The City: Nice

Newsweek International, April 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

The City: Nice


Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio recalls his birthplace with decidedly mixed feelings.

This corner of the Mediterranean is very old indeed. In the 1960s, workmen on a hill, prophetically called Terra Amata (Beloved Earth), discovered the remains of a prehistoric camp. Archeologist Henry de Lumley identified it as a meeting--and feasting--place dating back roughly half a million years, perhaps, ironically, to the ancestors of the Berbers who would later populate the whole rim of the Mediterranean, from Algeria to Lebanon. The name of the town came from the Greeks--Nike, victory. And the Romans settled here and founded a city high in the hills for fear of the pirates and mosquitoes that infested the coast; they built an arena to practice their favorite pastimes, circus games and the immolation of Christians. They say the ghost of a martyred virgin still haunts that district.

What does it mean for me, being born and growing up in such a town? Does its antiquity give me (and everyone born here) a curious feeling of superiority, a kind of skepticism, an inclination to fatalism? As if everything had come here, carried by the sea waves and the invasions, as if everything had landed here, driven by storms or coming with the tide, onto the worn and weather-beaten pebbled beach.

Nissa, which became Nizza under the rule of the Genoese and of the Savoyards, had nothing of the provincial about it. It produced great men like the geographer Gioffredo and the mathematician Cassini, the patriot Garibaldi, the audacious general Massena, and many artists, like the religious painters Ludovico Brea and Giovanni Canavesio. Nice is animated by a proud libertarian spirit and uses as its emblem a combative red eagle (its beak turned to the right) whose claws clutch the three totem hills of the county: Mont Boron, Castle Hill, and Mont Alban. It shares with Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico the privilege of keeping a live eagle in a cage (a curious symbol of freedom!).

Nice has produced strong women too, such as the heroine Catherine Segurane, who led the people of Nice in resisting Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha while brandishing her washing board (there is a more salacious version of this story, but we'll leave that for another time). Nice's marriage with France, under Napoleon III, put an end to its independence but not to its creative or artistic force, since it produced or served as home to such writers as Jean Lorrain, Maupassant, Nietzsche, and Paul Valery (who founded the Centre Universitaire Mediterraneen there). …

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