Limoges, the capital of Limousin

Limoges, the capital of the Limousin region in west-central France, stretches on the banks of the Vienne river.

Limoges town hall
Hotel-de-Ville

Limoges is an important university city, but above all is world famous for its exquisite porcelain.

The Romans founded Augustoritum (Limoges) in 10BC.

Augustoritum or Auguste’s ford – developed by a ford, hence its name!

It was built on a traditional grid plan with an amphitheater, a theater, baths, a forum, a temple and many secondary shrines.

It stood at the crossroads of the Via Agrippa – the road that connected Lugdunum-Lyon to Mediolanum Santonum-Saintes – and the Via Avaricum Tolosa, which connected Avaricum-Bourges to Tolosa-Toulouse.

A vast temple dedicated to Venus, Diana, Minerva and Jupiter stood near the current Cathedrale Saint-Etienne.

Such was the importance of Augustoritum, that it was endowed its proper Senate and currency!

Augustoritum was renamed Limoges after the tribe Lemovices after the fall of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century.

The affluent Saint-Martial Abbey

Around 250AD, Saint-Martial, the first bishop of Limoges, founded a sanctuary along the river Vienne; soon a small community developed.

Cathedrale saint-Etienne in Limoges
Cathedrale saint-Etienne

The Barbarian invasions of the late 3rd century pushed the villagers to take refuge on a nearby hill, Puy Saint-Etienne, which they fortified.

This was on this site that Saint-Etienne Cathedral was built during the Middle Ages.

The district, which became known as Cité Saint-Etienne or Cité, is the historic center of Limoges.

A second community developed around the necropolis where Saint-Martial was buried, to the northwest of town and along the Via Agrippa. This district will  become known as Castellum Sanctis Martialis or Château and referred to the fortified compound that encompassed the abbey and outbuildings.

Saint-Martial Abbey and its church of Saint-Sauveur was erected in the mid 9th century on this site.

The abbey was then major centre of intellectual, literary, poetic, artistic and musical production in the south of France.

A renowned school of music, the Ecole Saint-Martial, was founded in order to train troubadours.

One of their students, Bertran de Born, became one of the most acclaimed troubadours of the 13th century.

By the 11th century the prosperous abbey had turned Limoges into a thriving city.

Medieval Limoges

Limoges was then at its peak.

Limoges - Mosaic in Crypte saint-Martial
Mosaic in Crypte saint-Martial

It consisted of two large communities, the ‘City’ by the Vienne River and the ‘Castle’ districts, both enclosed within their ramparts.

However, Edward, the Black Prince seized and sacked Limoges in 1370 despite the strong fortifications!

According to various chronicles of the time, ‘hundreds or thousands’ of inhabitants were massacred during this episode of the Hundred Years War, which has remained known in French history as the Massacre de Limoges.

The two districts of Limoges merged into one after the French Revolution.

Limoges porcelain

The city is world famous for its fine porcelain and chinaware.

Limoges porcelain - Peony pattern
Limoges porcelain – Peony pattern

Indeed, 50% of porcelain produced in France today comes from Limoges!

It all started in 1768 when a deposit of kaolinite was discovered in Saint Yriex-la-Perche, a small town in the vicinity of Limoges.

Kaolin is a rock of exceptional finesse that can produce high quality ceramics.

Baron de Laune, then Superintendent of the Limousin area, developed the production of porcelain.

Porcelain manufacturing triggered an unprecedented growth and boosted the economy of this then impoverish region.

Indeed, factory workers were in high demand, but also lumberjacks as the furnaces were heated with wood.

A large working population appeared in Limoges during the 19th century.

The porcelain of Limoges, much acclaimed for its exquisite finesse, was an instant success.

Four des Casseaux in Limoges - kiln
Four des Casseaux – kiln

It was sold not only in France, but also exported throughout all of Europe, and turned Limoges into the capital of French porcelain.

This exceptional growth led to the expansion of the city.

Many derelict working districts were pulled down and completely rebuilt.

Peripheral districts were built in order to house the ever-expanding working population.

However, the workers’ poor conditions of work and life led to a series of riots, the most notable were those of 1830, 1848 and 1905!

It is no surprise that the first Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) was founded in Limoges in 1895!

Limoges is today a generic name that applies to the porcelain produced in the city’s area.

The oldest factory is Royal Limoges, owned by the same family since its opening over 200 years ago!

Limoges, the birthplace of Pierre-Auguste Renoir

One of the most acclaimed French painters and undisputed Impressionist master, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was born in 1841 in a working class family of Limoges.

As a boy Renoir worked in one of the porcelain factories of the city.

But fate had a different future in store for him.

Indeed, he was spotted for his painting gift and was promoted ‘porcelain painter’.

In 1862 Renoir enrolled in art school in Paris.

He mastered his skills alongside Alfred Sisley and Claude Monet!

Renoir exhibited his first works in 1874, and produced more than 6,000 works throughout his long career.

Limoges today

Limoges is listed as Ville dArt et d’Histoire.

However, the city isn’t really interested in preserving its architectural heritage.

As a result countless major Gallo-Roman vestiges were demolished during expansion works!.

Here are a few sites of interest.

Limoges Benedictins train station
Benedictins train station

1- Sadly, nothing is left of the prestigious Abbey of Saint-Martial which was demolished during the French Revolution.

However, the Crypte Saint-Martial, which contained the holy man’s grave was overlooked and was rediscovered in the 1960s.

2- The Gothic Cathedral Saint-Etienne was built between 1273… and 1888!

It is therefore a superb illustration of the evolution of French religious architecture through the ages.

It is a classified Historical Monument.

3- The Chapelle Saint-Aurélien houses the relics of St. Aurelian, the second bishop of Limoges.

4- The Art Deco railway station Gare de Limoges-Bénédictins was inaugurated in 1929; it boasts an impressive 60m high clock tower.

It was developed on the site of a Benedictine monastery – hence its name.

It is one of the last great monumental stations built in France and was therefore classified Historical Monument in 1975.

5- A visit to the Museum of Fine Arts is a Must-Do when in Limoges!

The museum was founded in the Palais de l’Echevêché.

The 18th century episcopal palace stands near the cathedral, in the heart of the historic district Cité Saint-Etienne.

It is set among terraced gardens and fountains and overlooks the Vienne Valley.

The museum exhibits extensive collections of porcelain of Limoges and works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his muse Suzanne Valadon.

6- Finally, the Four des Casseaux, one of the last five porcelain kilns, was built in 1884; it is a classified Historical Monument.

Department of Haute-Vienne – Limousin region
Coordinates: Lat 45.833619 – Long 1.261105

Photos Wikimedia Commons: City hallKiln Four des CasseauxSt-Martial CryptCathedrale St-Etienne

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