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Menton (Municipality, Alpes-Maritimes, France)


Last modified: 2019-06-26 by ivan sache
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Municipal flag of Menton - Image by Ivan Sache, 22 November 2008

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Presentation of Menton

The municipality of Menton (in Italian, Mentone; 28,792 inhabitants in 2008; 1,405 ha; municipal website) is located on the French Riviera, east of the Principality of Monaco and on the border with Italy.

While the name of the town most probably comes from Latin Mons Othonis, "Otho's Mount", the exact origin of the town is still not known. Some say that it was a Roman colony named after Emperor Otho (32-69, Emperor from 15 January to 16 April 69); other say that Otho was a count of the neighbouring town (today in Italy) of Ventimiglia that "pretected" Menton. A local tradition says that Menton was a den of pirates from the island of Lampedusa, located between Malta and the African coast.
At the end of the 11th century, the small fortified village of Puypin (Podium Pinii, "a hill planted with pines") was built on the present site of the Monastery of Annonciade. Its inhabitants progressively moved down to the shore where they founded a new town along the former Roman way. The original town, built on a rocky spur harbouring the castle (demolished in 1875 and replaced by the cemetery) and the St. Michael church (a basilica since 1999), has remained as Old Menton, a typical Mediterranean town with narrow streets and high, coloured houses.
The feudal domain of Menton emerged in the 12th century and was placed under the Genoese rule; in 1290, Manuel Vento granted municipal statutes to the town. Menton was transfered to Charles Grimaldi, lord of Monaco, in 1346. Prince Honoré II built a palace in Menton and protected the town with the fortification known as the Bastion, built in 1619. Living mostly from fishing and agriculture, Menton remained under the Monegasque rule until 1848.
Encouraged by the European revolutions, the inhabitants of Menton seceded from Monaco in 1848, proclaiming Menton as a free town placed under Sardinian protection. In 1860, they asked to be incorporated to France together with Nice and Savoy; Prince of Monaco Charles III definitively abandoned his rights on Menton to Emperor Napoléon III.

Menton was once famous for the cultivation of citrus trees, especially lemons. The local legend says that Eve stole a golden fruit when expelled from the garden of Eden together with Adam. Fearing the divine wrath, Adam asked her to drop the fruit; when reaching Menton, Eve decided it was a convenient place to bury the stolen fruit, and planted the first citrus.
Citrus growing started in Menton in the 15th century; a document dated 1471 mentions 67 sitronarium trees, a citron being in French a lemon. In 1495, two loads of "orange apples" were shipped to the Duke of Orléans. Citrus growing subsequently increased and was strictly regulated by the Princes of Monaco: in 1671, Louis I appointed the first Lemons' Magistrate (Magistrat des citrons) while a Decree dated from 1683 prescribed detailed rules for growing and trading lemons. Rings for fruit grading (locally called spetzins) appeared in 1793; phytosanitary rules for exported fruits were edicted in 1701 and 1733. Around 1810, some 15 million lemons were produced every year and exported all over Europe and to America. In 1850, frost dramatically decreased the number of trees; the traditional production system, made of small orchards tediously accessed by narrow, bad paths and lacking irrigation and fertilizing, could not resist the competition with Italy and Spain. There remained only seven lemon producers in Menton in 1950, who all gave up after the terrible winter 1956-1957. Lemon is still the emblem of Menton, which celebrates each spring the only Lemon's Festival in the world, founded in 1934, and encourages the replanting of citrus trees and the reestablishment of the Menton citrus.

At the end of the 19th century, tourism developed on the French Riviera (named Côte d'Azur by Stéphen Liégeard). An English doctor, Henry Bennett, suffering from tuberculosis, settled at Menton in 1859 and praised the therapeutic value of the mild climate of Menton, especially for tubercular patients. He was also the first to set up a garden with exotic plants in the town. An international winter resort, Menton was mostly enjoyed by British and Russian aristocrats, who built villas and palaces with English style and names (Winter Palace, Riviera Palace, etc.). Royalties stayed at Menton, including the Empress Eugénie de Montijo, King Albert I of Belgium, Tsar Alexander of Russia and Queen Victoria. The cosmopolite, rich society of Menton attracted several artists such as the sculptor Auguste Rodin, the musicians Franz Liszt and Charles Gounod, and the writer Vicente Blasco Ibañez. The geographer Élisée Reclus nicknamed Menton "The Pearl of France".
This period is recalled by the villas, palaces, greenhouses and gardens that have remained until now, and by the cemetery, which contains the tombs of hundreds of foreigners who died in Menton, some of them quite young. With its scenic view on the old town and port and on the Garavan Bay, the cemetery impressed the writers Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant, who coined the expression "marine cemetery" (cimetière marin), which was later popularized by Paul Valéry in his famous poem on the marine cemetery of Sète.
The most visited tomb in the cemetery of Menton belongs to Reverend William Webb Ellis (1806-1872), credited of the inadvertent invention of rugby at Rugby Scool in autumn 1823. The reason of the stay of Ellis at Menton and the cause of his death are not known. Forgotten, his tomb was rediscovered only in 1958 by the local sports journalist Roger Driès.

