What use are the laws protecting historical monuments ? (2) : the amphitheatre in Fréjus

1. The amphitheatre in Fréjus
2007, before « restoration »
Photo : Wikipedia (Patricia.fidi)

The Art Tribune theoretically does not cover the field of Antiquity but our continuing fight against vandalism forces us today to denounce the project, sponsored by the Direction Régionale des Monuments Historiques and therefore by the Ministry of Culture, currently being carried out at the amphitheatre in Fréjus, a historical monument which was listed in 1840.

The photographs which Pauline Michaud, a member of the association “Les amis de Saint-Raphaël et de Fréjus”, forwarded to us send a chill up our spine. The sight of a crane, concrete walls and tiered seating at the very heart of the monument (ill. 2 to 5 and 7 to 10) is truly nightmarish. The idea is to build a permanent structure, incredible as it may seem, in the center of the amphitheatre. We tried to reach the chief architect for historical monuments in charge of the project, Francesco Flavigny, who until now has not been generally known for massacring our cultural heritage but were told that he could not answer our questions as the Prefet of the Var region, currently too busy with the recent flooding there, needed to give his authorization. Although we understand the urgency of the disaster, our questions were not addressed directly to him but to the architect and the regional director of cultural affairs. This reaction however, clearly reveals the political nature of the refurbishment work at the Fréjus amphitheatre. We remind our readers that the mayor of Fréjus, Elie Brun is a senator of the UMP, the majority party [1].

2. Inside the amphitheatre in Fréjus
June 2010
Photo : Pauline Michaud

3. Inside the amphitheatre in Fréjus
June 2010
Photo : Pauline Michaud

An extremely enthusiastic article in Var Matin on 22 July 2009 is very enlightening : the purpose of the project is to readapt the amphitheatre in order to stage shows drawing large crowds, not possible as is due to recent changes in safety regulations. The journalist dares to write that “the amphitheatre had become a ruin which was too complicated to reorganize in order to welcome big shows” and that “Fréjus could no longer afford to deprive itself of such a treasure, reduced simply to visits by lovers of old stones.” Sic.
In this same article, Francesco Flavigny explains : “I had an absolute imperative : to respect the original monument”. After seeing the photographs, we wonder what it would have looked like if he hadn’t ! Further, still in Var Matin [2], the architect states : “This is to enhance the monument. The contemporary concrete structure will protect all of the ruins from deteriorating.” Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before ? Let’s use concrete on any ruins which are currently deteriorating : concrete, so solid that it will stop any further deterioration ever.

4. Amphitheatre in Fréjus
June 2010
Photo : Pauline Michaud

5. Inside the amphitheatre in Fréjus
June 2010
Photo : Pauline Michaud

How could such a project slip by unnoticed until now without raising the ire of associations for the protection of heritage ? The answer is no doubt because the communications campaign surrounding the project has been very successful. All of the statements issued by persons in charge of the operation which we found in the press, on internet, some of which are two years old, use expressions such as “enhancement”, “rehabilitation” [3], “restoration”, “embellish” [4]…
Fréjus Infos of January-February 2010, a small propaganda newspaper published by city hall, explains in a learned manner that the Roman amphitheatre will “recover its former luster”. It also carries the explanations of Francesco Flavigny which he did not have the right to give us directly : “The purpose of this project is to make this building functional again and, at the same time, stop further deterioration of the structures. But it would be convenient to take into account a preliminary element : here, in Fréjus, there are no remaining antique structures. Or almost none. The tiered seating, as it appeared over the past few years, in fact consisted of masonry placed on top of antique granite blocks. Today, we cannot reproduce these antique structures. The choice here for this project is to build over the ruins. This is the complete opposite of the renovation project for the amphitheatre in Arles. There, the project attempts to restore structures which are still very present. Whereas our purpose in Fréjus is to achieve an exact geometrical reproduction of the “cavea”, but with contemporary materials. So we are talking about a protective slipcover which will float over the ruins but without hiding them at all.

