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Albi during the 17th and 18th centuries

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

Up until the French Revolution the Bishops of Albi, promoted to Archbishops towards the end of 17th century, remained the lords of the town, foremost patrons and major players in the life of the city.

Chosen by the King amongst the ranks of the high nobility and conserving their close links with the royal court, the bishopric of Albi was often a step on a path towards greater advancement.

On entering Albi a Bishop would be received with great pomp and ceremony, the consuls offered gifts and presented the keys to the city before swearing allegiance to the new Bishop who would then be inducted into office.

From the same lineage as Bernard de Castanet and Louis d’Amboise came flamboyant prelates such as Daillon du Lude, the Archbishops Serroni and Le Goux de la Berchère in the 17th century; then in the 18th century Choiseul-Stainville, brother of the minister to King Louis XV. The last before the Revolution was the celebrated Cardinal de Bernis, once minister to King Louis XV, who later became Archbishop of Albi and ambassador to Rome. In the early 17th century there had been serious conflicts between the people of Albi and the prelates, notably with the fastidious Daillon du Lude, although relations subsequently improved and a greater trust was brokered. The Archbishops became interlocutors between the people of Albi and the authorities as well as mediators with the King, the King’s stewards or the states of Languedoc to obtain benefits and subsidies.

Later, in the 18th century the people of Albi declared themselves to be “the very humble, very obedient, very subjugate and very faithful vassals and servants” of their Archbishop.

The prelates were both the spiritual heads and secular administrators of the diocese and town of Albi. They presided over the “Albi estates” an assembly which allocated taxes and supported the economy, encouraging town-planning, education and social assistance.

The Bishops of Albi were responsible for the foundation of the general hospital in 1689, the establishment of the Jesuit College in 1623 and, in 1750, the introduction of the School of Brothers to enrich primary teaching. The bishopric of Albi enjoyed one of the highest revenues in France and the Bishops themselves had considerable personal fortunes of their own. In the tradition of patronage these powerful and influential prelates, with their court connections, introduced fashions and tastes of Versailles into both the Cathedral and the Berbie palace.

17th century: a town still confined by ramparts

Albi continued to look like a mediaeval walled city, squeezed into a narrow triangle of around thirty hectares. The centre was dominated by the Episcopal city, also walled and rising like a citadel above the town. The Pont-vieux carried houses across its length like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Until the middle of the 18th century, the restricted space of the city surrounded by three kilometres of walls was home to between 8,000 and 9,000 townspeople. Even the dead were laid to rest within the space, buried in the cemeteries adjoining the seven parish churches.

17th century Albi life was continually haunted by shortages, epidemics and plague; resurgences of which, such as in 1630-1632, ravaged the population. The city was also faced with numerous financial difficulties; a market decline in woad and saffron along with the commercial slump that followed the construction of the Midi canal which diverted part of Albi’s passing trade; the growing debts of the town and successive poor harvests. Nevertheless this was a period of great alteration within the Episcopal city, particularly for the Berbie palace which was transformed into a sumptuous princely residence.

Gaspard Daillon du Lude, Bishop from 1635 to 1676 and flamboyant prelate gradually abandoned the keep of the Mage tower for the recent Louis d’Amboise wing. Here he established large reception rooms like the golden salon which he had richly decorated with fashionable paintings. A private chapel was installed in the Notre-Dame chapel.

A passage over a portico and an imposing balustrade staircase installed in one of the older towers enabled access to the new ensemble. The château de Combefa was also abandoned and the Bishop ordered the construction of a summer palace on the banks of the river Tarn. This building, the petit Lude, was complemented by a Versailles-style garden.

The next Bishop, Hyacinthe Serroni (1678-1687), was of Roman birth and became the first Archbishop of Albi. He continued the transformations, installing a large library and converting the summit of the curtain walls into a promenade with the corner towers serving as gazebos overlooking the river. In the two exterior courtyards he established superposed parterres supported by balustrade walls which framed the French formal gardens. The Berbie palace, overlooking the River Tarn, began to take on an Italian aspect. Goux de la Berchère, successor of Serroni, completed the decoration of the Notre-Dame chapel and saw to the organisation of the Suffragan’s wing (a suffragan is an assistant Bishop).

18th century Albi; open for business but under-construction

The many changes to the Berbie palace can be seen as manifestations of the urban modernisation which swept Albi under the encouragement of the Archbishops and with the agreement of the consuls. The demographic shifts leant impetus to these transformations.

Albi was fortunately spared the final Plague threat in 1720 and the population increased, approaching 10,000 inhabitants just before the Revolution, level with that in the mid 14th century prior to the Black Plague. The newly thriving population suffered cramped conditions within the corset formed by the mediaeval fortifications which began to seem redundant in the peaceful 18th century. From 1720 the walls began to be dismantled, beginning at Castelviel but continuing around the town, spurred on by the arrival of the Toulouse-Rodez road which followed the ancient site of the trenches to the east of the city. Between 1758 and 1789 the town became a building site.

