Part II: Takin’ it to the Streets… of Aix

Part II of my rediscovered bevy of papers written while studying abroad: “Secrets & Stories from the Streets of Aix,” complete with photos and video. Some of these posts have modern day photos of the streets I talk about here.



Besides being an undeniably awesome conglomeration of art, design, and information, a map is a useful collection of labels and place names.

The study of toponymy is the study of these place names. But it is really the study of many things: history, geography, archaeology, philology, etymology, and anthropology. Toponymy shows us the development of urban areas and the process of urbanization, as well as the movements of people; it even teaches us about economics and society. In this way, place names are the greatest geographical reference system available to us.

We can use this reference system to discover the secrets and stories behind seemingly ordinary locations, transforming them from blank stretches of pavement into places of romance and poetry. (I’ve become far less melodramatic since I wrote this….)


This paper aims to investigate the origins and meanings of a handful of the most interesting street names in Aix-en-Provence, as well as the historical events that have taken place there.


VIA AURELIA
Though there exists no sign and it won’t be marked on a tourist’s map, the oldest road in Aix is the Via Aurelia. The name derives from a renowned Roman road builder, Caius Aurelius Cotta (whose name comes from the Latin word for “golden,” reflecting his family’s hair color). This ancient highway, built by the Romans in 12 BC, connected the province of Gallia Narbonensis (today’s Provence) to Italy. A crucial part of their extensive road network, it helped Rome maintain control of its colonies, as well as spreading their cultural and economic influence. The Via Aurelia shuttled armored legions, government officials, traders, and others on a paved interstate “complete with rest stops and chariot service stations every 12 to 20 miles.” After the fall of the Roman Empire and subsequent waves of invading tribes in Provence, the Via Aurelia largely disappeared. Then, in 1508 a Bavarian book collector named Konrad Peutinger discovered a 22-foot-long medieval map of the Roman world. The Table of Peutinger, as it would become known, offered a detailed look at the empire’s entire road network, including landmarks and the location of 550 rest stops. Researchers can now trace the route of the Via Aurelia; in many places it follows today’s Route Nationale 7. It enters the city of Aix from the southeast (Cours Gambetta and Rue d’Italie), heading towards what is now Place de Verdun. Here, where the road was six meters wide, there were two towers marking what was then the official entrance of Aix (or Aquae Sextiae). The road continued its way towards Place de l’Hotel de Ville (the clock tower, as well as other buildings, have foundations of Roman stones) and then up past the Cathedral Saint-Sauveur, where it turned west to meet up with another Roman road – the Via Domitia. (Read this!)


As a young American who simply cannot comprehend the age of things older than the 1700s, I am amazed that my route to school every morning follows along the Via Aurelia. But let us start at the beginning: I live behind the Lycée Militaire d’Aix, which sits on the

BOULEVARD DES POILUS
This road is also part of the Route Cezanne, funneling tourists to scenic destinations at the base of Mt. St. Victoire. Long before that, it was known as Chemin de la Torse or Chemin du Tholonet because it led to the Torse creek and the village of le Tholonet. The village’s name derives from the Latin word telonium, meaning “toll booth,” and it’s likely that the site served exactly that purpose for travelers on the Via Aurelia. In 1875, a military school was built and the street became known as Boulevard de l’Armée and the Boulevard des Poilus. “Poilu” is a term of endearment for military men. Its literal meaning is “hairy one” and reflects the “sturdy male bearishness” and rustic agricultural background of many of the French soldiers. This road crosses Boulevard Carnot and becomes Rue Marechal Joffre. In 1750, this intersection was witness to an event that is recorded in history books as, “A tragedy which shook the opinions of the Aixois.” In the middle of the night, a group of drunken young people stopped a peasant returning to town on his donkey. For fun, they pretended they were a court and interrogated him. The judgment was decided: a sentence of death (for what, we do not know). Using the donkey’s halter, they hung the peasant from a tree.


On my morning walk, it’s hard to resist the smell of fresh baked bread and pastries. Though pervasive in all of Aix (and the rest of France), I find there to be an overwhelming amount of bakeries on the


RUE D’ITALIE
Before acquiring its current name, it was called the Chemin de Saint-Jean after the church built nearby and, in 1646 when it officially became part of the city, Rue de la Porte Saint-Jean as there existed an entrance to the city at the far end of it. Today, we find a street name with two meanings. In translation, Rue d’Italie could mean street “from” Italy or street “of” Italy. In the first case, it would be referring to the fact that this was where the ancient Roman road (Via Aurelia) entered Aix. In the latter (the one that the city seems to mean), it is to honor a young unknown military commander’s successful campaigns in Italy. In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte made a name for himself by defeating a much larger Austrian army and conquering most of Northern Italy. (*battle unrelated to bakeries*)


