Layers of History in Southern France
In my visits to southern France over the years I have been drawn to the Roman ruins. I was already interested in Roman history and culture due to my four-year study of Latin in high school, where we read Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a chronicle of the Roman conquest of ancient France. The Romans loved Provence and built roads, aqueducts, arenas, baths and towns throughout. They planted olive trees, established vineyards and quarried limestone. Visual traces of all of this remain throughout the region, which was referred to by the Romans simply as Provincia, the first and most important province.
I began actively photographing Roman remains in southern France four years ago. I am interested in depicting anachronism–the ways in which contemporary cultures collide with their past. Roman civilization forms much of the foundation for western civilization by way of engineering, language, law and customs. My photographs refer to these connections. Many Roman roads and bridges are still in use, sometimes in modified form. The old arenas hold bullfights derived from the Roman blood sports. Many modern buildings literally sit on Roman foundations. Numerous Gallo-Roman towns evolved into modern French ones, such as Aix-en-Provence (called Aquae Sextiae by the Romans), where Roman baths are now the site of therapeutic spas. Our hotel in Fréjus (Forum Julii) had a Roman column in the courtyard where we ate breakfast each morning. The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (Nemausus) and the Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne (Vienna) are two of the finest Roman temples in the world; the theatre in Orange (Arausio), still in use, is the best-preserved Roman theatre.
I have been inspired by the work of the great French documentary-style photographers, Edouard Baldus and Eugene Atget. Baldus photographed several Roman sites in the mid-19th century for the Commission des Monuments Historiques. Although my style references these early masters, my photographs are utterly contemporary. I often include cars, telephone poles, nuclear power plants, movie posters, etc. to date the photographs. I have evolved a photographic printing technique using multiple toners including gold, to add a classical feel to the pictures since it occurred to me that the images would look best using a photographic printing style reminiscent of early travel photography
It is difficult to draw a precise end to the Gallo-Roman era. Many Roman buildings were used and sometimes modified in the Middle Ages. Others served as foundations for Romanesque churches that followed such as the cathedral at Vaison-la-Romaine (Vasio Vocontiorum). The magnificent medieval cathedral in Aix has an exposed section of Roman road running through it, and its baptistry uses the original marble columns from the Roman temple located on this site. Roman sarcophagi, capitals and other artifacts can also be found in Romanesque structures. My project has evolved to include some of these and other traces of the Middle Ages but the heart of the series remains the enduring Roman presence in southern France.
Along with its varied geography and temperate climate southern France is unique for its widespread and rich layering of history. A traveler to almost anywhere in this most touristic land can find treasures at or beneath the surface. The beauty of Provence has inspired writers and artists for generations. This project is an attempt to come to terms with my own love of Southern France and to record the most compelling sites of ancient Provence.
Jeffrey A. Wolin