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From The Mediterranean, Its Storied Cities and Venerable Ruins, by T. G. Bonney, E A. R. Ball, H. D. Traill, Grant Allen, Arthur Griffiths, and Robert Brown, New York: James Pott & Company, 1902; pp. 94-123.
Its Greek founders and early history — Superb view from the sea — The Cannebière — The Parado and Chemin de la Corniche — Chateau d’lf and Monte-Cristo — Influence of the Greeks in Marseilles — Ravages by plague and pestilence — Treasures of the Palais des Arts — The chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde — The new Marseilles and its future.
ABOUT six hundred years before the birth of Christ, when the Mediterranean, ringed round with a long series of commercial colonies, was first beginning to transform itself with marvelous rapidity into “a Greek lake,” a body of adventurous Hellenic mariners — young Columbuses of their day — full of life and vigor, sailed forth from Phocæa in Asia Minor, and steered their course, by devious routes, to what was then the Far West, in search of a fitting and unoccupied place in which to found a new trading city. Hard pressed by the Persians on their native shore, these free young Greeks — the Pilgrim Fathers of modern Marseilles — left behind for ever the city of their birth, and struck for liberty in some distant land, where no Cyrus or Xerxes could ever molest them. Sailing away past Greece and Sicily, and round Messina into the almost unknown Tyrrhenian Sea, the adventurous voyagers arrived at last, after various false starts in Corsica and elsewhere, at some gaunt white hills of the Gaulish coast, 95 and cast anchor finally in a small but almost land-locked harbor, under the shelter of some barren limestone mountains. Whether they found a Phœnician colony already established on the spot or not, matters as little to history nowadays as whether their leaders’ names were really Simos and Protis or quite otherwise. What does matter is the indubitable fact that Massalia, as its Greek founders called it, preserved through all its early history the impress of a truly Hellenic city; and that even to this moment much good Greek blood flows, without question, in the hot veins of all its genuine native-born citizens.
The city thus founded has had a long, a glorious, and an eventful history. Marseilles is to-day the capital of the Mediterranean, the true commercial metropolis of that inland sea which now once more has become a single organic whole, after its long division by the Mohammedan conquest of North Africa and the Levant into two distinct and hostile portions. Naples, it is true, has a larger population; but then, a population of Neapolitan lazzaroni, mere human drones lounging about their hive and basking in the sunlight, does not count for much, except for the macaroni trade. What Venice once was, that Marseilles is to-day; the chief gate of Mediterranean traffic, the main mart of merchants who go down in ships on the inland sea. In the Cannebière and the Old Port, she possesses, indeed, as Edmond About once graphically phrased it, “an open door upon the Mediterranean and the whole world.” The steamers and sailing vessels that line her quays bind together the entire Mediterranean coast into a single organic commercial whole. Here is the packet for Barcelona and Malaga; there, the one for Naples, Malta, and Constantinople. By this huge liner, sunning herself at La Joliette, we can go 96 to Athens and Alexandria; by that, to Algiers, Cagliari, and Tunis. Nay, the Suez Canal has extended her bounds beyond the inland sea to the Indian Ocean; and the Pillars of Hercules no longer restrain her from free use of the great Atlantic water-way. You may take ship, if you will, from the Quai de la Fraternité for Bombay or Yokohama, for Rio or Buenos Ayres, for Santa Cruz, Teneriffe, Singapore, or Melbourne. And this wide extension of her commercial importance Marseilles owes, mainly no doubt, to her exceptional advantages of natural position, but largely also, I venture to think, to the Hellenic enterprise of her acute and vigorous Græco- Gaulish population.
And what a marvelous history has she not behind her! First of all, no doubt, a small fishing and trading station of prehistoric Gaulish or Ligurian villagers occupied the site where now the magnificent façade of the Bourse commemorates the names of Massalia’s greatest Phocæan navigators. Then the Phœnicians supervened upon the changeful scene, and built those antique columns and forgotten shrines whose scanty remains were recently unearthed in the excavations for making the Rue de la République. Next came the early Phocæan colonists, reinforced a little later by the whole strength of their unconquerable townsmen, who sailed away in a body, according to the well-known legend preserved in Herodotus, when they could no longer hold out against the besieging Persian. The Greek town became as it were a sort of early Calcutta for the Gaulish trade, with its own outlying colonies at Nice, Antibes, and Hyères, and its inland “factories” (to use the old familiar Anglo-Indian word) at Tarascon, Avignon, and many other ancient towns of the Rhône valley. Her admirals sailed on every known 97 sea: Euthymenes explored the coasts of Africa as far as Senegal; Pytheas followed the European shore past Britain and Ireland to the north of the Shetlands. Till the Roman arrived upon the Gaulish coast with his dreaded short-sword, Massalia, in short, remained undisputed queen of all the western Mediterranean waters.
Before the wolf of the Capitol, however, all stars paled. Yet even under the Roman Empire Massilia (as the new conquerors called the name, with a mere change of vowel) retained her Greek speech and manners, which she hardly lost (if we may believe stray hints in later historians) till the very eve of the barbarian invasion. With the period of the Crusades, the city of Euthymenes became once more great and free, and hardly lost her independence completely up to the age of Louis XIV. It was only after the French Revolution, however, that she began really to supersede Venice as the true capital of the Mediterranean. The decline of the Turkish power, the growth of trade with Alexandria and the Levant, the final crushing of the Barbary pirates, the conquest of Algeria, and, last of all, the opening of the Suez Canal — a French work — all helped to increase her commerce and population by gigantic strides in half a dozen decades. At the present day Marseilles is the chief maritime town of France, and the acknowledged center of Mediterranean travel and traffic.
