1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nîmes

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NÎMES, a city of southern France, capital of the department of Gard, 174 m. S. by W. of Lyons on the Paris-Lyon railway, between Avignon and Montpellier. Pop. (1906) 70,708. Nîmes, important alike for its industries and for its archaeological treasures, lies at the foot of the Garrigues, a range of stony and barren hills which limit it on the north and west. The most prominent of these is the Mont Cavalier, the summit of which is crowned by the Tour Magne, a ruined Roman tower commanding a fine view of the town and its surroundings. To the south and east the town overlooks the monotonous plain traversed by the Vistre, and for the most part given over to the cultivation of the vine. Nîmes covers a large area, owing to the fact that its population is housed in low buildings, not in the lofty tenements which are found in most of the industrial towns of France. The central and oldest part is encircled by shady boulevards, which occupy the site of the old fortifications. Here are to be found the majority of the Roman remains for which Nîmes is remarkable. The most celebrated is the amphitheatre, the best preserved though not the largest in France. It dates from the 1st or 2nd century A.D., and was used as a fortress for some time during succeeding centuries. Occupied during the middle ages by a special quarter, with even a church of its own, it was cleared in 1809, and since then has been well kept in repair. It is built of large stones fitted together without mortar. In form it is elliptical, measuring approximately 440 by 336 ft. externally; the arena is 227 by 1261/2 ft. The elevation (70 ft. in all) consists of a ground story of 60 arches, an upper story of 60 arches and an attic with consoles pierced with holes for supporting the velarium or awning. The building, which was capable of holding nearly 24,000 persons, has 4 main gates, one at each of the cardinal points; and 124 doorways gave exit from the 35 tiers of the amphitheatre to the inner galleries. Originally designed for gladiatorial shows, naval spectacles, chariot races, wolf or boar hunts, the arena has in recent times been used for bull-fights. The celebrated Maison Carrée, a temple in the style of the Parthenon, but on a smaller scale, 82 ft. long by 40 wide, is one of the finest monuments of the Roman period, and according to an inscription is dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, adopted sons of Augustus, and dates from the beginning of the Christian era. It contains a collection of antique sculptures and coins. The so-called temple of Diana, which adjoins the Fountain Gardens, was probably a building connected with the neighbouring baths of which remains are visible. Two Roman gates, the Porte d’Auguste, consisting of two large archways flanked by two smaller ones and dating from A.D. 16, and the Porte de France are still preserved. The Tour Magne (Turris Magna) is still 92 ft. in height, and was formerly a third higher. Admittedly the oldest monument of Nîmes, it has been variously regarded as an old signal tower, a treasure house or a mausoleum. Attached to the ramparts erected by Augustus, and turned into a fortress in the middle ages by the counts of Toulouse, the Tour Magne was restored about 1840. Near the Tour Magne has been discovered the reservoir from which the water conveyed by the Pont du Gard (see Aqueduct) was distributed throughout the city.

When it still possessed its capitol, the temple of Augustus, the basilica of Plotina erected under Hadrian, the temple of Apollo, the baths, the theatre, the circus, constructed in the reign of Nero, the Campus Martius and the fortifications built by Augustus, Nîmes must have been one of the richest of the Roman cities of Gaul. The cathedral (St Castor), occupying, it is believed, the site of the temple of Augustus, is partly Romanesque and partly Gothic in style. The church of St Paul, a modern Romanesque building, is adorned with frescoes by Hippolyte and Paul Flandrin; St Baudile (modern Gothic) is of note for the two stone spires which adorn its facade; and the court-house has a fine Corinthian colonnade and a pediment. Other buildings of note are the old citadel (dating from 1687, and now used as a central prison), and the former lycée, which contains the public library and the museums of epigraphy, of archaeological models of the Roman and Romanesque periods, and of natural history. The town also has a collection of paintings. The esplanade in front of the court-house has in the centre a handsome fountain with five marble statues by James Pradier. The Fountain Gardens, in the north-west of the town, owe their peculiar character as well as their name to a spring of water which after heavy rains is copious enough not only to fill the ornamental basins (constructed in the 18th century with balustrades and statues on ancient foundations) but also to form a considerable stream. Neither the spring, however, nor the Vistre into which it discharges, is sufficient for the Wants of the city, and water has consequently been brought from the Rhone, a distance of 17 m. A beautiful avenue, the Boulevard de la République, runs south for nearly 1 m. from the middle walk of the garden. Nîmes has erected monuments to the “Children of Gard” (by A. Merciá), to Alphonse Daudet and to the Provençal poet Jean Reboul, natives of the town.