Now we’ve reached the Place de Verdun (named after the lengthiest battle in history, lasting from February to December 1916 and incurring 700,000 casualties) and the start of the oldest part of town:


RUE RIFLE-RAFLE
The unusual name originates from an old Medieval French word, the verb reiflare. Its various meanings include: to be despoiled, to steal away, and to take away by force. All of these apply to what happened here during the time of the Black Death: in 1348, every inhabitant of Rue Rifle-Rafle died of the plague. The disease was brought to Marseilles by trading ships from Genoa and moved north into the heart of Provence within a month. The effects of the Black Death, which overall killed 200 million people in Europe, even interrupted the construction of Aix’s Cathedral (followed shortly after by the Hundred Years War, work would not resume until 1472). Today this street ends abruptly in a vault because there used to be another door to the city here. Being as it was a main thoroughfare for foreign traders, perhaps this is why the residents of Rue Rifle-Rafle were so devastated. (“La Rafle” was the term used for the French roundup of Jews during WWII)


RUE GASTON DE SAPORTA
Its earliest name was Rue deis Fouitas and was accompanied by a gate at the southern end called the Portale deis Fouitas (or Porte du Bourg). A Provencal word, it referred to “whips” as this was where convicts would be led up the street and the public, showing their displeasure, could come out to whip them. Then it became Rue Droite, as it was the straightest street in the Bourg Saint-Sauveur. It was changed to Rue de la Grande Horloge when the clock tower was built in 1510. During the 17th century, a peculiar “pont de bois,” or wooden bridge could be seen jutting out over the street. Queen Anne of Austria, regent for her young son Louis XIV after her husband’s death, came to visit Aix with a certain Cardinal Mazarin, whose younger brother was the archbishop in town (and would later design the Mazarin Quarter). Anne was rumored to be secretly married to the older Mazarin, who she allowed to co-rule France with her until Louis XIV came of age. The royal family settled in at the Archbishops’ Palace while Mazarin stayed across the street in the Hotel d’Oppede (now part of the University of Aix-Marseilles). The bridge allowed the Queen and the Cardinal to pass between the two residences without actually having to leave, or be seen by the adoring public. Finally, following his death, the street was named after Louis-Charles-Joseph-Gaston de Saporta (1823-1895). Though he didn’t start researching botany and paleobotany until he was almost 30, he contributed much to his field of study. He became a member of the Academy of Aix in 1866 and its president in 1870. He used his influence to create the Natural History Museum in Aix, donating a large portion of his herbarium and collection of plant fossils. The museum also has on display his correspondence with Charles Darwin about the “abominable mystery” of the origin and evolution of flowering plants.


RUE DU BON-PASTEUR
This familiar address (where IAU is) was originally two streets. The western end was Rue des Trabaux, named after a family who lived there; the eastern end, where one could find artesian wells, or “un puits,” supplied by the nearby thermal springs, was Rue des Puits-Chauds. Directly outside our school, a horrendous event occurred in 1476. Leon Asturg, a Jew, dared to utter blasphemies against the Virgin Mary. When the count of Provence, René of Anjou, heard about Asturg, he put him in prison and sent in a team of theologians to catechize him. Stubbornly, Asturg repeated the same blasphemies (obviously too horrible to have been recorded). René, known colloquially as “Good King René,” sentenced him to be “stripped naked and hung on a scaffold outside his house, then skinned alive” [Chovelon]. When the other Jews in the town heard what had happened, they rushed to the house of René and pleaded with him to pardon their friend, offering him 20,000 florins in exchange. The count considered their offer and discussed it with his friends. Coming to a rather Machiavellian decision, one of his friends addressed the Jews: “The King and I are astonished at your audacity; we advise you to think about punishing your brother for his actions because living amongst Christians as you do, you should respect Our Savior Jesus Christ and his glorious Mother. So, to punish you also, we have decided that you will be skinned alive with your friend.” Horrified, the Jews had a change of heart and convinced René to accept their money without releasing Asturg, but instead being released themselves. René took their offer and excused them. The execution of Asturg continued as planned later that day. Supposedly, a column was erected on the place to commemorate the execution, which became part of the church (aka IAU) wall. The street gets its name from a “halfway house” for repentant girls who became known as Les Filles du Bon-Pasteur, or “the girls of the Good Shepherd.” Built in 1629 and lasting until the Revolution, it was most likely where the student housing sits now. *I am really sorry for the overly graphic image but it’s the only one I could find and, well… this needed an image.*