The right way for the stranger to enter Marseilles is, therefore, by sea, the old-established high road of her antique commerce. The Old Port and the Cannebière are her front door, while the railway from Paris leads you in at best, as it were, through shabby corridors, by a side entry. Seen from the sea, indeed, Marseilles is superb. I hardly know whether the whole Mediterranean has any 98 finer approach to a great town to display before the eyes of the artistic traveller. All round the city rises a semicircle of arid white hills, barren and bare indeed to look upon; but lighted up by the blue Provençal sky with a wonderful flood of borrowed radiance, bringing out every jutting peak and crag through the clear dry air in distinct perspective. Their sides are dotted with small square white houses, the famous bastides or country boxes of the good Marseillais bourgeois. In front, a group of sunlit rocky isles juts out from the bay, on one of which tower the picturesque bastions of the Chateau d’If, so familiar to the reader of “Monte-Cristo.” The foreground is occupied by the town itself, with its forest of masts, and the new dome of its checkered and gaudy Byzantine Cathedral, which has quite supplanted the old cathedral of St. Lazare, of which only a few traces remain. In the middle distance the famous old pilgrimage chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde crowns the summit of a pyramidal hill, with its picturesque mass of confused architecture. Away to right and left, those endless white hills gleam on with almost wearying brightness in the sun for miles together; but full in front, where the eye rests longest, the bustle and commotion of a great trading town teem with varied life upon the quays and landing- places.
If you are lucky enough to enter Marseilles for the first time by the Old Port, you find yourself at once in the very thick of all that is most characteristic and vivid and local in the busy city. That little oblong basin, shut in on its outer side by projecting hills, was indeed the making of the great town. Of course the Old Port is now utterly insufficient for the modern wants of a first-class harbor; yet it still survives, not only as a historical relic but as a 99 living reality, thronged even to-day with the crowded ships of all nations. On the quay you may see the entire varied Mediterranean world in congress assembled. Here Greeks from Athens and Levantines from Smyrna jostle cheek by jowl with Italians from Genoa and Arabs or Moors from Tangier or Tunis. All costumes and all manners are admissible. The crowd is always excited, and always animated. A babel of tongues greets your ears as you land, in which the true Marseillais dialect of the Provençal holds the chief place — a graceful language, wherein the predominant Latin element has not even yet wholly got rid of certain underlying traces of Hellenic origin. Bright color, din, life, movement: in a moment the traveller from a northern climate recognizes the patent fact that he has reached a new world — that vivid, impetuous, eager southern world, which has its center to-day on the Provençal seaboard.
Go a yard or two farther into the crowded Cannebière, and the difference between this and the chilly North will at each step be forced even more strikingly upon you. That famous thoroughfare is firmly believed by every good son of old Marseilles to be, in the familiar local phrase, “la plus belle rue de 1’univers.” My own acquaintance with the precincts of the universe being somewhat limited (I have never travelled myself, indeed, beyond the narrow bounds of our own solar system), I should be loth to endorse too literally and unreservedly this sweeping commendation of the Marseillais mind; but as regards our modest little planet at least, I certainly know no other street within my own experience (save Broadway, New York) that has quite so much life and variety in it as the Cannebière. It is not long, to be sure, but it is broad and airy, and from morning till night its 10 spacious trottoirs are continually crowded by such a surging throng of cosmopolitan humanity as you will hardly find elsewhere on this side of Alexandria. For cosmopolitanism is the true key-note of Marseilles, and the Cannebière is a road that leads in one direction straight to Paris, but opens in the other direction full upon Algiers and Italy, upon Egypt and India.
What a picture it offers, too, of human life, that noisy Cannebière! By day or by night it is equally attractive. On it centers all that is alive in Marseilles — big hotels, glittering cafés, luxurious shops, scurrying drays, high-stepping carriage-horses, and fashionably-dressed humanity; an endless crowd, many of them hatless and bonnet-less in true southern fashion, parade without ceasing its ringing pavements. At the end of all, the Old Port closes the view with its serried masts, and tells you the wherefore of this mixed society. The Cannebière, in short, is the Rue de Rivoli of the Mediterranean, the main thoroughfare of all those teeming shores of oil and wine, where culture still lingers by its ancient cradle.
Close to the Quai, and at the entrance of the Cannebière, stands the central point of business in new Marseilles, the Bourse, where the filial piety of the modern Phocæans has done ample homage to the sacred memory of their ancient Hellenic ancestors. For in the place of honor on the façade of that great palace of commerce the chief post has been given, as was due, to the statues of the old Massaliote admirals, Pytheas and Euthymenes. It is this constant consciousness of historical continuity that adds so much interest to Mediterranean towns. One feels as one stands before those two stone figures in the crowded Cannebière, that after all humanity is one, 101 and that the Phocæans themselves are still, in the persons of their sons, among us. The Cannebière runs nearly east and west, and is of no great length, under its own name at least; but under the transparent alias of the Rue de Noailles it continues on in a straight line till it widens out at last into the Allées de Meilhan, the favorite haunt of all the gossips and quidnuncs of Marseilles. The Allées de Meilhan, indeed, form the beau idéal of the formal and fashionable French promenade. Broad avenues of plane-trees cast a mellow shade over its well-kept walks, and the neatest of nurses in marvelous caps and long silk streamers dandle the laciest and fluffiest of babies, in exquisite costumes, with ostentatious care, upon their bountiful laps. The stone seats on either side buzz with the latest news of the town; the Zouave flirts serenely with the bonnet-less shop-girls; the sergeant-de-ville stalks proudly down the midst, and barely deigns to notice such human weaknesses. These Allées are the favorite haunt of all idle Marseilles, below the rank of “carriage company,” and it is probable that Satan finds as much mischief still for its hands to do here as in any other part of that easygoing city.
