Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter X

Montpellier, November 10, 1763.

DEAR SIR — By the Pont St. Esprit we entered the province of Languedoc, and breakfasted at Bagniole, which is a little paltry town; from whence, however, there is an excellent road through a mountain, made at a great expence, and extending about four leagues. About five in the afternoon, I had the first glimpse of the famous Pont du Garde, which stands on the right hand, about the distance of a league from the post-road to Nismes, and about three leagues from that city. I would not willingly pass for a false enthusiast in taste; but I cannot help observing, that from the first distant view of this noble monument, till we came near enough to see it perfectly, I felt the strongest emotions of impatience that I had ever known; and obliged our driver to put his mules to the full gallop, in the apprehension that it would be dark before we reached the place. I expected to find the building, in some measure, ruinous; but was agreeably disappointed, to see it look as fresh as the bridge at Westminster. The climate is either so pure and dry, or the free-stone, with which it is built, so hard, that the very angles of them remain as acute as if they had been cut last year. Indeed, some large stones have dropped out of the arches; but the whole is admirably preserved, and presents the eye with a piece of architecture, so unaffectedly elegant, so simple, and majestic, that I will defy the most phlegmatic and stupid spectator to behold it without admiration. It was raised in the Augustan age, by the Roman colony of Nismes, to convey a stream of water between two mountains, for the use of that city. It stands over the river Gardon, which is a beautiful pastoral stream, brawling among rocks, which form a number of pretty natural cascades, and overshadowed on each side with trees and shrubs, which greatly add to the rural beauties of the scene. It rises in the Cevennes, and the sand of it produces gold, as we learn from Mr. Reaumur, in his essay on this subject, inserted in the French Memoirs, for the year 1718. If I lived at Nismes, or Avignon (which last city is within four short leagues of it) I should take pleasure in forming parties to come hither, in summer, to dine under one of the arches of the Pont du Garde, on a cold collation.

This work consists of three bridges, or tire of arches, one above another; the first of six, the second of eleven, and the third of thirty-six. The height, comprehending the aqueduct on the top, amounts to 174 feet three inches: the length between the two mountains, which it unites, extends to 723. The order of architecture is the Tuscan, but the symmetry of it is inconceivable. By scooping the bases of the pilasters, of the second tire of arches, they had made a passage for foot-travellers: but though the antients far excelled us in beauty, they certainly fell short of the moderns in point of conveniency. The citizens of Avignon have, in this particular, improved the Roman work with a new bridge, by apposition, constructed on the same plan with that of the lower tire of arches, of which indeed it seems to be a part, affording a broad and commodious passage over the river, to horses and carriages of all kinds. The aqueduct, for the continuance of which this superb work was raised, conveyed a stream of sweet water from the fountain of Eure, near the city of Uzes, and extended near six leagues in length.

In approaching Nismes, you see the ruins of a Roman tower, built on the summit of a hill, which over-looks the city. It seems to have been intended, at first, as a watch, or signal-tower, though, in the sequel, it was used as a fortress: what remains of it, is about ninety feet high; the architecture of the Doric order. I no sooner alighted at the inn, than I was presented with a pamphlet, containing an account of Nismes and its antiquities, which every stranger buys. There are persons too who attend in order to shew the town, and you will always be accosted by some shabby antiquarian, who presents you with medals for sale, assuring you they are genuine antiques, and were dug out of the ruins of the Roman temple and baths. All those fellows are cheats; and they have often laid under contribution raw English travellers, who had more money than discretion. To such they sell the vilest and most common trash: but when they meet with a connoisseur, they produce some medals which are really valuable and curious.

