The Maison Carrée is probably the best example left of a Roman temple, with a near perfect façade. 26m long, 15 m wide, 17m high and built of local limestone by Roman architects, the temple is a fine example of Vitruvian architecture.
The temple is believed to have been built possibly around 19BC, commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus. Agrippa was the son-in-law to Augustus, and his two sons, Lucius and Gaius Caesar, were heirs to the Imperial Throne. The temple was re-dedicated in about 4-7 AD to the two sons, both of whom died at a young age, Lucius of a sudden fever at the age of 19, and Gaius of a sudden illness at the age of 24. Foul play was suspected in their deaths, with their step-mother a prime suspect as she wanted to promote her son Tiberius as the next successor, a plan in which she ultimately succeeded.
Bronze letters had been affixed to the front of the temple. These were unfortunately removed in the Middle Ages, but in 1758, a local scholar, Jean-François Séguier, was able to recreate the wording, based on the holes left behind from where the letters had been affixed. “To Gaius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul; to Lucius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul designate; to the princes of youth”. The Imperial Cult would have been worshipped at the temple, as part of the process of the Romans integrating the locals into becoming part of the Roman Empire.
The temple is a classic example of a Tuscan style, with a high podium of 2.85m that has a single cella (inner chamber of a temple) at one end and a deep porch and steps at the other. Although it has been called Maison Carrée (Square House) since the 16th century, it is in fact rectangular. Carrée used to mean any rectangle that had 4 right angles. The porch is supported by free standing Corinithian columns, the cella is decorated with engaged columns (ones that are partially built into the wall).
The fluted columns have design traits that were used from the Augustus period onwards. The capital was decorated with two rows of acanthus leaves, taking up two thirds of the bell shape – before this era it had only been a half. The decorated frieze is again covered with acanthus leaves, with the waves of foliage ending in bouquets. The architrave is also Corinthian, being divided up into three parts, separated by mouldings.
There are noticeable stylistic differences in the mouldings, showing that although the whole design was planned, each team had differences in how they executed their work, and patterns vary from one block to the next.
The cornice holds the roof, with ornate moulding projecting to ensure the rain doesn’t run down the walls. Decorations include rosette panels, egg and dart mouldings, ornate brackets, Greek key patterns and lion heads.
The ceiling of the pronaos, or porch, is early 19th century, and the huge wooden door was built in 1824.
Inside, the cella is completely empty, as the building has had many uses over the centuries, being in constant use from the 11th century. In the 11th century a chapel was added to the northern side, until it was destroyed in the Wars of Religion. In the 16th century it was a private house and subsequently changed owners several times. It was used as a hostel, stables and was even considered being used as a tomb. Until 1789 it was used as a church by Augustinian monks, becoming a depot and granary after the Revolution. For some time it was the headquarters for the prefecture of the Gard region, and the city archive until 1823, when it became a museum.
The temple would have once sat in the heart of the economic, political, social and administrative heart of the Roman city, as a part of the forum. The Maison Carrée stood in the south eastern corner of the forum, facing another building which was probably the curia, the gathering place of the local senate, as the remains of marble decorated meeting rooms have been found in the Rue Auguste.
The forum was a large square lined by porticoes and public buildings. It was built in two phases: the first was in the end of the 1st century BC with a public square, the latter with the construction of Maison Carrée. Archaeological excavations in the 1990s unearthed foundations of other buildings, two rectangular buildings where the Carrée d’Art now sits, as well as a residential area older than the forum. In 1923, when Norman Foster designed the Carrée d’Art opposite, he also opened up the square to create a modern day forum. Bronze circles in the ground now mark the location of the porticoes.
The temple was restored in 2006 and returned to the gleaming white colour it once would have had, and is now a major tourist attraction. Inside, visitors can only watch a film about the history of the city, as all of its beauty is on the outside. It is surrounded by cafes and shops and is once again an integral part of the city.
VISITING MAISON CARRÉE
January, February, November and December: 10am – 12:30 and 2pm – 4.30pm
March and October: 10am – 6pm
April, May and September: 9.30am - 6.30pm
June: 9.30am - 7pm
July and August: 9.30am - 8pm
Concessions and ages 7-17 €5
Children aged 7 free
Entry is included with the Nîmes Pass.