It is in the Var area of Prevence in southern France that a striking departure from a traditional use of ornamental ironworks delights and surprises the viewer.
The architecture of the numerous ancient villages of the vineyard-carpeted valleys of the Var is rather severe and unadorned. The clustered houses are of stone and stucco in its natural color, and decorative details are generally restrained and simple.Doors open directly upon the narrow streets, and, except for occasional potted plants and a brightly painted doorway, there is a little variation in the general scene.
The unexpected exuberance, therefore, of a fanciful wrought-iron bell housing rising from the principal tower in the village square excites the eye of villager and visitor alike.
No two of the "bird cage" bell housings of the Var are identical. It is as though the artisans of the past had designed an individual stamp to identify each village. If today one were flying low over the area it would be possible to point to the varied towers and call out the names of the villages. "There is Besse, Forcalquieret, Tavernes, Fox-Amphoux, and there, now, is Cotignac."
In some of the villages, towers were built solely to support a bell housing; in others, for town halls and churches. On occasion, the wrought-iron structure incorporated not only the bell but a weathervane and cross as well. Then all was embellished with a rich variety of scroll forms, leaves, scallops, rosettes, or whatever took the designer's fancy.
How the Var came to express the art of wrought-iron work in this particular form is not known, but it may be deduced that its artisans developed their skills when iron mining prospered in the area centuries ago.
Decorative use of iron occurred from the beginning of the Iron Age in Europe, somewhat before the 1st century AD. By the end of the 12th century the fashion for elaborate iron hinges had spread to all of its Christian countries.
The increasing use of ironwork in screens enclosing tombs and chapels and for railings, candelabra, and gates reached a peak during the reign of Louis XIII ( 1601-43) and continued for the next one hundred years. A series of works of great nobility achieved during this 17th century may still be viewed in the great cathedrals of France.
By 1690 a transition in design from the baroque to the even more elaborate rococo took place.For the first time iron was used externally on a grand scale. Fortified strongholds were being supplanted by chateaux built on open plains and surrounded by gardens where wrought-iron work found a dramatic use.
Perhaps it was this rococo influence coupled with the availability of iron ore that inspired the artisans of Var. Whatever the circumstances, its villages have surely been endowed with an inheritance of art forms peculiarly their own.