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What's in a name - Nice - Part II

Posted on Thursday, 3 March 2011
Understanding the neighbourhoods in any city is usually the premise of the local residents. Upper East side to a New Yorker is an instant identifier, not just of the city area but also the type of resident who tends to occupy it; wealthy, older, conservative. The Left Bank in Paris, the South Side in Dublin, the West End in London all give a social, as much as geographical, map of the cities.

Nice is similarly divided into defining neighbourhoods although direction plays little part in the naming of them, which means identifying them is not so easy for the casual visitor to the city. In Nice you have the Promende des Anglais, The Old Town, The Carré d'Or, Quartier Musiciens, Quartier des Fleurs, Fabron and Mont Boron, just some of the most central areas of the city of Nice.

In this series of stories we are looking at specific street names of the cities of the French Riviera many of which are named after illustrious people, local or international, people who had a significant role to pay in French or local life. In unwinding the mystery of the names we can paint a portrait of a city and trace a map through it's history which gives us a more defined impression of the street on which we might stand and the city in which it lies.

The Musicians Quarter in Nice comprises streets named after world famous composers. A small city centre neighbourhood it is a quiet, residential and wealthy district full of the grand Bourgeois buildings and Art Deco, Belle Epoch architecture that Nice is so famous for. Running along the edge of Avenue Jean Médicin, along Boulevard Victor Hugo and up to Avenue Thiers by way of Boulevard Gambetta, it is populated with so many famous names that you can almost hear the strains of the music they composed; Verdi, Rossini, Giuglia, Durante, Auber, Gounod. Artists from France, Hungary, Alsace and of course, France.

Not all of them lived here but one of them died here and the story of Nicolò Paganini inspired famous French writer, Guy de Maupassant, to write of the 'wandering dead' in his short stories.

Nicolò Paganini was an Italian composer and virtuoso violinist born in Genoa in 1782. His impassioned performances were said to have moved audience members to madness, while his more tender performances regularly reduced people to tears.

Such was his fame that he toured the world extensively and amassed great fortunes which he subsequently lost through gambling and personal excess. The music he composed was of such complexity that it was claimed to be the result of a pact with the devil.

Although his skill was astounding it also owed some merit to his constant suffering as Paganini was inflicted with many conditions of various severity One such condition, know as Ehlers Danlos Syndrome included the symptom of increased joint flexibility. Paganini was able to bend and flex his wrist and fingers into positions that others simple could not and this allowed for the renowned double-stoppings and roulades in his playing.

Paganini travelled throughout Europe to critical acclaim but he was a man of excess and his life was littered with highs and lows, he was said to have had an affair the sister of Napoleon Boneparte, Elisa, but his life was peppered with chronic ill health, some self inflicted, some not. Syphilis, Tuberculosis, opium addiction all contributed to his decline.

In 1836 our hero arrived in Nice to perform 3 concerts and such is demand, that the price of the tickets quadrupled. When he is hounded by the French courts concerning money issues it is Nice that Paganini seeks refuge in, as Nice was not yet a part of the France at this time, refuge was his to find.

In 1840 Nicolò Paganini succumbed to a throat disease and died before he could receive the last sacraments. A plaque on the wall of a building in Nice honours the moment: "De cette maison le 27 mai 1840, expirant avec le jour, l’âme de Niccolò Paganini a fait retour aux sources de l’harmonie éternelle, l’archet puissant aux notes magiques gît inanimé mais dans l’air suave de Nice leur suprême douceur vit encore".

"In this house May 27, 1840, died on this day, the soul of Niccolò Paganini has returned the sources of eternal harmony, bow to powerful magical notes lying lifeless in the air but sweet nice their supreme softness is still alive."

But his story does not end in death, hence de Maupassant's tale. Denied a Christian burial by the Church, Paganini's mortal body begins a troubled journey from Nice to Villefranche to Genoa to Parma in search of a final Christian burial place that the Church repeatedly denies him. His life of excess, it seems, is deemed to be punishable in death as it wan not in life.

So the wandering soul of Paganini may have struggled to find its place of peace but this Italian musical virtuoso will forever be remembered in Nice, on Rue Paganini in the Quartier de Musiciens, where he keeps good company and you can almost hear the strains of his music playing.
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