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Art and culture

Architecture and Art

Roman architecture in the Rhône Valley

By the 1C, the region had become the starting point for the conquest of Germany and Lyon was the capital of Gaul. In the 2C, major road building and town planning work was undertaken in Vienne and Lyon, then at the height of their power. However, the fires, pillaging and devastations by the Barbarians, coupled with the later destruction during the Middle Ages destroyed the remains of the old civilisation.

From 1922 in Vienne and 1933 in Lyon, archaeologists began to uncover groups of buildings, in particular small theatres adjacent to smaller buildings or odeons. Some of the buildings are still being unearthed and large areas remain to be explored, in particular in St-Romain-en-Gal on the right bank of the Rhône where part of a residential district has been uncovered.


These consisted of tiers of seats ending in a colonnade known as the cavea, an orchestra pit, a dais used by dignitaries and a raised stage (scena). The actors performed in front of a wall with doors in it through which they made their entrances. Behind the wall at the back of the stage were the richly decorated, actors’ dressing rooms and the stores. Beyond that was a portico opening onto gardens where the actors walked before entering the stage. Spectators could stroll there during intervals or take shelter from the rain.


A closed sanctuary contained the effigy of a god or the emperor, and an open vestibule. They were partially or totally surrounded by a colonnade. The Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne is one of the best preserved anywhere.

Roman baths

Roman baths were public and free of charge. They were not only public baths but also fitness centres, meeting places and a place for games and entertainment. Romans had acquired extensive knowledge concerning water supplies and heating. Water was brought to the baths by an aqueduct, stored in tanks then piped through a system of lead and mortar ducts. Waste water was carried away through a sewage system. The water and rooms were heated by a system of hearths and hypocausts in the basement. The hot air obtained by the burning of coal and wood circulated through a conduit built into the walls. The buildings were vast, sumptuous and luxurious. There were columns and capitals decorated with vivid colours, mosaic facing on the walls, marble floors and wall coverings, richly coffered ceilings, and frescoes and statues like those found in the remains of the Roman baths in Ste-Colombe near Vienne.


Shows were staged in the arena, usually oval in shape. There were fights between wild beasts or gladiators, and people sentenced to death were executed. Around the arena were tiers of seats for the audience. Lyon, the official centre for the worship of Rome in Gaul, had its own amphitheatre.


The circus attracted crowds of people who enjoyed watching chariot racing. In the middle of the track was a long rectangular construction – the spina – marked at each end by huge, semicircular stones. The horses and drivers wore the colours of the rival factions organising the competitions. Built partly of timber, the circus was, despite its impressive size, particularly vulnerable to destruction.


On the plateau to the south-west of Lyon stand well-preserved sections of aqueduct (Arches de Chaponost). Aqueducts were one of the essential features of any town. The tall arches built to maintain the level of the pipes were monuments in their own right. Indeed, the aqueduct, more than any other construction, is a striking illustration of the building skills of the Romans who attached very great importance to the quality of the water supplied to their towns and cities.

Decorative arts

The large, delicately coloured mosaics found in Lyon (circus games, Bacchus etc) prove that mosaic makers were particularly active in Lyon. The medallions that decorated the sides of vases were made by potters from Lyon and Vienne who excelled in illustrations of scenes from mythology or everyday life.

Religious architecture

The Romanesque period

There is no Romanesque School inherent to the Rhône valley since the region, situated as it is at the junction of countless roads, was influenced by artists from Italy, Burgundy, Provence – and the Auvergne. In the Auvergne a Romanesque School developed which is considered one of the most unusual in the history of the architecture of the Western world, giving the churches an air of similarity that is immediately apparent. It originated in the 11C. After the great invasions and the establishment of the Capetian kingdom, the Auvergne enjoyed a period of prosperity. The local people undertook land clearance, acquiring new areas of land and instigating new building projects. In the 11C this movement was amplified by the Gregorian Reform and the desire on the part of men of the Church for independence from lay authorities. Gradually, countless churches and chapels were built across the countryside and, even today, they reveal something of the soul of the Auvergne and its people, for they are all built with an economic use of resources and an immense simplicity. This is what gives the architecture its strength.

The churches in Clermont-Ferrand (Notre-Dame-du-Port), Issoire, Orcival, St-Nectaire and St-Saturnin are just some of the finest examples of this Romanesque style in which the beauty is both austere and logical.

