Caen, surprise tour in the Normandy city (but can you pronounce its name?)

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All good to go to Normandy to enjoy the magic of Mont Saint-Michelto see the Atlantic breaking on the walls of Saint-Malo or to stroll in the delightful Honfleurafter a visit in the center of Rouen.

Caenencysted in the heart of Normandy, just 12 kilometers from the English Channel, requires instead the curious spirit of the traveller. The charm of him is restrained, rather like the character of the people here, one hundred thousand inhabitantsjust a lot of students (the university is an institution and the chair of history is among the most coveted in the country: even the great Marc Bloch taught here). To visit it just a whole day, but not a few hours: entering the subtle folds of this town where you can hear the cries of seagulls in the street and the sea air calls for patience. Starting with pronunciation of the name. “It’s impossible for you Italians,” the guide tells me immediately. Tip for approximating the accent of the natives: the first “a” is barely hinted at, then the nasal goes right away (and no “e”!).

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Caen has had a complex history far more than the pronunciation of the name: will celebrate the millennium of life in 2025given that the first mention of a village in these parts dates back to 1025. Even at the time it must have had great charm because, when here there was only countryside, a river (it is called Orneand it is pleasant to walk along its banks) and sea, the mythical William the Conqueror he decided to build an important castle, to maintain the dominion of the territory. Part of medieval castle still resists, anchored to a small spur of rock from which you can enjoy a magnificent view over the city (it’s the one you see in the photo at the beginning of the article, with a light that only Normandy can offer). Today, parts of the walls remain of the original layout, which hide, within them, a suggestive esplanade. It is better to start the visit of the city from here.

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The large esplanade inside the Castle of Caen, photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Marco Giugliarelli

This whole area, where today there are the university, the Normandy Museum, the Musée Des Beaux-Arts and a large garden, was the beating heart of William the Conqueror’s castle, also built to protect Matilda of Flanders, his wife (and distant cousin). The two were very close, which was rare at the time: when William left for one of his many wars of conquest, Matilda kept the keys to the city, loved and respected by the people. To this vigorous Norman couple, who made Caen the propulsive center of the Middle Ages in France, the city has just dedicated a beautiful sculpture, in the historic centre: let’s see William and Matilda on horsebackin an elaboration conceived by Claude Quiesse, a local French artist, in bronze, iron and brass which within two months has already become an attraction.

The statue dedicated to William and Matilda, recently present in the city, photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Marco Giugliarelli

The relationship between William and Matilda was not looked upon favorably by the Pope and the two (very cunning) decided to appease him by erecting two abbeys: one dedicated to men and one to women. Obviously today the abbeys are gone (Napoleon made a clean sweep of convents and monasteries: there isn’t even a cathedral), but the fascinating one remains standing St Stephen’s Church (here they say Saint-Etienne) where, in the Gothic choir with splendid stained glass windows, we find William’s tomb (it really is his: recent studies on a femur tell us that it dates back to his time). The church worth a stop for its austere facade, opposite a couple of unmissable gastronomic places, and for its yellowish color that characterizes all the oldest buildings in the area. It’s called “Caen stone” and was also used a lot to build the Marais district, in Paris, because it was easy to work with.

The austere facade of the Church of Saint-Etienne, in Caen, photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Marco Giugliarelli

The plain around the castle deserves a closer look: next to the Normandy Museum, a shrub garden hides an upcoming major excavation. Archaeologists are convinced that they have found the old Hall of the Exchequer in the area, the one where Richard the Lionheart he would rally the barons of the area before setting off on the Crusade to the Holy Land. We will see. Leaving the castle and venturing towards the centre, one thing must be kept in mind: the area from here to the station was completely destroyed after the Normandy landing in 1944. Caen in fact suffered, from June to July of that year, a massive air and sea bombardment that devastated the city (the spire of Saint-Pierre, the most central church, was demolished by a bomb by sea). We must therefore learn to recognize the signs of reconstruction, starting with the castle walls (the largest in Europe) and certain houses in the centre. Much, fortunately, has been spared, like the old one Bishop’s Palacetoday seat of the Tourist Office, Belle Epoque style houses of street Saint-Pierre and the old printing districttoday dotted with delightful bookshops (don’t miss the Library cafewhich has a timeless atmosphere) and when you wander around the city, for example in the old market square, now full of restaurants where you can taste typical Norman dishes, don’t forget that no glass or window you see predates the ‘ 44.

Here the war has really turned the life of the city upside down.

Caen, the town hall, the back of the Saint-Etienne church and in the foreground a sculpture by Jaume Plensa, photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Marco Giugliarelli

However, one cannot leave Caen without having made a stop at the Beaux-Arts Museum: he too has a complicated history: it is inside the castle walls, with an entrance almost engraved in the rock and functional interiors that betray its birth in the seventies.

Here, in the substantial art collection that reaches up to the present day, an Italian jewel stands out: is the most famous Marriage of the Virgin of the Peruginoan oil painting 234 centimeters high by 185 wide, painted around 1504 and intended to decorate a chapel in the church of San Lorenzo, in Perugia. He has arrived daringly in France in 1804, following the Napoleonic looting after having traveled by land and sea, having stopped at the Louvre and having toured 15 other French cities: at the time it was placed in full view in the first museum erected by Napoleon in the city but the bombings did not spare that location either. By a fortunate circumstance, having sensed the risk of war, the Caen authorities hid it in a country abbey from 1939: we know that it was saved (but clumsily restored) until it found peace in the 1990s, with a restoration that today it preserves it in all its splendour.

Soon – and this is good news for us Italians – will come home: it will be the final piece, let’s say the grand finaleof the exhibition “Ithe best master of Italy. Perugino in his time”, which from March 4 to June 11 will celebrate in National Gallery of Umbriain Perugia, the 500th anniversary of the death of the artist who was much more than Raphael’s master, but «the noble father of classicism in Italy». We stole the definition from Veruska Picchiarelli who, with Marco Pierini, director of the National Gallery of Umbria, curates this extraordinary exhibition, conceived as a journey through the best masterpieces of Perugino, captured here at the height of his career, finally honored for the great artist he was, whose grace still surprises us.

The Marriage of the Virgin by Perugino, preserved in the Caen Museum, photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Marco Giugliarelli

Veruska Picchiarelli, curator of the GNU of Perugia, in front of Perugino’s canvas, photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Marco Giugliarelli

A detail of Perugino’s painting in Caen, photo by Marco Giugliarelli

Marco Giugliarelli

Source: Vanity Fair

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