Nismes, antiently called Nemausis, was originally a colony of Romans, settled by Augustus Caesar, after the battle of Actium. It is still of considerable extent, and said to contain twelve thousand families; but the number seems, by this account, to be greatly exaggerated. Certain it is, the city must have been formerly very extensive, as appears from the circuit of the antient walls, the remains of which are still to be seen. Its present size is not one third of its former extent. Its temples, baths, statues, towers, basilica, and amphitheatre, prove it to have been a city of great opulence and magnificence. At present, the remains of these antiquities are all that make it respectable or remarkable; though here are manufactures of silk and wool, carried on with good success. The water necessary for these works is supplied by a source at the foot of the rock, upon which the tower is placed; and here were discovered the ruins of Roman baths, which had been formed and adorned with equal taste and magnificence. Among the rubbish they found a vast profusion of columns, vases, capitals, cornices, inscriptions, medals, statues, and among other things, the finger of a colossal statue in bronze, which, according to the rules of proportion, must have been fifteen feet high. From these particulars, it appears that the edifices must have been spacious and magnificent. Part of a tesselated pavement still remains. The antient pavement of the bath is still intire; all the rubbish has been cleared away; and the baths, in a great measure, restored on the old plan, though they are not at present used for any thing but ornament. The water is collected into two vast reservoirs, and a canal built and lined with hewn stone. There are three handsome bridges thrown over this vast canal. It contains a great body of excellent water, which by pipes and other small branching canals, traverses the town, and is converted to many different purposes of oeconomy and manufacture. Between the Roman bath and these great canals, the ground is agreeably laid out in pleasure-walks. for the recreation of the inhabitants. Here are likewise ornaments of architecture, which savour much more of French foppery, than of the simplicity and greatness of the antients. It is very surprizing, that this fountain should produce such a great body of water, as fills the basin of the source, the Roman basin, two large deep canals three hundred feet in length, two vast basins that make part of the great canal, which is eighteen hundred feet long. eighteen feet deep, and forty-eight feet broad. When I saw it, there was in it about eight or nine feet of water, transparent as crystal. It must be observed, however, for the honour of French cleanliness, that in the Roman basin, through which this noble stream of water passes, I perceived two washerwomen at work upon children’s clouts and dirty linnen. Surprized, and much disgusted at this filthy phaenomenon, I asked by what means, and by whose permission, those dirty hags had got down into the basin, in order to contaminate the water at its fountain-head; and understood they belonged to the commandant of the place, who had keys of the subterranean passage.

Fronting the Roman baths are the ruins of an antient temple, which, according to tradition, was dedicated to Diana: but it has been observed by connoisseurs, that all the antient temples of this goddess were of the Ionic order; whereas, this is partly Corinthian, and partly composite. It is about seventy foot long, and six and thirty in breadth, arched above, and built of large blocks of stone, exactly joined together without any cement. The walls are still standing, with three great tabernacles at the further end, fronting the entrance. On each side, there are niches in the intercolumniation of the walls, together with pedestals and shafts of pillars, cornices, and an entablature, which indicate the former magnificence of the building. It was destroyed during the civil war that raged in the reign of Henry III. of France.

It is amazing, that the successive irruptions of barbarous nations, of Goths, Vandals, and Moors; of fanatic croisards, still more sanguinary and illiberal than those Barbarians, should have spared this temple, as well as two other still more noble monuments of architecture, that to this day adorn the city of Nismes: I mean the amphitheatre and the edifice, called Maison Carree — The former of these is counted the finest monument of the kind, now extant; and was built in the reign of Antoninus Pius, who contributed a large sum of money towards its erection. It is of an oval figure, one thousand and eighty feet in circumference, capacious enough to hold twenty thousand spectators. The architecture is of the Tuscan order, sixty feet high, composed of two open galleries, built one over another, consisting each of threescore arcades. The entrance into the arena was by four great gates, with porticos; and the seats, of which there were thirty, rising one above another, consisted of great blocks of stone, many of which still remain. Over the north gate, appear two bulls, in alto-relievo, extremely well executed, emblems which, according to the custom of the Romans, signified that the amphitheatre was erected at the expence of the people. There are in other parts of it some work in bas-relief, and heads or busts but indifferently carved. It stands in the lower part of the town, and strikes the spectator with awe and veneration. The external architecture is almost intire in its whole circuit; but the arena is filled up with houses — This amphitheatre was fortified as a citadel by the Visigoths, in the beginning of the sixth century. They raised within it a castle, two towers of which are still extant; and they surrounded it with a broad and deep fossee, which was filled up in the thirteenth century. In all the subsequent wars to which this city was exposed, it served as the last resort of the citizens, and sustained a great number of successive attacks; so that its preservation is almost miraculous. It is likely, however, to suffer much more from the Gothic avarice of its own citizens, some of whom are mutilating it every day, for the sake of the stones, which they employ in their own private buildings. It is surprizing, that the King’s authority has not been exerted to put an end to such sacrilegious violation.

