You may wish to see an introductory page to this section or a page on Avignon with references to Petrarch, an Italian poet of the XIVth century first.
View of Vaucluse ("Vallis Clausa", Closed Valley) in a plate from "Alexandre de Laborde - The Monuments of France Chronologically Classified - 1816-1836"
This plate is somewhat extraordinary because the purpose of the book by Alexandre de Laborde was to list and illustrate the finest monuments of France by this meaning temples, churches, castles, etc., yet the author included a view of Vaucluse, a small village near a natural spring, because of the beauty of its landscape and its association with Petrarch, who lived there and described it in his poems. Laborde can be regarded as a forerunner of the recognition of landscape as a value to protect, a concept which was fully developed in the XXth century. The book was very influential in the creation of the position of Inspector-General of Historical Monuments in 1831 and in the ensuing action to identify and protect the monuments of France.
Castle of the Bishops of Cavaillon and the rocks surrounding the fountain
Not far from
Avignon is the fountain of Vaucluse where the
Sorgue has its source, inclosed with hills and
mountains which form the valley of Vaucluse.
Here it was that the famous Petrarch fixed his
Parnassus, and composed the most part of his
works in praise of the beautiful Laura, with whom
he fell in love in this very country.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
How many times and how ardently have I not longed for a sight of Vaucluse; how many times have I not lamented that I had passed repeatedly through France, without extending my journey as far as the banks of the Sourgue, and the heavenly fields celebrated by Petrarch? (..) From the ruins called Petrarch's Villa, the view extends over a fine country.
Henry Swinburne - Travels through Spain in the Years 1775 and 1776 to which is added a Journey from Bayonne to Marseille - 1787 Edition
On the declivity of a rock between the village and the fountain are the ruins of a building shown as the Chateau de Petrarque, or residence of Petrarch, but in fact only part of a castle which once belonged to the Bishop of Cavaillon. (..) In Petrarch's time also the rocks which border this valley were clothed with wood, but a few scattered vines with some olive and fig trees are all that now prevent their being perfectly naked; yet these noble rocks exhibit a wonderful phenomenon of rude and savage nature highly gratifying to the lovers of romantic scenery.
William Coxe - Galignani's Traveller's Guide Through France -1819
Saint-Veran, a Romanesque church which is dedicated to Saint Veranus of Cavaillon who in the VIth century lived as a hermit at Vaucluse before being appointed Bishop of Cavaillon: (left) façade; (right) interior
The fountain of Vaucluse, a morning's ride from Avignon, will claim the notice of every one who has heard the name of Petrarch. While a school boy at Carpentras, Petrarch went with his father and mother to see the fountain of Vaucluse. Enraptured with the charms of this solitude, he cried out "Here is a situation which suits me marvellously! were I master of this place I should prefer it to the finest cities". These lively impressions determined the subsequent residence of Petrarch at this place, were afterwards transfused through many of his works, and have immortalized the beauties of Vaucluse. (..) The fountain, and the rocks around it, hallowed to the imagination by the recollection of the poet's residence near them, and immortalized by his descriptions, are the chief attractions of this romantic spot. Coxe
(left) Mill; the Sorgue, the stream which originates from Vaucluse, was utilized by mills also at Avignon; (right) Museum of Petrarch which was founded in 1928; the image used as background for this page shows the portraits of the poet and Laura on its façade
It is incumbent upon all travellers to perform this sentimental journey, not only on account of Petrarch and Laura, but because Vaucluse itself is a striking scene. (..) The valley of Vaucluse is a complete cul de sac, a semicircular excavation in the side of a mountain which seems to have been split from top to bottom, so as to disclose the secret storehouse of water within it, whence the sparkling Sorgues derives its supplies. (..) It is more agreeable to contemplate Petrarch in these haunts as the laborious student retired from the world, than as the mawkish lover sighing for a married mistress. (..) Inn: H. de Laure small and not very clean. The landlord is a capital cook (..) his fried trout and eels, soupe a la bisque, and coquille d'Ecrevisse, have made a far deeper and more lasting impression on his visitors than the souvenir of Laura; and indeed they are not to be despised; even Petrarch himself has mentioned the fish of the Sorgues with praise.
