A Little Tour In France/Chapter XXXIII
I had been twice at Avignon before, and yet I was not satisfied. I probably am satisfied now; nevertheless, I enjoyed my third visit. I shall not soon forget the first, on which a particular emotion set indelible stamp. I was travelling northward, in 1870, after four months spent, for the first time, in Italy. It was the middle of January, and I had found myself, unexpectedly, forced to return to England for the rest of the winter. It was an insufferable disappointment; I was wretched and broken-hearted. Italy appeared to me at that time so much better than anything else in the world, that to rise from table in the middle of the feast was a prospect of being hungry for the rest of my days. I had heard a great deal of praise of the south of France; but the south of France was a poor consolation. In this state of mind I arrived at Avignon, which under a bright, hard winter sun was tingling fairly spinning - with the mistral. I find in my journal of the other day a reference to the acuteness of my reluctance in January, 1870. France, after Italy, appeared, in the language of the latter country, poco simpatica; and I thought it necessary, for reasons now inconceivable, to read the "Figaro," which was filled with descriptions of the horrible Troppmann, the murderer of the famille Kink. Troppmann, Kink, le crime do Pantin, very names that figured in this episode seemed to wave me back. Had I abandoned the sonorous south to associate with vocables so base?
It was very cold, the other day, at Avignon; for though there was no mistral, it was raining as it rains in Provence, and the dampness had a terrible chill in it. As I sat by my fire, late at night - for in genial Avignon, in October, I had to have a fire - it came back to me that eleven years before I had at that same hour sat by a fire in that same room, and, writing to a friend to whom I was not afraid to appear extravagant, had made a vow that at some happier period of the future I would avenge myself on the cidevant city of the Popes by taking it in a contrary sense. I suppose that I redeemed my vow on the occasion of my second visit better than on my third; for then I was on my way to Italy, and that vengeance, of course, was complete. The only drawback was that I was in such a hurry to get to Ventimiglia (where the Italian custom-house was to be the sign of my triumph), that I scarcely took time to make it clear to myself at Avignon that this was better than reading the "Figaro." I hurried on almost too fast to enjoy the consciousness of moving southward. On this last occasion I was unfortunately destitute of that happy faith. Avignon was my southernmost limit; after which I was to turn round and proceed back to England. But in the interval I had been a great deal in Italy, and that made all the difference.
I had plenty of time to think of this, for the rain kept me practically housed for the first twenty-four hours. It had been raining in, these regions for a month, and people had begun to look askance at the Rhone, though as yet the volume of the river was not exorbitant. The only excursion possible, while the torrent descended, was a kind of horizontal dive, accompanied with infinite splashing, to the little musee of the town, which is within a moderate walk of the hotel. I had a memory of it from my first visit; it had appeared to me more pictorial than its pictures. I found that recollection had flattered it a little, and that it is neither better nor worse than most provincial museums. It has the usual musty chill in the air, the usual grass-grown fore-court, in which a few lumpish Roman fragments are disposed, the usual red tiles on the floor, and the usual specimens of the more livid schools on the walls. I rang up the gardien, who arrived with a bunch of keys, wiping his mouth; he unlocked doors for me, opened shutters, and while (to my distress, as if the things had been worth lingering over) he shuffled about after me, he announced the names of the pictures before which I stopped, in a voice that reverberated through the melancholy halls, and seemed to make the authorship shameful when it was obscure, and grotesque when it pretended to be great. Then there were intervals of silence, while I stared absent-mindedly, at hap-hazard, at some indistinguishable canvas, and the only sound was the downpour of the rain on the skylights. The museum of Avignon derives a certain dignity from its Roman fragments. The town has no Roman monuments to show; in this respect, beside its brilliant neighbors, Arles and Nimes, it is a blank. But a great many small objects have been found in its soil, - pottery, glass, bronzes, lamps, vessels and ornaments of gold and silver. The glass is especially chaming, - small vessels of the most delicate shape and substance, many of them perfectly preserved. These diminutive, intimate things bring one near to the old Roman life; they seem like pearls strung upon the slender thread that swings across the gulf of time. A little glass cup that Roman lips have touched says more to us than the great vessel of an arena. There are two small silver casseroles, with chiselled handles, in the museum of Avignon, that struck me as among the most charming survivals of antiquity.
