• Registration Year


  • Registered Sector

    Episcopal City of Albi

Location and site

On the banks of the Tarn river in south-west France, the old city of Albi reflects the culmination of a medieval architectural and urban ensemble. Today the Old Bridge (Pont-Vieux), the Saint-Salvi quarter and its church are testimony to its initial development (10th -11th centuries). Following the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics (13th century) it became a powerful episcopal city. Built in a unique southern French Gothic style from local brick in characteristic red and orange colours, the lofty fortified Cathedral (late 13th century) dominates the city, demonstrating the power regained by the Roman Catholic clergy. Alongside the Cathedral is the vast bishop’s Palais de la Berbie, overlooking the river and surrounded by residential quarters that date back to the Middle Ages. The Episcopal City of Albi forms a coherent and homogeneous ensemble of monuments and quarters that has remained largely unchanged over the centuries.

Registration Criteria

Outstanding Universal Value

The Episcopal City of Albi presents a complete built ensemble representative of a type of urban development in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present day. Its monumental and urban elements are complementary and well preserved, in subtle harmony of tones and appearance thanks to the use of local fired brick. It is testimony to a programme which was simultaneously both defensive and spiritual, and which was implemented by the Roman Catholic bishops following the suppression of the Albigensian or Cathar heresy in the 13th century. Saint-Cécile Cathedral is the most remarkable monumental symbol, in a Gothic architectural style unique to southern France, to which systematic internal painted decoration, a choir, and late Gothic statuary were added in the 15th and 16th centuries. Finally, the outstanding value of the city is expressed by a medieval urban landscape that is both well preserved and extremely authentic.

Criterion (iv): The historic city of Albi presents an outstanding medieval architectural and urban ensemble. It is homogeneous and is expressed through a high-quality urban landscape that possesses high visual coherence because of the generalised and enduring use of local fired brick. Sainte-Cécile Cathedral is an exceptional architectural and decorative example of the adaptation of the Gothic style to the context of Southern France.

Criterion (v): The Albi urban site developed gradually over the centuries, and notably from the Middle Ages. The events of the Albigensian Crusade transformed it into a symbolic Episcopal city structured around its Cathedral and its Episcopal fortress-palace. This is one of the rare examples of ensembles of this kind that are to such a high degree complete and well preserved. It expresses in a very comprehensive way a type of urban settlement that was characteristic of medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Integrity and authenticity

All the old architectural elements are included in the nominated historic zone, which corresponds exactly with the Renaissance boundaries of the city. Any exceptions from this level of integrity can mainly be attributed to redevelopment of the urban districts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These were limited in scope and do not affect the coherent appearance of the city overall.

The conditions of authenticity of the urban structure of the property, of a number of buildings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and of most of the monuments are satisfactory thanks to appropriate conservation. The city enjoys considerable visual coherence attributable to the chromatic nuances of the local fired brick, which was in use over a lengthy historical period up to the present day.

The integrity and the authenticity of the urban landscape of the ensemble should be emphasised; they should be a priority objective for long-term preservation.

Protection and management requirements

The Episcopal city’s main monuments are all under the protection of the French law of 1913. The so-called ‘Malraux Law’ of 1962 on conservation areas led to an early municipal project, which was approved in 1968. A protection and enhancement plan followed and was approved in 1974. The protection arrangements are adequate and operate satisfactorily. An extension of the protection of the urban landscape has been announced for the area outside the buffer zone (broad protection procedure, known as ZPPAUP).

The management system for the property is long-standing, and involves numerous stakeholders with well defined specialist functions, which they exercise with recognised expertise. The Municipality is seen as the current coordinator of this system, notably through its consultative management with the inhabitants in the Conservation Area, which includes both the property and its buffer zone. A Property Committee has been established and is responsible in particular for monitoring conservation and protection, coordinating the various stakeholders, and relations with the inhabitants.

