Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments
Introduction to Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments
The name “Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments” refers to a collection of notable monuments in the city of Arles, which is located in the far south central region of France. Spread over approximately 65 hectares (160 acres), the site includes an amphitheatre that dates back to the 1st Century B.C., ancient baths, a large necropolis, a picturesque Romanesque 11th century church, and several other wonderful structures. It was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site because it provides a good example of “the adaptation on an ancient city to medieval European civilization.”
A visit to Arles means a chance to drink in the beauty and engineering of some of the best examples of ancient Roman and Romanesque architecture in France and, indeed, in Europe. Most of the Roman and Romanesque monuments, which cover 65 hectares, are within walking distance of each other and can be covered on foot.
The Roman Theater, which dates from the end of the 1st century B.C., was used for a variety of purposes. The back wall of the stage was once covered with magnificent sculptures, many of which are now in the Arles Archaeological Museum. By the 5th century, the theater was covered with houses and religious buildings, though those were mostly demolished in the mid 19th century.
The Amphitheatre, believed to be built around 90 A.D., was the site of gladiator fights and animal hunts until around 600 A.D. During the Middle Ages, it functioned as a fortress and included more than 200 houses and two chapels, safely sheltered by its walls.
The Cryptoportico and forum were built in approximately 30 A.D. and were considered the political, trade, and religious center of the city of Arles. The forum has been replaced by the Chapel of the Jesuit College and City Hall, but visitors can still view the tunnels of the cryptoporticus, which may have functioned as barracks for public slaves.
Remnants of the ancient baths – the Thermes of Constantine – are still visible to visitors, including the cold pools, the “hot” rooms, and the ventilation system for the hot air that circulated through the walls.
The Ramparts of the Roman Castrum consisted of buildings use for military purposes. These fortified encampments were probably occupied by auxiliary forces.
The Alyscamps, which sits outside the walls of the city of Arles, functioned as the city’s burial ground for 15 centuries. It was the final stretch of the Aurelian Way before the road entered the city. Some sarcophagi remain but the best are now in a museum. The Alyscamps was immortalized in paintings by Van Gogh and Gauguin.
The Church of St. Trophime is one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in France, and the sculptures over the portal are considered prime examples of Romanesque art. Once a cathedral, it is now a minor basilica. Also worth a look is the Roman exedra – or niche – at the Museon Arlatan, the ethnological museum that profiles the folk traditions of the town.
Founded by the Phocaeans in the 7th century B.C., Arles prospered as a result of the decline of its direct rival, the city of Marseilles. A political stronghold by the 4th century A.D. and a center of great religious significance, Arles became the home of many great structures, both civic and religious.
The city fell to the Barbarians by the end of the 5th century and it took almost 400 years for Arles to regain its position as a place of note. By the Middle Ages, however, Arles was again attracting plenty of attention, summoning visitors from many different countries who came to admire its monuments.
The eight structures that are included under the heading “Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments” are:
- Arles Amphitheatre, built around 90 A.D. It measures 136 m (446 ft) in length and 109 m (358 ft) wide and could hold 20,000 audience members.
- The Roman Theatre, a 1st century B.C. structure that sat 10,000 people in just 33 rows of seats.
- The Cryptoportico, a subterranean gallery built as a foundation for the adjoining forum, which was the political center of the region.
- The Thermes of Constantine, ancient baths built during the 4th century.
- Ramparts of the Roman castrum, indicative of the region’s important military defensive position.
- The Alyscamps, the site of a large Roman necropolis (cemetery) that was Arles’ main burial ground for more than 1,500 years.
- Church of Saint Trophime, a beautiful Romanesque cathedral built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
- The Roman Exedra, a commonly-used architectural feature of the Romanesque period that is best described as a sort of semicircular niche set into a building’s facade.
The monuments of Arles are free to visitors and can be enjoyed at any time. The city hosts a weekly Saturday market, attracting local farmers who bring along their excellent produce. Arles gets crowded at that time but it’s still a fun time to visit both the monuments and the market. There’s also a smaller Wednesday market once a month.
Arles can be reached by trains via Avignon, about a 20-minute ride from Arles, or Marseille, a 50-minute ride from Arles. Arles is 373 miles from Paris, a lengthy car ride of about 10 hours or so, depending on traffic.
- Arles was established in the 7th century B.C.
- Arles important political and religious city by 4th century
- Includes eight notable Roman and Romanesque structures
- Monuments date from the 1st century BC
- Arles spectacular amphitheater holds 20,000
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