An unusual school

It developed in the 11C and 12C within the large diocese of Clermont. The churches, often small but always beautifully proportioned, give an impression of being much bigger than they actually are. Paul Bourget describes the appearance of these churches, powerful and rugged as those who created them: “Seen from the east end, especially with the tight semicircle of chapels huddled up against the mass of the main building, these churches give a striking impression of aplomb and unity”.

Volcanic building materials

In Limagne, arkose, a yellowish metamorphic sandstone, was used until the 13C. Volcanic lava stone was first used for bonding beneath load-bearing arches, in the upper sections of buildings which did not support the weight of the vaulting and to which they added a touch of colour. In the 13C improvements to the quality of tools made it possible to cut the hard blocks of lava stone and developments in stone-cutting techniques made it the commonest building material available.

Great churches in Lower Auvergne

The layout of the churches slowly changed to meet new needs arising out of pilgrimages. The basic layout is the one seen in Clermont Cathedral, which was consecrated in AD 946 and was the first one to have an ambulatory and radiating chapels. Today, all that remains is the crypt. Yet it took a period of trial and error (churches in Ennezat, Glaine-Montaigut) to achieve the perfection of the 12C buildings.

Exterior features

West Front – Exposed to the weather and almost devoid of decoration, the west front – which includes a porch – forms a stark contrast to the east end because of its austerity. In some cases, it is topped by a central bell-tower and two side towers.

Bell-towers – Two-storey, traceried, octagonal bell-towers were a source of light, emerging from the mass of the building around the dome. They stood high above the chancel and ambulatory. In Auvergne, there are a large number of bell-cotes (clocher à peigne) – gable walls with openings in which the bells are hung in one or two tiers.

Side walls – The windows in the side aisles are built inside enormous load-bearing arches that support the walls. Beneath these arches, the stone often has a decorative role through its colour or layout. Above them is the line of the clerestory in which the windows are linked by arcading.

East end – The magnificent layout of the various levels at the east end is the most beautiful and most characteristic part of the Auvergne churches. This masterpiece of austerity counterbalances the thrust from the octagonal bell-tower. It stands like a carefully combined pyramid, giving an impression of harmony and security through the perfection of each of its elements and the regularity of the design.


The nave is often stark; the only decorative features are the capitals and they are not immediately apparent because most of these buildings are very dark.

Huge arches support the gallery and the weight of the bell-tower if it has been built above the west front.

Nave and vaulting – The wide naves lined with side aisles providing extra support were designed to cater for large numbers of pilgrims.

Heavy Romanesque barrel vaulting replaced roof rafters which were too susceptible to fire and which, between the 5C and 11C, led to the loss of many churches.

Chancel – This part of the church was reserved for the clergy and the celebration of Mass. By raising it up a few steps and lowering the vaulting, perspective made it appear larger than it actually was. It was here that sculptors gave free rein to their talent and the beautifully designed carved capitals in the chancel are often the finest in the church.

In large churches, the chancel included a straight bay.

Behind it was a semicircle around which tall columns, set out in such a way as to avoid blocking the light, extended into small raised arches forming a sort of crown.

Ambulatory – In large churches, an ambulatory extended beyond the side aisles and skirted the chancel. An even number of radiating chapels formed a crown around the ambulatory so that, on major feast days, several Masses could be celebrated simultaneously. The chapels were separated from each other by windows.

Transept and dome – The construction of the transept posed a difficult problem for architects; they had to design large ribbed vaulting capable of supporting the entire weight of the central bell-tower and which was formed by the interpenetration of the vaulting in the nave and the arms of the transept.

Crypt – Beneath the chancel in large churches, there is often a crypt laid out like the church above it. The chancel in the crypt, like the one in the upper church, is flanked by an ambulatory decorated with radiating chapels. The crypt never extends westwards beyond the transept.

Decorative features

Capitals – The capitals are magnificently carved with fanciful scenes. Most of them are to be found around the chancel. Many artists introduced an entire portrait gallery of figures: figures from Antiquity rub shoulders with eagles, mermaids, centaurs, minotaurs, telamones, snakes, genies, figures from the Orient, griffons and birds drinking out of a chalice. Beside them are the heroes of medieval epics, the founders of the church, knights in armour dating from the period of the First Crusade and local saints.

