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Tell a foodie you are going to France and you’ll be commanded to visit E. Dehillerin in Paris, the renowned repository of every kitchen tool and copper pot imaginable. Tell a Supreme Court aficionado that you are heading to France and you’ll hear a one-word reply: Nîmes. Or maybe two words: Maison Carrée. It is in Nîmes in the south of France, you are told, that the Roman temple after which the U.S. Supreme Court was modeled has been standing for about 2,000 years. So when daughter Emily spent part of her junior year abroad in Aix-en-Provence, my wife, Kathy, and I surrendered to the will of friends and agreed to visit Nîmes during our visit to nearby Aix. Nîmes and the surrounding area are chock-full of well-preserved Roman ruins, including the Pont du Gard, a three-tiered stone bridge that was built in 19 B.C. so the aqueduct that supplied Nîmes with water could cross the Gard River. It is an engineering and artistic marvel, but time was tight, so we had to skip it. Instead we drove right into Nîmes and were greeted almost immediately by the sight of a huge Roman amphitheater, another impressive relic of the era of Caesar Augustus. It once seated 20,000 gladiator fans, and was breathtaking to observe, even as nonchalant French citizens walked or drove by. Not far from the amphitheater we found the Maison Carrée. Barely set off from more modern buildings nearby, this small, well-preserved square Roman temple truly does look like a reduced version of the Supreme Court. Its Corinthian columns are similar, if grayer and pockmarked. They are made of a drab-colored limestone, darkened with the soot of ages, not gleaming white marble. At the Maison Carrée, no “Equal Justice Under Law” is inscribed above, and no sculpted figures peer out from the pediment. But the similarities are evident, and it is sobering to stand in front of the temple and contemplate the sweep of history that links this structure to our Court. The Supreme Court building dates back only 70 years or so, but suddenly it was possible to see its roots in earlier law-loving civilizations, albeit as a house of worship. In truth, the connections are less direct. Thomas Jefferson marveled at the Maison Carrée when he saw it as ambassador to France. Jefferson described it as the “most beautiful and precious morsel of architecture left us by antiquity . . . noble beyond expression.” When he returned to the states, it became his model for the design of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. That in turn was part of the inspiration for Supreme Court architect Cass Gilbert, who also had in mind the Church of the Madeleine in Paris — itself modeled after the Maison Carrée. The Maison Carrée underwent many incarnations after the Roman Empire, serving as a meeting room, a stable, and a church. The fact that it was a church probably explains why it was not torn down over the centuries. Now it holds a small museum with a display on the building’s history and some of the archeological finds uncovered over the years. Just off to the side of the Maison Carrée is a modern art museum, called the Carrée d’Art. Its square footprint and columns echo some of the temple’s architectural features, but in starkly modern steel and glass. Between the Maison Carrée and the museum, oddly enough, is a carousel for children. It seems out of place amid such august buildings, but why not? The Supreme Court ought to consider adding a merry-go-round in its current renovations; the laughter of children would lighten the mood. You don’t need to be a Court geek to enjoy Nîmes. Restaurants abound, serving food with a Mediterranean accent. The area near the Maison Carrée is a great shopping district, especially for clothing. In fact, whether you’ve been to Nîmes or not, the name already lives in your subconscious. Some say this is where fabric for blue jeans came from — denim, a shortened version of de nimes. But whatever else you do in Nîmes, the Maison Carrée will be the highlight of the day. For any lawyer or Supreme Court buff, it is not just a reminder of home but a worthwhile pilgrimage to the place where the Supreme Court’s architectural majesty was born.
Tony Mauro has covered the Supreme Court for Legal Times and other newspapers for 25 years.

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