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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Renaissance Cities--Avignon

Sing along, if you like. The chapel spire of the Papal Palace is at far right.
If you ever see a photo of an ancient city with a bridge which dead-ends in the middle of its river...that's Avignon, more specifically the Pont du Avignon. There's a French children's song, Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse. (On the bridge of Avignon, they dance, they dance.) It's kind of the French answer to London Bridge is Falling Down, Falling Down. Aside from Picasso's ugly dames in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the song may well be the city's one main claim to fame. The bridge, dating from the 12th century, was washed away by a flood in 1669 and never rebuilt. By the way, the bridge is too narrow for the dance described in the song, which may account for why it was never rebuilt.

The Palace of the Popes, Avignon, France
The Pointillist painter, Paul Signac, painted
Avignon at sunset around 1900.
Bridges, Picasso, and children's ditties aside, the French city of Avignon is best known for its French popes during the century-long schism in the Catholic church, (1309 to 1423). It's famed Papal Palace (above) stands today in the center of the city as an architectural reminder of this dark era in the history of the Catholic church. Although quite historic, it's no architectural masterpiece by any stretch, appearing as a somewhat restored ruin. From some angles it looks like a medieval fortress with a rather inglorious, crenelated watchtower. From the front, it has a kind of sprawling, forlorn appearance of a Gothic cathedral designed by committee, then fortunately left unfinished.
The Papal Palace, Avignon, France, too many architects, too much conflict.
Notre Dame des Doms cathedral,
Avignon, France.
Avignon is located on the Rhone River some 85 km (52 miles) north-northwest of the French Riviera city of Marseilles. Of course, by the time of the high Renaissance rolled around (1480-1520), the sorry episode of French popes and anti-popes was largely a thing of the past, though still something of sore spot for the church. Michelangelo's Pope Julius II was said to be extremely distrustful of the French even some sixty years after the Schism. In looking at the important history of Avignon you quickly come to realize it was far more about the darkest side of church politics than art. Anyone who gripes about politics in Washington, D.C., today should take a peek at that of the Vatican during the 14th century. The conflict between Italian Catholicism and the French version (dominated by the Monarchy) makes our present-day "divided government" seem like a noisy little family spat.
Not to unduly air the dirty laundry of the Catholic church, but just as the church stepped into the power vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire during the latter part of the 5th century, the rise of powerful European monarchies during the 14th century (France, England, Spain, Germany) threatened the nearly 900 years of church dominance of European political fortunes. With the election of the French Pope Clement V in 1305, and his subsequent removal of the church government from Rome to Avignon, there began a sequence of twelve popes (eight of them French) plus three "anti-popes" during the next hundred years that literally tore the church apart. During this period the papacy lost much of its temporal power, influence, and respect. The word Catholic means, "universal." Yet, during this time, there were French Catholics, English Catholics, Spanish Catholics, etc.--anything but universal. The French being the most rebellious, Avignon found itself the center of this vicious religious conflict.
Catherine of Siena Escorting Pope Gregory XI Back to Rome on 17th January 1377,
Fresco by Giorgio Vasari, c. 1571-1574.
This ended the Avignon Papacy but not the turmoil, which lasted for another 50 years.
From that point on, things really got messy. The King of France, and later the entire city of Florence was excommunicated, a pope was physically attacked, another arrested, there were armies battling one another, a massacre of several thousands, and for several years, two popes. Eventually, in 1417, with the election of Pope Martin V, things simmered down for a while, though the French continued with their own line of so-called "anti-popes" until 1437. Moreover, the city of Avignon remained under papal control until the coming of the French Revolution in 1791. With all this conflict going on, not to mention a devastating bout with Bubonic Plague in 1348 (two-thirds of the city's population died), it's not surprising that, even during the Renaissance, there wasn't much art going on. Since WW II, however, there has been a cultural renaissance. Today, the city has become something of a tourist mecca since the first Avignon Festival in 1947, consisting of traditional theatrical events and other art forms including dance, music, and cinema, utilizing the city's many historical monuments, parks, and plazas...except for the too-narrow bridge.

Each May, Altera Rosa, a meeting of lovers of roses, highlights Liesse Cloister
Benedict XII of  the Palace of Popes in Avignon.

Additional items dealing with Renaissance cities can be found by clicking on the various links below:

London, Ferrara, Rome, Urbino, Milan, Constantinople, Florence.

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