After enjoying a scholarly morning at IAU, I might decide to stop by the market in Place Richelme for some lunch. Historic street names surrounding the square teach us a lot about the market society of Aix. The names tell us where different vendors, products, and even whole industries were located. While many of these streets have been renamed, or simply no longer exist, their study offers insight into the types of food and merchandise available over the course of history: Rue de la Boucherie (butcher shop), Rue des Bouteilles (bottles), Rue des Chapeliers (hat makers), Rue des Chaudronniers (coppersmiths), Rue des Cordonniers (shoemakers), Rue de la Glaciere (icebox), Rue de la Frucharie (Provencal for fruits), Rue des Menudieres (Provencal for sausages), Rue de la Tricharie (Provencal version of tricherie, meaning cheating; this was where seafood was sold and many customers must have been cheated on the weight of their purchase).

RUE DES MAGNANS
What is today named after a rich family was until the 16th century Rue de la Tannerie. This was the main location of leather tanners. As an incredibly noxious and odorous trade, it was often relegated to the outskirts of town or where poor people lived. Famed Aix historian Roux-Alpheran described the street as, “The most filthy and disgusting street one can see.” That’s because the process of tanning leather is not a pretty one. Dried skins arrive at the tannery covered in dirt and gore. They are first cleaned off in water. This is followed by a soak in a vat of urine to make it easier to scrape the hair off later. The last step was soaking the skin in a vat of animal brains, or kneading dog or pigeon poop into the leather (often with bare feet and for as long as three hours). Either process made the leather more soft and desirable. It seems that with the growth of the city, the tanning industry shifted southwards as not far from here there is now a Rue des Tanneurs.


For a change of scenery at the end of my day, I might take a different route home, meandering through a series of tiny streets just south of the Place des Martyrs de la Resistance.

RUE ESQUICHO-COUDE
From Provencal words for “narrow” and “elbows,” the idea is that this road is so narrow you’d have to squeeze in your elbows in order to not touch a person who passes by you. (Picture!)

RUE ESQUICHO-MOUSQUO
This time the name comes from the Provencal words for “narrow” and “fly,” meaning so narrow that even one fly had difficulty passing through.


A survey of Aix’s streets would not be complete without the major thoroughfares:


COURS SEXTIUS
This large road was officially named in 1811 after Caius Sextius Calvinus, the founder of the thermal baths. A Roman consul who conquered the neighboring Salyens, he founded the first Roman city on what would become French soil in 124 BC. It was known then as Aquae Sextiae and is now charming Aix-en-Provence. Historically, the road was the border of the ancient neighborhood of Cordeliers. Becoming a center for commercial activities in the 17th century, it was the typical route that imported goods from the surrounding areas entered the city.


COURS MIRABEAU
Before the establishment of the Cours Mirabeau, the place to be seen for prominent Aixois was the Place des Precheurs. But in 1657, Parliament issued a decree that called for the building of a grand road for carriages, where there was then just crumbling ramparts. It was to serve the public and “never to be changed from the purpose upon which it was founded.” At first, not a single boutique was permitted, fearing that it would ruin the street’s image. In 1748, the first café was allowed, opening the floodgates for the many restaurants and shops that exist now on “the most handsome main street in France” [Mayle]. Since its founding it had been known simply as “le Cours,” but in 1876 the name of Mirabeau was added to memorialize the influential family. Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, count of Mirabeau (1749-1791) was a politician who played an important part in the National Assembly and governed France in the early parts of the French Revolution. In 1789, he was elected to represent Aix in the “Third Estate” – one of three representative assemblies in pre-Revolutionary France. It represented the great majority of the people, unlike the other two assemblies which were limited to the nobility and the clergy. His grandfather, father, and two uncles were also very important to the region of Provence.

The amount of history in an average European town is unfathomable. It makes me wonder: Do the locals know what they’re walking by every day? Are they aware of the age of the stones used in the buildings that house the local bank, their favorite bakery, their own home? Do they know of the illustrious guests who have lived in these same buildings and the shocking events that have played out on the streets outside their window?

Take Rue Boueno-Carriero for example. This translates from the Provencal to “good street.” Has anyone asked why it would get this name? Friendly neighbors? Well-built houses? No, it is in fact a result of ironic freethinkers of the 18th century who frequented the many brothels that could be found there. Before giving it this lasting nickname, it was called Rue deis Peitraoux, “pietraoux” being Provencal for “poitrine,” or chest. This was the one part of town where prostitutes could parade down the street, bare-chested.

By learning the origin of and the history behind the street names, routes previously used just to shuttle you from one place to another acquire a character all their own, and one can learn a little more about the place where they live.

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