At right angles to the main central artery thus constituted by the Cannebière, the Rue de Noailles, and the Allées de Meilhan runs the second chief stream of Marseillais life, down a channel which begins as the Rue d’Aix and the Cours Belzunce, and ends, after various intermediate disguises, as the Rue de Rome and the Prado. Just where it crosses the current of the Cannebière, this polyonymous street rejoices in the title of the Cours St. Louis. Close by is the place where the flower-women 102 perched up quaintly in their funny little pulpits, whence they hand down great bunches of fresh dewy violets or pinky-white rosebuds, with persuasive eloquence to the obdurate passer-by. This flower-market is one of the sights of Marseilles, and I know no other anywhere — not even at Nice — so picturesque or so old-world. It keeps up something of the true Provençal flavor, and reminds one that here, in this Greek colony, we are still in the midst of the land of roses and of Good King René, the land of troubadours, and gold and flowers, and that it is the land of sun and summer sunshine.
As the Rue de Rome emerges from the town and gains the suburb, it clothes itself in overhanging shade of plane-trees, and becomes known forthwith as the Prado — that famous Prado, more sacred to the loves and joys of the Marseillais than the Champs Elysées are to the born Parisian. For the Prado is the afternoon-drive of Marseilles, the Rotten Row of local equestrianism, the rallying-place and lounge of all that is fashionable in the Phocæan city as the Allées de Meilhan are of all that is bourgeois or frankly popular. Of course the Prado does not differ much from all other promenades of its sort in France: the upper-crust of the world has grown painfully tame and monotonous everywhere within the last twenty-five years: all flavor and savor of national costume or national manners has died out of it in the lump, and left us only in provincial centers the insipid graces of London and Paris, badly imitated. Still, the Prado is undoubtedly lively; a broad avenue bordered with magnificent villas of the meretricious Haussmannesque order of architecture; and it possesses a certain great advantage over every other similar promenade I know of 103 in the world — it ends at last in one of the most beautiful and picturesque sea-drives in all Europe. This sea-drive has been christened by the Marseillais, with pardonable pride, the Chemin de la Corniche, in humble imitation of that other great Corniche road which winds its tortuous way by long, slow gradients over the ramping heights of the Turbia between Nice and Mentone. And a “ledge road” it is in good earnest, carved like a shelf out of the solid limestone. When I first knew Marseilles there was no Corniche: the Prado, a long flat drive through a marshy plain, ended then abruptly on the sea-front; and the hardy pedestrian who wished to return to town by way of the cliffs had to clamber along a doubtful and rocky pith, always difficult, often dangerous, and much obstructed by the attentions of the prowling douanier, ever ready to arrest him as a suspected smuggler. Nowadays, however, all that is changed. The French engineers — always famous for their roads — have hewn a broad and handsome carriage-drive out of the rugged rock, here hanging on a shelf sheer above the sea; there supported from below by heavy buttresses of excellent masonwork; and have given the Marseillais one of the most exquisite promenades to be found anywhere on the seaboard of the Continent. It somewhat resembles the new highway from Villefranche to Monte Carlo; but the islands with which the sea is here studded recall rather Cannes or the neighborhood of Sorrento. The seaward views are everywhere delicious; and when sunset lights up the bare white rocks with pink and purple, no richer coloring against the emerald green bay, can possibly be imagined in art or nature. It is as good as Torquay; and how can cosmopolitan say better?104
On the Corniche, too, is the proper place nowadays to eat that famous old Marseillais dish, immortalized by Thackeray, and known as bouillabaisse. The Réserve de Roubion in particular prides itself on the manufacture of this strictly national Provençal dainty, which proves, however, a little too rich and a little too mixed in its company for the fastidious taste of most English gourmets. Greater exclusiveness and a more delicate eclecticism in matters of cookery please our countrymen better than such catholic comprehensiveness. I once asked a white-capped Provençal chef what were the precise ingredients of his boasted bouillabaisse; and the good man opened his palms expansively before him as he answered with a shrug, “Que voulez-vous? Fish to start with; and then — a handful of anything that happens to be lying about loose in the kitchen.”
Near the end of the Prado, at its junction with the Corniche, modern Marseilles rejoices also in its park or Public Garden. Though laid out on a flat and uninteresting plain, with none of the natural advantages of the Bois de Boulogne or of the beautiful Central Park at New York, these pretty grounds are nevertheless interesting to the northern visitor, who makes his first acquaintance with the Mediterranean here, by their curious and novel southern vegetation. The rich types of the south are everywhere apparent. Clumps of bamboo in feathery clusters overhang the ornamental waters; cypresses and araucarias shade the gravel walks; the eucalyptus showers down its fluffy flowers upon the grass below; the quaint Salisburia covers the ground in autumn with its pretty and curious maidenhair-shaped foliage. Yuccas and cactuses flourish vigorously in the open air, and even fan-palms manage to thrive the year round in cosy corners. 105 It is an introduction to the glories of Rivieran vegetation, and a faint echo of the magnificent tones of the North African flora. As we wind in and out on our way back to Marseilles by the Corniche road, with the water ever dashing white from the blue against the solid crags, whose corners we turn at every tiny headland, the most conspicuous object in the nearer view is the Chateau d’If, with the neighboring islets of Pomègues and Ratonneau. Who knows not the Chateau d’If, by name at least, has wasted his boyhood. The castle is not indeed of any great antiquity — it was built by order of François I — nor can it lay much claim to picturesqueness of outline or beauty of architecture; but in historical and romantic associations it is peculiarly rich, and its situation is bold, interesting, and striking. It was here that Mirabeau was imprisoned under a lettre de cachet obtained by his father, the friend of man; and it was here, to pass from history to romance, that Monte-Cristo went through those marvelous and somewhat incredible adventures which will keep a hundred generations of school-boys in breathless suspense long after Walter Scott is dead and forgotten.
