The story of France’s third largest city, Lyon, is written, or rather painted on its walls, in giant trompe l’oeil frescos that cover entire buildings to illustrate its evolution through the centuries. It began in 1987, when a cooperative of artists, CitéCréation, decided to “play” with the restoration of the Croix-Rousse, the historic hillside neighborhood once home to the Canuts, the artisans who, over five centuries, made the city the Capital of Silk.
La Fresque des Canuts
Commonly known as Le Mur des Canuts (Silk Workers’ Wall), the city block-size trompe l’oeil fresco covers a 1200 square meter (13,000 square foot) blank wall. It illustrates the history and development of the neighborhood and the daily life of its inhabitants. At its center, a long stairway street emblematic of the Croix-Rousse environment gives a startling depth to the work. On both sides, apartment buildings with the tall windows characteristic of the weavers’ homes depict the current life of the area while reminding the viewer of the harsh nineteenth-century existence of the artisans whose life centered around the giant looms. One of the largest trompe l’oeil frescoes in Europe, the Silk Workers’ Wall has become a Lyon landmark
La Fresque des Lyonnais
In 1994-1995, following the success of the original fresco, the city commissions another project to honor its most illustrious citizens though the ages. The ideal canvas, an 800 square meter (8,600 square foot), seven-story blank wall along the right bank of the Saône River, is proposed by the residents of the Presqu’Ile neighborhood.
The Fresque (or Mur) des Lyonnais honors thirty illustrious native sons and daughters who left their mark on the city. From Sainte Blandine, a young early-Christian slave martyred during the reign of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Patron Saint of Lyon, to Paul Bocuse, the world-famous French chef and leading figure of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement, from one balcony to the next, the wall is a stage. The higher you look, the further you go back in history. On the third floor, I spot Juliette Recamier, the celebrated society leader whose Parisian salon drew the foremost literary and political figures of the early nineteenth century.
André-Marie Ampère the eighteenth century physicist who founded the science of electrodynamics and gave his name to the unit of electric current (Amp. for short) is on the second floor. Well-loved contemporary figures are on the street level, including L’Abbée Pierre (1912-2007), a Catholic priest, active member of the Resistance during World War Two and founder in 1949 of the Emmaus movement to help the poor, homeless and refugees; and Bertrand Tavernier (noted film director and producer of such award-winning films as “Mississippi Blues” and “Life and nothing but”).
Did you Know?
Some Wall residents are now household names, like Joseph Marie Jacquard (second floor), the early nineteenth century weaver and merchant who developed the earliest known programmable loom. Which, by the way, played an important part in the development of other programmable machines, including an early version of the digital compiler used by IBM to develop the modern day computer.
Then there are the brothers Lumière, Auguste and Jean, late nineteenth century inventors with over 170 patents to their name. The Lumière brothers played a major role in the history of photography and moving pictures. And yes, in French, the word for light is lumière.
Saint Ex and the Little Prince
And let’s not forget Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on the second floor, side-by-side with the yellow-haired hero of his famous Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), one of the most translated and best-selling books ever published. Although most widely remembered for this novella, Saint-Exupéry was a pioneer commercial aviator before the Second World War, working airmail routes in Europe, Africa and South America. He later joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa and disappeared during a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean in July 1944. Although Saint-Ex, as he is lovingly known in France, is not technically a household name, if you fly to Lyon, you will land at Saint-Exupéry Airport.
Le Mur des Ecrivains
Just around the corner, La Bibliothèque de la Cité, better known as the Wall of the Writers, evokes a giant library filled with the works of authors who were born or lived in and near Lyon. Over three hundred of them are on file, representing all literary genres and periods from the Renaissance to the present, excerpts and quotes included. They range from Rabelais and Voltaire to Frédéric Dart (who under the pen name San-Antonio, after his famous character, is arguably the most famous contemporary mystery writer in France). Saint Ex and his Little Prince are here too, of course. The street-level consists of three trompe l’oeil storefronts and a mailman near a mailbox. The mailbox, however, is real.
Good to Know
- The frescoed walls of Lyon are famous for their originality and artistry. To date, the artists of CitéCréation have produced over one hundred of them in Lyon and surrounding areas alone and close to 600 around the world. To find a list of their major works, check: CitéCréation , and for a comprehensive itinerary of the walls in central Lyon: Murs Peints.
- Visiting – Fresque des Canuts, 36 Boulevard des Canuts, at the corner of Rue Denfert Rochereau. Best visited as part of a walking itinerary, it can also be reached by public transportation: Métro station Hénon (line C). Fresque des Lyonnais, 2 Rue de la Martinière, at the corner of 43 Quai St. Vincent, on the right bank of the Saône River. Best visited as part of a walking itinerary, it can also be reached by public transportation: Métro station Hôtel de Ville-Louis Pradel. Multiple Bus lines also service this area. Mur des Ecrivains, 6 Rue de la Platière, at the corner of the Quai de la Pêcherie, just a few steps away from the Fresque des Lyonnais.
- Getting there – Lyon is easily reached by rail, with several direct TGV (high speed trains) connections throughout the day from Paris (2 hours), Lille (3 hours), Strasbourg (3 hours and 30 minutes) and Marseille (1hour and 40 minutes) as well as Geneva (2 hours). Lyon Saint-Exupery airport, with connections to Paris, Geneva and other major European cities, is located 20 kilometers east of the city. The Rhonexpress light-rail link offers easy access to the centre of Lyon in just 30 minutes. Note: Lyon has two main train stations. All TGV high-speed trains come into the new Lyon Part Dieu station, on the east side of the Rhone. Some continue, along with many local trains, to the old main station at Perrache, on the Presqu’ile, one kilometer south of the main square in the city, Place Bellecour.