Avignon City

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    The headland known as Rocher des Doms, which forms a sort of natural fortress, was the first inhabited site in Avignon, where a Neolithic stele in human form and adorned with a solar symbol has been discovered. The name of Avignon dates back to antiquity and the rule of the Cavares, when it was called ‘Aouenion’, which in all likelihood means ‘the town with the violent wind’ or ‘Lord of the River’. The Romans seized Avignon in 121 BCE and renamed it Avenio. An important town arose during the course of the Ist century BCE, complete with a temple dedicated to Tiberius and to Drusus the Young, a spa, a municipal arch and a number of important shops opening directly onto the river. Above them stretched a promenade, lined with Corinthian columns. From the Barbarian invasions to those of the Saracens in the eighth century, the city remained huddled around the Rocher. In the 12th century, Avignon once again became a prosperous city, surrounded by double ramparts and deep ditches. The town’s piers, stretching along the banks of the river, belonged to wealthy families and provided part of their income. Windmills turned on the ancient promontory of the Rocher des Doms and a number of buildings were constructed: the cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms and its neighbouring chapel of Sainte-Anne, as well as the baptistery and the Bishop’s Palace – the latter bearing witness to Episcopal power. At the foot of the Rocher, the parishes into which the city was divided were abuzz with the hubbub of the merchants’ shops and craftsmen’s workshops. Following the Charter obtained from the Holy German Roman Empire, the city became free and was entitled to mint coins and deploy its own army. In the 13th century, work began on the famous Pont d’Avignon. But this was a troubled period, as the city remained loyal to its suzerain the Count of Toulouse, who was on the side of the Cathars. Louis VIII, the King of France, besieged the town and undermined its defences by destroying part of its ramparts. Avignon subsequently passed under the tutelage of Charles II d’ Anjou, Count of Provence and King of Naples. The fate of Avignon changed again in the early 14th century when in March 1309, Pope Clement V of Bordeaux and his cardinals made the solemn entrance to the city. This marked the beginning of a glorious era, with a succession of seven French Popes over the course of almost a century. Pope Benedict XII (1334-1342) gave concrete form to the expectations of the Papacy in Avignon by building the first residential palace. The pomp and prestige of the Avignon Papacy reached its climax under the brilliant pontificate of Clement VI (1342-1352), with the addition of the two new wings that we now see in the Palace of Benedict XII. He turned Avignon into one of the most magnificent cultural and artistic hubs in Europe. He also purchased the city from Queen Joanna of Naples, Countess of Provence, for 80,000 gold florins. In addition to the papal palace, the prosperity and splendour of the town – now protected by new ramparts – was reflected in 25 cardinal’s palaces, seven new churches and a number of monasteries for the mendicant orders. Avignon was the capital of Christendom in matters spiritual, political and cultural and became one of the most densely populated cities in the mediaeval western world. This prosperity greatly benefited the intellectual and artistic worlds. The famous Avignon School was built thanks to Papal patronage – the Italian and French schools of painting expanded during the 15th and 16th centuries and resulted in masterpieces such as Enguerrand Quarton’s Piéta, now on display in the Louvre. After the departure of the papacy, Avignon was governed by papal legates and then by vice-legates. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Avignon took advantage of its position as an enclave in the kingdom to develop a thriving economy based on silk and cotton – the famous ‘Indian’ cloths. It was at this time that the old wooden houses gave way to the mansions with their beautiful carved facades that lined the new streets of the city. In the 19th century, Avignon became an administrative centre largely dedicated to farming, including madder and silkworms. It regained its status as a cultural capital thanks to the drive of a handful of local poets known as the Félibres, who transformed the town into the centre of the Provençal renaissance: Théodore Aubanel, Joseph Roumanille and above all Frédéric Mistral – whose work was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904 – who ensured that the land and language of Provence made themselves felt worldwide.

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