The gilded age of Menton ended with the First World War, when the palaces and international hotels were transformed into hospitals. During the Second World War, Menton was occupied successively by the Italians and the Germans, and the town was partially destroyed during the Liberation.

Ivan Sache, 22 November 2008

Flag of Menton

The flag of Menton (photo, photo, photo, photo, photo) is vertically divided light blue-white.
The flag is derived from the old arms of Menton, which were, according to Ciaudo (Armoiries et institutions des communes des Alpes- Maritimes, du Comté de Nice et de la Principauté de Monaco), "Azure a St. Michael flooring the dragon holding in dexter a raised sword and in sinister a pair of scales, all argent, surrounding with the writing sable per pale dexter 'DEFENSOR' and sinister 'MENTONI'."
In 1848, the government's provisory commission that ruled the town adopted new arms, "Argent an orange tree on a three-hill mount, all proper, a bend azure three mullets or a canton gules a letter 'F' or fimbriated of the same." In 1870, the "F", standing for France, was replaced by a "N", standing for Napoléon (III).

The modern coat of arms, which combines elements from the older ones, was adopted in 1950 as "Per pale azure the figure of Saint Michael his dexter hand raisedvholding a sword the point downwards in his sinister a pair of scales killing the devil armed with a trident or and argent a lemon tree proper fructed or between two mounts vert in base the sea azure a narrow chief azure three mullets argent."

[Old arms of Menton]

Old arms of Menton - Photo by Ivan Sache, 22 November 2008

The bronze statue "guarding" the old port of Menton holds a shield charged with the old arms of the town, without the motto.

From 1950 to his death in 1963, the poet, painter and movie director Jean Cocteau often stayed in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in the estate of his friend Francine Weisweiller. Fascinated by the Mediterranean light and mixing Greek, Italian and Spanish influence, he decorated the walls of several buildings in the neighborhood, as did Picasso and Matisse in the same period. In Menton, Cocteau convinced the municipality to restore the Bastion and decorated it as his memorial; today the Jean Cocteau Museum, the Bastion is mostly famous for the soil and mural mosaics made by Cocteau with sea pebbles.
In 1957-1958, Cocteau was asked by Mayor Francis Palméro to decorate the Weddings' Room of the Town Hall of Menton; Cocteau was granted complete freedom and designed everything in the room, including the mirrors, the furniture and lights. Behind the stage is a wall painting showing the bride and groom drawn "in a meander of lines". The background of the scene is filled with blue and white meanders, that Cocteau explicitely described as "representing the colours of the flag of Menton".

Ivan Sache, 22 November 2008

Free Cities of Menton and Roquebrune


Flag of the Free Cities - Image by Jaume Ollé, 19 December 2004

The cities of Menton and Roquebrune have been part of the Principality of Monaco since the Middle Ages. On 2 March 1848 a "Provisional Government Committee", chaired by M. Trenca, took the power in both cities and proclaimed on 21 March 1848 the independence of the "Free Cities of Menton and Roquebrune". On 18 September 1848 Savoy "temporarily" took over the administration of the cities, which were ceded to France on 2 February 1861.

Bob Hilkens & Vincenzo Guglielmelli, 19 December 2004

Historical flag of Menton


Historical flag of Menton (unconfirmed) - Image by Jaume Ollé, 10 January 1997

The flag of the town of Menton was granted by Genoa some centuries ago. Under the Grimaldi rule, the flag was not always used.

Jaume Ollé, 10 January 1997

There is no source given for the flag and the archangel is represented in yellow, which corresponds to the modern coat of arms of Menton rather to the old one.

Ivan Sache, 22 November 2008