Arles has many monuments of Roman architecture and art, including the ruins of an amphitheatre (the Arenes), capable of containing 25,000 spectators, which, in the 11th and 12th centuries, was flanked with massive towers, of which three are still standing. Van Gogh visited the provincial city in 1888, hoping to benefit from quality of the available light. This is the two-tiered Roman amphitheatre, which he depicted in:
- Spectators in the Arena at Arles (1888) - The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg.
"The arena at Arles, with its great magnitude, is less complete than that of Nimes; it has suffered even more the assaults of time and of the children of time, and it has been less repaired. The seats are almost wholly wanting; but the external walls minus the topmost tier of arches, are massively, ruggedly, complete; and the vaulted corridors seem as solid as the day they were built. The whole thing is superbly vast, and as monumental, for place of light amusement what is called in America a 'varietyshow' as it entered only into the Roman mind to make such establishments. The podium is much higher than at Nimes, and many of the great white slabs that faced it have been recovered and put into their places. The proconsular box has been more or less reconstructed, and the great converging passages of approach to it are still majestically distinct: so that, as I sat there in the moon-charmed stillness, leaning my elbows on the battered parapet of the ring, it was not impossible to listen to the murmurs and shudders, the thick voice of the circus, that died away fifteen hundred years ago.
"The theatre has a voice as well, but it lingers on the ear of time with a different music. The Roman theatre at Arles seemed to me one of the most charming and touching ruins I had ever beheld; I took a particular fancy to it. It is less than a skeleton, the arena may be called a skeleton; for it consists only of half a dozen bones. The traces of the row of columns which formed the scene the permanent back-scene remain; two marble pillars I just mentioned them are upright, with a fragment of their entablature. Be fore them is the vacant space which was filled by the stage, with the line of the prosoenium distinct, marked by a deep groove, impressed upon slabs of stone, which looks as if the bottom of a high screen had been intended to fit into it. The semicircle formed by the seats half a cup rises opposite; some of the rows are distinctly marked. The floor, from the bottom of the stage, in the shape of an arc of which the chord is formed by the line of the orchestra, is covered by slabs of colored marble red, yellow, and green which, though terribly battered and cracked to-day, give one an idea of the elegance of the interior. Everything shows that it was on a great scale: the large sweep of its enclosing walls, the massive corridors that passed behind the auditorium, and of which we can still perfectly take the measure. The way in which every seat commanded the stage is a lesson to the architects of our epoch, as also the immense size of the place is a proof of extraordinary power of voice on the part of the Roman actors. It was after we had spent half an hour in the moonshine at the arena that we came on to this more ghostly and more exquisite ruin. The principal entrance was locked, but we effected an easy escalade, scaled a low parapet, and descended into the place behind file scenes. It was as light as day, and the solitude was complete. The two slim columns, as we sat on the broken benches, stood there like a pair of silent actors. What I called touching, just now, was the thought that here the human voice, the utterance of a great language, had been supreme. The air was full of intonations and cadences; not of the echo of smashing blows, of riven armor, of howling victims and roaring beasts. The spot is, in short, one of the sweetest legacies of the ancient world; and there seems no profanation in the fact that by day it is open to the good people of Arles, who use it to pass, by no means in great numbers, from one part of the town to the other; treading the old marble floor, and brushing, if need be, the empty benches. This familiarity does not kill the place again; it makes it, on the contrary, live a little, makes the present and the past touch each other."
A Little Tour In France, Henry James.