But though the Prado and the Corniche are alive with carriages on sunny afternoons, it is on the quays themselves, and around the docks and basins, that the true vivacious Marseillais life must be seen in all its full flow and eagerness. The quick southern temperament, the bronzed faces, the open-air existence, the hurry and bustle of a great seaport town, display themselves there to the best advantage. And the ports of Marseilles are many and varied: their name is legion, and their shipping manifold. As long ago as 1850, the old square port, the Phocæan harbor, was felt to have become wholly insufficient 106 for the needs of modern commerce in Marseilles. From that day to this, the accommodation for vessels has gone on increasing with that incredible rapidity which marks the great boom of modern times. Never, surely, since the spacious days of great Elizabeth, has the world so rapidly widened its borders as in these latter days in which we are all living. The Pacific and the Indian Ocean have joined the Atlantic. In 1853 the Port de la Joliette was added, therefore, to the Old Harbor, and people thought Marseilles had met all the utmost demands of its growing commerce. But the Bassin du Lazaret and the Bassin d’Arenc were added shortly after; and then, in 1856, came the further need for yet another port, the Bassin National. In 1872 the Bassin de la Gare Maritime was finally executed; and now the Marseillais are crying out again that the ships know not where to turn in the harbor. Everywhere the world seems to cosmopolitanize itself and to extend its limits: the day of small things has passed away for ever; the day of vast ports, huge concerns, gigantic undertakings is full upon us.
Curiously enough, however, in spite of all this rapid and immense development, it is still to a great extent the Greek merchants who hold in their hands — even in our own time — the entire commerce and wealth of the old Phocæan city. A large Hellenic colony of recent importation still inhabits and exploits Marseilles. Among the richly-dressed crowd of southern ladies that throngs the Prado on a sunny afternoon in full season, no small proportion of the proudest and best equipped who loll back in their carriages were born at Athens or in the Ionic Archipelago. For even to this day, these modern Greeks hang together wonderfully with old Greek persistence. Their creed keeps them apart from the Catholic 107 French, in whose midst they live, and trade, and thrive; for, of course, they are all members of the “Orthodox” Church, and they retain their orthodoxy in spite of the ocean of Latin Christianity which girds them round with its flood on every side. The Greek community, in fact, dwells apart, marries apart, worships apart, and thinks apart. The way the marriages, in particular, are most frequently managed, differs to a very curious extent from our notions of matrimonial proprieties. The system — as duly explained to me one day under the shady plane-trees of the Allées de Meilhan, in very choice modern Greek, by a Hellenic merchant of Marseilles, who himself had been “arranged for” in this very manner — is both simple and mercantile to the highest degree yet practised in any civilized country. It is “ marriage by purchase” pure and simple; only here, instead of the husband buying the wife, it is the wife who practically buys the husband.
A trader or ship-owner of Marseilles, let us say, has two sons, partners in his concern, who he desires to marry. It is important, however, that the wives he selects for them should not clash with the orthodoxy of the Hellenic community. Our merchant, therefore, anxious to do the best in both worlds at once, writes to his correspondents of the great Greek houses in Smyrna, Constantinople, Beyrout, and Alexandria; nay, perhaps even in London, Manchester, New York, and Rio, stating his desire to settle his sons in life, and the amount of dot they would respectively require from the ladies upon whom they decided to bestow their name and affections. The correspondents reply by return of post, recommending to the favorable attention of the happy swains certain Greek young ladies in the town of their adoption, 108 whose dot and whose orthodoxy can be equally guaranteed as beyond suspicion. Photographs and lawyers’ letters are promptly exchanged; settlements are drawn up to the mutual satisfaction of both the high contracting parties; and when all the business portion of the transaction has been thoroughly sifted, the young ladies are consigned, with the figs and dates, as per bill of lading, to the port of entry, where their lords await them, and are duly married, on the morning of their arrival, at the Greek church in the Rue de la Grande Armée, by the reverend archimandrite. The Greeks are an eminently commercial people, and they find this idyllic mode of conducting a courtship not only preserves the purity of the orthodox faith and the Hellenic blood, but also saves an immense amount of time which might otherwise be wasted on the composition of useless love-letters.
It was not so, however, in the earlier Greek days. Then, the colonists of Marseilles and its dependent towns must have intermarried freely with the native Gaulish and Ligurian population of all the tributary Provençal seaboard. The true antique Hellenic stock — the Aryan Achæans of the classical period — were undoubtedly a fair, a light-haired race, with a far more marked proportion of the blond type than now survives among their mixed and degenerate modern descendants. In Greece proper, a large intermixture of Albanian and Sclavonic blood, which the old Athenians would have stigmatized as barbarian or Scythian, has darkened the complexion and blackened the hair of a vast majority of the existing population. But in Marseilles, curiously enough, and in the surrounding country, the genuine old light Greek type has left its mark to this day upon the physique of the inhabitants. In the ethnographical map of France, 109 prepared by two distinguished French savants, the other Mediterranean departments are all, without exception, marked as “dark” or “very dark,” while the department of the Bouches du Rhône is marked as “white,” having, in fact, as large a proportion of fair complexions, blond hair, and light eyes as the eastern semi-German provinces, or as Normandy and Flanders. This curious survival of a very ancient type in spite of subsequent deluges, must be regarded as a notable instance of the way in which the popular stratum everywhere outlasts all changes of conquest and dynasty, of governing class and ruling family.
