Goodbye To All That: Narbonne’s (now defunct) Lapidarium

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Lapidarium, Lapidaire, Narbonne, France

On this blog, I have all too frequently written about exhibitions after they have closed, but now I’ve outdone myself:  this post is on a museum that no longer exists.  Yes, it closed down, not long after I visited – the collection going to be rehoused in a new museum in 2020.  No matter how good the new museum may turn out to be, it’s a real shame, because this unique location helped to make it a lovely experience – though my joy in walking around it had a lot to do with the fact that I felt like an 18th century antiquarian who was exploring the past.  But I get that not everyone finds that appealing as a concept.

The collection was housed in the Church of Notre Dame de Lamourguié.  It was built in 1289 and attached to the Benedictine order,  but stopped performing services from 1572.  The priory came under the congregation of a different group of Benedictines in 1662, which led to work being carried out in the galleries and the creation of a bell tower.  With the French Revolution, the Benedictine lands were sold to the town of Narbonne, and between 1824 and 1889 the building served as stables and barracks for soldiers.

At this time the Narbonne Archaeological and Literary Arts Commission was busy looking for somewhere to store the vast amount of interesting Roman stones they’d found while dismantling the city’s fortifications.  In 1889, the church became the lapidary’s official home – an interesting choice of location, which actually gave the collection a very striking and attractive setting.

About 2000 stones were on show in the church – most of them taken from funerary monuments made during the first two centuries BC.  The reason why they are all in such regular ‘block’ shapes is because they were used in late antiquity to build the city’s ramparts.  Finds from other parts of town, during other episodes of demolition work, also made their way here, as did the collection of the Archbishop of Narbonne, Le Goux de la Berchere, who in the 18th century created a small lapidary collection in his gardens.

However, there were also some medieval and, I think, 18th century monument fragments scattered about in the side chapels.  There were also quite a few lead coffins, which were presumably from the early Christian period, which could quite easily be touched by visitors – and which, by their very nature, should be (and presumably will be) afforded rather more protection.

Anyway, apart from being given a photocopied, 4-sided sheet about the lapidary, and some of the things we should look at, there was no information in the museum itself about what the stones represented.  Even when there were some stones with legible inscriptions, again there was no information.  This didn’t bother me within this context, because it was so nice just exploring, but clearly we missed a number of interesting stones because we didn’t or couldn’t read them.  Hopefully some of these will be on display in the new museum, with translations.

Because of the lack of information, I have given the stones my own names, so my interpretation of some of the visuals may be way off.  Well, I’ll find out in 2020!

So In Summary

I think it’s a real shame that the Lapidaire no longer exists.  From reading reviews on line, I gather it divided people – some people deplored the lack of information and the general dullness of the objects, while others, like me, thought the whole thing was rather lovely.  As I said in my introduction, this was the closest I’ve ever got to feeling like an 18th century antiquarian, trotting around and discovering my own finds among the piles of stones, where fascinating images were often hidden in the middle of a pile of repetitive patterns.  Apart from anything else, the sheer amount of stone gave you a good idea of what it might have been like to stumble across these remnants of the ancient world, hidden in medieval walls for centuries. Well, it’s gone forever now, and I hope that this fascinating collection’s new home in NarboVia will capture some of the spirit of the Lapidaire.


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