Wednesday, October 26, 2011

At the Forum with Sid and Vinny

Another key componant to any Roman city was the Forum.  This was an open plaza with governmental buildings on its edges.  Sometimes the term was applied more specifically to the building that would be the equivalent of City Hall.

Here is a surviving fragment of the Forum at Arles:
At first glance it is not much to look at, just a surviving fragment of an ancient building built into a newer structure.  But there is more than meets the eye...

Underneath the building is the Cryptoporticum.
This is a rather creepy subterranean space of unclear purpose.  One theory is that it housed slaves.  More on the Arles Cryptoporticum  here

But it is the visible above ground fragment of the Forum that interests me.  I was not the first to look upon it after all.

Sidonius was here circa 461.  It seems that a wicked political satire was circulating annonymously, and some were whispering that Sidonius was the author.  In a letter to a friend he relates:

"The next day I paid my duty to the emperor, and went down to the forum, as I always do. As soon as I appeared, the conspiracy was at once confounded, being of the sort which, as Lucan says,1 dares put nothing to the touch. Some fell cringing at my knees, abasing themselves beyond propriety; others hid behind statues or columns to avoid the necessity of salutation"

The enemies of Sidonius were not able to trick him into admitting the authorship of the screed, and the Emperor (Majorianus) had a good laugh over the whole affair.  Perhaps the surviving columns were among those that Sidonius' enemies tried to hide behind.

When I took the above photo I was standing in front of a nice little sidewalk cafe.  This one in fact:
The Forum fragment is barely visible behind the lamp posts on the right.

And here is the same scene as painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1888:

Cafe Terrace at Night
And for good measure, the painting and the modern view side by side:

In the left hand photo the Forum fragment is visible.  I think Vinnie left it out on purpose!  As we shall see on a later occasion, Van Gogh went to considerable effort to avoid Roman themes.

Practical information for a visit:  The fragment of the Forum is, logically, at Rue de Forum.  The "Van Gogh Cafe" is across the street.  It is actually not too beset with tourists, they seemed to congregate at another sidewalk cafe up the street so as to see the view exactly as Van Gogh did.  The entry to the cryptoporticum is down the street on Rue Balz, and is not particularly well marked.

The "Cafe Terrace at Night" is at the Kroller-Mueller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. 

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