The Not So Small Collection of Avignon’s Petit Palais

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Petit Palais Museum, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon, France

A stone’s throw away from the Palace of the Popes is an impressive 14th century building which is home to an impressive collection of medieval statutes and paintings.  Like the other museums of Avignon, it had been raided by Christian Lacroix for his exhibition across the square, but nonetheless it was packed full of beautiful French and Italian works.

The museum opened in 1976 in a palace which was built by Cardinal Bérenger Fredoli the Elder in 1318-20 – the period of the Avignon Papacy.  In 1335 it passed into the hands of Pope Benedict XII, who used it as an episcopal palace.  It got its present appearance with the restoration works carried out in 1503 and it pottered along happily until the French Revolution, when the palace was sold off and became a secondary school.  It was reclaimed from students in 1961 and restored to its current state.

The objects on show at the museum are mainly from Avignon, although there are some items which come from the region around it.  The quality of sculptures is sometimes astonishing – and the impact is especially strong when they still have traces of original colour.

There is a room dedicated to the remains of what had been a grandiose tomb for Jean de la Grange (c1325-1402, a politician and prelate who was a mover and shaker during a crucial period of Avignon’s history at the time of the Western Schism.  He had experience of politics and ecclesiastical affairs during his time serving in the councils of French kings, and he became a counsellor of Gregory XI, the French-born pope who relocated the papacy from its almost 70 year sojourn in Avignon to Rome in 1376.  Gregory died a year later and la Grange was too late to take part in the conclave that elected the new pope, and anyway, in Rome a mob was desperate for a Roman to be elected and they surrounded the Vatican demanding that this happen.  In the end Urban VI, an Italian, was chosen.  This annoyed la Grange and he was active in agitating the already cross French cardinals into having their own conclave in Fondi, where they elected their own pope: Cardinal Robert of Geneva.

He was the first antipope: Clement VII.

La Grange was involved in convincing the French king, Charles V, to support Clement VII and thanks to the support of this widely respected monarch, other supporters soon followed.  Frankly, Clement sounds like a brutal, vain, selfish pig, who dreamed of marching victoriously into Rome with his posse of equally self-serving supporters.  Anyway, that dream never came true, but la Grange represented the Clementines in the court of Charles V, and presumably had a good time of it.

La Grange was not close to the next king, Charles VI, and he hurriedly left Paris and went to Avignon, to live off Clement till his death.  He then supported the king over the new antipope, Benedict XIII – in fact, he felt that the antipope should abdicate.   All in all, he was actively involved in the muddled and exceedingly complicated politics of the period.

So he was a fascinating guy.  All the more so when you find out that he wanted his bones to be kept in a casket in Amiens Cathedral – where he’d served as Bishop in the 1370s and already had a tomb prepared – and his flesh to be kept at St Martial in Avignon.   Yes, flesh.  He got special permission from the Pope to do this.

And to celebrate this fact, his tomb had an extraordinary monument which depicted la Grange as a withered corpse.  This is one of the earliest examples of the transi, the representation of the effects of death, that was to become quite fashionable in the Middle Ages.  And between the cadaver and a row of skulls is the inscription, “Poor man, why are you so proud, for you are, made of ashes and will be reverted into a foul cadaver, food of vermin, just as we are.”

It’s a good thing most people couldn’t read Latin.

Although my pictures are really not very good, there were some amazing 14th century frescoes on show in this room.  They reminded me in spirit of Roman frescoes, with their light touch and ethereal mood, and they had great charm and interesting details.  Seeing a running dog with flapping ears was amusing for a start…

Italian Paintings

Once you have explored the sculpture of the Petit Palais, you move swiftly on to a collection of Italian paintings.  The collection itself has an interesting history.  Many of the paintings on show were part of the so-called Campana collection.  You also get to see snippets of the decoration of the original building – but sadly there’s not much around.

However, I must tell the story of this collection.  Giampietro Campana was born into a respected Roman family, and he went on to work at the Monte di Pietà, a papal charitable trust that operated as a pawnbroker in Rome.  Within three years he made it from assistant to director general – two years later, in 1835, he was made a cavaliere of the Order of the Golden Spur by Pope Gregory XVI in gratitude for the loans that the Monte di Pietà had made to the Vatican.

But Campana’s great passion was antiquities.  As well as being a collector, he undertook archaeological excavations in Rome and Ostia, among other places.  He was very active and widely respected for his committed and energetic work, and he helped to interest the academic world in the hitherto neglected area of moulded terracotta tiles.