Statues of the Virgin Mary in Majesty and statue-reliquaries – Worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary has always been an important part of religion in the Auvergne for, in Celtic countries, the Christian religion was grafted onto worship of a mother-goddess.

The Gothic Period

Gothic architecture came from the north and took some time to spread further south. It reached Lyon in the early 13C but the Rhône Valley has none of the great churches of which Northern France is so proud and it continued to be subject to the influence of the south as is evident in the width of the buildings and the horizontal line of the roofs.

The Auvergne, strong in its own Romanesque School, resisted change for a long time. Not until the language of Northern France, langue d’oïl, was introduced in place of the Southern French langue d’oc, after the province had been conquered by Philip Augustus, did the Rayonnant Gothic style gain a foothold on the rebellious region, to the detriment of the sources of inspiration from further south which had been predominant until that time. This change of style marked the seizure of the province by the Capetians. There were, though, two main currents in the architectural style – Northern French Gothic and Languedoc Gothic.

Northern French Gothic

Clermont Cathedral, dating from the 13C and 14C, is only very vaguely reminiscent of the great buildings of the Paris basin and not until the 19C was Gothic architecture introduced into its west front and spires designed by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Lava stone from Volvic, a building material that was too hard to be carved but which architects liked for its strength, resistance and permanence, gave the cathedral an austerity that even the sun cannot brighten up. The roofs on the chapels and side aisles consist of stone slabs forming a terrace beneath the flying buttresses, a very unusual design that was totally unknown in the north of France.

The same stylistic movement can be seen in the Ste-Chapelle in Riom.

Languedoc Gothic

Characterised by a wide nave devoid of side aisles, side chapels inserted between the piers and the absence of flying buttresses, this was the commonest style in the area. The abbey church at La Chaise-Dieu, a masterpiece of monastic architecture, is a fine example, as are other churches commissioned by the mendicant orders such as the Marthuret Church in Riom or Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in Aurillac.


A vast selection of medieval painting has been preserved within the Auvergne. The frescoes in the church of St-Julien in Brioude, for instance, date from the 12C; there is the 13C representation of the legend of St George in one of the ambulatory chapels in Clermont Cathedral, and the 14C Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin Mary in Billom. From the 15C are the Last Judgement in Issoire, St George Slaying the Dragon in Ébreuil, the Dance of Death in La Chaise-Dieu, and the frescoes in Ennezat. The triptych painted on wood by the Maître de Moulins is one of the last masterpieces of Gothic painting in France.

Military and civil architecture

Defensive castles

During the days of the feudal system, the country was dotted with castles; by building fortresses, lords, viscounts and barons could display their power and authority compared to that of the king. This is why there are so many castles, with outlines that adapt to the shape of the rock beneath them. From the 13C, they were subject to successive attacks by the troops under Philip Augustus, who conquered 120 of them from 1210 onwards, to destruction during the Hundred Years War and, at the end of the conflict, to destruction by villagers who, at enormous cost, succeeded in routing the mercenaries and captains who were using them as a source of building material for their own houses.

The gentler architecture of the Renaissance

The influence of the Italian Renaissance travelled to Northern France via the Rhône corridor and in the 15C it slowly penetrated the Auvergne where a certain taste for well-being made itself apparent after the end of the war. The fortresses were turned into charming residences in which ornamentation supplanted systems of defence, even if, in the Auvergne, the austerity of the building in lava stone remained intact. Numerous castles were bought up by gentlemen of the robe or members of the middle classes who had recently acquired wealth through trade.

Town planning during the Classical period

In Lyon this manifested itself in a new form of town planning, which can be seen mainly in the 17C Terreaux district around the town hall. In the 18C, a new concept of urban layout was introduced, based on speculation. The main feature of these areas is place Bellecour, laid out during the reign of Louis XIV and flanked by Louis XVI residences.

The 19C and the architecture of the Auvergne spas: a fantasy world

In the spa towns of the 19C, “taking the waters” was not a new idea but it was during this period that it became fashionable. On the pretext of taking the waters and enjoying a rest, members of high society, and those with power or money, flocked to spa towns. Their visits were an opportunity to lead an active social life and it was this that governed the architectural style. In the centre of the town were the pump rooms, a veritable palace to which the architects paid particular attention; around them were the park and springs built to resemble Ancient Greek or Roman temples. The casino and the luxury hotels were decorated with an exuberance that was almost Baroque. In the streets of the town, troubadour-style castles stood next to Venetian palaces, and Henri IV residences rubbed shoulders with Art Nouveau mansions.

