Orange

By Henry James

[30]

I alighted at Orange to visit a collection of eminently civil monuments. The collection consists of but two objects, but these objects are so fine that I will let the word pass. One of them is a triumphal arch, supposedly of the period of Marcus Aurelius; the other is a fragment, magnificent in its ruin, of a Roman theater. But for these fine Roman remains and for its name, Orange is a perfectly featureless little town, without the Rhone-- which, as I have mentioned, is several miles distant--to help it to a physiognomy. It seems one of the oddest things that this obscure French borough--obscure, I mean, in our modern era, for the Gallo-Roman Arausio must have been, judging it by its arches and theater, a place of some importance--should have given its name to the heirs apparent of the throne of Holland, and been borne by a king of England who had sovereign rights over it. During the Middle Ages it formed part of an independent principality; but in 1531 it fell, by the marriage of one of its princesses, who had inherited it, into the family of Nassau. I read in my indispensable Murray that it was made over to France by the treaty of Utrecht.

The arch of triumph, which stands a little way out of the town, is rather a pretty than an imposing vestige of the Romans. If it had greater purity of style, one might say of it that it belonged to the same family of monuments as the Maison Caree at Nimes. It has three passages--the middle much higher than the others--and a very elevated attic. The vaults of the passages are richly sculptured, and the whole monument is covered with friezes and military trophies. This sculpture is rather mixed; much of it is broken and defaced, and the rest seemed to me ugly, tho its workmanship is praised. The arch is at once well preserved and much injured. Its general mass is there, and as Roman monuments go it is remarkably perfect; but it has suffered, in patches, from the extremity of restoration. It is not, on the whole, of absorbing interest.

It has a charm, nevertheless, which comes partly from its soft, bright yellow color, partly from a certain elegance of shape, of expression; and on that well-washed Sunday morning, with its brilliant tone, surrounded by its circle of thin poplars, with the green country lying beyond it and a low blue horizon showing through its empty portals, it made, very sufficiently, a picture that hangs itself to one of the lateral hooks of the memory. I can take down the modest composition, and place it before me as I write. I see the shallow, shining puddles in the hard, fair French road; the pale blue sky, diluted by days of rain; the disgarnished autumnal fields; the mild sparkle of the low horizon; the solitary figure in sabots, with a bundle under its arm, advancing along the "chaussee;" and in the middle I see the little ochre-colored monument, which, in spite of its antiquity, looks bright and gay, as everything must look in France of a fresh Sunday morning.

It is true that this was not exactly the appearance of the Roman theater, which lies on the other side of the town; a fact that did not prevent me from making my way to it in less than five minutes, through a succession of little streets concerning which I have no observations to record. None of the Roman remains in the south of France are more impressive than this stupendous fragment. An enormous mound rises above the place, which was formerly occupied--I quote from Murray--first by a citadel of the Romans, then by a castle of the princes of Nassau, razed by Louis XIV.

Facing this hill a mighty wall erects itself, thirty-six meters high, and composed of massive blocks of dark brown stone, simply laid one on the other; the whole naked, rugged surface of which suggests a natural cliff (say of the Vaucluse order) rather than an effort of human, or even of Roman labor. It is the biggest thing at Orange--it is bigger than all Orange put together--and its permanent massiveness makes light of the shrunken city. The face it presents to the town--the top of it garnished with two rows of brackets, perforated with holes to receive the staves of the "velarium"--bears the traces of more than one tier of ornamental arches; tho how these flat arches were applied, or incrusted, upon the wall, I do not profess to explain.

You pass through a diminutive postern--which seems in proportion about as high as the entrance of a rabbit-hutch--into the lodge of the custodian, who introduces you to the interior of the theater. Here the mass of the hill affronts you, which the ingenious Romans treated simply as the material of their auditorium. They inserted their stone seats, in a semicircle, in the slope of the hill, and planted their colossal wall opposite to it. This wall, from the inside, is, if possible, even more imposing. It formed the back of the stage, the permanent scene, and its enormous face was coated with marble. It contains three doors, the middle one being the highest, and having above it, far aloft, a deep niche, apparently intended for an imperial statue. A few of the benches remain on the hillside, which, however, is mainly a confusion of fragments. There is part of a corridor built into the hill, high up, and on the crest are the remnants of the demolished castle.

The whole place is a kind of wilderness of ruin; there are scarcely any details; the great feature is the overtopping wall. This wall being the back of the scene, the space left between it and the chord of the semicircle (of the auditorium) which formed the proscenium is rather less than one would have supposed. In other words, the stage was very shallow, and appears to have been arranged for a number of performers standing in a line, like a company of soldiers. There stands the silent skeleton, however, as impressive by what it leaves you to guess and wonder about as by what it tells you. It has not the sweetness, the softness of melancholy, of the theater at Arles; but it is more extraordinary, and one can imagine only tremendous tragedies being enacted there--

"Presenting Thebes' or Pelops' line."

At either end of the stage, coming forward, is an immense wing--immense in height, I mean, as it reaches to the top of the scenic wall; the other dimensions are not remarkable. The division to the right, as you face the stage, is pointed out as the green-room; its portentous altitude and the open arches at the top give it the air of a well. The compartment on the left is exactly similar, save that it opens into the traces of other chambers, said to be those of a hippodrome adjacent to the theater. Various fragments are visible which refer themselves plausibly to such an establishment; the greater axis of the hippodrome would appear to have been on a line with the triumphal arch. This is all I saw, and all there was to see, of Orange, which had a very rustic, bucolic aspect, and where I was not even called upon to demand breakfast at the hotel. The entrance of this resort might have been that of a stable of the Roman days.



[30] From "A Little Tour In France." By special arrangement with, and by permission of, the publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Co. Copyright, 1884.