I did wrong just above, to speak of my attack on this establishment as the only recreation I took that first wet day; for I remember a terribly moist visit to the former palace of the Popes, which could have taken place only in the same tempestuous hours. It is true that I scarcely know why I should have gone out to see the Papal palace in the rain, for I had been over it twice before, and even then had not found the interest of the place so complete as it ought to be; the fact, nevertheless, remains that this last occasion is much associated with an umbrella, which was not superfluous even in some of the chambers and corridors of the gigantic pile. It had already seemed to me the dreariest of all historical buildings, and my final visit confirmed the impression. The place is as intricate as it is vast, and as desolate as it is dirty. The imagination has, for some reason or other, to make more than the effort usual in such cases to restore and repeople it. The fact, indeed, is simply that the palace has been so incalculably abused and altered. The alterations have been so numerous that, though I have duly conned the enumerations, supplied in guidebooks, of the principal perversions, I do not pretend to carry any of them in my head. The huge bare mass, without ornament, without grace, despoiled of its battlements and defaced with sordid modern windows, covering the Rocher des Doms, and looking down over the Rhone and the broken bridge of Saint-Benazet (which stops in such a sketchable manner in midstream), and across at the lonely tower of Philippe le Bel and the ruined wall of Villeneuve, makes at a distance, in spite of its poverty, a great figure, the effect of which is carried out by the tower of the church beside it (crowned though the latter be, in a top-heavy fashion, with an immense modern image of the Virgin) and by the thick, dark foliage of the garden laid out on a still higher portion of the eminence. This garden recalls, faintly and a trifle perversely, the grounds of the Pincian at Rome. I know not whether it is the shadow of the Papal name, present in both places, combined with a vague analogy between the churches, - which, approached in each case by a flight of steps, seemed to defend the precinct, - but each time I have seen the Promenade des Doms it has carried my thoughts to the wider and loftier terrace from which you look away at the Tiber and Saint Peter's.
As you stand before the Papal palace, and especially as you enter it, you are struck with its being a very dull monument. History enough was enacted here: the great schism lasted from 1305 to 1370, during which seven Popes, all Frenchmen, carried on the court of Avignon on principles that have not commended themselves to the esteem of posterity. But history has been whitewashed away, and the scandals of that period have mingled with the dust of dilapidations and repairs. The building has for many years been occupied as a barrack for regiments of the line, and the main characteristics of a barrack - an extreme nudity and a very queer smell - prevail throughout its endless compartments. Nothing could have been more cruelly dismal than the appearance it presented at the time of this third visit of mine. A regiment, changing quarters, had departed the day before, and another was expected to arrive (from Algeria) on the morrow. The place had been left in the befouled and belittered condition which marks the passage of the military after they have broken carnp, and it would offer but a melancholy welcome to the regiment that was about to take possession. Enormous windows had been left carelessly open all over the building, and the rain and wind were beating into empty rooms and passages; making draughts which purified, perhaps, but which scarcely cheered. For an arrival, it was horrible. A handful of soldiers had remained behind. In one of the big vaulted rooms several of them were lying on their wretched beds, in the dim light, in the cold, in the damp, with the bleak, bare walls before them, and their overcoats, spread over them, pulled up to their noses. I pitied them immensely, though they may have felt less wretched than they looked. I thought not of the old profligacies and crimes, not of the funnel-shaped torture-chamber (which, after exciting the shudder of generations, has been ascertained now, I believe, to have been a mediaeval bakehouse), not of the tower of the glaciere and the horrors perpetrated here in the Revolution, but of the military burden of young France. One wonders how young France endures it, and one is forced to believe that the French conscript has, in addition to his notorious good-humor, greater toughness than is commonly supposed by those who consider only the more relaxing influences of French civilization. I hope he finds occasional compensation for such moments as I saw those damp young peasants passing on the mattresses of their hideous barrack, without anything around to remind them that they were in the most civilized of countries. The only traces of former splendor now visible in the Papal pile are the walls and vaults of two small chapels, painted in fresco, so battered and effaced as to be scarcely distinguishable, by Simone Memmi. It offers, of course, a peculiarly good field for restoration, and I believe the government intend to take it in hand. I mention this fact without a sigh; for they cannot well make it less interesting than it is at present.