Just think, indeed, how many changes and revolutions in this respect that fiery Marseilles has gone through since the early days of her Hellenic independence! First came that fatal but perhaps indispensable error of inviting the Roman aid against her Ligurian enemies, which gave the Romans their earliest foothold in Southern Gaul. Then followed the foundation of Aquæ Sextiæ or Aix, the first Roman colony in what was soon to be the favorite province of the new conquerors. After that, in the great civil war, the Greeks of Marseilles were unlucky enough to espouse the losing cause; and, in the great day of Cæsar’s triumph, their town was reduced accordingly to the inferior position of a mere Roman dependency. Merged for a while in the all-absorbing empire, Marseilles fell at last before Visigoths and Burgundians in the stormy days of that vast upheaval, during which it is impossible for even the minutest historian to follow in detail the long list of endless conquests and re-conquests, while the wandering tribes ebbed and flowed on one another in wild surging waves of refluent confusion. Ostrogoth and Frank, Saracen and Christian, fought one after another 110 for possession of the mighty city. In the process her Greek and Roman civilization was wholly swept away and not a trace now remains of those glorious basilicas, temples, and arches, which must once, no doubt, have adorned the metropolis of Grecian Gaul far more abundantly than they still adorn mere provincial centers like Arles and Nîmes, Vienne, and Orange. But at the end of it all, when Marseilles emerges once more into the light of day as an integral part of the Kingdom of Provence, it still retains its essentially Greek population, fairer and handsomer than the surrounding dark Ligurian stock; it still boasts its clear-cut Greek beauty of profile, its Hellenic sharpness of wit and quickness of perception. And how interesting in this relation to note, too, that Marseilles kept up, till a comparatively late period in the Middle Ages, her active connection with the Byzantine Empire; and that her chief magistrate was long nominated — in name at least, if not in actual fact — by the shadowy representative of the Caesars at Constantinople.
May we not attribute to this continuous persistence of the Greek element in the life of Marseilles something of that curious local and self-satisfied feeling which northern Frenchmen so often deride in the born Marseillais? With the Greeks, the sense of civic individuality and civic separateness was always strong. Their Polis was to them their whole world — the center of everything. They were Athenians, Spartans, Thebans first; Greeks or even Bœotians and Lacedæmonians in the second place only. And the Marseillais bourgeois, following the traditions of his Phocæan ancestry, is still in a certain sense the most thoroughly provincial, the most uncentralized and anti-Parisian of modern French citizens. He believes in Marseilles even more devoutly than the average boulevardier 111 believes in Paris. To him the Cannebière is the High Street of the world, and the Cours St. Louis the hub of the universe. How pleased with himself and all his surroundings he is, too! “At Marseilles, we do so-and-so,” is a frequent phrase which seems to him to settle off-hand all questions of etiquette, of procedure, or of the fitness of things generally. “Massilia locuta est; causa finita est.” That anything can be done better anywhere than it is done in the Cannebière or the Old Port is an idea that never even so much as occurs to his smart and quick but somewhat geographically limited intelligence. One of the best and cleverest of Mars’s clever Marseillais caricatures exhibits a good bourgeois from the Cours Pierre Puget, in his Sunday best, abroad on his travels along the Genoese Riviera. On the shore at San Remo, the happy, easy-going, conceited fellow, brimming over to the eyes with the happy-go-lucky Cockney joy of the South, sees a couple of pretty Italian fisher-girls mending their nets, and addresses them gaily in his own soft dialect: “Hé bien, més pitchounettes, vous êtes tellement croussetillantes que, sans ézaggérer, bagasse ! ze vous croyais de Marseille !” To take anyone elsewhere for a born fellow-citizen was the highest compliment his good Marseillais soul could possibly hit upon.
Nevertheless, the Marseillais are not proud. They generously allow the rest of the world to come and admire them. They throw their doors open to East and West; they invite Jew and Greek alike to flow in unchecked, and help them make their own fortunes. They know very well that if Marseilles, as they all firmly believe, is the finest town in the round world, it is the trade with the Levant that made and keeps it so. And they take good care to lay themselves out for entertaining all and sundry 112 as they come, in the handsomest hotels in Southern Europe. The mere through passenger traffic with India alone would serve to make Marseilles nowadays a commercial town of the first importance.
Marseilles, however, has had to pay a heavy price, more than once, for her open intercourse with the Eastern world, the native home of cholera and all other epidemics. From a very early time, the city by the Rhône has been the favorite haunt of the Plague and like oriental visitants; and more than one of its appalling epidemics has gained for itself a memorable place in history. To say the truth, old Marseilles laid itself out almost deliberately for the righteous scourge of zymotic disease. The vieille ville, that trackless labyrinth of foul and noisome alleys, tortuous, deeply worn, ill-paved, ill-ventilated, has been partly cleared away by the works of the Rue de la République now driven through its midst; but enough still remains of its Dædalean maze to show the adventurous traveller who penetrates its dark and drainless dens how dirty the strenuous Provençal can be when he bends his mind to it. There the true-blooded Marseillais of the old rock and of the Greek profile still lingers in his native insanitary condition; there the only scavenger is that “broom of Provence,” the swooping mistral — the fierce Alpine wind which, blowing fresh down with sweeping violence from the frozen mountains, alone can change the air and cleanse the gutters of that filthy and malodorous mediæval city. Everywhere else the mistral is a curse: in Marseilles it is accepted with mitigated gratitude as an excellent substitute for main drainage.
