Between art and archaeogy, making Roman Nîmes visible

How was it before? What did a Roman city look like? How did people live there? Questions posed by both the novice and the archaeologist. And when drawings are made for books or exhibitions, it is legitimate to ask whether they are only illustrations, artistic views of a contemporary designer on the ancient world, or whether they are based on knowledge scientists. In other words, do such drawings allow us to travel to the past? Jean-Claude Golvin has been trying it for decades. His work, which is remarkably meticulous, is presented at the Musée de la Romanité in Nîmes in a new temporary exhibition, as the architect and archaeologist produced numerous watercolors depicting the Roman city in the 2nd century AD. There are both overviews and representations of the emblematic monuments, but also a very recent series of the amphitheater, that is to say the arenas, in the light of new archaeological data.

In front of the overview of the city, Jean-Claude Golvin explains: “It’s a proposal, because we will never find the whole, but we can approach it. I draw a city that conforms to archaeological clues and that works. The hand drawing is extremely precise. Remains still visible today are represented, such as the amphitheater, the Maison Carrée, the Magne tower, the enclosures with the Porte de France and the Porte d’Auguste. “All this is very much discussed with archaeologists. I make a theoretical model with sure elements and others that I propose from archaeological clues”, he indicates. In fact, his aerial view of Nemausus, the former name of Nîmes, also includes public monuments that have never been found, such as a theater and thermal baths.

the importance of comparative studies

“There is no great Roman city without a theatre. A few meager archaeological clues lead us to place the theater here rather than elsewhere, ”says Richard Pellé, archaeologist from Inrap, a perfect connoisseur of Nîmes and in particular of the amphitheater. “Comparing Nîmes to Arles or Orange, we think that Nemausus must also have had two or three thermal establishments. We know the location of one, for the other two it is assumed by the location of ancient water sources. We still remain in uncertainty,” he continues, emphasizing the importance of comparative studies. Perhaps, in the future, these mysteries will be lifted. Because the restitution of a city is never definitive: research and new discoveries bring precisions or even modifications. For example, Richard Pellé recalls that archaeologists now consider that the turrets surmounting the gates of the city did not in fact have a roof, whereas Jean-Claude Golvin had drawn some in his first paintings about ten years ago. . “We never found a piece of tile,” he argues. Also future designers will have to take this aspect into account.

update in the light of the knowledge of 2022

On the side of the amphitheater too, recent discoveries deepen the knowledge of this majestic building. During the major restoration work that began in 2009 and will continue until 2034, archaeological excavations are being carried out there: thanks to the scaffolding, the researchers have indeed been able to examine parts of the building that are usually inaccessible. Invited to image the new results, Jean-Claude Golvin took up his brushes and his watercolor pots in 2022 to devote a series of 13 paintings to him. It is in particular the way in which the building was built that he documents with talent. Before being built in stone, the amphitheater, where the fighting took place, was made of wood: it was put up and taken down.

“We think that in Nîmes a very luxurious wooden building was built during the reign of Nero, says archaeologist Richard Pellé. Then, according to our latest discoveries, the current amphitheater was built between 100 and 125 AD. The traces of tools and the laying of the blocks enabled him to deduce how the construction had taken place: a priori two teams were involved and progressed from south to north. « The only architectural treatise we have is that of Vitruvius but, unfortunately, it does not speak of the construction of amphitheatres », recalls Jean-Claude Golvin, who detailed the different stages of the construction of the amphitheater, also showing all the life that swarmed around it. In front of the monument, barracks housed the offices of architects and foremen, refectories and workshops for masons, stonemasons, carpenters and blacksmiths. And as today, drawing is also video games, the octogenarian is also rampant in this area: his drawings serve as virtual sets for the game « Assassin’s Creed Origins » from Ubisoft.


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