If the amphitheatre strikes you with an idea of greatness, the Maison Carree enchants you with the most exquisite beauties of architecture and sculpture. This is an edifice, supposed formerly to have been erected by Adrian, who actually built a basilica in this city, though no vestiges of it remain: but the following inscription, which was discovered on the front of it, plainly proves, that it was built by the inhabitants of Nismes, in honour of Caius and Lucius Caesar, the grandchildren of Augustus by his daughter Julia, the wife of Agrippa.

C. CAESARI. AVGVSTI. F. COS. L CAESARI. AVGMI. F. COS. DESIGNATO. PRINCIPIBVS IVVENTUTIS.

To Caius and Lucius Caesar, sons of Augustus, consuls elect, Princes of the Roman youth.

This beautiful edifice, which stands upon a pediment six feet high, is eighty-two feet long, thirty-five broad, and thirty-seven high, without reckoning the pediment. The body of it is adorned with twenty columns engaged in the wall, and the peristyle, which is open, with ten detached pillars that support the entablature. They are all of the Corinthian order, fluted and embellished with capitals of the most exquisite sculpture, the frize and cornice are much admired, and the foliage is esteemed inimitable. The proportions of the building are so happily united, as to give it an air of majesty and grandeur, which the most indifferent spectator cannot behold without emotion. A man needs not be a connoisseur in architecture, to enjoy these beauties. They are indeed so exquisite that you may return to them every day with a fresh appetite for seven years together. What renders them the more curious, they are still entire, and very little affected, either by the ravages of time, or the havoc of war. Cardinal Alberoni declared, that it was a jewel that deserved a cover of gold to preserve it from external injuries. An Italian painter, perceiving a small part of the roof repaired by modern French masonry, tore his hair, and exclaimed in a rage, “Zounds! what do I see? harlequin’s hat on the head of Augustus!”

Without all doubt it is ravishingly beautiful. The whole world cannot parallel it; and I am astonished to see it standing entire, like the effects of inchantment, after such a succession of ages, every one more barbarous than another. The history of the antiquities of Nismes takes notice of a grotesque statue, representing two female bodies and legs, united under the head of an old man; but, as it does not inform us where it is kept, I did not see it.

The whole country of Languedoc is shaded with olive trees, the fruit of which begins to ripen, and appears as black as sloes; those they pickle are pulled green, and steeped for some time in a lye made of quick lime or wood ashes, which extracts the bitter taste, and makes the fruit tender. Without this preparation it is not eatable. Under the olive and fig trees, they plant corn and vines, so that there is not an inch of ground unlaboured: but here are no open fields, meadows, or cattle to be seen. The ground is overloaded; and the produce of it crowded to such a degree, as to have a bad effect upon the eye, impressing the traveller with the ideas of indigence and rapacity. The heat in summer is so excessive, that cattle would find no green forage, every blade of grass being parched up and destroyed. The weather was extremely hot when we entered Montpellier, and put up at the Cheval Blanc, counted the best auberge in the place, tho’ in fact it is a most wretched hovel, the habitation of darkness, dirt, and imposition. Here I was obliged to pay four livres a meal for every person in my family, and two livres at night for every bed, though all in the same room: one would imagine that the further we advance to the southward the living is the dearer, though in fact every article of housekeeping is cheaper in Languedoc than many other provinces of France. This imposition is owing to the concourse of English who come hither, and, like simple birds of passage, allow themselves to be plucked by the people of the country, who know their weak side, and make their attacks accordingly. They affect to believe, that all the travellers of our country are grand seigneurs, immensely rich and incredibly generous; and we are silly enough to encourage this opinion, by submitting quietly to the most ridiculous extortion, as well as by committing acts of the most absurd extravagance. This folly of the English, together with a concourse of people from different quarters, who come hither for the re-establishment of their health, has rendered Montpellier one of the dearest places in the South of France. The city, which is but small, stands upon a rising ground fronting the Mediterranean, which is about three leagues to the southward: on the other side is an agreeable plain, extending about the same distance towards the mountains of the Cevennes. The town is reckoned well built, and what the French call bien percee; yet the streets are in general narrow, and the houses dark. The air is counted salutary in catarrhous consumptions, from its dryness and elasticity: but too sharp in cases of pulmonary imposthumes.

