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View of the Cours de Marseille during the plague epidemic of 1720
© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / Franck Raux
Publication date: April 2020
Professor of modern history at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis.
Marseille sick with the plague 1720-1722
In 1720, the plague devastated the city of Marseille causing, according to estimates, the loss of 30 to 50,000 inhabitants, or between a third and half of its population. But it is imperative to remove the rotting corpses.
The Chevalier Roze (1675-1733), one of the figures in the fight against the plague of 1720, had the port galleys cleared and buried in mass graves the hundreds of corpses that litter the Esplanade de la Tourette. In 1722, Marseille recorded a resumption of the disease, which further accentuated the trauma of the population.
The plague strikes particularly in the narrow and winding streets of the old town of Marseille, but the engraver Jacques Rigaud (circa 1681-1754) chooses here to show that the epidemic also submerges the modern city of which the Cours is the symbol with its uniform buildings with two or three windows, its aligned facades, its carefully traced perspectives, its side alleys planted with trees, and its fountains.
The engraver specified: "drawn on the place during the plague which arrived in 1720", which can let suppose, without one having any certainty, that following the example of the painter Michel Serre (1658-1733) whose presence is confirmed, he was able to witness the plague of 1720 in Marseille.
This engraving belongs to an important body of iconography produced at the time to illustrate and bear witness to the massacre. They were subsequently broadcast in France and in Europe in the form of animated optical views and in color (a fashionable process at the time which gave relief and perspective to the scenes represented).
A scene of chaos and helplessness
The engraving represents a scene of chaos: the city symbol of civilization is here submerged by the epidemic wave which is a metaphor for barbarism. As in the engravings of the XVIIe century which represent scenes of war or massacre, the View of the Cours de Marseille is divided into several small scenes, the violence of which clashes with the majesty of the urban setting.
The living pull and stack the bodies, naked or still dressed, in carts, which leave for urban mass graves. In a variant of the engraving, Rigaud represents bodies being pulled down from buildings by ropes. A woman is lying on the ground with a child still at the breast, even though she is dying or already dead. So it is a scene of desolation. Powerless in the face of disease, the inhabitants turn to God. Men of the Church bless the piles of corpses, and under the protection of stretched cloths, the dying and the living who accompany them. In the lower right corner, Rigaud represented the city's bishop, Mgr de Belsunce, blessing and comforting the inhabitants. An emblematic figure of the fight against the plague of 1720, he is represented in most of the iconographic corpus produced on the occasion of the event that he often identifies.
After the plague, remember and rebuild
The event deeply marks the city of Marseille. The inhabitants and the authorities feel the need to inscribe it in the urban space: the Cours becomes the Cours Belsunce, a statue of the bishop is erected, plaques and memorials are erected.
In terms of health, Marseille must rebuild its reputation as a vigilant port with respect to quarantine, even though it is in close commercial contact with the Barbary regencies in the South and with the Levant in the East, where the plague is raging. endemic way. The stake is therefore vital, both for the city's commerce and for its population.
The policy of strict observance of sanitary rules is a success. The Marseille lazaretto, located in Arenc in the north of the city, stands out as a reference and the consuls of the European powers send their supervisory authorities the so-called Marseille Health bulletins, a health watch instrument through which the intendants of Health specify the situation of the port during infectious outbreaks from the south or east of the Mediterranean basin. In 1786, the Swedish consul in Marseilles, himself a trader, wrote to his government: “the memory of the terrible devastation that the plague caused in this city from 1720 to 1722, which took 80,000 inhabitants - an exaggerated figure - and the stories of what is happening in the Levant and in Barbary, can only commit us to the most effective precautions ”. In the middle of the XIXe century, Caroline hospital, on the islands of Frioul, a stone's throw from the Old Port is dedicated to the lazaretto, proof that the epidemic watch - yellow fever was then particularly feared - is closely associated with the port and the city of Marseille .
Régis Bertrand, "The iconography of the plague of Marseille or the long memory of a catastrophe", in Collectif (dir.), Images of Provence. Iconographic representations from the end of the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century, Aix-en-Provence, Publications of the University of Provence, 1992, p. 75-87.
Charles Carrière, Marcel Coudurié and Ferréol Rebuffat, Marseille dead city, the plague of 1720, Marseille, Jean-Michel Garçon, 2nd ed. revised and augmented, 1988.
To cite this article
Pierre-Yves BEAUREPAIRE, "The plague in Marseille in 1720"