6. Circus Maximus in Rome
Photo : Didier Rykner

We should note that this is not a reconstitution (like in Versailles) but a reconstruction with contemporary materials. This is obviously not any more acceptable than the former. Using the same kind of logic, we could easily reconstruct the ruins at Mount Olympus (unusable in their present condition) or even the Colosseum in Rome, after all why not, so as to produce rock concerts there since it is such a shame not to use these old ruins !
Anyone familiar with the Circus Maximus in Rome (ill.6) knows that there are almost no archeological vestiges visible there today. Does that make this site any less moving, is its power to evoke the past any less tangible ? Are we suppose to reconstruct the Circus Maximus so as to make it useful ? That would be totally unimaginable.

7. Inside the amphitheatre in Fréjus
June 2010
Photo : Pauline Michaud

8. Amphitheatre in Fréjus
June 2010
Photo : Pauline Michaud

The affair in Fréjus is comparable to that of the château in Falaise. The stated purpose for the first stage of the project is to reach a seating capacity of 5.000. A second phase has even been planned to attain the 10.000 seats available in Antiquity originally. We point out that the Commission nationale des monuments historiques, upon consultation, officially approved the first stage in 2005, but that it stated its opposition to the plans for second phase, as presented, at a meeting on 15 June 2009 requesting “a new presentation for validation by the commission nationale” [5]…

This massacre of a heritage site for the benefit of city hall is being financed as follows : 10% by the city (which is supervising the refurbishment), 20% by the PACA region (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) together with the Conseil général of the Var region and 50% by the government, of which a large part comes from the Ministry of Culture (the same one which is in charge of protecting national heritage…). _ The work permit was issued by the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles, representing the Ministry. The funds for this operation come from the budget provided for the restoration of historical monuments. Thus the little money allotted for maintaining artistic heritage is going in fact towards its destruction. All of this is being promoted under the slogan “Revival” (ill. 9)…

9. Amphitheatre in Fréjus
June 2010
Photo : Pauline Michaud

10. Amphitheatre in Fréjus
June 2010
Photo : Pauline Michaud

11. Detail of an information panel
in the amphitheatre in Fréjus
Photo : All rights reserved

A prestigious landmark listed as a Historical Monument, a city hall which wishes to make generous use of concrete so as to “reutilize” it, a chief architect who accepts to participate in this act of vandalism, a Commission nationale des monuments historiques which grants its authorization, a Ministry of Culture which validates the project and helps in the financing : this affair reflects a complete failure in the system. Furthermore, we can imagine the financial implications of this operation as the subsequent transformation of this historical monument into an entertainment venue will bring in substantial amounts of money down the road. What use are the laws protecting historical monuments if they can be bent so easily by the very same people who are supposed to enforce them ?

It seems quite obvious, given the advanced stage of the work already done on the project, that this is a leftover – of the worst type – from the previous Director of Heritage, Michel Clément. Was the current Minister of Culture aware of the crime being committed in his name ? Is he planning to do anything about this ongoing scandal ? We will be adding this question to the interview we have requested in vain for the past year.

Didier Rykner, samedi 3 juillet 2010


[1] In passing, we remind our readers that the protection of historical monuments in zones formerly protecting landscape and architectural heritage are now in the hands of the Préfets…(appointed by the President).

[2] 19/3/10, Le Coeur des arènes en travaux.

[3] « In Fréjus, city hall is also underscoring the enhancement of its 2,000 year old heritage. ‘We would like to be another Arles’, says Michel Perrault. Its first project will rehabilitate the Roman amphitheatre”. (Le Point, 4/9/08, “Fréjus et Saint-Raphaël au banc d’essai.”)

[4] “This restoration and enhancement project was launched years ago.” (Var Matin, 9/6/08, Amphithéâtre romain : rénover, accueillir, conserver).

[5] The lack of transparency surrounding the work of the Commission nationale des monuments historiques is unacceptable. There is no mention of the exact composition of this institution anywhere, there is no way of knowing which projects come before it, of discovering its opinions or having access to the minutes of their meetings. It would be in the public interest to make all of this information available on internet.

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