Clara Dickson visits the new Hotel Caumont, cultural centre in Aix en Provence, and discovers a great new location for Provence Art and Culture
There’s a first time for everything in life. I’ve never bungee-jumped, I’ve never joined the mile-high club and until Monday of this week I’d never begun a tour of a major art exhibition in the gentleman’s toilets. But there I was lying flat on my back, looking upwards in admiration, as Anne-Laure, the head of the restoration team at the Hotel Caumont, explained the week of brushwork that went into precisely recreating the decorative intricacy of an 18th century aristocratic French restroom. Never again will I be derogatory about the state of French loos.
Up until 5 years ago Hotel Caumont hosted the Aix en Provence Music and Dance Conservatory. Since the Conservatory closed, Cultural Spaces, the organisation responsible for public monuments such as the Villa Rothschild, has completed major restoration work with the aim of returning the mansion to its 18th century heyday as well as providing a space for major art exhibitions. This year, it’s Canaletto, an appropriate painter to choose because of the wonderful use of light in his artwork, and also because his work was contemporaneous with the prime of Hotel Caumont.
Although Canaletto is the headline act, a tour of the renovated Hotel Caumont forms part of the visit. Anne Laure happens to be a friend, hence the incident in the gentleman’s toilet. On the more formal guided visit the process of restoration is explained, by reference to two re-created rooms – the music room and the bedroom of Pauline de Caumont. According to Anne-Laure the restoration of the elaborate cornices which decorate the ceilings throughout the building required the skills of an archaeologist. Layers of plaster work had to be scraped away, and each design elaborately re-constructed before being decorated with gold leaf.
On the stairway leading out of the Canaletto exhibition, a series of black and white images by photographer Christine deFrance, are mounted. These portraits tell the story behind the re-construction work, with shots of Anne Laure delicately re-touching a painting juxtaposed against studies of workmen with cutting machinery. The photos eloquently speak of the scale and complexity of the project.
As you would expect from Cultural Spaces, an organisation which runs 9 similar major sites in the south of France, the Canaletto exhibition is expertly staged. The large paintings which are all about the use of light by the artist, have been expertly lit, so that the canvasses almost seem to glow. The quasi 3D technique which Canaletto perfected with the help of his camera obscura, means that the visitor almost seems to be stepping into the picture. The various stages of the artist’s career are helpfully explained with major works from each period, passing from Rome (1720), to Venice (1720-46), to London (1746-56), and then back to Venice.
There are nice touches like a table top map of Venice which shows the locations Canaletto painted. There’s also an animated Canaletto painting, projected onto the walls of a room. Visitors stand against a railing, beneath their feet is a shallow pool of water which imitates the lagoons of Venice. Shadows of doves fly across the walls, and Venetian street sellers cry out in the dialect of the time. It’s a little gimmicky but undoubtedly fun for children. Small rooms throughout the exhibition are devoted to related themes such as an explanation of contemporary life in Venice and the development of the camera obscura.
It’s a well thought through, enjoyable exhibition, at the end of which waits the Hotel’s restaurant café, and a small garden designed and restored by a team from Versailles. On the first day of opening 3,000 people visited, on the Monday of my visit, the number was over 1,000 by lunchtime. The Hotel Caumont is a welcome addition to the cultural life of the south and the Canaletto exhibition a delightful interlude to any day spent in Aix.
It’s just such a shame that female visitors will never get to see the delightful gentleman’s loos!
Provence Guru, the insiders’ guide to Provence, top tips:
Visiting the Hotel Caumont, then see our reviews of nearby Aix en Provence restaurants.
For Aix en Provence vineyards see our Provence wine tasting pages. And for Provence recipes and cooking classes see our Provence Food pages.
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