which was built underground. Approaching the bridge on foot, don’t miss the giant olive trees, estimated to be approximately 1,000 years old.
Watch this short video about the Pont du Gard.
Jean Claude Portal is a modern day artist with a passion for ancient art. Bach and Michel Ange (Michelangelo) are his muses. And like all true blue-blooded Frenchman, the corrida (bullfighting) is “art” in the arena.
In his studio in Nimes, France, Jean Claude earns a living as an artist, creating old world themes for new homes and renovations. From table tops to counter tops; lavs to entryways; ornamental decor, sculptures, carvings, etchings in marble and stone; Jean Claude’s art is tastefully, modernly, old.
Last weekend, at my request, he gave me and some friends a tour of his studio and presented his work. It was like stepping back in time and a rare opportunity to visit the work space of a baroque sculptor.
I knew Jean Claude as a musician with a passion for Bach and an infatuation with Gypsy rhythms. He and my Frenchman play gypsy guitar together a few times every week, entertaining in restaurants, and local soirees. But during a casual conversation I learned that he earns his living as an artist, like his mother before him. I asked to see his studio. He said yes; and so Saturday, before we all gathered in a local pub to hear he and my frenchman strum and thump out some more gypsy music, we stopped by JC Portal Marbrier.
His work, all with an old world feel, varies from astrological and unusual etchings in marble to elaborate and traditional carvings in granite. A deeply religious man, his passion for the Christ is evident in many of his personal works, which include scenes from the Crucifixion and Virgin Mother and Christ Child.
Among the tools, marble, granite and works in progress, his two other passions are subtly represented: in his office, a guitar, and hanging from the wall in a back room, the head of a fighting bull.
Kate, I told him about you, my art professor friend; I asked if I could present him and his work to you when you visit. He said, bien sur, of course.