Source: World Heritage Center - UNESCO

Historical Reference

The promontory between the Tarn River to the north and the Bondidou Ravine to the south-west was the site of an ancient oppidum; traces of occupation of this site date back to the Bronze Age. It corresponds with the present-day Castelviel Quarter (see Description). The site was first occupied by the Celts, and then housed a small Gallo-Roman settlement. It was sufficiently important to be the seat of a bishopric as early as the 5th century. It was fortified during the early medieval period and buildings appeared along the banks of the river, which was navigable. In 418 the Visigoths invaded and took control of the region, followed by the Franks in 507. All the remains from these periods are archaeological.

The Saint-Salvi Quarter (10th century) and the Old Bridge (11th century) are testimony to early medieval economic and urban development. The Madeleine Quarter was built on the right bank around the end of the Old Bridge. By virtue of its geographical location, Albi benefits from contact with both the moist and cool heights of the Ségala and the Rouergue regions and the warmer and drier Garonne Basin lowlands. Albi was deforested very early and became an agricultural region producing a variety of crops, the town becoming a market town for farmers where a variety of products were traded, depending on the season: grain, wine, cattle, and hemp, and later pastels, etc. The Tarn River is naturally navigable from Albi to the Garonne. The city became a centre for a regional wholesale trade in wool and fabrics manufactured in the surrounding countryside.

The feudal period in Albi was marked by the presence of the Counts of Toulouse, and then by the overlordship of the powerful Trencavel viscounts in the 12th and 13th centuries. Land ownership was also shared among other right-holders in addition to the feudal lords, namely the bishop and canons of Saint-Salvi. The urban development in clearly distinct districts and quarters reflects this sharing of the space (see Description).

Urban development in the 12th and 13th centuries was accompanied by religious dissent at the regional level, with the inhabitants of Albi forming one of its centres, alongside Toulouse, Carcassonne, Foix, etc. The Catholic ecclesiastical establishment appeared to be cut off from the social realities of both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie of the period. In the 12th century the dissenters became organised; they were known as the Albigenses or Cathars. They were evolving towards a dualist interpretation of the world and the human condition, as well as towards religious practices that were rapidly judged to be heretical by the Roman Catholic authorities. The preachings of Saint Bernard (1145) and the Cistercians, and then of Saint Dominic (1206-07), alternated with declarations of heresy and excommunication, notably the Fourth Lateran Council, which instigated the inquisition of the Albigenses (1179). Two successive crusades were then decreed by the Church against the dissenters: the first (feudal) from 1208 to 1209 and the second (royal) from 1224 to 1229. Despite the name, the Albigensian Crusade, the city of Albi was in material terms relatively unaffected by the military events, which rapidly turned into the conquest of the feudal lords in the north and then a royal annexation. The restoration of the Catholic faith by force was accompanied by the definitive anchoring of Languedoc within the French sphere.

The Roman Catholic church's firm recovery of control over the population also resulted in the elimination of the local elite, who were favourable to Catharism, and in the establishment of a powerful clerical grip on spiritual and material life. Albi is typical of these developments in the 13th century, becoming an episcopal city under the overlordship of the builder-bishops. Bernard de Combret started building the fortified castle and the Palais de la Berbie during the final phase of the Crusade; his successor, Bernard de Castanet, began construction of the imposing Sainte-Cécile Cathedral, a veritable incarnation of a fortress of the Roman Catholic faith (see Description). At the end of the 13th century and the start of the 14th, considerable urban growth paralleled the erection of the episcopal ensemble, including new quarters and religious institutions outside the walls.

In addition to its symbolic populist dimension, the choice of brick in the 13th century as the building material for the large buildings can be explained by the poor quality of the region's limestone quarries and the natural abundance of clay in the Tarn and Garonne basins. It has given a common language to the Languedoc cities in this region, notably in Montauban, Toulouse, and Albi. Furthermore, the new episcopal city benefited from the input of very diverse artistic and architectural influences from the northern regions of France as well as from Flanders and Catalonia.

The major European crisis in the mid-14th century, with the beginning of the Hundred Years' War, famine, and plague, had a lasting effect on Albi and its region. The city contracted and vegetated, closed within its walls, which were strengthened at the start of these events. Its craftsmen and its trade suffered long-term consequences, and the urban population collapsed.

