by Anthony Peregrine, The Telegraph, May 8, 2018
Is there a livelier Latin city anywhere than Nîmes? The answer is “no” – and it’s about to get livelier still with the opening, on June 2, of the £52 million Musée de la Romanité (Romanité being a newly coined word meaning “Romanness”, which is also new, and even uglier). This will be, without argument, the French cultural event of spring 2018.
But, first, the background. Nîmes, as mentioned, is lively. Last weekend, crowds jammed into town for the Great Roman Games. The place was a Roman colony from the first century BC so, two millennia on, the annual games are a good fit. Some 700 re-enactors dressed as legionnaires, consuls and similar, paraded with gravitas, recreating religious ceremonies and, spectacularly, replaying the story of Spartacus in France’s greatest Roman arena.
In another fortnight, the town goes full-tilt festive again with the Whitsuntide Féria, Europe’s biggest street party. OK, it’s built round bullfighting but ignore that: the bodega nights, post-corrida, require only stamina and a taste for turmoil.
At other times, passions soar for football and wine, rugby and bull-running. Effervescence in the tight, conspiratorial streets should never surprise.
This unstoppable life swirls about the greatest collection of Roman monuments outside Italy. The arena, the Maison Carrée temple, Tour Magne, Fountain gardens, and more, explain Nîmes’ billing as “the French Rome”. In classical times, these edifices were scarcely museum pieces. They throbbed with colour and noise, celebration and violence. Nîmes’ achievement has been to preserve, alongside the old stones, the sense of full-blooded southern vigour coursing around them.
What it lacked was a museum putting all this into context. Cue the Romanité project. The kicker came as workmen dug out a car park in 2006. They unearthed the Pentheus mosaic, an extraordinary piece to have lain undiscovered for 2,000 years. It’s 377 sq ft, intact, with depictions of the four seasons, various birds, four bacchantes and, in the centre, Pentheus, king of Thebes, being killed by his mum (long story). It would be a star of any show. It needed a fitting setting. Nîmes went big, conceiving a museum covering not merely the Roman era but pre-Roman Gauls and the post-Roman legacy through to the 19th century: 25 centuries in all.
And on a site right across from one of the most imposing Roman arenas anywhere. It would have been impudent, like challenging Caesar, to try to compete with its two-storey, multi-arcaded grandeur. So Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc didn’t. Though massive, her museum is light on its feet, the fluid, diaphanous façades rippling like a gigantic toga. Closer up, thousands of glass tiles recall a mosaic, changing with the light and, if not talking to the arena, certainly getting along famously. From the forecourt, one looks at the arena, then at the museum, and feels most satisfied.
The entrance is through an inner thoroughfare, via a modern atrium and the pediment from the temple which once marked Nîmes’s original sacred spring. Generally, if you suggest archeological museums, I have pressing business elsewhere. Their principal promise is of stone. There’s lots of stone here, too, recovered from Nîmes and surrounds but, crucially, it’s flooded with light and brought to life by all the bells and whistles of new technology.
Twenty-first century know-how crams in to make the past palpable and exciting. Expect 3D recreations, virtual reality, son-et-lumière evocations, interactive panoramas, computer generated images and holograms. Indeed, the danger will be of rushing from one sensation to another, without assimilating the whole. So slow down, take the helicoidal stairway (like Leonardo da Vinci’s at Chambord, only in stainless steel) to the three upper levels, getting to grips first with Gaul.
The mix of real and virtual is as bewitching in the subsequent Roman section where, as you’re overwhelmed by the Pentheus mosaic, you may also visit, via computer recreation, the domus in which it took pride of place. Nearby, a real Pompeian red fresco – one featuring a naked bloke on a chair and a just-discernible soft-porn frieze – is attended by a virtual evocation of the living room it once adorned. (“This was a brothel?” asked a pleasant German fellow. “No,” said museum promotion man Christophe Garritano. “The Romans just liked sex in their salons.”) Quotidian concerns – food, games, money – get lively coverage. You may dress yourself in a virtual toga. Go ahead. Everybody looks better in a toga. This is, in short, as near to time travel as you’ll get, outside the Tardis.
So it continues, through the knock-on influence of the Romans into the 19th century. The overall effect is of a concentration of the continuity of the city – which you may now survey, for real, from the rooftop terrace. Its curving walkway echoes the ellipse of the arena across the way. There will be a restaurant up here and a café downstairs – but my next move would be to get out to appreciate the city whose CV I’d just experienced.
Up the boulevard from the arena – so well preserved that the last gladiator might just have been dragged out – the Maison Carrée indicates, yet again, that classical temples got harmony and proportion sorted out for all time. Inside, the featured short film, recounting Nîmes’ origins, merits a fiver. It highlights the “sanctuary of the source” which, in the 18th century, became the Jardins de la Fontaine. They’re just around the corner, alive with an ultra-formal arrangement of statues, bumper cherubs and sunken waterways providing the backdrop for every Nîmois wedding photo.
There’s much more still but, for one trip, that’s enough history. Time to pull on clean blue jeans (out of respect: Nîmes invented denim – “de-Nîmes”), before plunging into the centre’s picaresque pressure cooker of alleys, bars and boisterous commerce. Find a terrace table, order local Cévennes rosé and brandade (salt cod, milk and olive oil) and let the warm night take you. People have been doing just that right here for 2,000 years or more.
Nîmes is served by Ryanair (ryanair.com) from Luton, Stansted and Liverpool.
Bang central and stylish is the Appart’City Nîmes Arènes, doubles from €88 (£78, appartcity.com; 0033 456 602670).
Loveliest views and cracking food come from Ciel de Nîmes at the top of the (Norman Foster-designed) Carré-d’Art centre opposite the Maison Carré. Three-course weekday menu £14 (0033 466 367170; cieldenimes.fr).
Musée de la Romanité (museedelaromanite.fr); Admission €8 (£7), covers the permanent exhibition and temporary show, to Sept 24, on gladiators. Allow at least two hours.