For the past 15 years, I have lived in the same Provençal village and read a library full of books about the area and its history. And then, at a chance meeting, a story pops up. Not just a funny anecdote or forgotten legend, but a historical event spanning many centuries and featuring well-known sites. Reason enough to re-explore my familiar surroundings with a sketchbook and to look for traces of this history.
1. The stone quarry
Oppède-le-Vieux is one of the hilltop villages on the north flank of the Luberon mountain in Provence. Like its neighbouring villages Ménerbes and Maubec, it has had its quarry since its inception. The one in Oppède is amongst the oldest and largest in the south of France. A few years ago I visited the immense spaces hollowed out over more than 14ha in the mountain. The sawn and chopped limestones can be found all over the world mostly in the form of mantelpieces, sculpted facade decorations and monuments. The quarry is still operational. In the sketch, you can see part of the mechanical extraction above ground. (Carrière Hugot)
2. The 12th-century abbey
The Oppède quarry supplied the stones for the Sénanque abbey, about 17 km further in the direction of Gordes. It is one of the most visited tourist spots in the Luberon region. Sénanque, built between 1148 and 1220, has undergone a thorough restoration in recent years.
I drew the abbey at different angles. In this image, you can see the blocks, the curvature and the complexity of the building. Since the abbey has been documented extensively, it is not the centre of interest in my sketching project.
3. The olive oil mill
Today you can find an olive oil mill about halfway between the two sites. And that’s no coincidence. It is here that I picked up the story on a visit. During the construction of the abbey, the mill and farm belonged to the order of the Cistercians. The lay brothers who worked there provided grain, olive oil and food for the monks. Stone transport passed by the mill where one could rest and stock up on food on the way to the building site.
To run the mill a canal was dug and the water of the nearby river Calavon was diverted under the buildings. Today you can still see the openings through which the water entered the mill and re-entered the river.
In the pencil sketch, I tried to show where the water was when the mill was in operation, about eight centuries ago. The blue layer was added digitally.
By sketching at different times and places, but within the same context, I started paying attention to other details along the way. It is not inconceivable that during a walk in the Provençal landscape, you will still find remnants of sculpted building materials. I have already drawn a few as a sort of archive. Quick pencil sketches as a change from the more detailed work.
What started as a simple sketch of an old building, became a whole project just by listening! This has become an ongoing project now and the first time I use my urban sketching in the form of a documentary. Probably not the last time …