Paris has its Champs-Élysées, Nice its Promenade des Anglais, Marseille its Canebière and Aix its Cours Mirabeau. This wide street is one of the busiest and most frequented in Aix-en-Provence. Delimited by the Place de la Rotonde (West) and Place Forbin (East), it was and remains the best part of town to be seen.
A tunnel of plane trees punctuated with fountains and lined with cafés, terraces and elegant private mansions with iron-wrought balconies: Cours Mirabeau certainly contributes to the fame of Aix-en-Provence. The street is 440 metres long and 42 metres wide and underwent an extensive rejuvenation in 2002 to make it more suited to pedestrians.
A Bit of History
The original axis was laid out in 1649, pursuant to a decision by the Aix Parliament, along the site of the southern rampart. The archbishop of Aix, Michel Mazarin, had in mind to extend the boundaries of the town and to provide to the bourgeois a promenade for their carriages.
With the help of urban architect Jean Lombard, a new district was constructed: today’s Quartier Mazarin to the South of the old town.
The dismantlement of the ramparts freed up a long space between the old town and the new Mazarin district which became known as “Le Cours”.
The requirements for the street were rigorous because not only did it have to serve as a passage way but foremost as a showcase for the town. In order to create a sense of elegance the architects required all buildings to be the same height.
The wide street eventually changed its name to “Cours Mirabeau” in 1876 in honour of Honoré-Gabriel Riquetti de Mirabeau, who was elected to represent Aix at the Estates General assembly in 1789.
In 1696, four fountains punctuated the Cours: the Neuf-Canons fountain, the Moussue fountain, the Pyramid fountain (now King René’s) and to the West the Chevaux Marins fountain close to the Rotonde which was destroyed in 1782.
Since its establishment, the Cours Mirabeau has been lined with elm trees. In 1895, all the trees were cut down and replaced with plane trees, most of which still border the street today.
From the mid-19th century, cafés, restaurants, banks agencies and clubs opened in the ground floors of the Cours’ private mansions. In the 20th century, a wider array of stores opened such as clothing shops, cinemas, confectionaries, bookshops… some of them negatively affected the original architectural appeal of the Cours.
The Private Mansions: Hôtels Particuliers
Called “Hôtels Particuliers” in French, some of the prestigious private mansions built along Cours Mirabeau contribute to the renown of the street and of the town itself.
The Hôtel de Villars at number 4 was built in 1710 by Louis d’Esmivy de Moissac, advisor to the Court of Auditors. In 1750, this private mansion was sold by Moissac’s grandson to the Duke of Villars, then Governor of Provence. In 1757, the duke ordered that four pillars be built by Georges Vallon in front of the entrance, thereby infringing upon the municipal pavement. Along with those of the Town-Hall and the University in the old town, these are the only ones to do so and demonstrate an audacious sign of power.
Inside the mansion is a fine wrought-iron staircase featuring the Villars’ coat of arms.
The Hôtel Arbaud-Jouques at number 19 dates back to 1732. This mansion was commissioned from Jean-Baptiste Franque by Elzéar d’Arbaud, Lord of Jouques and advisor to the Parliament.
On the façade, the fine wrought-iron balconies feature the “AJ” monogram at their centres.
The door is decorated with war symbols and the owner’s initials. Charles IV of Spain resided in the mansion in 1812.
The Hôtel de Forbin at number 20 was built in 1656 by Pierre Pavillon for César de Milan, advisor to the Parliament. In 1672, it passed to the Forbin family by marriage.
It was one of the largest mansions to be built on Cours Mirabeau with a façade of eight windows. The symmetric antique style is decorated with a fine wrought-iron balcony.
Many personalities stayed in the mansion: the Dukes of Burgundy and Berry in 1701, Pauline Borghèse, sister of Napoleon in 1807 and Fouché in 1810.
The Hôtel Maurel de Pontevès (also known Hôtel d’Espagnet) at number 38 is the oldest private mansion on the Cours Mirabeau, dating back to 1648, before the street was even laid out. Commissioned by Pierre Maurel, a rich cloth merchant from Aix, it displays an amazing portal with two impressive and muscular Atlantes, sculpted by Jacques Fossé, flanking the door and supporting the first floor balcony. Today it houses the Tribunal de Commerce of Aix-en-Provence (the court dealing with trade disputes).
