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Sisteron (Municipality, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France)

Last modified: 2019-01-12 by ivan sache
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Flag of Sisteron - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 5 January 2006

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Presentation of Sisteron

The municipality of Sisteron (7,341 inhabitants in 2016; 5,021 ha; municipal website) is located in Upper Provence, 135 km of Marseilles and Grenoble. The town is built in a strategic place on a cluse (a transversal gorge, from Latin clusa, closed) of the river Durance and protected by a huge fortress, which explains its nickname of "Gate of Provence" or "Key of Provence", the latter having been coined by the Provencal poet Frédéric Mistral. Sisteron is also famous for its climate, with an average of 300 sunny days per year and a very clean atmosphere.

Because of its strategic location, the site of Sisteron was already inhabited 4,000 years ago. After having submitted the Voconces and suppressing their oppidum (fortified camp), the Romans set up there a castrum (fortress), later transformed into an important post on the Via Sinistra, the way linking the Via Domitia and the Via Aurelia. The city was known as Segustero; remains of a mausoleum and of the Gallo-Roman city (4th century) have been found.
A bishopric was set up in Sisteron at the end of the 5th century. All the tribes and peoples that invaded Provence at that time sacked Sisteron. The town was later the main fortified town of the County of Forcalquier, which was incorporated to Provence in 1209 after the death of Count William II. The Notre-Dame-des-Pommiers cathedral was rebuilt by Bishop Pierre de Sabran (1145-1171) in order to show a relic of the Holy Cross he had brought back from the Holy Land. The name of Pommiers has nothing to do with apple trees (pommiers) but refer to the pomerium, a space located between the town and its wall, where any building was theoretically forbidden. The building site ended near 1200.

After the incorporation of the County of Forcalquier into Provence, Sisteron became the border town between Provence and Dauphiné, and it was said ici un pays finit, un autre commence, "here ends a country and begins another one". Around 1370, a big town wall, defended by several towers and connected to the early citadel, was built in order to protect the town from the bands of rascals that scoured the region. Along with Provence, Sisteron was incorporated to the Kingdom of France in 1483 and kept its strategic importance. In the 16th century, it was written that Sisteron was forto villo de gran passage per passa los mons, "a fortified city with a big traffic heading to the mounts". During the Religious War (1560-1600), the town was disputed between the Catholics and the Protestants. At the end of the war, the town was ruined. Jehan Sarrazin fortified it and drafted the modern fortress. A revolt caused by new taxes was severely repressed in 1617. King Jean Casimir of Poland was jailed in the fortress on Richelieu's order in 1639.
In 1692, Duke of Savoy Victor Amédée invaded the upper valley of Durance and Louis XIV commissionned Vauban to increase the fortifications of Sisteron. Only the powder magazine and the well were actually built.

In March 1815, Napoléon returned from Elba and decided to cross the Alps in order to avoid the ultra-Royalist Provence. He followed what is called today Route Napoléon<. In St. Helena, Napoléon often recalled that the first five days of his expedition had been critical, especially the arrival at Sisteron, which was a fortified town with a Royalist Mayor (François de Gombert, 1766-1852, Mayor from 1802 to 1820) and Royalist inhabitants, and therefore a possible place of resistance.
On the evening of 4 March, Napoléon stopped at Malijai and sent 100 riders commanded by Cambronne to Sisteron. The order was "Seize the town! "The next day, at 5 AM, a rider came back and announced the Emperor that the town was submitted. Napoléon entered Sisteron around 10 AM and said to his troops:
Soldats, nous voilà sauvés, nous sommes à Paris ! ("Soldiers, we are now saved, we are [soon] in Paris!"). Napoléon had lunch at the Golden Arms Inn but decided to leave the town quickly, three hours after having entered it, since the population started to rally.

In the 19th century, the town wall and its gates were suppressed; Prosper Mérimée saved five towers of the medieval wall, today considered as the highest in France: the Fort's Tower, located close to the citadel; the Soldier's Tower, the only tower permanently watched and therefore roofed; the Gossip's Tower, so called because the inhabitants of the town enjoyed go there in order to gossip); the Notre-Dame Tower, located close to the cathedral; and the Safe Gate's Tower, located near the gate used by thousands of Protestants to flee the town in 1591.
On 15 August 1944, the allied Air Force shelled the town, killing 100 and damaging several buildings and houses. The citadel was later rebuilt exactly as it was.

Most of the past of Sisteron is known via the works of the local historian Jean Aimé Édouard de Laplane (1774-1870), also author of État et progrès de la société au XVème siècle (The State and the social progress in the 15th century) and Origine et révolution des noms de famille en Provence (Origin and revolution of family names in Provence). Laplane was ennobled by King of Louis XVIII in 1816.
Sisteron is the birth town of the Provencal poet Paul Arène (1843-1896). His main works are the novels and short stories Jean des Figues, La gueuse parfumée, La veine d'argile and La chèvre d'or. Arène settled in Antibes, where he was found dead at his work table. The distich he dedicated to Mistral has been written on his tombstone:
Ieu m'en vau l'amo ravido d'agué pantaïa ma vida ("I leave with my soul delighted to have dreamed my life".)
Other celebrities from Sisteron are the botanist Joseph Philippe François Deleuze (1755-1835), librarian at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and translator of Thompson and Darwin; the heraldist and photographer Saint Marcel Eysseric (1831-1914); the geologist and botanist Gustave Tardieu (1851-1932), who published in 1912 his Guide des Alpes de Provence; and the dermatologist Achille Civatte (1877-1956), elected at the Academy of Medicine in 1950.

Ivan Sache, 5 January 2006

Flag of Sisteron

The flag of Sisteron is white with the greater municipal arms.
The municipal arms of Sisteron, ascribed in the Armorial Général (Arm. I, 307; bl. II, 1333; registration fee 100 l.), are "Gules a capital letter S between in chief a crown in each of the flanks a fleur de lis and in base two annulets in fess or".
According to Louis de Bresc [bjs94], an earlier version of these arms, reported by Robert de Brianson, is, simply, "Gules a letter S crowned or"; the fleur-de-lis and the annelets are omitted while the crown seems to be actually a duke's coronet. Chevillard gives the same arms but with an antique crown over the S. Achard (Géographie de Provence) shows a bezant instead of the annelets.
The aforementioned local historian Laplane shows on the front page of his Histoire de Sisteron the blazon reported by Achard, but with the charges argent; this was a mistake, corrected by the author on p. 727 of the first volume of the book. The crown is there a marquis' coronet, said to have been in common use at that time.

On the flag, the shield is surmounted by a golden crown itself surmounted by a scroll bearing the Latin motto of the town, tuta montibus et fluviis ("All by the mountains and the rivers"), surrounded by two branches tied below the shield by a red ribbon. A third nickname of the city, Perle de la Haute Provence ("Pearl of Upper-Provence") is added below the branches.

Dominique Cureau & Ivan Sache, 13 May 2005