The World of Cezanne's Quarry

Aix-en-Provence today is very different from the town of Bernard Martin’s 1885 murder investigation. Yet any visitor will easily recognize the main locales of Cézanne’s Quarry: the singing fountains and crooked cobbled streets of the center; the neo-classical Palais de Justice; the former family mansion of the Cézanne family (the Jas de Bouffan); the elegant main boulevard, the cours Mirabeau; the Madeleine church; the Hotel de Ville; the Cathedral; Mont Sainte-Victoire, and the site of the novel’s murder, the Bibémus Quarry.

What most distinguishes the “new” Aix from the old is its size and spirit. The Aix of Cézanne’s day was a small provincial town of 20,000 souls still divided between the aristocratic southern quarter and the rest of the populace. Today’s Aix is an open, cosmopolitan city of more than 140,000 people, which hosts two world-famous music festivals every year, a large and lively student population of about 20,000 from France and abroad, and proud, if very belated, recognition of its most famous sons, Paul Cézanne and Emile Zola.

To see Cézanne’s art, head to the stately old aristocratic quarter and the Granet Museum, which boasts that since 1984 it has managed to obtain eight of his paintings. Late recognition indeed! No wonder most of the novel takes place on the other, more lively, side of the cours Mirabeau.

The Palais de Justice

Some of the most dramatic scenes take place in the Palais de Justice, still imposing by today’s standards. It shares a square and weekly flea markets with the Madeleine Church and one of Aix’s beautiful fountains. Just as in Bernard Martin’s day, one reaches the main entrance of the courthouse by climbing several low steps and passing between two massive statues of famous jurists “sitting in stony judgment.” The carriage path, directly in front of the main door, is still there too. A floor has been added at the top, but the impressive marble floor and peristyle remain, with its courtrooms and pacing clientele.

If you climbed the central staircase you might run across a door marked “Juge d’Instruction.” (In English, examining magistrate or investigating judge.) The position that the protagonist, examining magistrate Bernard Martin, held represents one of the most important distinctions between Napoleonic law (practiced all over the European continent) and the Anglo-American legal system. The powerful examining magistrate acts as district attorney and grand jury rolled up into one. He decides what crimes will be charged and which court they will go to. Such judges made headlines even in America a few years ago when they investigated the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, in Milan, and attempted to prosecute the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in Madrid.

The Prison

The old prison where Charles Westerbury languished in Cézanne’s Quarry has recently been converted into an Appeals Court, making Aix second only to Paris in judicial importance.

The Cours, The Fountains and the Cathedral

The beautiful cours Mirabeau still sways with the branches of the double row of plane trees on each side and boasts three famous fountains: the massive 19th-century productions on either end and the mossy low fountain in the middle, which runs with warm mineral waters discovered by the Romans over 2,000 years ago.

The most famous fountain may be the Four Dolphins constructed in the aristocratic quarter in 1667 near the Granet Museum.

The oldest fountain now stands in the Archbishop’s Square. In Cézanne’s Quarry, Bernard Martin dips his hands into its cool water to wash away the dirt and the memories of the murder scene. Later he will try to find momentary solace in the fifth-century baptistery of the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral. Some consider this ancient structure, which may have originally been part of a pagan temple, to be the artistic highlight of the cathedral. Others favor the 1475 painted triptych of the Burning Bush. However, you will have to contact the sacristan to see this painting and other cathedral treasures.

The Cézanne Mansion

For many years it would have taken some effort to find the Jas de Bouffan. In 1899 a winegrower by the name of Granel bought the estate. In 1907, the year after Cézanne died, Granel offered the murals in the salon to the State. They were refused! Consequently all the frescoes described in Cézanne’s Quarry were stripped from the walls and sold to other buyers. Since the centennial of the artist’s death in 2006, the tourist bureau has put on a light show at the Jas, in which the original paintings are projected on the wall.

The Mountain and the Quarry

You can follow the trail of Bernard Martin, reaching Mont Sainte-Victoire by going east of the city via the Le Tholonet road or via the route to Vauvenargues, which leads to the Bibémus road and the quarry. When you get to the top, turn right and walk west and south to find the honey-colored rocks described in the murder scene. For a most spectacular view of the mountain, turn left instead at the top of Bibémus road, follow a path through some bushes and it will open out onto the Zola Barrage. The mountain looms as a centerpiece behind this dam and a beautiful green rippling stream. The dam was designed by Zola’s father, considered an outsider and a foreigner. When he died, his young son, Émile, and his wife were left destitute. This is why the great writer never came back, except in his novels, where Aix is featured as the ingrown, unpleasant town of Plassans.

Since the centennial of Cézanne’s death, the tourist office has made it easy for everyone to follow in the artist’s footsteps. Whether you are a visitor to southern France or a traveler in cyberspace, check out www.aixenprovencetourism.com/uk/aix-cezanne.htm.

The Studio

No lover of Cézanne should leave town without visiting his studio at Les Lauves, where he lived at the end of his life. It’s not as chaotic as the attic studio in Cézanne’s Quarry, but it still has enough “organized disorder,” including bowls and skulls and statues, to give you a feel for the artist’s working habits. Further up the hill you will also see the view of the mountain he painted during these years.


Finally, you can, like Bernard Martin, go on an expedition to Gardanne where Cézanne painted during the period of the novel. There is a bus from Aix. Don’t be surprised, though, to see one of France’s many nuclear plants as soon as you debark at the bottom of the old hill town!

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© Copyright Barbara Corrado Pope | All Rights Reserved
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