Archive for the 'Taking Bearings Essay' Category

Layers of History


What do these three things have in common? He archeological site at Glanum in Provence, Van Gogh’s, ‘Fountain in the Garden of Hospital,’ and his ‘Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background.’ (see paintings below in comments)

Troubled with mental illness that resulted in the self-mutilation of his ear, in 1889 van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole monastery-run asylum located just south of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

While a patient, van Gogh was free to paint in the many olive groves, cypress tree stands, and wheat fields surrounding the asylum. His paintings and landscapes of that region, including the Alpilles mountains, are now among his most well-known works.

Shortly after leaving Saint-Rémy on the road south to Les Baux, a left-hand turn leads 300 feet to Mausole compound, while on the right, just another 100 feet or so along the road to Les Baux, are the unprotected Les Antiques ruins at Glanum.

Although scattered Roman remains were discovered in the area as early as the 17th century, discovery of Les Antiques awaited the extensive excavations conducted by Jules Formigé from 1900 to 1924, well after the time van Gogh painted the area’s landscapes.

Glanum, first conquered by the Romans in 121 BC, was built upon settlements of the Celto-Ligurian people that date to the 6th century BCE. After being sacked in 260 AD by the Germanic Alemanni tribe, archeological evidence shows that Glanum was inhabited until the 6th century when it was abandoned. Les Antiques consists of an arch dating to the second century AD built to honor Caesar’s triumph over the Gauls at the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 BC and the Mausoleum of the Juli dating to 40 BC.

Nearby there is also an expansive Roman forum (shown below) typical of the period. Archeologists have uncovered the Cryptoporticus, a subterranean passage dating to the 1st century BC as well as a spring dating to the scared Celtic-Ligurian era that the Romans also thought had healing powers.

Much of the Glanum site remains to be excavated.

It’s less than 500 feet from Glanum to the location of the van Gogh’s asylum and records from the era indicate that, during the era van Gogh painted, olive orchards were located over what is now the Glanum site. Moreover, the view from Les Antiques is similar to that in his masterpiece, ‘Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background.’

About 200 feet north of the Mausole monastery is the famous fountain that was the subject of van Gogh’s ‘Fountain in the Garden of Hospital and thus, given the proximity, it is quite possible (the French Ministry of Culture says “likely”) that the olive orchard used to inspire ‘Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background’ was, unknown to van Gogh, located over Les Antiques and other Glanum ruins.

Photo: Glanum archeological site. 2000. (c) K. Lee Lerner / LMG. All commercial rights reserved. Van Gogh prints courtesy MOMA, New York.