History of Aix-en-Provence

Mother Earth Travel > France > Aix-en-Provence > History

At 370m above sea level, the fortified village of Entremont (known today as Oppidum d'Entremont, an archaeological site located 3kms north of Aix), was the capital town for a mixture of Celtic Salyens and native Ligurians in 123 BC. At this time it also commanded the intersection of Provences two principal roads: the Spain-Italy axis and the passage from the Mediterranean coast to the Alps.
After the siege, capture and destruction of this Celtic-Ligurian town, the Roman proconsul, Caïus Sextius Calvinus, founded "Aquae Sextiae Salluviorum" in 122 BC, thus christened because of the abundance of hot and cold water springs in the region.

Because of its privileged location between Italy and Spain, the citys importance blossomed both in urban development and as a spa. Surrounding walls with colossal gates, theatres, amphitheatres and sumptuous villas were built, delicately outlining the city. Having become the administrative capital of Narbonnaise Seconde, a province born from the division of a small province in the Alpes-Maritimes and crowned with an archbishop, it suffered a fatal blow when invaded by Germanic barbarians, the Visigoths and Lombards. The towns rebirth was thanks to the Count of Provence, William II -also known as the Liberator- who stopped the Saracen invaders from the East. At this time Provence began to free itself from the distant rule of the Kingdom of Burgundy, in favour of the counts and marquises who were descendants of William II.

The cultural influence of the city continued to grow under the reign of the princes from the Anjou dynasty: Louis I of Anjou, then Louis II, founder of the University, until the arrival of King René the Good. His court attracted masters of the arts and scholars from all over Europe. The city became a centre for artistic creation and famous sculptors such as Guiramand and painters such as Nicolas Froment set up workshops. This cultural expansion saw the end of Provences independence and in 1481 it became French when Charles III, then Count of Provence, left the province of Provence to Louis XI, king of France. The new governor, Palamède, the appointed representative of the King of France, then came to reside in the city.

In the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, in spite of a succession of imperial wars (1524 - 1529 - 1536) between François the 1st, king of France, and the Emperor Charles-Quint for the supremacy of Provence and its coast, life in Aix boomed. A carriageway linking the old town to the new Mazarin district was built in 1651; today this is the elegant cours Mirabeau. The wealthy built splendid mansions, and fountains were erected on important squares giving the city its current sophistication. Architects of the era such as J.C.Rambot privileged curved shapes, symbols of grace and femininity, over the straight and severe lines of the baroque style. The famous Fontaine des Quatre-Dauphins erected in 1667 on the square of the same name is a fine example of this: it brings together the cardo representing the North-South axis and the decumanus, the East-West axis, with four dolphins "singing" the virtues of natural spring water towards the points of the compass. 1789 saw the French Revolution and the abolition of privileges. "The Florence of Provence" lost some of its prestige but above all it lost its status as capital of the region in favour of Marseilles, a coarse and vulgar apology for a city in the eyes of the established aristocracy.

Aix then became a "sleeping beauty" in the wake of symbolic monuments such as the Fontaine de la Rotonde (built in 1860), the palais de Justice (1831) and the Fontaine du Roi René (1832). The industrial revolution passed the city by, but confirmed its cultural and artistic vocation still alive today- seeing the construction of universities, including the Faculties of Law and Arts, and elite grandes écoles such as the Ecole Normale and the Ecole Nationale des Arts et Métiers. In 1839 Aix witnessed the birth of one of her most famous children, Cézanne, painter of the awesome montagne Ste-Victoire. Great names from the world of literature (e.g. Zola and Mistral) came and stayed -so long that they wore out the armchairs of the famous brasserie of Deux Garçons seeking inspiration.

The 20th century saw strong demographic growth: 54 000 inhabitants in 1954 and nearly 135 000 today. The building of new districts such as Jas de Bouffan and Encagnane, and the institution of large urban projects such as Sextius-Mirabeau actively contribute to the well being of its people, a concept closely linked to the image of the city. Spa town, university town, cultural town, Aix lays claims to all these titles. Every summer since 1948, it has invited music lovers from all over the world to the Festival d'Art Lyrique in the prestigious and beautifully renovated Archevêché.
All postgraduate courses are available on the campus located south of the town. Spring 2000 has seen the opening of a prestigious establishment in the heart of the Thermes to answer the soaring interest in thalassotherapy tourism. Since 1999, the old prison located near the palais de Justice has housed the Court of Appeal (the second most important in France) confirming its position as a leading judicial pole. At the beginning of the third millennium, the industrial zones established in the surrounding area demonstrate the importance of the regions economic fabric and its dynamic employment situation.

Aix keeps a distance from large-scale industrialisation and preserves its cultural lifestyle, natural elegance and sophisticated way of living.