The history of this architecture, designed for enjoyment and pleasure, is a history of intermingling. The eclectic mix was the result of ideas by the most fashionable urban architects of the day combined with those of the architects of the Auvergne who were inspired by a long tradition based on Early Romanesque architecture and the volcanic and granite rocks available locally; these ideas were also influenced by the mixture of water and a natural environment with a town of stone, including its culture and its social events. Even the railway stations were not forgotten, since they provided the first impression for visitors who had just arrived. The result was a luxurious style of architecture full of exuberance and voluptuousness in the dream world constituted by the resorts in the heart of the Auvergne.

The new opera house in Lyon, a fine example of 20C architecture

Throughout the 19C and 20C Lyon was considered an ideal place for architectural experiments. In 1825 iron suspension bridges were built over the Rhône, using new techniques. In 1896 the basilica on Fourvière hill was completed in a Byzantine-cum-medieval style.

In the 1970s, with a view to the launch of the high-speed train service which would bring Lyon to within 2hr of Paris, a major development was begun in the La Part-Dieu district: a new business centre that was to take the city to the forefront of Europe’s business world. In 1993 the latest architectural feat was completed; the old opera house designed in 1831 had to be renovated and it was Jean Nouvel who took up the gauntlet. All that remains of the old building are the four walls and an old foyer decorated with gold leaf and stucco work.

Traditional Rural Housing

Over the centuries, changes in rural housing have kept pace with changes in agricultural work. Housing has also been subject to the influence of neighbouring regions and new building techniques.



Owing to its geographical situation the Auvergne is in contact with two civilisations, “the Northern French one in which roofs are built with a 45o slope and flat tiles, and that of the Mediterranean basin in which the roofs have a slope of 30o and rounded tiles” (Max Derruau). In the mountains, thatch is replaced by slate or corrugated iron. The most attractive roofs are those made of stone slabs called lauzes that look like gigantic tortoise shells. They can only be mounted on a steeply sloping roof with a very strong set of rafters. On the plains, the old round tiles and rows of guttering once common in the countryside are beginning to lose ground in the face of competition from more stable mass-produced tiles.

Housing in the Limagne

The houses with upper storeys, which belong to wine-growers or farmers specialising in mixed agriculture, are commonplace in the old villages huddling on the hillsides. The ground floor is used for work (stables, cellars) and the upper floor is the house, reached by an outside flight of steps leading to a balcony sheltered by a porch roof.

Housing in the mountains

These houses are sturdy buildings, constructed from large blocks of basalt. The heavy roofs extend below the top of the walls. The single building contains both dwelling and byre side by side. They always face south, and are sheltered from bad weather by the haybarn. Doors and windows are narrow and the roof drops down to the ground at the rear of the building. In the Upper Livradois area, the house is raised and is separate from the farm buildings.

Housing in the Velay area

Houses in this area are unusual as their walls are made of ashlar, with a predominance of grey or dark-red lava stone in volcanic areas, light-coloured granite in areas of older soil, and yellow arkose in areas of sedimentary rock. The blocks of stone are cemented together using a mortar that is often mixed with pozzolana, a reddish volcanic gravel. In the villages, a bell turret indicates the village hall (assemblée) or “maison de la béate.”

Shepherds’ and cowherds’ huts

A buron is a squat, stone-roofed temporary dwelling high up in the mountains, used by cowherds during periods of trans-humance.

This was where the cheese and butter was made which the cantalès, or master of the buron, then sent down to the valleys from time to time. A small number of these huts are still in use. In the Livradois and Forez areas, and on the slopes of Mont Pilat, there are “jasseries” or “mountain farms” used during the summer months. Solidly built of stone with thatched roofs, they consist of a living room, a byre and a cheese cellar below.

Rhône Valley

Housing in the Forez and Lyonnais areas

Houses in the Forez area are farmsteads enclosed by high walls around a central courtyard. The walls are often made of rows of stones set at a slant. In the Dombes area, the farmhouses are elongated and have an upper storey. External pebbledash protects the walls made of terracotta bricks or cob.