John Murray III - Hand-book for Travellers in France - 1843
Listen to his own account of his occupations at Vaucluse: "The Sorgue, transparent as crystal, rolls over its emerald bed. (..) Here I please myself with my little gardens and my narrow dwelling. I want nothing and look for no favours from fortune. If you come to me you will see a solitary who wanders in the meadows, the fields, the forests and the mountains, resting on the mossy grottoes, or beneath the shady trees. Your friend detests the intrigues of court, the tumult of cities and flies from the abodes of pageantry and pride. Equally removed from joy or sadness he passes his days in the most profound calm, happy to have the Muses for his companions, and the song of birds and the murmur of the stream for his serenade. I have but few servants, but many books. Sometimes you will find me seated upon the bank of the river; sometimes stretched upon the yielding grass: and, enviable power! I have all my hours at my own disposal, for it is rarely that I see any one. Above all things, I delight to taste the sweets of leisure." Murray
The water though clearer than crystal appears green as it runs from the depth of its channel. (..) A few yards from its source the stream falls in the most majestic and picturesque manner over fragments of rock covered with a dark green moss, and then forms a rapid river winding through the vale, whose sides for some distance rise suddenly to an immense height from its bank, and then gradually expand into an open plain. Coxe
The termination of this valley is an immense perpendicular rock six hundred feet in height. Within this rock is the cavern in which rises the fountain that supplies the river Sorgue so abundantly. (..) This fountain is in fact a considerable river, arising from an unfathomable rocky basin of a circular form at the foot of the stupendous perpendicular, or rather impending, rock before mentioned. To Vaucluse Petrarch retired to banish his passion for Laura and indulge his taste for letters, buying a little cottage with a field adjoining, and having no other companions than his books, but alas the torments of love still pursued him; rocks and woods, the wildest and most solitary situations, availed nothing, and all his efforts to get rid of his passion were vain and fruitless. In this solitude it was that he composed some of his most beautiful poems, and among others the celebrated address to the Fountain of Vaucluse beginning "Chiare fresche e dolci acque". Coxe
Clear, sweet fresh water
|Chiare, fresche e dolci acque,|
ove le belle membra
pose colei che sola a me par donna;
gentil ramo ove piacque
(con sospir' mi rimembra)
a lei di fare al bel fianco colonna;
erba e fior' che la gonna
co l'angelico seno; (..)
Da indi in qua mi piace
quest'erba sì ch'altrove non ò pace.
Francesco Petrarca - Il Canzoniere
Clear, sweet fresh water|
where she, the only one who seemed
woman to me, rested her beautiful limbs:
gentle branch where it pleased her
(with sighs, I remember it)
to make a pillar for her lovely flank:
grass and flowers which her dress
as it did the angelic breast. (..)
Since then this grass has so pleased me,
nowhere else do I find peace.
Translation by A. S. Kline
The underground cave and a fig tree to the left
At the extremity of this majestic recess, at the base of the precipice, yawns the cavern which contains the fountain of Vaucluse. According to the season, and the abundance of the water, it presents, alternately, a gushing cataract, tumbling over the moss-clad stones, from step to step, or a quiet, pellucid, dark blue pool, sunken within its grotto. (..) A wild fig tree, springing from a crevice in the face of the rock, above the natural vault, marks with its roots, the height which the waters attain when they fill the cave. Murray
I have seen Vaucluse, and I am disappointed. A huge cavern yawning at the foot of a perpendicular wall of bare rocks, and a large body of water issuing through the chinks of the stone, from an unfathomable pool that fills the cave, are undoubtedly bold, horrid features of nature; but I have seen the like in many mountainous countries in much greater perfection: here is not a single tree, not a bush to enliven the dull uniformity of the cliff, nor any lofty barrier of rock, over which the stream may rush in grand cascades; the landscape is dreary and frightful, without romantic beauty. Vaucluse itself has not indeed answered my too sanguine expectations. Swinburne
Swinburne's words bring to mind a better known disappointment.
