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Villefranche-sur-Mer (Municipality, Alpes-Maritimes, France)

Last modified: 2020-06-27 by ivan sache
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Flags of Villefranche-sur-Mer, thress versions - Images by Ivan Sache, 18 March 2020

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Presentation of Villefranche-sur-Mer

The municipality of Villefranche-sur-Mer (5,112 inhabitants in 2015; 488 ha) is located in the French Riviera, just east of Nice and 10 km west of Monaco. With Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Beaulieu-sur Mer, Villefranche forms the Golden Triangle of the French Riviera, the area where property prices are the highest in France.

Villefranche is located at the end of wide harbor, one of the safest and deepest natural harbors in western Mediterranean Sea (area, 350 ha; average depth, 17 m). Aware of the strategic significance of the harbor, Charles II of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily and Count of Provence, signed on 8 August 1295 in Brignoles a charter establishing a (tax)free town ("ville franche"). The original document is still kept in the municipal archives.

After the incorporation of the County of Nice to Savoy in 1388, Villefranche became the sole port of the County, later Duchy, of Savoy.
In 1543, the Ottoman fleet commanded by Hayreddin Barbarossa and allied to King of France Francis I (the so-called impious alliance) stepped in the harbor of Villefranche on its way to the siege of Nice. This prompted Emperor Charles V to commission his "supremo ingeniero", Gian Maria Olgiati, to increase the coastal defenses of the duchy. The belt of fortifications "alla moderna" initiated in Nice with the revamping the old feudal castle was completed with the erection of the St. Elmo fort by Olgiati and Benedetto Ala. Initiated in 1550, the works were completed in 1560, after Duke Emmanuel-Philibert of Savoy, the chief of the victorious Imperial armies during the Flanders campaign, had been restored full sovereignty on County of Nice by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559). The prestigious duke funded on his own the achievement of the works and purchased galleys to protect his state from pirates.
A small dock was established at the feet of the St. Elmo fort to moor the galleys, which contributed in 1571 to the suppression of the Turkish fleet in Lepanto. Emmanuel-Philibert's successors paid a specific attention to the fortifications of Villefranche, hiring the most famous military engineers to modernize them. Captain Carlo Morello, "First Engineer and Lieutenant-General of Artillery" of the Duke, published in 1656 a detailed description of the harbor's fortification.
Villefranche is richly illustrated in the Theatrum Sabaudiae, a political manifesto published in Amsterdam in 1687 to celebrate the house of Savoy and young Duke Charles-Emmanuel II. The text state that the Duke "willing not to be less generous than his predecessors, not only confirmed the port's franchises but also increased its privileges", invited "merchants from all nations" and established a company to trade with them, and let built a lazaret (quarantine station for maritime travelers and goods), deemed "at par with Italy's most beautiful buildings".

In the 18th century, the dock was added a wharf (1725-1728), barracks for the galley slaves, stores, an hospital, a mosque and two cemeteries, for the Muslims and the Christian slaves, respectively, and a shipyard, which released its first galley, the Santa Barbara in 1739. The dock's monumental, three-arched gate, was suppressed in 1852 to allow the entrance of steamships. The ensemble was completed with a rope factory, and, eventually an arsenal, achieved in 1771.
[Association pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine maritime de Villefranche-sur-Mer]

The Villefranche harbor was used during the second half of the 20th century as port of call by the 6th Fleet of the US Navy. A specific privilege allowed the US Navy to maintain in the town a post exchange, a grocery supplied with American products and the US Naval Support Activity administrative service. The American colony in Villefranche counted up to 239 households; some 30-40 Franco-American marriages were celebrated very year in the town. In 1967, France withdrew from NATO and the 6th Fleet left Villefranche, although this does not seem to have been required by the French government. The consequences for the local economy were disastrous.
[Municipal website]

Villefranche-sur-Mer has been since the 19th century a world-famous center of oceanographic research, due to its easy access to a marine biodiversity hotspot, the Villefranche harbor.
François Péron (1775-1810) and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1778-1846), two zoologists member of the Baudin expedition "to the coasts of New Holland" (Australia, 1800-1803), settled in Nice in winter 1809; they incorporated the observations made in the Villefranche harbor to their comprehensive record of jellyfish species, published in 1809 in the Annals of the Museum of Natural History. Péron's unexpected death and Lesueur's exile to America following the fall of Napoléon stopped marine research in Villefranche.
In 1847, the German naturalist Karl Vogt stepped in Villefranche during a journey from Rome to Paris. In the port, he collected the jelly organisms rejected by fishers and observed them in his hotel. Supported by the famous chemist Liebig, he published his observations in the book Ozean und Mittelmeer (Ocean and Mediterranean Sea). Back to Villefranche in 1850, he published in 1852 and 1853 a record of Siphonophorae and Tunicartes swimming in the sea of Nice, Salps, augmented in 1868 as Research on lower animals of the Mediterranean Sea. Naturalized Swiss and appointed Rector of the University of Geneva, he campaigned for the establishment of a marine laboratory, to no avail since Nice, then under Sardinian government, was "obedient to Jesuits". After the incorporation of the County of Nice to France in 1860, he eventually obtained from Jules Ferry, Minister of Public Instruction, the foundation of a laboratory in Villefranche.

