Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Besançon, le musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie

“Courtisane et vieillard” by Lucas Cranach

It would be easy to assume that the oldest public museum in France is the Louvre. But it isn’t. It’s actually le musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie in Besançon. Besançon’s museum was established in 1694, nearly a century before the public could see the art in the Louvre. Indeed, Besançon’s public art museum is one of the oldest in the world.

Like many regional museums throughout France Besançon’s Fine Arts museum houses works of art alongside some of the archeological treasures of the region. The mix of old paintings and much older bones is always bit unexpected. But communes need a place to display their historical artifacts so everything tends to get lumped together in one main museum.

Since 1843, Besançon’s Fine Arts has been located in a former grain hall, in the center of the commune. After a major donation of art in 1960 an expansion was needed. Thus the structure was rebuilt from 1967 to 1970 by a student of the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. The interior courtyard of the grain hall became a modern concrete structure while the building retained its historical exterior shell. The mish-mash of architectural styles works surprisingly well.

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As small city museums go, Besançon’s Beaux-Arts is a good one, quite possibly the best in the region. The art is appealing, the historical artifacts are interesting, and the building that houses it all is attractive. The musée is extra spiffy now after a 2014 to 2018 renovation. When we visited in July of 2019 it had been just eight months since Besançon’s le musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie was officially reopened by the French President Emmanuel Macron in November of 2018.

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Sharing its name with the museum and located nearby is Besançon’s Marché Des Beaux Arts. The market’s fromageries feature the region’s famous Comté cheese, not surprising at all as the commune is after all the historic capital of Franche-Comté region. Comté finds its place on many lists of the top cheeses of France. And like most food items, Comté is better near its source, which makes Besançon’s market a good place to try a sample.

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