By day and night my mind was haunted by the knowledge of the divine Beauty, which La Berma's acting would be bound to reveal.(..) I sat there and listened to her as I might have read Phèdre, or as though at that moment Phèdre herself was saying the things I was hearing, without La Berma's talent seeming to add anything at all to them. (..) Once the curtain had fallen, I was aware of being disappointed that the enjoyment I had longed for had not been greater.
Marcel Proust - Remembrance of Things Past - Translation by C. K. Scott Moncrieff
(left) The Sorgue River; (right) Notre-Dame-du-Lac; (inset) the bull, symbol of the town on the main gate
(Vaucluse has not answered my expectations) but it is not so
with the delightful vale I traversed before I
reached this head of the Sourgue. A shady
avenue of elms, poplars, and mulberry trees,
led me insensibly from the gates of Avignon
into the heart of a most fertile garden, for
I can give no other name to a vast tract of
level ground, where innumerable canals of
the most limpid water impart a due degree
of moisture to thousands of inclosures, covered with the greatest variety of productions. Swinburne
You quit Avignon by the Porte St Lazare, traverse long avenues of willows and poplars, leaving on either hand numerous country houses, each fronted with an avenue of planes, and crossing the Canal de Crillon (..) you reach the village of Le Thor, so named from a bull which, by constantly falling on its knees when brought to water on the margin of a pond, led to the discovery of a miraculous image of the Virgin, which was fished out of the mud and deposited in the church of St Marie du Lac. Murray
Notre-Dame-du-Lac: (left) portal of the façade; (right) details; the capital brings to mind that on the Column of Marcian at Constantinople
This is an ancient and curious Romanesque building; its W doorway is probably of the 11th century; an ornamented portal at the S end resembles that of Notre Dame des Doms and is rather later. Murray
Le Thor was not mentioned by XVIIIth century travellers on their route to Vaucluse, but the 1843 Hand-book by Murray called the attention of its readers to its Romanesque church. This because in 1834 Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870), a French writer who at the time was Inspector-General of Historical Monuments, visited the church and included it among those which were worthy of being protected by the State.
Notre-Dame-du-Lac: apse and details of its decoration
According to tradition Charlemagne ordered the construction of the church to celebrate the miracle of the bull, but actually it was built in the XIIth century and a record indicates it was completed in 1202. It is a rare example of Romanesque church the external shape of which: a) did not undergo changes to give it a Gothic aspect, and b) it was not seriously damaged during the French Revolution. The channelled pilasters of the apse resemble those of Sant-Jean-de-Moustiers at Arles and those of Saint-Quenin at Vaison-la-Romaine, which were believed to be of Roman origin until the early XXth century. At Le Thor they were clearly identified as Romanesque, because other features of the decoration of the apse were clearly medieval (see the apse of the Cathedral of Anagni).
Notre-Dame-du-Lac: (left) southern side (the lantern tower was rebuilt in the 1830s); (right) detail of the portal
The southern portal has the aspect of a Roman triumphal arch. Le Thor was not a Roman town because its foundation is dated VIIth century, however the region had plenty of ancient monuments which could inspire the master masons who erected this church, including the still standing Arch of Glanum, a Roman town south of Le Thor.
Notre-Dame-du-Lac: southern portal: (left) details of its decoration including a blessing hand; (right) interior of the portal with other columns having a different decorative pattern
The mix of classical-like columns and medieval capitals and reliefs is typical of the Romanesque style. At Le Thor there is a variety of types of columns which can be noticed in other parts of Southern France, e.g. in the cloister of Saint-André-le-Bas at Vienne, but also at the other end of the Roman Empire, i.e. in the Great Mosque of Diyarbakir (Roman Amida), where in that same period Muslim architects created many types of classical-like columns.
Notre-Dame-du-Lac: relief on the external side of the southern portal; it likely portrays knights jostling in a tournament
Plan of this section:
Environs of Arles: Saint-Gilles, Aigues-Mortes and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Carpentras (Carpentaracte), Cavaillon (Cabellio) and Pernes-les-Fontaines
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Le Thor
Narbonne (Narbo Martius)
Pont-du-Gard and Uzès