A visit to La Vieille Charité

Photo courtesy of the city of Marseille Photo courtesy of the city of Marseille

Many areas of Marseille sit nestled on hillsides providing some spectacular views as a reward for the climb upward. Perhaps the most outstanding is the walk up to the basilica Notre Dame de la Garde, perched high above the city; conventional wisdom has it that no matter where you are in Marseille, you can see the golden statue.

Another climb, although somewhat less arduous, took us to La Vieille Charité on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Starting at Le Vieux Port, we wended our way up through the Panier, one of the oldest sections of the city. An area that traditionally was home to immigrants, Le Panier is a neighborhood in transition, with crumbling facades next to brand new renovations. Its narrow shaded streets remind one of Italian villages, with a relaxed artistic vibe. Boutiques for tourists sit side by side with older shops. For many, the French author Jean-Claude Izzo put the Panier on the map, and one recognizes the streets and places he mentions in his books.

Walking through the place Pierre Saisse, one comes to the stunning architectural ensemble that is La Vieille Charité. In 1640 a royal edict mandated construction of a building to house the indigent and the homeless, but work was not begun in earnest until 1670 under the direction of the great architect and artist Pierre Puget. The building had a series of occupants – social outcasts, homeless children and the aged, social housing for the army – and by the 1940’s had fallen into disrepair. Le Corbusier started a campaign to renovate the abandoned edifice, and work was completed in 1986. Today, one admires the rose and white stone buildings – 4 closed wings around a central courtyard – three stories high with arched galleries, creating endless plays of shadow and light. A baroque-style chapel with an oval cupola sits in the center of the courtyard. The chapel’s façade recalls the origins of La Vieille Charité: the figure of Charity welcoming poor children, who are being fed by two pelicans.

Today, La Vieille Charité houses the Museum of Archeology, the Museum of African, Oceanic and Amerindian Arts (MAAOA) as well as temporary exhibitions, a cinema and a very pleasant café.

Photo courtesy of the city of Marseille

A temporary exhibition, “Etre femme à l’époque grecque,” (Women in ancient Greece) sounded interesting. It was informative – touching on all aspects of life in ancient Greece – but also somewhat depressing. The exhibition lifted the veil to show the reality of life for a Greek woman, whether in Athens, Sparta or Corinthe; some 70 objects illustrated the private lives of these anonymous women – their childhoods, education, appearance, sex life. The Greek woman’s life was programmed from the start: marriage, childbearing and death. A quote from the exhibition summed it up: “the most pleasant days in a woman’s life are the days of her marriage and her funeral.”

All photos courtesy of the city of Marseille