Campana’s collection became so popular as to warrant a visit by the new Pope, Pius IX, in 1846, which helped seal both his status and that of his collection.  Unsurprisingly he was inspired to create a more diverse museum, and to his collection of antiquities he added sculptures, majolica ware, jewellery and paintings.  Unlike his most of his contemporaries, he was interested in the so-called ‘primitive’ Italian paintings of the 14th/15th centuries, and managed to assemble a notable collection.  One of the paintings he bought from the sale of Cardinal Fesch in Rome in 1845 was La Sainte Conversation by Vittore Carpaccio – now on view at the Petit Palais.

Despite being only open once a week – and to those wielding a letter of introduction – Blewett’s Handbook for travellers in central Italy (London, 1856) stated that “the Campana Museum is in many respects superior to the Museo Gregoriano at the Vatican”.  Blewett goes on to wax lyrical about the ancient gold jewellery on show, the Etruscan vases, the bronze works… and certainly it was an exceptionally fine collection.  Campana published a catalogue which he divided into 12 sections: vases, bronzes, jewellery and coins, terracottas, glass, Etruscan, Greek and Roman paintings, Greek and Roman sculpture, Italian paintings from the Byzantine era to Raphael, Italian paintings from 1500-1700, Italian majolica of the 15th/16th centuries, majolica by Luca della Robbia and his contemporaries, and finally a section on Etruscan and Roman curiosities.  No wonder it was seen as a rival to the Gregoriano.

Unfortunately, Mr Campana was not a very honest man.  He was involved in some corrupt practices and he was arrested in 1857 and convicted of embezzlement.  His trial was quite an affair, and he was sentenced to 20 years in the galleys.  Thanks to his wife, who was friends with Napoleon III, he managed to have this commuted to exile.

The collection was taken over by the Vatican and promptly put up for sale.  The Victoria and Albert museum took some Renaissance sculptures and majolica, the Russians bought a mixed bag of 467 pieces and Napoleon III purchased the remaining collections as a whole: 11,835 items for 4,800,000 francs.

The collection was, it was announced, going to the Louvre Museum.  But, there was no room at that inn, so it was installed at the Palais de l’Industrie instead.  In 1862 the Napoleon III Museum opened with great success.  A commission was called in to select which of the works would then move on to the Louvre.  Only 97 works were chosen.  This caused considerable controversy at the time and inspired many artists to get involved in a public fight in the press.  One eloquent contribution was made by Delacroix:

I do not need to notice the pain felt by all the artists at the news of the changes that were proposed to be made to the Napoleon III Museum.  This collection, famous throughout Europe, was for us all, from its start, a subject of admiration […] and the thought of reducing it, under the pretext of removing the secondary pieces, was quite contrary to the evident intention of its founder […] The interesting collection of Italian paintings […] has been, in my opinion, superficially judged, and, for the most part, condemned by persons who have not sufficiently realized its relative importance and light it gives on the origins and progress in Italian schools. This instruction, which until now could not be found anywhere in Paris, results from the juxtaposition of the paintings and comparisons which naturally emerged from it. By breaking them up and sending them to various collections, a valuable collection will have been destroyed from this point of view, without substantially enriching the collections in which they have been lost.

From a letter from Eugene Delacroix to the secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Beulé, November 9, 1862, Journal des débats

Some minor concessions were made.  But basically the collection was shipped off to the provinces.

In 1976, 283 paintings that had been in Campana’s collection were placed in the Petit Palais, joining almost a hundred others which came from the Louvre and the Cluny museum, because they didn’t fit in.

Their loss is Avignon’s gain.  You can walk in the footsteps of Delacroix and admire these early Italian paintings, which are beautiful and still depressingly under-appreciated.

So In Summary

Despite the fact that the museum had been raided for the exhibition by Christian Lacroix at the Pope’s Palace, I found the collection quite lovely to explore.  Yes, the museum suffers from the same problem as so many (underfunded?) French museums – the tags are exclusively in French and the display has quite a tired-feeling air – but the drawbacks are easy to ignore in a place where you find enough to look at and can enjoy the experience of seeing some truly wonderful works.  As a fan of this period of European art, I found plenty to look at and admire and I hope you’ll be able to do the same!

Further Information

It is free to enter the museum.

A formidable website exists, but only in French:

How To Get There

The museum is a hop and a skip from the Pope’s Palace, and a fairly straightforward walk from the train station.  There is a website for the bus service which has information in English:

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