A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Among the masterpieces Vincent van Gogh painted during his stay in the insane asylum at St.-Rémy-de-Provence from early May 1889 to mid-May 1890 is Olive Trees with the Alpilles in the Background. Van Gogh referred to it in a letter to his brother Theo written about June 18, 1889, commenting, "At last I have a landscape with olives and also a new study of a starry night," thus pairing it with another now-famous painting, The Starry Night, with which it shares stylistic features on which van Gogh himself and later historians of art have commented. Van Gogh's olive orchard covered part of the ancient Gallo-Roman town of Glanum, and a sign near the entrance to the site now reminds visitors where the artist stood to gain the perspective that he wanted.
Since archaeological excavations began only in 1921, van Gogh was unaware of the then-buried central part of Glanum, but he would have been familiar with two monuments on the outskirts of the ancient city, an honorary arch and an imposing mausoleum, which have been continuously visible since their erection some two millennia ago. Indeed, the asylum was a part of the twelfth-century Monastery of St. Paul de Mausole, which took its name from the prominent mausoleum less than 275 yards to the west; van Gogh must have walked past it on his way to paint the olive orchard.
This intertwining of van Gogh's later life and works with the ancient remains added an attractive dimension to my visit to Glanum this past summer. The presentation of this site is one of the best in southern France, offering glimpses of changing circumstances of civic and social life from the second century B.C. to the late third century A.D. when Glanum was an important regional town. "Les Antiques," as the arch and mausoleum have been known since the Middle Ages, are remarkably well preserved and have long attracted the attention of archaeologists and art historians. The honorary arch, a single bay with highly elaborate carved relief, was erected between A.D. 10 and 20 on the road linking Glanum to the main Roman thoroughfare, the Via Domitia, which extended across southern France from the Pyrenees (where it joined the Via Augusta into Spain) to Italy. The three-tiered funeral monument (dated stylistically to 30-20 B.C.), on the other hand, has its dedicatory inscription preserved, and is still the subject of controversy. The elaborate monument, which has the fourth-century B.C. Mausoleum of Halicarnassus as its prototype, is some 63 feet tall, with relief sculptures on all sides of the podium, which supports a four-sided structure with engaged Corinthian columns framing a central arch on each face; the structure is surmounted by a circular Corinthian colonnade (monopteros) with a conical roof.
Glanum was largely abandoned after its destruction during Germanic invasions about A.D. 270, and was succeeded by a new town a few miles to the north, which became St.-Rémy. The ancient city was soon covered by soil washing down from the hills, and the land given over to farmers, tenders of orchards, and inhabitants of the Monastery of St. Paul de Mausole. It was the natural and cultivated landscape that later attracted the attention of Vincent van Gogh.
James Wiseman, a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY, is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.