The Villefranche laboratory was established in 1880 by Hermann Fol (1845-1892), a former student of Vogt, and Jules-Henri Barrois (1852-1943). In 1881, Fol transferred his private laboratory from Messina to Villefranche, soon after having elucidated the mechanism of fecundation, using starfish as a model organism. Upon Barrois' request, a Laboratory of Higher Studies was officially created in 1881. With the written support of Charles Darwin, soon before his death in 1882, of the Ministry of Agriculture and of the Municipality of Villefranche, the laboratory was inaugurated in 1883 in the towers of the old lazaret of the galley port. The laboratory soon welcomed prestigious guest zoologists, such as the American Alexander Emanuel Agassiz (1835-1910) and the Russian Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (1845-1916, Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine 1908). With Édouard Sarrazin, Fol pioneered underwater photography for the observation of marine organisms and research on the penetration of light into water.

The Russian zoologist Aleksei Korotnev (1854-1915), Professor at the University of Kiev, obtained in 885 from the Russian Imperial Navy the transformation of the "Russian house", the former galley slaves' barracks used by the Navy as a coal depot, into a research laboratory; the building has been abandoned in 1878, when access to western Mediterranean Sea was forbidden to the Russian Navy. Fol and Barrois' lab was soon transferred to the Russian house, where a conflict broke out between them and Korotnev, who was supported by Vogt. On 9 January 1888, Barrois and Fol were expelled manu military. Barrois retired in his estate located at the end of the harbor, where he established a small laboratory; Fol moved to Brittany, where his expedition ship Aster was lost off Bénodet.
Korotnev transferred the direction of the Villefranche laboratory to Michel Dawidov (1852-1933), who established a reference collection of less-known marine organisms. The laboratory initiated the underwater cartography of the harbor to rationalize sampling of organisms ans started surveys of water temperature and salinity at different depth.
The Gilded Age of the Russian house ended in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution. The Russian Academy in exile maintained the Zoology Russian Station until 1927, with the support of French, Russian and Czech institutions. In 1931, the laboratory was taken over by the French Ministry of National Education, renamed to Zoological Station and transferred to the Faculty of Science of the University of Paris. The Russian zoologist Gregor Trebougov, hired in 1915 as a research assistant, would chair the station until 1956.

After the Second World War, research programs and teaching offer were diversified in Villefranche. Pierre Bougis, who succeeded Trebougov as chair of the station, initiated classes on the ecology of marine plankton, published in 1974 (Phytoplancton, Zooplancton). L. Bourcart established a laboratory of marine geology while A. Ivanoff developed physical oceanography. The sampling campaigns organized in the harbor were extended to deep sea in 1963-1964. L. Glangeaud, head of the laboratory of underwater geodynamic, obtained the launching of a modern prospection vessel, the Catherine Laurence, while Bougis obtained the launching of the Korotneff, aimed at pelagic sampling and equipped with deep-freeze chambers. Between 1986 and 1990, the station organized three campaigns of survey of the migration of jelly organisms in the Ligurian Sea; sampling was performed up to a depth of 2,000m using the Cyana submarine.
All the different laboratories were merged in 1983 to form the Center for Oceanographic Research and Studies of Villefranche-sur-Mer, composed of:
- the Laboratory of Marine Ecology and Biology, as the successor of the former Zoological Station;
- the Laboratory of Marine Physic and Chemistry;
- the Laboratory of Underwater Geodynamic;
- the Jean Maetz Laboratory.
In 1985, the three marine stations of Banyuls, Roscoff and Villefranche managed by University Pierre et Marie Curie were transformed to Oceanographic Observatories. The Villefranche Observatory (website) is now composed of two laboratories of Oceanography (Biogeochemistry, Marine Ecology) and of Development Biology.
[Des laboratoires de zoologie marine (1882-1886) à l'observatoire océanographique de Villefranche-sur-Mer en 2010]