It is not to be wondered at that, under such conditions, Marseilles was periodically devastated by terrible epidemics. Communications with Constantinople, Alexandria, 113 and the Levant were always frequent; communications with Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco were far from uncommon. And if the germs of disease were imported from without, they found at Marseilles an appropriate nest provided beforehand for their due development. Time after time the city was ravaged by plague or pestilence; the most memorable occasion being the great epidemic of 1720, when, according to local statistics (too high, undoubtedly), as many as forty thousand persons died in the streets, “like lambs on the hill-tops” Never, even in the East itself, the native home of the plague, says Me´ry, the Marseilles poet-romancer, was so sad a picture of devastation seen as in the doomed streets of that wealthy city. The pestilence came, according to public belief, in a cargo of wool in May, 1720: it raged till, by September, the tale of dead per diem had reached the appalling number of a thousand.
So awful a public calamity was not without the usual effect in bringing forth counterbalancing examples of distinguished public service and noble self-denial. Chief among them shines forth the name of the Chevalier Rose, who, aided by a couple of hundred condemned convicts, carried forth to burial in the ditches of La Tourette no less than two thousand dead bodies which infected the streets with their deadly contagion. There, quicklime was thrown over the horrible festering mass, in a spot still remembered as the “Graves of the Plague-stricken.” But posterity has chosen most especially to select for the honors of the occasion Monseigneur Belzunce — “Marseilles’ good bishop,” as Pope calls him, who returned in the hour of danger to his stricken flock from the salons of Versailles, and by offering the last consolations of religion to the sick and dying, aided somewhat 114 in checking the orgy of despair and of panic-stricken callousness which reigned everywhere throughout the doomed city. The picture is indeed a striking and romantic one. On a high altar raised in the Cours which now bears his name, the brave bishop celebrated Mass one day before the eyes of all his people, doing penance to heaven in the name of his flock, his feet bare, a rope round his neck, and a flaming torch held high in his hand, for the expiation of the sins that had brought such punishment. His fervent intercession, the faithful believed, was at last effectual. In May, 1721, the plague disappeared; but it left Marseilles almost depopulated. The bishop’s statue in bronze, by Ramus, on the Cours Belzunce, now marks the site of this strange and unparalleled religious service.
From the Belzunce Monument, the Rue Tapis Vert and the Allées des Capucins lead us direct by a short cut to the Boulevard Longchamp, which terminates after the true modern Parisian fashion, with a vista of the great fountains and the Palais des Arts, a bizarre and original but not in its way unpleasing specimen of recent French architecture. It is meretricious, of course — that goes without the saying: what else can one expect from the France of the Second Empire? But it is distinctly what the children call “grand,” and if once you can put yourself upon its peculiar level, it is not without a certain queer rococo beauty of its own. As for the Château d’Eau, its warmest admirer could hardly deny that it is painfully baroque in design and execution. Tigers, panthers, and lions decorate the approach; an allegorical figure representing the Durance, accompanied by the geniuses of the Vine and of Corn, holds the seat of honor in the midst of the waterspouts. To right and left a 115 triton blows his shelly trumpet; griffins and fauns crown the summit; and triumphal arches flank the sides. A marvelous work indeed, of the Versailles type, better fitted to the ideas of the eighteenth century than to those of the age in which we live at present. The Palais des Arts, one wing of this monument, encloses the usual French provincial picture-gallery, with the stereotyped Rubens, and the regulation Caraccio. It has its Raffael, its Giulio Romano, and its Andrea del Sarto. It even diverges, not without success, into the paths of Dutch and Flemish painting. But it is specially rich, of course, in Provençal works, and its Pugets in particular are both numerous and striking. There is a good Murillo and a square-faced Holbein, and many yards of modern French battles and nudities, alternating for the most part from the sensuous to the sanguinary. But the gem of the collection is a most characteristic and interesting Perugino, as beautiful as anything from the master’s hand to be found in the galleries of Florence. Altogether, the interior makes one forgive the façade and the Chateau d’Eau. One good Perugino covers, like charity, a multitude of sins of the Marseillais architects.
Strange to say, old as Marseilles is, it contains to-day hardly any buildings of remote antiquity. One would be tempted to suppose beforehand that a town with so ancient and so continuous a history would teem with Græco-Roman and mediæval remains. As Phocæan colony, imperial town, mediæval republic, or Provençal city, it has so long been great, famous, and prosperous that one might not unnaturally expect in its streets to meet with endless memorials of its early grandeur. Nothing could be farther from the actual fact. While Nîmes, a mere second-rate provincial municipality, and Arles, a 116 local Roman capital, have preserved rich mementoes of the imperial days — temples, arches, aqueducts, amphitheaters — Marseilles, their mother city, so much older, so much richer, so much greater, so much more famous, has not a single Roman building; scarcely even a second-rate mediæval chapel. Its ancient cathedral has been long since pulled down; of its oldest church but a spire now remains, built into a vulgar modern pseudo-Gothic Calvary. St. Victor alone, near the Fort St. Nicolas, is the one really fine piece of mediæval architecture still left in the town after so many ages.
