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Emerging from the Parisian shadow, Renaissance Lyons comes into its own

All French provincial cities have had to learn to live in the shadow of Paris. Some, like Marseilles, prefer to look away—to the sea; others choose to celebrate a new intimacy won by improbably fast TGVs. The city of Lyons, as Stendhal mused, seemed to lack many “great men” and, what is more, to rejoice in their rarity. And such unambitious joie de vivre marked a contrast not only with Paris, but with that city just up the Rhone, Geneva, where the likes of Rousseau and Calvin had proved well able to maximise their gifts or “mettre leurs talents à profit”.

Lyon Renaissance: Arts et Humanisme accompanied the exhibition of the same title at the Lyons Musée des Beaux-Arts earlier this year, which gives us an opportunity to see and think otherwise, opens, perhaps counter-intuitively, with a painting by the Florentine artist, Francesco Salviati, from the Louvre: The Incredulity of Thomas (1543-47). But it turns out to be an apposite image—not just because those in any doubt of the splendours and cultural riches of Lyons will find tangible evidence to assuage them in the pages that follow. For this particular painting was commissioned by the large and prosperous Florentine community in Lyons, an example of the city’s intimacy with Italy throughout the Renaissance. And, unfortunately for Lyons, during the Revolution the picture was removed to Paris, where it remains. It serves as a token of the often unfair odds against which Lyons has had to fight.

When the city was not devastated by floods, usually the fault of the more impetuous Saone rather than the steady, majestic Rhone which it marries at Lyons (the former female, the latter male, as tourist guides explain), Lyons was subject to violent sectarian convulsions. Protestants and Catholics destroyed one another’s works in the 1560s. Lyons had been the capital of Gaul (Lugdunum) under the Romans (and we learn that, intriguingly, it was also “the capital of love, after Avignon”).

Yet, surprisingly, few or no architectural legacies were visible—certainly nothing on the scale of Arles or Nîmes. Sixteenth-century scholars eventually started unearthing numerous small monuments and decoding their inscriptions. The volume honours their efforts, which turned Lyons into a centre of humanists and antiquaries.

Even as irrevocable losses of monuments and works of art occurred, the artists and artisans of Lyons were turning their city into a centre of publishing and printing, more than just a rival to Paris in certain areas. Unhampered by the presence of a university, the city’s printers specialised in books in French and works of natural science.

The catalogue allows us to savour the Renaissance cross-fertilisation of so many genres. Lyons became the centre of maiolica in France, in part to compensate for the loss of colours and illuminations to the new printing presses. These skills came with artists from the Italian Marches, who, like the Florentines, but also many other foreign communities, found Lyons a congenial place in which to work. But Lyons was at the same time the principal destination for French kings en route to their campaigns in Italy. The “joyeuses entrées” with which they were welcomed were particularly numerous and lavish. Lyons in fact specialised in “entrées secondaires”—that is when these kings came back from their campaigns. The intense artistic activity these necessitated also generated a distinguished tradition in the production of commemorative medals and portraits in various forms.

The volume does, pace Stendhal, celebrate accomplished figures whose links with Lyons may have been forgotten or neglected—the architect Philibert de l’Orme, the portraitist Corneille de Lyon, the elusive watercolourist Pierre Vase/Eskrich.

But the appeal of the book, which intersperses essays and objects from the catalogue sometimes rather unpredictably, perhaps lies above all in the way it brings together a formidable range of seemingly disparate individuals, with their respective talents, in the evocation of an intensely creative and vigorous epoch in the life of this city.

• John Leigh is a fellow of Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book, Touché, is a study of duelling in European literature

Lyon Renaissance: Arts et Humanisme

Sylvie Ramond, ed

Somogy Editions d’Art in association with the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons, 344pp, €42 (pb); in French only