Housing in the Rhône Valley

On the Valence and Montélimar plains, the walls often have no doors or windows on the north side since this is where the mistral wind blows. Additional protection is often provided by a row of thuyas, cypress and plane trees. Large, isolated farmsteads consist of a group of buildings around a walled courtyard, and their external walls, devoid of doors or windows, make them look like fortresses.

Housing in Lower Dauphiné

Between Bourbe and Isère, pebbles or “rolled stones” were often used as a building material because they were commonplace in this area of moraine and alluvial deposits. The stones are assembled end on, on a bed of mortar, and the angle changes from one level to the next. In some areas (eg Morestel and Creys) there is a style of roofing that has been imported from the Préalpes: crow-stepped or corbie-stepped gabling.

Housing in the Upper Vivarais area

On the edges of the Velay area, along the Mézenc range and on the high plateaux above the upper reaches of the Ardèche and Eyrieux, the houses are low and squat with stone-slabbed roofs, seeming almost weighed down by this shell designed to withstand bad weather.

On the St-Agrève plateau, the granite farmhouses have an upper storey and bedrooms next to the hayloft.

Housing in the Lower Vivarais area

Houses here have an upper storey and are built in a square, like southern French houses. The gently sloping roofs have half-round tiles. At the top of the wall, between wall and roof, there is typically a double or triple row of guttering made with fragments of tiles mounted in mortar. The south-facing wall is often decorated with a trellis.

Literary life

The language

Like all the regions in France the Auvergne has its own language, which has undergone continual development since the days of Antiquity. This means that the borders of the area in which the dialect of the Auvergne is spoken do not correspond to the historical and administrative borders of the province.

Auvergnat, the dialect of the Auvergne, which is considered to be similar to North Occitan, is said to have developed from a Medio-Roman language used in the part of central France occupied by the Romans and which gradually died out in the face of competition from oïl, the language of northern France. The dialect spoken in and around Aurillac is closer to the Guyennais dialect spoken in the south-west of France (Aquitaine), which was under English domination for a considerable time, but it has nevertheless been influenced by Auvergnat.

A few great writers from the Auvergne

Local writers have brought fame to a few of the Auvergne’s prelates among them Sidonius Apollinaris, Gerbert (10C) and Massillon who gave Louis XIV’s funeral oration in the 18C. The Auvergne also had poets such as Théodore de Banville (1823–91) who founded the Parnassian School of Poetry and philosophers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955). In the 20C, Henri Pourrat and the chronicler Alexandre Vialatte have both described their native land, each in his own style. Of all the Auvergne authors, the best-known is Blaise Pascal, though Gregory of Tours, the medieval chronicler, is almost equally important.

Gregory of Tours

He was born c 583 in Clermont-Ferrand into a rich family of Senators. He spent most of his life in Tours, to which he was appointed Bishop in 573, yet he never forgot the place of his birth. His History of the Franks which retraces the reigns of the Merovingian kings and their ancestors is one of the main sources of historical information about the Auvergne during the Dark Ages.

Gregory of Tours was not only concerned with the Auvergne. His work covers the whole of Gaul and is one of the only sources of information about that time. Indeed, it is the first historical work concerning the kingdom of the Franks that has survived to this day.

Blaise Pascal

It was in 1623 that Pascal, undoubtedly the most famous native of the Auvergne, was born in Clermont-Ferrand. His mother died when he was three years old and it was his father, President of the Court of Aids (forerunner of the Customs & Excise) in Clermont, who brought him up. In 1631 Pascal senior came to Paris to devote all his time to his son who was already showing signs of extraordinary intelligence. Châteaubriand described him as a “terrifying genius.” At the age of 11 he wrote a treatise on sound and, at 19, he invented his first mathematical machine to assist him in his calculations. In 1646 Pascal entered Port-Royal, the abbey where he wrote his treatises on Physics and Philosophy. He then left the abbey to lead a life among high society where he discovered that “the heart has its reasons which reason ignores.” It was at this time that he wrote his Discourse on the Passions of Love. Soon, though, he began to suffer from the “emptiness” of his life. In 1664 he survived a carriage accident and believed that this was a sign from on high. He retired to Port-Royal, which he was never again to leave, and continued his writings. It was because his memory played tricks on him that he began noting his Thoughts, with a view to writing an Apology of the Christian Religion. This was his most famous work, but was never completed. Pascal died in 1662, at the age of 39.

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