The city is the seat of a bishop, a prefect, a court of appeal and a court of assizes, and has tribunals of first instance and of. commerce, a board of trade-arbitrators, an exchange, a chamber of commerce and a branch of the Bank of France. Its educational establishments include lycées and training colleges for both sexes, and schools of music and art.

At the close of the middle ages the industries of Nîmes were raised to a state of great prosperity by a colony from Lombardy and Tuscany; and, though the plague, the Wars of Religion and the revocation of the edict of Nantes were all sufficiently disastrous in their effects, before the Revolution about half of the whole community, or from 10,000 to 12,000 persons, had come to be engaged in manufactures, chiefly that of silk. Upholstery materials, shawls, carpets, handkerchiefs, tapes and braiding’s, brandy, hosiery, leather, clothes, candles, machinery and boots and shoes are now manufactured, and there are a number of foundries. Nîmes is, besides, one of the great southern markets for wine and brandy, and there is a good trade in grain, groceries and colonial wares. Quarries of hard limestone, used as the material for the amphitheatre and other buildings by the Romans, are still worked in the vicinity.

Nîmes, the ancient Nemausus, derived its name from the sacred wood in which the Volcae Arecomici (who of their own accord surrendered to the Romans in 121 B.C.) were wont to hold their assemblies. Strabo states that it was the metropolis of a district containing twenty-four dependent towns, and that it was independent of the proconsuls of Gallia Narbonensis. Constituted a colony of veterans by Augustus, and endowed with numerous privileges, it built a temple and struck a medal in honour of its founder. The medal, which afterwards furnished the type for the coat of arms granted to the town by Francis I., bears on one side the heads of Caesar Augustus and Vipsanius Agrippa. (the former crowned with laurel), while on the other there is a crocodile chained to a palm-tree, with the legend Col. Nem. It was Agrippa who built the public baths at Nîmes, the temple of Diana and the aqueduct of the Pont du Gard. The city-walls, erected by Augustus, were nearly 4 m. in circuit, 30 ft. high and 10 ft. broad, flanked by ninety towers and pierced by ten gates. Hadrian on his way back from Britain erected at Nîmes two memorials of his benefactress Plotina. In the very height of its prosperity the city was ravaged by the Vandals; the Visigoths followed, and turned the amphitheatre into a stronghold, which at a later date was set on fire along with the gates of the city when Charles Martel drove out the Saracens. Nîmes became a republic under the protection of Pippin the Short; and in 1185 it passed to the counts of Toulouse, who restored its prosperity and enclosed it with ramparts whose enceinte, less extensive than that of Augustus, may still be traced in the boulevards of the present day. The city took part in the crusade against the Albigenses in 1207. Under Louis VIII. it received a royal garrison into its amphitheatre; under Louis XI. it was captured by the duke of Burgundy, and in 1420 was recovered by the dauphin (Charles VII.). On a visit to Nîmes Francis I. enriched it with a university and a school of arts. By 1558 about three-fourths of the inhabitants had become Protestants, and in 1567 a massacre of Catholics took place on St Michael’s day. From the accession of Henry IV. till the revocation of the edict of Nantes (1685) the Protestant community devoted itself to active industry; but after that disastrous event great numbers went into exile or joined the Camisards. Louis XIV. built a fortress (1687) to keep in check the disturbances caused by the rival religious parties. Nîmes passed unhurt through the storms of the Revolution; but in 1815 Trestaillon and his bandit followers pillaged and burned and plundered and massacred the Bonapartists and Protestants. Since then the city has remained divided into two strongly marked factions—Catholics and Protestants—though with no repetition of such scenes.

See H. Bazin, Nîmes Gallo-Romain (Nîmes, 1891); L. Menard, Histoire civile, ecclésiastique et littéraire de la ville de Nismes; R. Peyre, Nîmes, Arles et Orange (Nîmes, 1903).