Côte d’Azur, the region surrounding Nice, France, is considered figuratively by historians as being a paleontological primordial soup, once containing the basic ingredients for the conception of prehistoric human ancestry; deemed to be among the first human-spawning grounds on Earth.
Researchers dated remains found nearby to approximately 400,000 BCE, the period during which Homo Erectus and Neanderthal Man walked the planet. Evidence from the notorious archaeological site, the Terra Amata, exhibited one of the first utilizations of fire, the implementation of flint tools and construction of crude, communal housing. Ashes in hearths of unearthed huts lent credence to the inhabitant’s kindling capabilities.
Various primitive implements and utensils occupied the dwellings, including bones from quite a variety of large animals; and scientific analysis of fossilized human feces called “coprolites” determined the simple diets of the civilization existing there in 230,000 BCE, in which pollen from plants that blossomed in late spring and early summer was identified, indicating the society consisted of hunters and gatherers.
Nice was founded by the Greeks from Massalia, or Marseilles, back around 350 BCE, during their struggles with the Ligurian natives. The city was called Nikaia after Nike, the goddess of victory, for when the Greeks defeated the tribe of Ligures inhabiting the area.
Next to Nikaia lay Cemenelum, a Roman city and present-day suburb of Nice named “Cimiez,” where we were going later to visit the ancient ruins. The hoary emplacement had been the base of the indigenes who were continually attacking Nikaia and Antipolis: present-day Antibes.
Rome had formed an alliance with the Greeks in 154 BCE to aid with the latter’s plight against the Ligurians, defeating and evicting the natives from their homeland, staying and maintaining Cemenelum as an imperial settlement along the Via Julia, a major Roman road.
In 14 BCE, Emperor Augustus established the locality as the seat of the Roman Empire’s province of Alpes Maritimae. Atop the hill in Cimiez, remains of the venerable enclave harked back to the third century CE.
Upon entering our auberge, I waved to the concierge for making sure he saw us returning the borrowed mats to the front desk. Angelique stuck out her tongue at him. A smile actually appeared on his normally stoic face.
We asked about parking in Cimiez. He mentioned we would be better off taking the bus marked “Rimiez” behind the hotel and getting off at Les-Arènes-Musée. From there we would be able to cover the area on foot.
The girls and I ventured out after changing into our street clothes. Once off the autobus, we ate lunch at a chic little restaurant halfway up the hill before walking the short distance to the top, where the site of an ancient Roman amphitheater and the sprawling thermal-bath complex awaited us.
View from top of hill.
Ruins of Christian Basilica, formally the women’s bathhouse
In its heyday, the hilltop at Cemenelum included bathing facilities containing cold, warm, and steaming hot baths for both men and women, fed by running water from an incoming aqueduct originating in the French Alps. Remnants were still evident.
A pool, court, and exercise ground had also been available. Vestiges of a Christian basilica built in the fourth century were found on the the grounds as well. The old amphitheater had been renovated recently and was still being used for events such as the Nice Jazz Festival, taking place every July.
Remnants of the thermal bathhouses with Matisse Museum in center background
At the pinnacle of this highland, we entered the Matisse Museum, located inside a splendid seventeenth-century villa. The artist’s first works from 1890 to 1905 were on display, along with creations from when Matisse was a resident of Cimiez during the latter years of his life.
Teaming up with a small tour group led by a very articulate, English-speaking guide, we browsed the many exhibits highlighting the life and personality of this master of modern art.
Henri Matisse with his wife, Amélie Noellie Parayre; and daughter, Marguerite
Henri Matisse was friends with Pablo Picasso. They met each other in the beginning of the twentieth century. Both belonged to the artistic movement at Montparnasse.
While staying in the capital city, the painters were patronized by a pair of notable socialites: Gertrude Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, who hosted gatherings at their Paris salon.
The women’s wealthy cronies—most notably Americans Clarabel and Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland—were exposed to the artists’ works and bought hundreds of their paintings; however, considering Picasso’s alleged proclivity toward fashionable women, his art presumably wasn’t the only object exposed to all the fair ladies.
Leaving Paris and moving to Cimiez in 1917, where he remained until his death, Matisse also maintained a luxurious studio apartment in Nice, at which he painted his masterful reclining nudes.
Shortly after he and his wife of forty-one years separated in 1939, Henri became ill, diagnosed with cancer; and he underwent a colostomy in 1941, which forced him to rely on a wheelchair to get around.
From this time onward, his caretaker was a Russian woman who was formally one of his models. It was during this period that Matisse created his colorful paper cuttings which filled an entire room within the Matisse Museum.
Matisse seen standing while sketching the tile murals for Chapelle du Rosaire
In 1951, Matisse completed a four-year commission for designing the interior of the chapel in Vence, which was not far from Cimiez. He also designed the stained-glass windows of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence.
A former nurse and model whom he hired directly after his colostomy initiated the arrangements for Matisse’s patronage by the Catholic Church for the project. She had since become a Dominican nun and met with Matisse in the latter part of the 1940s, which led to his creations.
The artist died at the age of eighty-four from a heart attack in 1954.
Matisse in La Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence
Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse was buried at the Monastère Notre Dame de Cimiez, a seventeenth-century convent, currently a working monastery. Chantal said she wanted to take a walk through the olive grove on the grounds leading down to his grave site.
Following the trail, we meandered around the gardens and came across Matisse’s grave. He had been interred with his wife, Amélie Noellie Parayre. Buried not too far away from there was Raoul Dufy, another twentieth-century artist and friend of Matisse.
Tomb of Henri Matisse
Tomb of Raoul Dufy
The preceding text was an excerpt from Thirty Days Across the Big Pond: Part One, which can be purchased by clicking on an outlet of your choice, found on the sidebar of this blog.