Secret history of France: Auch
Treasure and tragedy in Gascony’s historic capital: In her series revealing the history of France’s cities, art historian Julia Faiers reveals the cultural treasures tucked away in Gers capital, Auch
For a city and departmental capital, Auch (pronounced Osh or Owsh) is small, counting no more than 23,000 inhabitants.
But this little city has always had big ambitions, evident from its soaring cathedral, grand Monumental Staircase and for its claim as the birthplace of swashbuckling hero d’Artagnan.
The Monumental Staircase was built in 1863 and spans the 35-metre drop between the old and new towns via 374 stone steps.
It proudly displays a statue of one of its famous inhabitants, the musketeer d’Artagnan – though the link between the place and the man is rather tenuous.
Charles de Batz de Castelmore served Louis XIV as captain of the Musketeers of the Guard, and provided Alexandre Dumas with the inspiration for his famous character.
He was born near Lupiac, a small Gersois village, but thereafter spent much of his life far from Gascony.
Auch’s roots lie much further back, when it was home to the ancient Auscii, who built huts in the lower part of the town on the east bank of the river Gers, and called their city Elimberris (‘new city’).
The Auscii were trading with Rome long before the Roman conquest of 56BC, when it was renamed Augusta Auscorum.
If you were wondering ‘what have the Romans ever done for Auch?’, the answer would be ‘apart from build fancy villas, shops, temples, public buildings, aqueducts and sewers, then ... not much!’
Recent excavations have unearthed some incredible snapshots into Gallo-Roman life, including the remains of a villa which once had private bathrooms, underfloor heating and beautiful mosaic floors.
Understandably, the fragility of the site means this wonder of antique culture is not open to the public.
However, Auch’s crowning centrepiece, the cathedral, dominates the skyline and can be admired by all.
The cathédrale Sainte-Marie was one of the last Gothic cathedrals to be built in the southwest and was begun after successive rebuilds were burned down following lightning strikes in 1469 and 1474. Not to be deterred by repeated fiery disasters, the first stone of the new cathedral was laid on 4 July 1489.
The eagle-eyed might spot in the façade of Sainte-Marie cathedral a remarkable similarity to Notre-Dame de Paris.
Beyond their similar impressive facades, however, little else links them – unsurprising, given that three centuries separate their construction.
Sainte-Marie’s façade is a glorious mish-mash of architectural styles, combining the harmonious horizontals and verticals of classic Gothic cathedrals with classical forms such as Corinthian columns and putti (naked, winged little boys).
As remnants of the city’s rich antique past are now being rediscovered, it is all the more poignant to remember the loss of its medieval ecclesiastical heritage.
Following the usual medieval disasters of pillage, theft and fire, the most significant catastrophe came with the French Revolution, which nationalised the Church’s possessions in 1789 and led to the confiscation and melting down of all valuable items used for worship.
Auch’s own cathedral treasures were confiscated in 1793 and melted down at the Hôtel de la Monnaie. Precious little survives today.
However, the cathedral canons decided to make new objects to enhance their worship, particularly to house the relics of saints.
The Revolution had seen no value in these bone fragments wrapped in cloth, but were ruthlessly efficient in acquiring the exquisite enamelled and jewelled chests in which they were originally kept.
A detailed 18th-century inventory of the trésor allows historians to understand the extent of the cathedral’s old treasures.
Meanwhile visitors to the new trésor, housed in the Tour d’Armagnac and renovated parts of the old cathedral, can admire the monks’ post-revolutionary handiwork along with more than 200 other precious religious objects.
Auch wears its own rich history with pride, yet celebrates with equal vigour the achievements of distant cultures.
The Musée des Amériques can lay claim to holding France’s second largest collection of pre-Columbian art outside Paris.
Housed in the old couvent des Jacobins, this museum has recently benefited from an impressive facelift.
Worth the entrance fee alone is its collection of feather paintings, including The Mass of Saint Gregory, a breathtakingly beautiful picture made in 1539 by Mexican artists working under the direction of Pierre de Gand, a Franciscan monk.
De Gand arrived in Mexico to establish an art school with the intention of teaching European art techniques to the locals.
What actually happened was that his students introduced him to the art of ‘la plumasserie’, an Aztec tradition using feathers to create images.
The Mass of Saint Gregory is a visually dazzling work of Christian subject matter, described using Aztec materials and techniques.
It tells the story, with myriad minuscule feathers, of how during Mass at the church of the Holy Cross in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great saw Christ emerge from his tomb, surrounded by the instruments of his Passion (torture and death).
Considering Auch lost so much of its medieval heritage during the dark days of the Revolution, we should congratulate this museum for its global outlook and enjoy its diverse collection.
To find such a gem in ‘the birthplace of d’Artagnan’ is both surprising and welcome.
Cathédrale Sainte-Marie d’Auch
Place de la République.
Open every day between 9:30h and 18:00h. Closed between 12.30h and 14:00h.
Musée du Trésor de la Cathédrale
Open between 1 June and 30 September every day including bank holidays. Out of season, you can book guided tours for groups by contacting the Tourist Office. www.auch-tourisme.com
Musée des Amériques
9, rue Gilbert Bregail.
Open from April to September every day, and from October to March every day, apart from bank holidays. www.ameriques-auch.fr