Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, Aix-en-Provence is arguably one of Provence’s most famous squares with a great array of architectural styles, from the most simple to elaborate baroque styles. A few famous monuments border the square: the Town-Hall, the Corn Exchange Hall and the Clock Tower.
A flower market takes place in the square on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and an Old Book Fair on the first Sunday of the month. On the east side of the square, a line of residential houses put the finishing touches to the ensemble with colourful façades.
The Town-Hall: l’Hôtel de Ville
With its Italianate facade, its carved wood front door and its inner courtyard, the town hall of Aix-en-Provence certainly ranks as one of the most interesting historic buildings in town.
The mansion was built by Pierre Pavillon between 1655 and 1678 assisted by sculptors Rambot and Fossé.
The plan of the Town Hall is relatively complex. It comprises two parts: one bordering the square and a U-shaped inner courtyard giving access to the noble rooms.
The façade comprises two levels and a ground floor and features Baroque elements with its decorum and theatrical setting. Each floor is delimited by an entablature decorated with fruit garlands, the large windows topped with a succession of cartouches and the whole structure is flanked by two large buttresses, making it much more monumental than the neighbouring Corn Exchange Hall.
The portal at the centre of the façade is framed by two coupled columns whose aim is to draw one’s eyes upward to the iron-wrought balcony. The balcony is framed by two pairs of pilasters which serve the same purpose. Higher is the semi-circular tympanum decorated with a niche housing an allegoric bust of the Republic and to the top of the façade, a triangular pediment completes the theatrical structure.
The French Revolution and time have stripped the façade of its rich decoration which featured statues of angels, the busts of the Counts of Provence and the King’s monograms.
The central portal of the façade, adorned with the town’s coat of arms, leads to the inner courtyard, cobbled with pebble stones, through a magnificent railed entrance gate. Of a more severe appearance than the façade, the decor of the courtyard lightens from floor to floor.
The architect tried to control the space by building a sequence of areas slotted together from the courtyard to the staircase leading to the noble rooms of the town hall.
Above the entrance of the staircase is a mascaron depicting the face of an Indian sticking his tongue out insolently. A balcony of honour hangs above the staircase entrance followed by a large niche which used to house a statue of the Virgin.
From the entrance the first flight of stairs leads to an intermediate landing where a very theatrical statue of Maréchal de Villars has been placed. From here one of France’s oldest double-helix staircases leads to the upper level.
The Corn Exchange Hall: la Halle aux grains
This neo-Classical building dates back to the 18th century and illustrates the importance of the corn trade at the time. The northern façade is surmounted by an allegoric pediment from Chastel depicting the two elements of agricultural prosperity in Provence: the Rhône and the Durance Rivers.
The Southern façade which looks onto Place Richelme, is decorated with motifs such as fruits, cereals and olives, evoking the function of the building.
Today it houses the General Post Office of Aix-en-Provence.
The Clock Tower: la Tour de l’Horloge
The monument which gives the square its visual identity is the municipal clock tower located to the right of the Town Hall.
The original site of the clock tower was the entrance to the military checkpoint of Sextius in the Roman era and has kept its ancient foundation stones of white limestone in its base.
The tower was built in 1510 and decorated with ogees, braces and Flamboyant pinnacles.
Similar to the Flemish belfries in the North of France, the clock tower became a symbol of municipal power and unity.
The most interesting side of the tower is the one facing the square.
The base of the tower is made up of ancient blocks of white limestone, probably originating from some Roman edifice.
On the ground floor of the tower, the pointed arched gate in Gothic architectural style is topped with a commemoration plaque mentioning the liberation of Aix in August 1944 and a funeral urn dedicated to the manes (the spirits of the dead) of the Defenders of the Fatherland during the French Revolution. The urn was placed on the tower in 1801 and replaces a former bust statue of Louis XIII which commemorated the visit of the King to Aix in 1622.
Above it is the astronomical clock dating back to 1661, under which rotate four wooden statues from the 17th century, representing the four seasons. A mechanism, now gone, used to activate the rotation. Today this action is performed manually each season. The autumn statue also features a cherub with his eyes blindfolded as a reminder that love is blind.
The astronomical clock is surmounted by a balcony which runs around the tower with a fine wrought-iron ramp.
The clock above it is flanked by two empty niches which formerly sheltered two statues. The clock itself is activated by a modern mechanism, the older motor is still stored up in the tower somewhere in a cubby-hole and is still in good working order.
On each side of the clock’s gables are two small round-shaped windows.
The crown of the edifice is the wrought iron terrace and its bell.
Found inside a wrought iron cage from the 16th century, the bell was used to call for the Council or for the defence of the town to a distance of one “lieue”, hence reaching the “banlieue” (literally translated as the suburb). Today, it still rings for the hours of the day and for tocsin.
The Clock Tower was listed as a “Monument Historique” in 1995.
At the centre of the square stands a fountain topped by a Roman column uncovered in the ruins of the Count’s Palace. At the top sits a globe surrounded by a golden laurel. In 1756 the fountain was decorated with mascarons of bearded men spitting water from the Pinchinats spring by Jean-Pancrace Chastel. Four inscriptions are located at the bottom of the fountain:
- to the West (facing the Town Hall): words dedicated to the municipality.
- to the East and to the South: words written in honour of Louis XV, the Duke of Villars (the Governor) and Gallois de la Tour (the Parliament’s President).
- to the North: a reminder that the water was originally brought by the Romans.
This square was the geographical centre during the French Revolution, from where the city was divided into districts.
The fountain was listed as a “Monument Historique” in 1905.