The Renaissance, beginning in the mid-15th century in the Albi region, brought economic recovery based on the extraction of pastel, a plant-dye in fashion at the time. A new local elite developed, bringing in its wake the construction of fine residences in a Renaissance style and the renovation of the old quarters in the historic centre. The seigneurial bishops Louis I and Louis II of Amboise undertook the completion of the Cathedral, building the external entrance baldaquin and the choir, with its rood-screen and internal stone rails; they then launched an imposing programme of internal murals and statuary, assisted by both regional artists and others from France, Flanders, and Italy (see Description). They reflect a Late Gothic style, characterised by extremely rich decoration, at times overly ornate, coupled with highly expressive characters.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the episcopal Palais de la Berbie underwent a series of important architectural transformations. Its military aspects were softened and partly replaced by buildings of Renaissance inspiration and gardens, to form a more light and open palatial ensemble that was more pleasant to live in. The Palais de la Berbie gradually took on its contemporary appearance. The successive bishops of Albi, raised to the rank of archbishop in the 17th century, were still the lords of the city and its dependencies; they presided over the Estates of Albi, exercising a dual spiritual and temporal power right up to the French Revolution. At the end of the 17th century the historical city, still encircled by ramparts and clustered around its fortress-cathedral, retained the appearance of a medieval citadel. It is sometimes referred to as the Red City because of the colour of its brick.

The city's appearance changed in the 18th century, when demolition of the ramparts began to facilitate the urban development required as a result of population growth. The number of building projects grew in the second part of the century, resulting in the creation of new quarters and a rational extension of the road network, notably to the east of the city. Nonetheless, this period was also marked by a decline in trading activities, which started to shift to the new transport axis formed further south by the Canal du Midi and the Garonne River.

After the Revolution, the clergy's properties were sold, to become administrative centres or warehouses. The Cathedral was briefly converted into a Temple of Reason. Although the rood-screen and the choir escaped relatively unscathed from damage during the disorder under the Terror, the statuary and the reliquary did not.

In the 19th century urban renewal projects were again taken up and expanded, especially in the second half of the century; the Old Bridge was widened and navigation along the Tarn was improved. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were marked by an economic revival due to the growth of the glass-making and hat-making industries, along with the extraction of coal near Carmaux.

Major restoration work was undertaken on the Cathedral at the end of the 19th century, in the spirit of Viollet-le- Duc and under the supervision of the architect César Daly. Its immediate surroundings were cleared in order to enhance its appearance, along with a significant reordering of the old city's streets so as to facilitate urban traffic. A number of peripheral quarters appeared, extensive infrastructural work was carried out around the city, and modern buildings, generally built of brick, appeared in the old quarters. Having become unsuitable for episcopal functions that had become reduced to their simple ecclesiastical dimension, the Palais de la Berbie was gradually abandoned. In the early 20th century it became the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum to house the collections left by the painter's family to the city where he was born.

At the end of World War II the historic urban centre was first abandoned, losing many of its inhabitants, who moved to the new buildings in the city's outskirts. However, it escaped a project that would have seen it demolished and replaced with a modernist reconstruction. It was then recognised as an urban ensemble with considerable heritage value and declared a Conservation Area by the Municipality in 1968, which led to the implementation of a conservation plan in 1974. The pace of work was stepped up at the end of the 20th and the start of the 21st centuries, resulting in a high level of conservation for this urban ensemble within the perimeter of the former episcopal city.

Mme Stéphanie Guiraud-Chaumeil
Ville d'Albi
16 Rue de l'Hôtel de Ville
81023 Albi, France
cedex 9
+33 (0)5 63 49 14 80
+33 (0)5 63 49 10 51
Mme Marie-Eve Cortés
Chargée de mission UNESCO, responsable service patrimoine et service coopération décentralisée
Mairie d'Albi
16, rue de l'hôtel de ville 81023 Albi cedex 09
Albi, France
+33 (0)5 63 49 11 95
+33 (0)5 63 49 10 75