W hat follows is part of an ongoing piece of writing which I can best describe as being the elaborated notes of what I have been discovering in my explorations of the history of the city of Arles – a history which goes back nearly three thousand years, so there is a lot to read. This essay began as notes taken during a visit to Arles in November 2018, when I gradually came to notice how, within the small area of the old city, over the centuries of occupation by different cultures, so many of the structures remained intact and were reused, adapted, enlarged, rebuilt etc, or if they were dismantled, the materials of which they were built were reused for another construction – this repetitive progression very well embodying the principle taught in basic science that no matter is either created or destroyed. The nuns of Santa Clara, for instance, after rehabilitating the buildings of an earlier monastic order just outside the city walls for their own use, were forced one hundred years later by the city to vacate them, at which point the stone and sand of those buildings were used to reinforce the city ramparts.
Arles is in the South of France, in Provence, on the lower part of the Rhône River, the marshy Rhône delta, on a limestone hill 25 metres above sea level. It was settled, successively, by Ligurians, Greeks from Phocaea, Celts, and in 46 BC by the Romans as a retirement colony for Caesar’s Sixth Legion. Curious outsiders have been visiting the city for hundreds of years, many of them first drawn by the most outstanding attractions: the Roman monuments and the carved portal of the St Trophime Church. Important visitors, back in the 1300s, would be taken down to see the obelisk from the Roman circus, which had recently been discovered buried in a vegetable garden. Much more recently, tourists also included in their visit the places made famous by Van Gogh’s time there, though that amounted to little more than a year.