The most important event in the history of Avignon, a city on the Rhône River in southeast France, was the relatively brief period between 1309 and 1376 when it served as the Holy See for the Roman Catholic Church. What shaped the character of Avignon was the impressive and varied parade of different peoples before and after that event.
The first of these were the Roman legionnaires who, more than 2000 years ago, established an outpost of their Empire on a rocky dome still known today as "The Rock". During the 300 plus years of their occupancy, the settlement on the site grew into a city with an administrative structure. More importantly, Avignon was established as an axis for the north-south trade route, which followed the river, and the east-west land route between what are now Spain and Italy.
With the decline of the Roman Empire a succession of invaders washed over Avignon. Turn by turn, it was occupied by the Visgoths, the Huns, the Saxons and the Francs. It belonged to the Germanic Empire, then to the King of France. It was Muslim under the Arabs of North Africa, later Christian under the Roman Catholic Popes.
What the Romans did for Avignon administratively, the Italians who followed the Popes to France did for the city culturally. The Renaissance began during the papal years and today, more than 600 years later, Avignon is considered a center of culture for that part of France.
Pope Gregory XI (1370 - 1378) returned the papacy to Rome in 1376. But the city continued to be a possession of the Church. As such, pardon was granted to any criminals living within its walls. This shaped the character of the city as much as the years of papal influence did.
In 1376 Avignon was a sophisticated, multi-cultural city which blended the Italian Renaissance with the French Capetian dynasty and Moorish influences from earlier occupation by the Saracens. The population had climbed to 40,000, making it one of Europe's largest cities for that era. With the departure of the Papal court, and then several devastating plagues, the population plunged to 15,000.
For the next 400 years Avignon was an outlaw city, the favorite refuge of criminals from the ranks of titled noblemen as well as common murderers and thieves. It was an indulgent, hedonistic city, attracting ordinary citizens who thrilled at the dangers as well as the pleasures to be found within its walls. Here is what a visitor in the reign of Louis XIV, Madame du Noyer, wrote to her friend in Paris:
I cannot image any place more agreeable in the world than Avignon, where the business affairs of my husband have brought us for the moment. The city is deliciously situated, with the Rhône bathing its walls, and among the fields and gardens are magnificent buildings, among which the homes of Mr Montréal and Mr. Crillon are the most admirable.
There are religious houses for both sexes, under the authority of a most friendly government which takes orders only from the Pope and his vice-legate, always a man of quality. The current holder of the office is a Mr. Delfini, a Venetian of culture and nobility. Everyone is rich; everyone is welcoming. To enjoy oneself is the prime occupation.
Several days later, however, Madame du Noyer reported herself shocked to have been introduced to the Marquis de Ganges who had "fled France after having killed his wife". In a further letter, she reported the latest scandal:
The Chevalier de Bouillon and his friends, the most depraved young men in the city, first castrated and then murdered a friendly innkeeper after a midnight drinking bout. My new acquaintance, Mr. Delfini, fearing the wrath of the de Bouillon family, dared do no more than banish young de Bouillon from the city.
Avignon was long a part of the Comtat Venaissin, sold to the Papacy in 1348. In 1791 an unauthorized plebiscite was held and Avignon asked to be annexed to France. This became official in 1797 under the Treaty of Tolentino, but the Church did not recognize this formally until 1814. During the last 200 years the city has improved its reputation somewhat.
Now the seat of the departmental government of Vaucluse, Avignon is also a university town. The colleges established by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303, having been suppressed in the university reform of 1793, were dormant for nearly 200 years. In 1963 various colleges re-opened under the auspices of the University of Aix-Marseille and, in 1984, the University of Avignon was newly accredited. In 2000 the rebuilding of the University was completed and today there are slightly more than 7,500 students enrolled.
Avignon is still the jumping-off place for vacationers in Provence, it is the medical center for the region, and it supports a large community of artists.
But, mostly, Avignon is a mood, an atmosphere. People coming from Paris today, as in previous centuries, often feel they are not in France but in an even more Latin setting -- Valence, perhaps, or Andalousie in Spain. Italian as well as Spanish surnames are liberally sprinkled in the telephone directory, as are names recognizable as "pied noire", denoting people of Caucasian origin whose fathers or grandfathers were natives of Algeria when it was a French department.
Today more than half the population lives extro-mural, or "outside the walls". The city walls are still there. They were pulled down by the French King, Louis VIII, in 1226 when the population defied him, then rebuilt in the following century by Pope Innocent VI.
The walls were originally more than four kilometers long and eight meters high. Rampart walks topped them, and a water-filled moat guarded their base. They were an active part of the city's defense well into the late Medieval period with gates protected by draw bridges and as many as 56 watchtowers.
Today seven "gates" pierce these ramparts and all traffic enters through the seven portals. The moat which formerly encircled the walls was filled in during the restorations began in 1860. Like Carcassonne across the Rhône in southwest France, Avignon is one of the few completely fortified cities in modern-day France. Unlike Carcassonne, however, which is primarily a tourist attraction, Avignon is very much a living, breathing, working city. An address "inside the walls" (intra-mural) is considered quite smart and is priced accordingly.
The University is inside the walls, as are all the buildings from the occupancy of the Popes in the 14th century. Many of the streets are cobblestoned, streets whose names indicate their former usage: "Rue de la Bonneterie" where hatmakers once worked, "Place de la Monnaie" which was the address of Italian bankers when Avignon belonged to Rome. The main street, "Rue de la République", runs north-south through the very center of the inner city, linking the vast square before the Popes’ Palace with the TGV railroad station built just outside the walls.
Culturally and physically, Rue de la République spans the centuries. MacDonald’s is there, its golden arches mounted very improbably on a building dating from the 18th century. Just across the street pedestrian-watching is a favorite sport from the vantage point of a sidewalk table at a five-century old bistro on the shady side of the thoroughfare.
The Popes’ Palace, long empty, now has to earn its keep. In addition to hosting an impressive tourist schedule and functioning as the archives of the department, it houses the Convention Center. The Princess of Wales, Diana, once attended a dinner held in the Palace where the menu featured local Provençal dishes. Her visit was noteworthy only because she toyed with her food instead of eating it, and spent the entire evening talking to her dressmaker, Christian Lacroix.
Lacroix, one of today’s foremost fashion designers and a native of Provence, has a boutique in Avignon’s prestigious rue Joseph Vernet shopping area.
Theater has always been an important part of Avignon's culture and the summer Off Festival of dance, music and theatre, now in its second half-century, attracts performers from all of Europe.
The Saint Bénezet Bridge, immortalized under the tune "Sur le pont d'Avignon" is still there, what little remains of it. There are new bridges spanning the Rhône today, high-speed highways circling the city, multi-story apartment complexes sprouting in the suburbs. But Avignon still keeps a finger on its past.
A few years ago, while living in France, I drove to Avignon every week during the winter months for an early-morning appointment. That was the year when fashion dictated that young French women wear dark tights, short skirts and hip-length capes. Often on my early-morning visits the mist from the Rhône would be swirling around the lace-encrusted towers of the Popes' Palace, restricting visibility at ground level to a few meters. Seeing a caped figure approaching across the cobbled square, it was easy to imagine oneself back in Medieval times.
Part One: Avignon's early history
Part Two: Avignon under the Popes