The Hôtel de Gantes at number 53 today houses the popular “Les deux garçons”, the oldest café in Aix. Built in 1660, the façade of the mansion is punctuated by corinthian pilasters framing the windows. From the end of the 18th century, it was the meeting place of the town’s older aristocrats. The café has retained some very beautiful Empire Style rooms dating from the beginning of the 19th century. Now locally known as the “Deux G” from the names of its two founders (Guérini and Guidoni), it was frequented by famous French artists and intellectuals such as Paul Cézanne, Jean Cocteau, Raimu and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Passage Agard (café des 2 garçons)
In 1846, Félicien Agard built a narrow passageway between Cours Mirabeau and Place de Verdun. Featuring boutique shops, “Passage Agard” is crossed in the middle by Petite Rue des Carmes.
The Hôtel du Poët stands behind the statue of King René, completing the perspective of Cours Mirabeau to the East. The house was built by Georges Vallon for Henri Gautier (born in 1676) around 1725 on the site of a former water mill. A wealthy man ennobled by King Louis XV in 1724, Henri Gautier was given the responsibility of treasury of the states of Provence.
The well-balanced façade comprising three levels, mascarons and a complex wrought iron balcony is a fine example of Provençal baroque architecture.
Inside the mansion is a beautiful columned staircase with a Louis XVI style ramp featuring the coat of arms of Poët lords.
The biggest and most famous fountain in Aix-en-Provence is La Rotonde which can be found in every postcard and is the symbol of the city.
The round-shaped square was laid out in 1777 to give better access to the routes to Avignon and Marseille, thereby conferring upon Cours Mirabeau a “noble entry”.
The current fountain at the centre of the square, was built in 1860. Having a total diameter of 41 metres and a height of 12 metres, the circular pond of La Rotonde is surrounded by 4 groups of 2 lions each. Three marble statues are at the top and each statue faces a different direction. One is looking toward the Cours Mirabeau and symbolises Justice. The second faces Marseille and makes reference to trade and farming. The third faces Avignon and symbolises Fine Arts.
Fontaine des Neufs Canons (Nine Canons Fountain)
On the rue Joseph Cabassol axis crossing Cours Mirabeau, this fountain dates back to 1691 and replaced a former fountain known as St Lazare. Originally, its basin comprised four lobes but two have been removed to allow for vehicular traffic
In the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the fountain was used as a trough for the flocks of sheep from Arles on their way to the mountains (the transhumance) which explains why the edges of the basin are so low.
Today, vegetation has grown so much that it has hidden the sculptural details of the fountain.
Fontaine Moussue (Mossy Fountain)
At the end of Rue du 4 septembre on Cours Mirabeau, this hot water fountain (fontaine d’eau chaude) was built in 1668 and is the only one to be still fed into by the thermal springs of the Bagniers.
Its water springs out at 18 degrees Celsius. It comprises two basins placed on top of each other which moss has completely taken over, hence its name!
Fontaine du Roi René (Fountain of King René)
At the eastern extremity of Cours Mirabeau stands the fountain and statue of King René on the site of a former pyramid-shaped fountain which was destroyed during the French Revolution.
The town of Aix wanted to honour the memory of King René I of Naples (René of Anjou). This beloved king, who was believed to have imported the muscat grape to Provence, died in Aix on 10 July 1480.
The statue was commissioned by the mayor and the sous-préfet from sculptor David d’Angers in 1822 and represents King René standing on top of a fountain, holding a sceptre in his right hand and a wreath of muscat wine grapes in his left hand. At his feet a few objects such as books and painting palettes, evoking the king’s fondness for the arts, are arranged.
The pedestal of the statue contains a lead box containing coins and medals representing the members of the royal family and a copy of the “Explication des cérémonies de la Fête-Dieu d’Aix-en-Provence” (an explanation of Aix-en-Provence’s Feast of Corpus Christi) by Gaspard Grégoire (1777) – the general public believed that this popular local celebration was introduced by King René.
The 6.6 ton statue was restored in 2009.