The promontory between the Tarn River to the north and the Bondidou Ravine to the south-west was the site of an ancient oppidum; traces of occupation of this site date back to the Bronze Age. It corresponds with the present-day Castelviel Quarter (see Description). The site was first occupied by the Celts, and then housed a small Gallo-Roman settlement. It was sufficiently important to be the seat of a bishopric as early as the 5th century. It was fortified during the early medieval period and buildings appeared along the banks of the river, which was navigable. In 418 the Visigoths invaded and took control of the region, followed by the Franks in 507. All the remains from these periods are archaeological.
The Saint-Salvi Quarter (10th century) and the Old Bridge (11th century) are testimony to early medieval economic and urban development. The Madeleine Quarter was built on the right bank around the end of the Old Bridge. By virtue of its geographical location, Albi benefits from contact with both the moist and cool heights of the Ségala and the Rouergue regions and the warmer and drier Garonne Basin lowlands. Albi was deforested very early and became an agricultural region producing a variety of crops, the town becoming a market town for farmers where a variety of products were traded, depending on the season: grain, wine, cattle, and hemp, and later pastels, etc. The Tarn River is naturally navigable from Albi to the Garonne. The city became a centre for a regional wholesale trade in wool and fabrics manufactured in the surrounding countryside.
The feudal period in Albi was marked by the presence of the Counts of Toulouse, and then by the overlordship of the powerful Trencavel viscounts in the 12th and 13th centuries. Land ownership was also shared among other right-holders in addition to the feudal lords, namely the bishop and canons of Saint-Salvi. The urban development in clearly distinct districts and quarters reflects this sharing of the space (see Description).
Urban development in the 12th and 13th centuries was accompanied by religious dissent at the regional level, with the inhabitants of Albi forming one of its centres, alongside Toulouse, Carcassonne, Foix, etc. The Catholic ecclesiastical establishment appeared to be cut off from the social realities of both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie of the period. In the 12th century the dissenters became organised; they were known as the Albigenses or Cathars. They were evolving towards a dualist interpretation of the world and the human condition, as well as towards religious practices that were rapidly judged to be heretical by the Roman Catholic authorities. The preachings of Saint Bernard (1145) and the Cistercians, and then of Saint Dominic (1206-07), alternated with declarations of heresy and excommunication, notably the Fourth Lateran Council, which instigated the inquisition of the Albigenses (1179). Two successive crusades were then decreed by the Church against the dissenters: the first (feudal) from 1208 to 1209 and the second (royal) from 1224 to 1229. Despite the name, the Albigensian Crusade, the city of Albi was in material terms relatively unaffected by the military events, which rapidly turned into the conquest of the feudal lords in the north and then a royal annexation. The restoration of the Catholic faith by force was accompanied by the definitive anchoring of Languedoc within the French sphere.
The Roman Catholic church's firm recovery of control over the population also resulted in the elimination of the local elite, who were favourable to Catharism, and in the establishment of a powerful clerical grip on spiritual and material life. Albi is typical of these developments in the 13th century, becoming an episcopal city under the overlordship of the builder-bishops. Bernard de Combret started building the fortified castle and the Palais de la Berbie during the final phase of the Crusade; his successor, Bernard de Castanet, began construction of the imposing Sainte-Cécile Cathedral, a veritable incarnation of a fortress of the Roman Catholic faith (see Description). At the end of the 13th century and the start of the 14th, considerable urban growth paralleled the erection of the episcopal ensemble, including new quarters and religious institutions outside the walls.
In addition to its symbolic populist dimension, the choice of brick in the 13th century as the building material for the large buildings can be explained by the poor quality of the region's limestone quarries and the natural abundance of clay in the Tarn and Garonne basins. It has given a common language to the Languedoc cities in this region, notably in Montauban, Toulouse, and Albi. Furthermore, the new episcopal city benefited from the input of very diverse artistic and architectural influences from the northern regions of France as well as from Flanders and Catalonia.
The major European crisis in the mid-14th century, with the beginning of the Hundred Years' War, famine, and plague, had a lasting effect on Albi and its region. The city contracted and vegetated, closed within its walls, which were strengthened at the start of these events. Its craftsmen and its trade suffered long-term consequences, and the urban population collapsed.
The Renaissance, beginning in the mid-15th century in the Albi region, brought economic recovery based on the extraction of pastel, a plant-dye in fashion at the time. A new local elite developed, bringing in its wake the construction of fine residences in a Renaissance style and the renovation of the old quarters in the historic centre. The seigneurial bishops Louis I and Louis II of Amboise undertook the completion of the Cathedral, building the external entrance baldaquin and the choir, with its rood-screen and internal stone rails; they then launched an imposing programme of internal murals and statuary, assisted by both regional artists and others from France, Flanders, and Italy (see Description). They reflect a Late Gothic style, characterised by extremely rich decoration, at times overly ornate, coupled with highly expressive characters.
In the 16th and 17th centuries the episcopal Palais de la Berbie underwent a series of important architectural transformations. Its military aspects were softened and partly replaced by buildings of Renaissance inspiration and gardens, to form a more light and open palatial ensemble that was more pleasant to live in. The Palais de la Berbie gradually took on its contemporary appearance. The successive bishops of Albi, raised to the rank of archbishop in the 17th century, were still the lords of the city and its dependencies; they presided over the Estates of Albi, exercising a dual spiritual and temporal power right up to the French Revolution. At the end of the 17th century the historical city, still encircled by ramparts and clustered around its fortress-cathedral, retained the appearance of a medieval citadel. It is sometimes referred to as the Red City because of the colour of its brick.
The city's appearance changed in the 18th century, when demolition of the ramparts began to facilitate the urban development required as a result of population growth. The number of building projects grew in the second part of the century, resulting in the creation of new quarters and a rational extension of the road network, notably to the east of the city. Nonetheless, this period was also marked by a decline in trading activities, which started to shift to the new transport axis formed further south by the Canal du Midi and the Garonne River.
After the Revolution, the clergy's properties were sold, to become administrative centres or warehouses. The Cathedral was briefly converted into a Temple of Reason. Although the rood-screen and the choir escaped relatively unscathed from damage during the disorder under the Terror, the statuary and the reliquary did not.
In the 19th century urban renewal projects were again taken up and expanded, especially in the second half of the century; the Old Bridge was widened and navigation along the Tarn was improved. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were marked by an economic revival due to the growth of the glass-making and hat-making industries, along with the extraction of coal near Carmaux.
Major restoration work was undertaken on the Cathedral at the end of the 19th century, in the spirit of Viollet-le- Duc and under the supervision of the architect César Daly. Its immediate surroundings were cleared in order to enhance its appearance, along with a significant reordering of the old city's streets so as to facilitate urban traffic. A number of peripheral quarters appeared, extensive infrastructural work was carried out around the city, and modern buildings, generally built of brick, appeared in the old quarters. Having become unsuitable for episcopal functions that had become reduced to their simple ecclesiastical dimension, the Palais de la Berbie was gradually abandoned. In the early 20th century it became the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum to house the collections left by the painter's family to the city where he was born.
At the end of World War II the historic urban centre was first abandoned, losing many of its inhabitants, who moved to the new buildings in the city's outskirts. However, it escaped a project that would have seen it demolished and replaced with a modernist reconstruction. It was then recognised as an urban ensemble with considerable heritage value and declared a Conservation Area by the Municipality in 1968, which led to the implementation of a conservation plan in 1974. The pace of work was stepped up at the end of the 20th and the start of the 21st centuries, resulting in a high level of conservation for this urban ensemble within the perimeter of the former episcopal city.
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