Museum Tourist: Musée Saint-Raymond

People have been living in Toulouse for thousands of years. To learn about the slice of that history from a bit before the year 1 to a few hundred years after, I heartily recommend a stop at the Musée Saint-Raymond, the museum of antiquities.

This is an old, almost trite, observation, but it’s just crazy that I’m walking around every day atop ground that Romans lived and built on. Their forum was about a 10 minute walk south of my apartment; the city gate was just a minute north of here. But there’s nothing of the Roman time still standing, as far as I know. It’s been built on, buried, and heavily recycled. This glorious pair of marble feet was reused in a bit of masonry in the fourth century.

Toulouse is called the pink city because of its brick buildings. These bricks have been a bit of a mystery for me–why bricks and almost no stone? I have a partial answer. After a huge fire in 1463, people were encouraged to build with bricks instead of wood. That answers the question for regular buildings, but I still don’t understand why churches were built out of bricks. I suppose the answer probably has to do with how far away the nearest quarry is, but somehow every other European city I’ve ever visited has had massive cathedrals made of stone. Was Toulouse particularly poor in the Middle Ages? Or really attached to its pretty bricks? I don’t know.

In any case, the Romans were building in stone–marble and limestone, from what I saw. (I looked those words up in my dictionary. The signs are all in French, although you can rent an audio guide, which might come in an English version–I didn’t ask.)

The museum has a lot of these delightful little models of scenes from antiquity. Here’s the Roman forum being built.

Clay lamps are a mainstay of museums with old Roman stuff, and this one is no exception. I thought some of the decorations were particularly lovely, though. Check out these horses, which came from the tops of two lamps.

The second floor of the museum was entirely taken up with objects from one villa, Chiragan, outside of Toulouse. The owners must have been filthy rich. They had dozens of portrait busts, a whole lot of decorative carvings, and a really impressive set of slabs depicting the labors of Hercules. Here he is wrestling the hydra.

And, from that same villa, the head of emperor Septimius Severus.

He was the head of the Roman Empire from 193 to 211. Mostly I like his hair. Can you believe somebody did that with a block of marble and hand tools?

The museum’s building is from the 1500s; it’s a historic monument, one of the few pieces of medieval architecture left in Toulouse, according to their website. In the 1990s an excavation under the building found, among other things, a lime kiln that was used in the 5th and 6th centuries. It still had a bunch of chunks of marble sarcophagi in it, ready to be burned and turned into mortar.

There you go. Some of the Romans’ marble wound up between Toulouse’s pink bricks.

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