Towards the end of a very hot May, we spent a week in Narbonne in France. Narbonne is an old Roman town, once called Narbo Martius, that forms one point of a shallow triangle with the medieval walled city of Carcassonne and the bullfighting mecca of Béziers. It’s a nice little place; somewhere between a tourist trap and a working town, with plenty to see and do in and around the local area.
For me, the highlight was a visit to Narbo Via. This is a museum on the edge of town, sited rather incongruously beside a conference centre and a giant Carrefour supermarket, that lives in a restrained, thoughtful building designed by Foster+Partners. On the outside and the inside it is cool, quiet, and modern, with lots of concrete, wood, metal and marble on show. It felt like — and I can’t imagine this is accidental — a modern interpretation of an ancient Roman temple or senate house.
The main event, aesthetically at least, is the “lapidary wall”: an overwhelming, monolithic curtain of sculpted stone blocks that greets you as you enter and serves to partition the public and private parts of the museum. And, cleverly, it acts to store a large number of the museum’s collection of such objects. It’s quite a sight.
Beyond that, the exhibition itself is fantastic, mixing contemporary art with Roman artefacts and some tasteful video and interactive displays. It manages to feel neither stuffy nor overly lightweight, which always seems to be a tricky line to tread. In short, I enjoyed it very much!
If there’s a fly in the ointment, it’s that the museum (or rather, its parent organisation, since it’s one of three institutions run by the same group) doesn’t have any online records of its collection. There’s no website I can direct you towards to browse through the sculptures, monuments and objects on show, which is a startling oversight for a modern museum. So that said, here are just a handful of the more interesting objects on show. The photos are my own, the captions are the museum’s. Enjoy, and please consider visiting if ever you’re in the vicinity!
First is this second-century inscription on marble dedicating an altar to the cult of the emperor Augustus. It has a cornucopia of writing and inscriptional practices characteristic of Rome in the early Christian era: hedera (❦), or vine leaves, as decorations and word separators. A “diminuendo” arrangement, with key texts rendered at the top of the tablet in the largest letters, then gradually working down the hierarchy of importance. There is outdented text to introduce new paragraphs (see “QVOD” on line seven), and interpuncts between words. There are even what look to be word spaces on lines four and six (between “NVMINI·AVGVSTI” and “VOTVM”, and then between “-NENSIVM” and “INPERPETUOM”), but I don’t know Latin well enough to know for sure.
This first-century limestone grave marker is a little less grand. There are fewer inscriptional flourishes too, being limited mostly to interpuncts sprinkled between words and abbreviations. The museum’s description of this gravestone makes it clear that chef Lugius, the future decedent, was alive to commission the work and presumably could have visited the stonemason to make sure it was just how he wanted it. “Love it. Really. Excellent work. [pauses, points] “Have you considered adding a massive knife right about here?”
We finish on what is, essentially, just a nice tablet. The pale surface of this mid-second century marble rather defeated my phone’s camera, so I’ve (badly) increased the contrast to make it more legible. We have hedera; we have interpuncts; we have abbreviations; we have a very gentle diminuendo. A full house, almost, of inscriptional practices, and a pleasant work to take in.