It was at Montpellier that we saw for the first time any signs of that gaiety and mirth for which the people of this country are celebrated. In all other places through which we passed since our departure from Lyons, we saw nothing but marks of poverty and chagrin. We entered Montpellier on a Sunday, when the people were all dressed in their best apparel. The streets were crowded; and a great number of the better sort of both sexes sat upon stone seats at their doors, conversing with great mirth and familiarity. These conversations lasted the greatest part of the night; and many of them were improved with musick both vocal and instrumental: next day we were visited by the English residing in the place, who always pay this mark of respect to new comers. They consist of four or five families, among whom I could pass the winter very agreeably, if the state of my health and other reasons did not call me away.

Mr. L— had arrived two days before me, troubled with the same asthmatic disorder, under which I have laboured so long. He told me he had been in quest of me ever since he left England. Upon comparing notes, I found he had stopped at the door of a country inn in Picardy, and drank a glass of wine and water, while I was at dinner up stairs; nay, he had even spoke to my servant, and asked who was his master, and the man, not knowing him, replied, he was a gentleman from Chelsea. He had walked by the door of the house where I lodged at Paris, twenty times, while I was in that city; and the very day before he arrived at Montpellier, he had passed our coach on the road.

The garrison of this city consists of two battalions, one of which is the Irish regiment of Berwick, commanded by lieutenant colonel Tents, a gentleman with whom we contracted an acquaintance at Boulogne. He treats us with great politeness, and indeed does every thing in his power to make the place agreeable to us. The duke of Fitz-James, the governor, is expected here in a little time. We have already a tolerable concert twice a week; there will be a comedy in the winter; and the states of Provence assemble in January, so that Montpellier will be extremely gay and brilliant. These very circumstances would determine me to leave it. I have not health to enjoy these pleasures: I cannot bear a croud of company such as pours in upon us unexpectedly at all hours; and I foresee, that in staying at Montpellier, I should be led into an expence, which I can ill afford. I have therefore forwarded the letter I received from general P— n, to Mr. B— d, our consul at Nice, signifying my intention of going thither, and explaining the kind of accommodation I would choose to have at that place.

The day after our arrival, I procured tolerable lodgings in the High Street, for which I pay fifty sols, something more than two shillings per day; and I am furnished with two meals a day by a traiteur for ten livres: but he finds neither the wine nor the dessert; and indeed we are but indifferently served. Those families who reside here find their account in keeping house. Every traveller who comes to this, or any other, town in France with a design to stay longer than a day or two, ought to write beforehand to his correspondent to procure furnished lodgings, to which he may be driven immediately, without being under the necessity of lying in an execrable inn; for all the inns of this country are execrable.

My baggage is not yet arrived by the canal of Languedoc; but that gives me no disturbance, as it is consigned to the care of Mr. Ray, an English merchant and banker of this place; a gentleman of great probity and worth, from whom I have received repeated marks of uncommon friendship and hospitality.

The next time you hear of me will be from Nice: mean-while, I remain always — Dear Sir, Your affectionate humble servant.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/smollett/tobias/travels/chapter10.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30