St. Victor itself remains to us now as the last relic of a very ancient and important monastery, founded by St. Cassian in the fifth century, and destroyed by the Saracens — those incessant scourges of the Provençal coast — during one of their frequent plundering incursions. In 1040 it was rebuilt, only to be once more razed to the ground, till, in 1350, Pope Urban V., who himself had been abbot of this very monastery restored it from the base, with those high, square towers, which now, in their worn and battered solidity, give it rather the air of a castellated fortress than of a Christian temple. Doubtless the strong-handed Pope, warned by experience, intended his church to stand a siege, if necessary, on the next visit to Marseilles of the Paynim enemy. The interior, too, is not unworthy of notice. It contains the catacombs where, according to the naive Provençal faith, Lazarus passed the last days of his second life; and it boasts an antique black image of the Virgin, attributed by a veracious local legend to the skilful fingers of St. Luke the Evangelist. Modern criticism ruthlessly relegates the work to a nameless but considerably later Byzantine sculptor.117
By far the most interesting ecclesiastical edifice in Marseilles, however, even in its present charred and shattered condition, is the ancient pilgrimage chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde, the antique High Place of primitive Phœnician and Ligurian worship. How long a shrine for some local cult has existed on the spot it would be hard to say, but, at least, we may put it at two dozen centuries. All along the Mediterranean coast, in fact, one feels oneself everywhere thus closely in almost continuous contact with the earliest religious beliefs of the people. The paths that lead to these very antique sacred sites, crowning the wind-swept hills that overlook the valley, are uniformly worn deep by naked footsteps into the solid rock — a living record of countless generations of fervent worshipers. Christianity itself is not nearly old enough to account for all those profoundly-cut steps in the schistose slate or hard white limestone of the Provençal hills. The sanctity of the High Places is more ancient by far than Saint or Madonna. Before ever a Christian chapel crested these heights they were crested by forgotten Pagan temples; and before the days of Aphrodite or Pallas, in turn, they were crested by the shrines of some long since dead-and-buried Gaulish or Ligurian goddess. Religions change, creeds disappear, but sacred sites remain as holy as ever; and here where priests now chant their loud hymns before the high altar, some nameless bloody rites took place, we may be sure, long ages since, before the lonely shrine of some Celtic Hesus or some hideous and deformed Phœnician Moloch.
It is a steep climb even now from the Old Port or the Anse des Catalans to the Colline Notre Dame; several different paths ascend to the summit, all alike of remote antiquity, and all ending at last in fatiguing steps. 118 Along the main road, hemmed in on either side by poor southern hovels, wondrous old witches of true Provençal ugliness drive a brisk trade in rosaries, and chaplets, and blessed medals. These wares are for the pilgrim; but to suit all tastes, the same itinerant chapwomen offer to the more worldly-minded tourist of the Cookian type appropriate gewgaws, in the shape of photographs, images, and cheap trinkets. At the summit stand the charred and blackened ruins of Notre Dame de la Garde. Of late years, indeed, that immemorial shrine has fallen on evil times and evil days in many matters. To begin with, the needs of modern defence compelled the Government some years since to erect on the height a fort, which encloses in its midst the ancient chapel. Even military necessities, however, had to yield in part to the persistent religious sentiment of the community; and though fortifications girt it round on every side, the sacred site of Our Lady remained unpolluted in the center of the great defensive works of the fortress. Passing through the gates of those massive bastions a strongly-guarded path still guided the faithful sailor-folk of Marseilles to the revered shrine of their ancestral Madonna. Nay, more; the antique chapel of the thirteenth century was superseded by a gorgeous Byzantine building, from designs by Espérandieu, all glittering with gold, and precious stones, and jewels. On the topmost belfry stood a gigantic gilded statue of Our Lady. Dome and apse were of cunning workmanship — white Carrara marble and African rosso antico draped the interior with parti-colored splendor. Corsican granite and Estérel porphyry supported the massive beams of the transepts; frescoes covered every inch of the walls: the pavement was mosaic, the high altar was inlaid with costly Florentine stonework. Every 119 Marseilles fisherman rejoiced in heart that though the men of battle had usurped the sanctuary, their Madonna was now housed by the sons of the Faithful in even greater magnificence and glory than ever.
But in 1884 a fire broke out in the shrine itself, which wrecked almost irreparably the sumptuous edifice. The statue of the Virgin still crowns the facade, to be sure, and the chapel still shows up bravely from a modest distance; but within, all the glory has faded away, and the interior of the church is no longer accessible. Nevertheless, the visitor who stands upon the platform in front of the doorway and gazes down upon the splendid panoramic view that stretches before him in the vale beneath, will hardly complain of having had his stiff pull uphill for nothing. Except the view of Montreal and the St. Lawrence River from Mont Royal Mountain, I hardly know a town view in the world to equal that from Notre Dame de la Garde, for beauty and variety, on a clear spring morning.
Close at our feet lies the city itself, filling up the whole wide valley with its mass, and spreading out long arms of faubourg, or roadway, up the lateral openings. Beyond rise the great white limestone hills, dotted about like mushrooms, with their glittering bastides. In front lies the sea — the blue Mediterranean — with that treacherous smile which has so often deceived us all the day before we trusted ourselves too rashly, with ill-deserved confidence, upon its heaving bosom. Near the shore the waves chafe the islets and the Chateau d’If; then come the Old Port and the busy bassins; and, beyond them all, the Chain of Estaques, rising grim and gray in serrated outline against the western horizon. A beautiful prospect though barren and treeless, for nowhere in the world are mountains 120 barer than those great white guardians of the Provençal seaboard.