Two men were key to the urban restructuring, the Archbishop Choiseul and an engineer named Laroche, responsible for the royal road and town-planning in Albi. Archbishop Choiseul was heavily implicated in the urban construction in accordance with the consuls. He ordered the demolition of the Tarn gatehouse and implemented the construction of the quay which today bears his name following the old ramparts between the Pont-vieux and the Berbie palace.

Quai Choiseul improved access to the bridge and eased traffic between Place de la Pile towards the new road bypassing the Lices Pompidou in a sort of 18th century ringroad. The grateful citizens of Albi gave the name of Choiseul to the ornamental gardens bordering the Lices (in English “wards” indicating the zone between two curtain walls of a concentric fortified town) giving a continuity from the place du Vigan. The age of enlightenment saw the birth in Albi of two great navigators in the same year:

Admiral Henri-Paschal de Rochegude (1741-1834), sailor and political and literary figure. At his death he bequeathed his exceptional private library to the town, which represents today a large part of the ancient documents of the Albi multimedia library.

Jean-François Galaup de Lapérouse (1741-1788). As captain of the royal fleet of King Louis XVI he led a great expedition around the world to destinations as diverse as Cape Horn, Chile, Easter Island, Alaska, California, Asia, Kamtchatka and Australia.

The tremendous quantity of scientific research led by Lapérouse across the world came to an end in 1788 when two frigates la Boussole and l’Astrolabe sank on the Vanikoro reefs in the south Pacific. The location of the shipwrecks was not discovered until 1827 and research continued after this to follow the traces of this important 18th century expedition.

Today the Lapérouse museum, located in a buffer zone on the right bank of the River Tarn, relates not only the great 18th century expeditions but Lapérouse’s voyage and the expeditions he led until his disappearance. The urban regeneration continued until 1789 with the support of Choiseul’s successor the cardinal de Bernis. The work required considerable investment in economically straitened times as reported by the intendant, Basville: “the Albi diocese has greatly suffered from the establishment of the Languedoc canal...” The Archbishops contributed towards the work with monetary gifts but also with their influence in order to obtain royal subsidies. Albi became the third Languedocian town, along with Toulouse and Narbonne, to be arranged following a geometric design. This layout was defined between 1776 and 1780 by the engineer Laroche who directed the urban restructuration.

The town plan, dedicated to Cardinal de Bernis, brought Albi a new structure in the lead-up to the Revolution. The town was no longer ringed by ramparts except around the Cathedral and Berbie palace and the ancient centre with its maze of streets, numerous churches and cramped squares contrasted sharply with the new airy suburbs. There now existed a new axis established by Laroche and further new elements added during the town planning; the wards, the district of Vigan, the Choiseul gardens and the allées de Verdusse. During the Revolution and the subsequent Empire urban renewal was suspended and with it the completion of the buildings in the Episcopal city.

Irreparable destruction was avoided during the Revolution

Prior to the start of the Revolution a number of parish churches of Albi such as Saint-Afrric, Saint-Julien or chapels belonging to the convents were in need of urgent renovation. The sale of “biens nationaux” (national property which referred to all property owned by the Church) hastened the demolition of these buildings or their transformation into private property and the same fate was suffered by the church of Saint-Loup in Castelviel. Saint-Salvi, the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile and the church of la Madeleine were the only parish churches to remain.

At crucial moments during the Reign of Terror (period of the early French Revolution from 5 September 1793, to 28 July 1794) buildings were transformed; into fodder stores like Saint-Salvi or ‘Temples of Reason’ like the Cathedral. The cult of Reason, a religion created during the Revolution to replace Christianity, required the “rights of men” to be displayed around the pulpit, topped by the tricolore (national flag of France). During the revolutionary period the demolition of the rood screen and choir were suggested as well as the covering of the rich paintings which were seen as symbols of “fanaticism and superstition”.

This prospective vandalism of the Cathedral was avoided thanks to the intervention of the engineer Mariès who wrote to the minister of the Interior and Cults, Roland. A rapid response requested that the departmental administrators defer their destructive plans. This incident demonstrates the commitment of the Albi people to preserving their heritage.

Despite every effort, the Revolution led to the disappearance of a number of statues from the rood screen and porch, the loss of reliquaries and crosses whilst silverware was sent to the mint and the bronze of tombstones smelted. The Berbie palace played host to the revolutionary administrators and, during the time of the Consulate (9th November 1799) and subsequent Empire (from 1804), also housed the prefecture.

In 1823 the Tarn diocese was re-established and the Berbie palace reverted to Episcopal palace.

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