The Maison Carrée is an ancient building in Nîmes, southern France; it is one of the best preserved temples to be found anywhere in the territory of the former Roman Empire.

History

It was built c. 16 BC, and reconstructed in the following years, by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who was also the original patron of the Pantheon in Rome, and was dedicated or rededicated c. 2-4/5 AD to his two sons, Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar, adopted heirs of Augustus who both died young. The inscription dedicating the temple to Gaius and Lucius was removed in medieval times. However, a local scholar, Jean-François Séguier, was able to reconstruct the inscription in 1758 from the order and number of the holes in the portico's facade, to which the bronze letters had been affixed by projecting tines. According to Séguier's reconstruction, the text of the dedication read (in translation): "To Gaius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul; to Lucius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul designate; to the princes of youth."

The temple owes its preservation to the fact that it was rededicated as a Christian church in the fourth century, saving it from the widespread destruction of temples that followed the adoption of Christianity as Rome's official state religion. It subsequently became a meeting hall for the city's consuls, a canon's house, a stable for government-owned horses during the French Revolution and a storehouse for the city archives. It became a museum after 1823. Its French name derives from the archaic term carré long, literally meaning a "long square", or oblong - a reference to the building's shape.

Architecture

The Maison Carrée is an example of Vitruvian architecture. Raised on a 2.85 m high podium, the temple dominated the forum of the Roman city, forming a rectangle almost twice as long as it is wide, measuring 26.42 m by 13.54 m. The façade is dominated by a deep portico or pronaos almost a third of the building's length. It is a hexastyle design with six Corinthian columns under the Pediment at either end, and pseudoperipteral in that twenty engaged columns are embedded along the walls of the cella. Above the columns, the architrave is divided by two recessed rows of petrified water drips into three levels with ratios of 1:2:3. Egg-and-dart decoration divides the architrave from the frieze. The frieze is decorated with fine ornamental relief carvings of rosettes and acanthus leaves beneath a row of very fine dentils.

A large door (6.87 m high by 3.27 m wide) leads to the surprisingly small and windowless interior, where the shrine was originally housed. This is now used to house a tourist oriented 3-D film on a series of heroes that arose through Nîmes' history. No ancient decoration remains inside the cella.

Restorations

The building has undergone extensive restoration over the centuries. Until the 19th century, it formed part of a larger complex of adjoining buildings. These were demolished when the Maison Carrée housed what is now the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes (from 1821 to 1907), restoring it to the isolation it would have enjoyed in Roman times. The pronaos was restored in the early part of the 19th century when a new ceiling was provided, designed in the Roman style. The present door was made in 1824.

It underwent a further restoration between 1988–1992, during which time it was re-roofed and the square around it was cleared, revealing the outlines of the forum. Sir Norman Foster was commissioned to build a modern art gallery, known as the Carré d'Art, on the far side of the square, to replace the city theater of Nîmes, which had burnt in 1952. This provides a startling contrast to the Maison Carrée but renders many of its features, such as the portico and columns, in steel and glass. The contrast of its modernity is thus muted by the physical resemblance between the two buildings, representing architectural styles 2000 years apart.

The Maison Carrée inspired the neoclassical Église de la Madeleine in Paris and in the United States the Virginia State Capitol, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson, who had a stucco model made of the Maison Carrée while he was minister to France in 1785.