It’s a rare authenticity that gives the market and the narrow streets of the old city its charm. Wandering through them, we discover the workshops of ceramicists and santon figurine-makers, bakeries selling delicious fougasse breads, wooden toy shops and a small restaurant specializing in regional dishes…
If we should begin our stroll with a visit to the Museum of the Little World of Marcel Pagnol, and to the family home of this writer/filmmaker, we could easily imagine ourselves accompanied by the santons, climbing up to the church at the very top of the old city…
Santon, or santoun in Provençal, means “little saint.” These little clay figurines were born during the French Revolution. As crèches were forbidden in churches at the time, Provençal families made them in their homes, “disguising” the characters of the nativity within a veritable Provençal village that mixed the traditional pastoral characters with those performing traditional activities and crafts: millers, farmers, laundresses, grinders, hunters, etc. Originally made from raw clay, today these figurines are fired, painted or clothed, and being a santon-maker, or santonnier, has become a craft in its own right.
In Aubagne, there are many workshops dedicated to these artisans. The city’s santon fair, along with the one in Marseille , are among the most renowned, and last for more than a month. Provençal families pass on their santons from generation to generation and add new characters every year, which they buy at these fairs or directly from the santonnier’s atelier.
It was the sister of the ceramicist Louis Sicard, the Aubagnaise santon-maker Thérèse Neveu, inventor of the famous Provençal cicada, who had the idea of adding a santon bearing the traits of a famous personality, Virginie de Garbalan, to the traditional characters of the Provençal crèche. Thus, she paved the way for Marcel Pagnol’s future “Little World,” where we find Raimu, Fernandel, Gérard Depardieu, Yves Montand and many others… “santonified!”
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