The Vieille Charite MarseilleOne of Marseille's most prestigious museums, the Vieille Charité is also a magnificent building in its own right and well worth seeing even if you don't visit any of its permanent or temporary exhibitions.

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Tucked away in the heart of the Panier, or Old Town, the Vieille Charité was constructed between 1671 and 1749. The man behind it was the Marseille-born painter / sculptor / architect Pierre Paul Puget, whose birthplace in the modest house at no.20 rue du petit Puits is just a couple of metres from his masterpiece (a discreet plaque marks the spot).

Entrance is free if you're not going into any of the galleries. Climb the stairs (there are lifts / elevators for those who need them) to the second level to get a stunning view of the overall complex.

It's built of softly glowing golden-pink limestone mined in La Couronne on the Blue Coast, just north of Marseille and looks especially lovely in the late afternoon sun.

The Vieille Charité consists of a three-storeyed gallery whose arcades enclose a spacious inner courtyard with a striking, elliptical, domed chapel as its centrepiece.

In his thriller The Marseille Caper Peter Mayle vividly evokes the beauty of this chapel where a key scene in the book is set, describing "the alcoves around the side, each with its graceful arch and marble statue, the lovely proportions of the room, the high dome ceiling, the soft evening light filtering through the high windows. It's one of France's most remarkable examples of baroque architecture."

The Vieille Charite MarseilleThe Vieille Charité started life as a poorhouse with a capacity of 600 beds. But, despite its benevolent-sounding name, it was effectively a prison used to detain the growing number of beggars, tramps and homeless people pouring into Marseille in the mid 18th century.

It became an orphanage and hospice, then a barracks and eventually social housing. This historic building fell into disrepair and was even, incredibly, threatened with demolition.

You can see a plaque with photographs of the Vieille Charité in this terrible state just to the left of the entrance gate.

No less a personage than the great architect Le Corbusier (whose Radiant City is another of Marseille's architectural treasures) spoke out in its defence in the 1940s. Finally in the 1960s restoration work began and was completed in 1986.

Today the Vieille Charité hosts temporary shows in its galleries and chapel and there is an outstanding one on there at the moment called Jack London: Dans les Mers du Sud.

As the title suggests, it traces the legendary American writer and adventurer on his incredible 19 month cruise to the South Paciific. Until 7 January 2018.

jack londonHandsome and charismatic, London, pictured, is one of the most popular English-language authors in the world.

Most famous for thrillers such as White Fang and The Call of the Wild, he packed an enormous amount into his short life (he died aged 40).

The cruise of the Snark is one of his most remarkable projects. In 1907 London and his tiny crew set sail for the southern seas to explore remote islands including Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji, Samoa and the Solomon Islands.

The darkened galleries of the Vieille Charité take you along on this magical trip, as if plunging into a dream.

The adventure is recreated with rare photographs (many taken by London himself), sound and film clips, and maquettes.

Above all, there are some truly sensational artefacts (statues, headdresses, costumes, masks...), both from the museum's own collection and loaned by other galleries. Often you can see these in London's photographs, juxtaposed with the real thing.

The main explanatory panels are in English as well as French (hooray!) and give a lot of fascinating background, as well as outlining the turbulent colonial history of these destinations when London discovered them.

jack and charmian londonYou also get a vivid sense of London's amazing, free-spirited wife, Charmian, who accompanied him, matched all his exploits and appears in dozens of photos (here she's seen with Jack on board the Snark). She was his first mate in every sense of the term.

This sounded at first to us like an unlikely concept for an exhibition. In fact it was tremendously absorbing. Exotic travel has become commonplace, thanks to the efforts of bloggers and Instagrammers. This show offers a glimpse into an era when a trip like this was truly extraordinary.

This is Marseille's major cultural event of the autumn and is accompanied by all sorts of other happenings, including children's visits and workshops, conferences and screenings of a film about the voyage by Michel Viotte, the co-curator of Jack London: Dans les Mers du Sud. Click here for the full programme.

The Vieille Charité also boasts impressive permanent collections of archeological and ethnographic art. The Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne (the Museum of Mediterranean Archeology, or MAM) has a very fine array of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan relics, the largest in France apart from that in the Louvre, and a room devoted to Egypt with funerary relics and a splendid papyrus Book of the Dead.

A lot larger than you would expect looking at them from the outside, the upper galleries are given over to the Musée des Arts Africains, Oceaniens et Amérindiens (MAAOA) an eclectic array of ethnographic art from Africa, Oceania and Latin and Southern America.

The MAAOA includes a small but striking set of 19th century African masks, a miscellany of popular Mexican crafts and a mysterious Oceanic room which has always been closed when we visited. These collections are the largest in France, outside of Paris.

The Charite Cafe, MarseilleFull of surprises and unexpected corners, the Vieille Charité also encompasses a cultural and poetry centre, research units, a very good art book shop, a library and a small cinema as well as Le Charité Café, pictured, a really pleasant spot to have a drink or a light lunch.

Where: Centre de la Vieille Charité, 2 rue de la Charité, 13002 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 91 26 45. Website for the Vieille Charité

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