The fortress that overhangs the Old Port at our feet itself deserves a few passing words of polite notice; for it is the Fort St. Nicolas, the one link in his great despotic chain by which Louis Quatorze bound recalcitrant Marseilles to the throne of the Tuileries. The town — like all great commercial towns — had always clung hard to its ancient liberties. Ever rebellious when kings oppressed, it was a stronghold of the Fronde; and when Louis at last made his entry perforce into the malcontent city, it was through a breach he had effected in the heavy ramparts. The king stood upon this commanding spot, just above the harbor, and, gazing landward, asked the citizens round him how men called those little square boxes which he saw dotted about over the sunlit hillsides. “We call them bastides, sire,” answered a courtly Marseillais. “Every citizen of our town has one.” “Moi aussi, je veux avoir ma bastide à Marseille,” cried the theatrical monarch, and straightway gave orders for building the Fort St. Nicolas: so runs the tale that passes for history. But as the fort stands in the very best possible position, commanding the port, and could only have been arranged for after consultation with the engineers of the period — it was Vauban who planned it — I fear we must set down Louis’s bon mot as one of those royal epigrams which has been carefully prepared and led up to beforehand.
In every town, however, it is a favorite theory of mine that the best of all sights is the town itself: and nowhere on earth is this truism truer than here at Marseilles. After one has climbed Notre Dame, and explored the .Prado and smiled at the Chateau d’Eau and stood beneath 121 the frowning towers of St. Victor, one returns once more with real pleasure and interest to the crowded Cannebière and sees the full tide of human life flow eagerly on down that picturesque boulevard. That, after all, is the main picture that Marseilles always leaves photographed on the visitor’s memory. How eager, how keen, how vivacious is the talk; how fiery the eyes; how emphatic the gesture! With what teeming energy, with what feverish haste, the great city pours forth its hurrying thousands! With what endless spirit they move up and down in endless march upon its clattering pavements! Circulez, messieurs, cerculez : and they do just circulate! From the Quai de la Fraternité to the Allées de Meilhan, what mirth and merriment, what life and movement! In every café, what warm southern faces! At every shop-door, what quick-witted, sharp-tongued, bartering humanity! I have many times stopped at Marseilles, on my way hither and thither round this terraqueous globe, farther south or east; but I never stop there without feeling once more the charm and interest of its strenuous personality. There is something of Greek quickness and Greek intelligence left even now about the old Phocæan colony. A Marseillais crowd has to this very day something of the sharp Hellenic wit; and I believe the rollicking humor of Aristophanes would be more readily seized by the public of the Alcazar than by any other popular audience in modern Europe.
“Bon chien chasse de race,” and every Marseillais is a born Greek and a born litterateur. Is it not partly to this old Greek blood, then, that we may set down the long list of distinguished men who have drawn their first breath in the Phocæan city? From the days of the Troubadours, Raymond des Tours and Barral des Baux, Folquet, and 122 Rostang, and De Salles, and Bérenger, through the days of D’Urfé, and Mascaron, and Barbaroux, and De Pastoret, to the days of Méry, and Barthélemy, and Taxile Delord, and Joseph Autran, Marseilles has always been rich in talent. It is enough to say that her list of great men begins with Petronius Arbiter, and ends with Thiers, to show how long and diversely she has been represented in her foremost citizens. Surely, then, it is not mere fancy to suppose that in all this the true Hellenic blood has counted for something! Surely it is not too much to believe that with the Greek profile and the Greek complexion the inhabitants have still preserved to this day some modest measure of the quick Greek intellect, the bright Greek fancy, and the plastic and artistic Greek creative faculty! I love to think it, for Marseilles is dear to me; especially when I land there after a sound sea-tossing.
Unlike many of the old Mediterranean towns, too, Marseilles has not only a past but also a future. She lives and will live. In the middle of the past century, indeed, it might almost have seemed to a careless observer as if the Mediterranean were “played out.” And so in part, no doubt, it really is; the tracks of commerce and of international intercourse have shifted to wider seas and vaster waterways. We shall never again find that inland basin ringed round by a girdle of the great merchant cities that do the carrying trade and finance of the world. Our area has widened, so that New York, Rio, San Francisco, Yokohama, Shanghai, Calcutta, Bombay, and Melbourne have taken the place of Syracuse, Alexandria, Tyre, and Carthage, of Florence. Genoa, Venice, and Constantinople. But in spite of this cramping change, this degradation of the Mediterranean from the center of the world 123 into a mere auxiliary or side-avenue of the Atlantic, a certain number of Mediterranean ports have lived on uninterruptedly by force of position from one epoch into the other. Venice has had its faint revival of recent years; Trieste has had its rise; Barcelona, Algiers, Smyrna, Odessa, have grown into great harbors for cosmopolitan traffic. Of this new and rejuvenescent Mediterranean, girt round by the fresh young nationalities of Italy and the Orient, and itself no longer an inland sea, but linked by the Suez Canal with the Indian Ocean and so turned into the main highway of the nations between East and West, Marseilles is still the key and the capital. That proud position the Phocæan city is not likely to lose. And as the world is wider now than ever, the new Marseilles is perforce a greater and a wealthier town than even the old one in its proudest days. Where tribute came once from the North African, Levantine, and Italian coasts alone, it comes now from every shore of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, with Australia and the Pacific Isles thrown in as an afterthought. Regions Cæsar never knew enrich the good Greeks of the Quai de la Fraternité: brown, black, and yellow men whom his legions never saw send tea and silk, cotton, corn, and tobacco to the crowded warehouses of the Cannebière and the Rue de la République.
* Many thanks are due to kind Dr. Peter Morton, a professor at Flinders University in Australia, who helped when I tried to discover which chapters in this book were written by his favorite author, Grant Allen — since the publishers inconsiderately omitted that small detail in their collection. See more on Grant Allen at his site, The Grant Allen Home Page.
For another article by this incredibly prolific author, on this site, see Fontainebleau, by Grant Allen.