One of the standing attractions on our luxury 8-passenger hotel barge Finesse is the chance to discover and explore the fascinating and historic town of Autun, France (pronounced ooh-tahn). Nestled at the foot of the great forest of the Morvan, its rich architectural and cultural heritage makes this one visit not to be missed.
From the Roman to the Romanesque: The Attractions of Autun, France
Keen classicists will be fascinated and absorbed by Autun’s rich past thanks to its distinguished Roman heritage. Founded shortly after the conquering of Gaul by the Romans in the 1st century AD, Autun, was founded by Julius Caesar’s step-son, the Emperor Augustus to demonstrate Roman dominance over the Gallic population. Named after him, Augustodonum was built as a model Roman town, sporting Roman baths, a forum and a basilica, as well as two major thoroughfares running through the city, each with a defensive gate at their extremities. The Romans invested time and money, making the city not only a prosperous settlement, but a key defensive position along the Via Agrippa.
Of the four gates into the city, two survive today – the Porte Saint-André to the east and the Porte d’Arroux to the north. There is also evidence of the once 6kilometres-long protective wall that surrounded the city, as well the numerous watchtowers that defended the Roman city.
Certainly not to be missed is Autun’s impressive Roman theatre. Built in the late 1st century AD, the theatre was intended for dramatic performances and with a diameter of 148 metres, it was the second-largest in the Roman world with a capacity for 20,000 spectators. Built on a natural slope of the land, the theatre was built in the classical style with tiers of seats arranged in three semi-circular rows, cut by stairways. An imposing wall, which has since disappeared, closed the theatre behind the stage and is thought to have been 30 metres-high. Beneath the rows of seating, traces of the vomitoria – galleries and passageways through which actors could access the theatre – can still be seen.
Saint-Lazare Cathedral, Autun, France
Another dominating feature of the town is the Cathédrale St-Lazare (Cathedral of St. Lazarus), located in Autun’s medieval quarter. The cathedral drew influence from, and was built in response to, the Basilica at Vézelay to hold the relics of Saint Lazarus of Bethany, who, in medieval times, was believed to have been the brother of Mary Magdalene. Situated on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostella, the cathedral was built during the early to mid-12th century and is considered to be a superb example of Romanesque architecture in France. Following a fire in the 15th century, the cathedral acquired Gothic features including its ornate flying buttresses and distinctive spire that dominates the city’s skyline.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the cathedral is its decorative sculptural art. Completed by the mid-12th century, its western doorway is surmounted by an imposing tympanum narrating the Last Judgement, both warning and inspiring the faithful before their entrance into the church. Whereas enormous medieval works of this nature are usually built by a team of masons, it is believed this oeuvre was constructed by a single individual, whose name, Giselbertus, can be seen carved into the centre of the sculpture. Attributed to the style of sculpture at Autun, similar carvings can be seen inside the cathedral describing biblical scenes including Noah’s Ark and Moses and the Golden Calf and the Dream of the Magi. Fortunately, these impressive works of art managed to escape destruction during both the French Wars of Religion and the French Revolution, during which the northern tympanum and the tomb of Saint Lazarus were destroyed by vandals.
The Temptation of Eve
The Temptation of Eve is also a work attributed to the sculptor Gislebert and kept at the Rolin Museum in Autun, France. It adorned the lintel of the north portal of the Saint-Lazare Cathedral of Autun:
Visit Autun aboard Hotel Barge, Finesse
There is so much to admire on a visit to Autun in France during a Classic Cruise in southern Burgundy and you’ll return to Finesse with a real understanding of the Roman and Romanesque history that is such a key part of this small town’s identity.