Lyons bears exceptional testimony to the continuity of urban settlement over more than two millennia on a site of great commercial and strategic significance, where cultural traditions from many parts of Europe have come together to create a coherent and vigorous continuing community. By virtue of the special way in which it has developed spatially, Lyons illustrates in an exceptional way the progress and evolution of architectural design and town planning over many centuries.
The site of Lyons is dominated by two hills: to the west Fourvière and to the east Croix-Rousse, the latter prolonged by a peninsula formed by alluvial deposits laid down at the confluence of the two rivers. The Rhône is a strongly flowing river that comes from the Alps. The Saône, by contrast, is a gentler and more easily navigable river, linking Lyons with the plains of north-eastern France.
The present city began with the Roman settlement on Fourvière, although the area of the confluence had been used by man for many centuries before. The Roman town spread to Croix-Rousse and the Peninsula, but shrank during the troubled 3rd century AD to two fortified areas: on the right bank of the Saône, at the foot of Fourvière, around the bishop's estate, and a commercial district around the church of Saint-Nizier on the Peninsula.
By the mid-15th century it was one of the mostly heavily populated cities in Europe: there were 36 districts, each with its own mercantile attribution, and only the slopes of Croix-Rousse were not densely built on, being reserved for the 'rural' villas of rich German and Italian merchants and for vineyards. Overpopulation and the risk of epidemics led to the implementation of a policy of planned expansion starting in the mid-16th century and led by the religious orders. New districts were opened up in the 17th century, in particular the Bellecour area in the south, round the Place Royale (now the Place Bellecour). New projects undertaken in the 18th century involved extensive drainage works to the east and the linking of the peninsula to an adjoining island. During the Revolution, land confiscated from the religious orders became available for building. In 1850 several surrounding communes were incorporated into the city and major roads driven through the centre. The resulting urban fabric, visible today, is an epitome of the development of Lyons, with areas of medieval streets and of 18th-and 19th-century town planning alongside one another.
The Roman city is represented by the buildings excavated on Fourvière. The large theatre, capable of seating some 10,000 spectators, was built in the early 1st century AD and reconstructed under Hadrian (117-38). Alongside it is the smaller odeon, seating around 3,000 people and probably built in the mid-1st century. The amphitheatre is on Croix-Rousse hill, and was built around 19 BC to accompany the altar dedicated to Rome and Augustus; it was here that the Council of the Three Gauls met each August.
The succeeding centuries are well represented in the rich stock of private residences in Lyons - the Thomassin House in the Place du Change (late 13th century, enlarged 15th century); the house of the poet Maurice Scève (1493; additional storey in the 17th century); the Chamberlain's mansion (1495-1516), illustrating the transition from Gothic to French Renaissance style; the Mannerist house of the Lions (1647); the classical building on the Quai Lassagne (1760); and the House of 365 Windows, an example of the tenements built for the canuts (silk workers) in the first half of the 19th century.
The public buildings include the late 11th-century Manécanterie (Choir School); the Ainay Abbey Church (1107) in full Romanesque style; the noble Cathedral of St John the Baptist (1160-1481), which preserves a remarkable degree of stylistic homogeneity, given the long period over which it was built; the Church of Saint-Nizier, begun in the 14th century,with its Flamboyant Gothic nave, classical Renaissance front, and neo-Gothic south spire; the 17th-18th century Hôtel-Dieu, built over a medieval original; the Loge du Change (1745-80), now a Protestant church; the Fourvière Basilica (1872-96); and the École de Tissage (Weaving School), the work of Modernist architect Tony Garnier (1927-33).
Copyright © UNESCO World Heritage Centre 1992-2012. All rights reserved.