Villefranche's scenic landscape has been featured in several movies. The oldest and probably most famous movie shot in the port of Villefranche is Macao l'enfer du jeu (Jean Delannoy, 1942), starring Mireille Balin, Sessue Haykawa and Erich von Stroheim. More recently, the fort of Villefranche "portrayed" the Palmyra fortress in "Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983), starring Sean Connery as James Bond.
[Municipal website]

The writer Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) stayed at the luxury Welcome Hotel in Villefranche from 1924 to 1935, recovering from the death of his lover, Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923). He met there Germaine Brau, who would open with her husband, Louis, the famous restaurant La Mère Germaine.
Cocteau, then staying in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in the estate, came back in the 1950s to Villefranche to decorate the St. Peter's chapel, owned by the fishers' guild and used to store nets and fishing tools. Germaine funded part of the decoration and served food to the craftsmen for free. When she died in 1959, Cocteau said "My Villefranche is dead". The renovated chapel was inaugurated on 30 June 1957; Cocteau said "This chapel is my youth, mi old age, my secrete organism, my soul and my skin". The same year, Cocteau shot scenes of his last movie Le testament d'Orphée at the Victorine Studios in Nice, at the Santo Sospir estate and in Villefranche. The most famous scene of the film features the poet meeting his double in the Dark Street.
[Municipal website; Virtual visit]

Ivan Sache, 18 March 2020

Flag of Villefranche

The flag of Villefranche-sur-Mer (photo, photo, photo) is white with the municipal emblem.
The emblem features the town's skyline, featuring the acorn-shaped cupola of the tower of the St. Michael church (photo) and a representation of the harbor.

Villefranche-sur-Mer uses, also in official context, a white flag charged with the municipal coat of arms (photo, photo, photo).
The arms are "Argent a tree proper surrounded by the letter 'V' and 'F' sable on a base vert a chief per pale, 1. Azure three fleurs-de-lis argent surmounted by a label gules, 2. Gules a cross argent. The shield surmounted by a fortified crown."
A white flag featuring slightly different arms, "Azure a tree proper on a base vert a chief gules a cross argent", reported in 2006. This flag was still seen, in official use, in January 2018 (photo). This appears to have been the historical arms of the town, as drawn by Joseph Casal (1856-1930) in his Armorial nobiliaire et historique de l'ancien Comté de Nice et des Alpes-Maritimes (image).

The chief of Savoy recalls that Villefranche was the military port of the Duchy of Savoy. In the more recent version of the arms, the chief features an odd mix of the arms of Anjou and Provence, probably to recall the foundation of the town by Charles III of Anjou, Count of Provence.
The tree could be an olive tree, recalling that the site of Villefranche was allegedly known to the Romans as Olivula. However, the tree is usually presented as as a carob tree, grown in Villefranche until the late 19th century for its reddish wood, highly prized in marquetry. The inhabitants of Villefranche were then nicknamed suça carouba (carob suckers), for the dictum À Vilafranca, l'aiga ti manca, lou vin ti soubra, suça caroub (In Villefranche, water is lacking, keep the wine, suck carob). Another dictum claims that the poorest girls had for dowry only un caroubié e un barriéu de m... (a carob tree and a barrel of sh...).
The carob tree is also the scene of the traditional, satiric song, Calant de Villafranca"(Going down from Villefranche [to Nice]), once sung during weddings:

Calant de Vilafranca,
Souta d'un caroubié,
Faioun la contradansa
Em'un sarjan fourié.
Tralala, lalala,
Li gandaula si maridon,
Tralala, lalala,
Li gandaula soun maridà.

Going down from Villefranche,
Under a carob tree,
They enjoyed counterdance
With a feed sergent
Tralala, lalala,
The sluts marry,
Tralala, lalala,
The sluts got married.
[Musique traditionnelle du Comté de Nice; Modern rendition; Street performance]

A more recent, bawdy version of the song recalls the history of a guy that went down from Villefranche to Nice to buy a hat, knocked at a wrong door and... The song has been popularized by the supporters of the Olympique Gymnaste Club de Nice football club.

Ivan Sache, 18 March 2020

Associations des Bateliers Plaisanciers de Villefranche-sur-Mer


Burgee of ABPV - Images by Ivan Sache, 18 March 2020

ABPV (website) was established on 12 November 1947 to promote the practice of activities connected to the sea", that is, mostly, traditional and recreational fishing.
The burgee of ABPV (photo, March 2010) is yellow with the club's logo. The logo is formed of the silhouette of the Villefranche citadel superimposed to an anchor, all black. The town's name is written in black letters below the image, in an arched pattern. The black letters "ABPV" are placed vertically along the hoist.

Ivan Sache, 18 March 2020