General A summer and winter resort, surrounded by countryside in which roses, carnations, and violets grow. Olive and orange trees are also cultivated. It's an old market town, where this produce has traditionally been gathered and shipped to other parts of France. Cold north winds are kept away from the town by the foothills of the Alps nearby, making for a Mediterranean climate all year round.
Origins The town was founded by the Ligurians, a tribe that inhabited this part of Europe long before the rise of Rome. The Romans came, and later, Christianity. As Vence was the seat of a bishop, it gained in importance. Several famous bishops served in Vence, including St. Lambert, an Italian prince who went on to become Pope Paul III, and Bishop Godeau.
The Barons of Villeneuve These nobles ruled the town during the Middle Ages, and occasionally quarreled with the bishops over revenue, justice, and war. The Barons of Villeneuve were the descendants of Romee de Villeneuve, who was in charge of the family affairs of the Count of Provence, Berenger V. This count had four unwed daughters and an empty treasury. What to do? The only way he could hope to "marry them off" was to give the bridegroom a handsome dowry. At this point, Romee de Villeneuve stepped in and helped to arrange profitable marriages. One daughter was married to the King of Castille, another to Henry III of England, the third to the Austrian emperor, and the fourth to the Duke of Anjou (brother of the King of France). Thus, the ruling family of Vence intermarried with some of the leading royal houses of Europe.
Bishop Godeau This son of Vence starred in a "rags to riches" tale that is still a popular legend in the town. Born to a humble family, Godeau became a storyteller at the court of the Marquise de Rambouillet. But his quick wit and even quicker tongue charmed all who listened, especially the ladies of the court. Later on, whenever someone wanted to praise a piece of writing which would gain immortality, he would say, "This must have been written by Godeau."
At the time, Cardinal Richelieu, who was virtually the ruler of France, established the French Academy to honor men of intellect who had made the greatest contribution to French culture. He selected Godeau as the first member. The Academy continues to exist today, of course, and numbers among its members the greatest scientists, poets, painters, and philosophers of France.
At the age of 30, Godeau had "burnt himself out" with his wit, and decided to become a priest. He was made a bishop in short order, and his diocese was to include two towns, Grasse and Vence. But neither city wanted him in view of his lowly origins, and for several years he could not safely venture into either one. He lived in a hut situated between the two. Then he decided to settle in Vence, which by this time had reconciled itself to him as bishop, and plunged into a flurry of activity. He repaired the cathedral, and founded several new industries which soon prospered: perfume-making, leather tanning, and ceramics. Vence became a sort of boom town, with a growing middle class.
Godeau used his influence to upgrade personal conduct too, especially among the local clergy. No wining, wrenching, or "alms-taking" was permitted the priests. Greater respect was enforced among townspeople attending Mass: no loud whispering, laughing, fist-fighting, and other crudities which were common in those days.
For his saintliness, Godeau is fondly remembered in Vence as the waif who made good, and who brought his home town out of its doldrums into a modest prosperity and self-respect. He died in 1672 at the age of 67.
Matisse Chapel The Rosary Chapel, also called the "Matisse Chapel," was planned and executed by the painter himself. The designs are stark-modern, in keeping with his style, and these include a series of Stations of the Cross, stained-glass windows, the Altar, and a large painting formed of black lines on white tile.
The light inside is striking: a brilliant, almost dreamlike softness, created by the glass in the windows and the white porcelain of the walls which reflects the light.
Vieille Ville The Old Town of Vence is one of the loveliest "old quarters" of any of the Provencal towns. Parts of its original walls can be seen at various places, as well as the five original towers or gateways.
In the Place du Frene is a huge ash tree (hence the name) which tradition says was planted when Francis I (King of France) and Pope Paul III (former Bishop of Vence) visited the town. The Place du Peyra has an exquisite fountain shaped like an urn. The square tower overlooking the Place was one of the original five gateways of the city. The Cathedral is early Romanesque, with charming 15th-century choirstalls.
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