France’s oldest city has a long cultural history
Born around 600BC as the Greek trading post of Massalia, Marseille through the centuries has seen itself transformed into a Roman city, an early centre of Christianity, a focal point of the French Revolution (France’s national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, acquired its nickname after being sung by revolutionary volunteers from Marseille marching to the capital) and a multi-cultural centre with a strong North African influence. More recently, its cultural legacy was boosted by its stint as the 2013 European Capital of Culture, usually a powerful force in boosting a host city’s attraction on the world stage. For Marseille’s one-year reign, hundreds of millions of Euros were ploughed into the refurbishment or construction of some 60 cultural facilities.
Built on reclaimed land at the entrance to the harbour, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations – known by the French acronym MUCEM – is the first museum devoted to the history and civilisations of the Mediterranean. Within a year of its June 2013 opening MUCEM had become one of the 50 most visited museums in the world. The complex comprises a huge cuboid building clad in a concrete lattice linked and by a footbridge to the 17th century Fort St Jean. Selections from the museum’s million-piece collection trace historical and cultural cross-fertilisation in the Mediterranean basin through the ages. The permanent exhibition is renewed every two years.
Directly opposite MUCEM, the Musee Regards de Provence (Museum of Provence Scenes) occupies a converted 1940s health station where immigrants once had their clothes cleaned and disinfected upon arrival. A series of temporary exhibitions features selections from over 900 works of classic and modern art from the 18th century to the present day and all inspired by Provence and the Mediterranean. Amassed by the brother and sister founders of the French food services company Sodexo, the collection favours subjects such as seascapes, harbour scenes, fishing villages, landscapes, figures and Oriental studies. There are sweeping sea views from the museum’s glass-fronted terrace cafe.
In the historic Le Panier (The Basket) district is a three-museum complex in a delightful setting. The Museum of African, Oceanian and Native American Arts – known by its French acronym MAAOA – is located in a series of rooms on the upper floors of La Vieille Charite, a former 18th century alms house arranged around a large courtyard and a chapel with a Roman-style oval cupola. The Swiss architect and pioneering designer Le Corbusier was instrumental in saving the complex from demolition in the 1950s.
Artefacts such as masks, sculptures, reliquaries and daily objects are displayed behind glass in darkened rooms, beautifully lit to highlight their exquisite detail. A bonus: There is a delightful cafe overlooking the courtyard, where you may spot freshly baked fruit pies cooling on the windowsill.
In a 17th century mansion on a smart city centre street popular with retailers of luxury fashion brands, Musee Cantini offers an overview of French art from 1900 to the 1960s, with fine examples of works from that period’s main movements, such as Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism.
Signac’s L’Entree du Port de Marseille (1918) draws many admirers, while Derain’s Cassis (1907) reflects artists’ love of southern light and landscapes. Other leading artists represented in this impressive civic collection range from Kokoschka, Ernst, Dubuffet, Leger and Picasso to Miro, Leger, Matisse, Giacometti and Bacon.
In a beautiful park in the Saint-Charles district, the ostentatious Palais Longchamp has a massive, horseshoe-shaped colonnade centred around the vast ‘chateau d’eau’ (water castle) fountain, with a triumphal arch and a pair of wings, in one of which is the Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts).
Marseille’s first museum, its collection covers 400 years of art history from the 16th to the 19th centuries, including examples from all the great European painting schools. A special feature is a selection of art in Provence in the 17th and 18th centuries, while works by artists of the Marseille school depict the luminous landscapes of the Midi. The surrounding park, the ‘Jardin du plateau’, is a classic garden ‘à la Francaise’. There are also some exotic remnants of the 19th century zoo which was closed in the 1980s due to public opinion against traditional zoos.
Out in the southern outskirts of Marseille, the Chateau Borely houses objects from three of Marseille’s former museums: the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Earthenware and the Museum of Fashion. Visitors approach it through landscaped gardens and, once inside, ascend a swirling staircase under an elaborate ceiling fresco to enter the main reception room overlooking the gardens and leading to some two dozen display rooms. Rather than being displayed separately, pieces from all three collections are mingled together to show the links between arts and crafts past and present.