The Renaissance District of Old Lyon (Lyon, France)

The three districts that make up the Old Lyon neighborhood were built mostly during the Renaissance. Take this tour to discover the history of this world heritage site.

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Saint-Paul to the North was home to the bourgeoisie, and the financial and business centre of the district. Saint-Jean in the center was home to the clergy and aristocracy.  Saint-Georges in the South was home to artisans and tradesmen.

Elevated view of Lyon with old houses (2010-03-03) by Guy VanderelstGetty Images

 Old Lyon became the first site in France to be protected by law in 1964, and it is an integral part of the UNESCO World Heritage site created in Lyon in 1998. 

Montée du Gourguillon

For a long time, this uphill street was the only road linking Old Lyon to the Fourvière district and the vestiges of the ancient city of Lugdunum. 

Today it is a picturesque ascent lined with colorful houses, gardens and supporting walls.

Guignol

This square is the backdrop for the local puppet show featuring the character Guignol, a silkweaver and champion of social justice. Today, theaters in Lyon and throughout France continue giving Guignol puppet shows to the delight of adults and children.

Mullion Windows

Some windows have conserved their mullions, the vertical stone element that divides a window in two. After a tax was imposed on doors and windows in 1798, many mullions were destroyed as they meant a significant increase for window owners.

St Jean Cathedral

St. Jean Cathedral was completed in the 14th century. It is the seat of the Primate of the Gauls, a title given to the Archbishop of Lyon since 1079.  

It was here that France’s King Henry IV celebrated his marriage with Marie de’ Medici here with balls, festivities and fireworks.

The Cathedral Façade

The façade has a classic gothic structure with its three processional doors. Original elements include the narrative medallions decorating the pillars beside the doors.  

More statues used to line the façade, but these were destroyed during the French Wars of Religion.

The St. John the Baptiste Fountain

This fountain was erected in 1844 by the Lyonnais architect René Dardel. It represents a small antique temple in the Neorenaissance style, and it houses a sculpture of St. Jean the Baptist baptizing Christ.

The Chamarier House

This house is one of the rare buildings from the 14th century to have been preserved in Old Lyon.  

It was home to the Chamarier, who was the superintendent in charge of security, justice and town planning. He also possessed the keys to the town and collected taxes during local fairs.

The courtyard

Here is both the gothic style of the tower and the Renaissance style of the vaulted arches, demonstrating the changes to the building over the years. Gothic style is asymmetrical and has pointed arches and towers. Renaissance is more symmetrical, using rounded forms.

Visit from Mme de Sévigné

This pastry shop sells local specialities, called “La Marquise.” The name refers to the Marquise de Sévigné, a French aristocrat and famous figure of French literature, who stayed here in 1672-73 on her way to visit her daughter in a nearby village.

The Well

The well in the courtyard is said to have been designed by the famous Lyonnais architect Philibert de l’Orme. It features several Renaissance motifs, including shells, columns, capitals and sculpted panels.

Place de la Basoche

This inn, dating from 1516, was frequented by members of the Basoche brotherhood, former legal clerks in the court system. In 1979, the law society renovated the building. It was sold in 2004 and now houses the Museum of Miniatures and Film Sets.  

Another building that once stood here was demolished, allowing us to admire the inner courtyard of the former inn. The building features twelve basket arches resting on flat-based columns arranged on three levels.

Attorneys’ House

The “Maison des Avocats,” or Attorney’s House, is a fine example of Renaissance architecture in the St. Jean district. It is  composed of several buildings and has a Tuscan-style gallery in the courtyard, which is made from yellow stone from the nearby Beaujolais region.

Lion

This lion statue is one of several that appear around Lyon. It was initially created for the “Biennale des Lions,” an event held every two years in which lion statues are created and sold to fund charity works.

A Traboule

From the Latin “transambulare,” meaning “to pass through,” a traboule is a closed pedestrian passageway that cuts through buildings and courtyards, connecting one street to another. In its most simple form, a traboule is composed of a ribbed, vaulted corridor.  

In this panorama, traboules lead off to the left of the stairway and to the left of the window. There are around 200 such passageways in Old Lyon. 

Staircase

In every courtyard there are two essentials: a source of water and a stairway. This is an Italian-style spiral staircase, which ascends to a network of loggias, open porches or balconies, enabling all the buildings on the courtyard to be connected.

Turret

This traboule, connecting St. Jean Street and the Three Marys Street, is one of the most elegant of Old Lyon. Spiral staircase, loggia, corner turrets, mullioned windows . . . all these are features of Italian Renaissance architecture.

Arch

The presence in the basket arches of yellow stone, taken from the hills of the nearby Beaujolais region, testifies to a French adaptation of the Italian style.

Loge du change (Exchange House)

The “Loge du Change” in Old Lyon is referred to as a “lodge” as it resembles the upper story to an Italian loggia: an open-sided structure like a balcony that rests upon a series of open arches.  

The upper story of the Loge du Change is crowned by a cornice decorated with clocks and coats of arms. The building was erected in 1653 as an exchange house, and was extended in 1748 by the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot. 

Reformed Church

In 1803, the municipality of Lyon allowed the Loge du Change to be turned into a Protestant church, and the doors filling the arches were added at that time. In 1938, four Protestant sects joined to create the Reformed Church of France here.

Cycloscope

An original engraving of the building showed the intention to include two clocks.  

One would show the day, month and year, but they were never realised. To mark the year 2000, the Lyonnais watchmakers’ guild created the clock and a cycloscope; a calendar dial.  

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