This monastic order, which was established in Bourgogne and controlled a large network of abbeys across Western Europe, consisted of three colleges strategically located close to the centres of power in Paris and Avignon, as well as in Dole in the Empire’s territory. These establishments are where novices of the order would come to study their university course. The Parisian college was built in the 13th century just south of the current Sorbonne Square. This served as a pied-a-terre for the Abbot of Cluny during his stays in the capital as, located within the immediate proximity, it was the most suited to his status.
The original residence which existed before the college is known only for its brief mention in archives. The current, distinctive town house was built in 1485 by Jacques d’Amboise, the Abbot of Cluny, who was born into one of the dominant families in France at the end of the 15th century. The head of the Order of Cluny, the young abbot had the building constructed with the aim of increasing his status: expensive materials, a complex layout and opulent decor.
A place of residence and entertainment, the town house of the abbots of Cluny stands next to and is intimately linked with the Gallo-Roman baths which occupy the west side of the structure. The preservation and integration of these imposing buildings was not done completely by choice; the economic dimension of the architectural project gives a partial explanation for this. It would have been very costly to destroy these ancient buildings just to obtain an open space and to take on the colossal labour costs involved without actually being able to sell the materials salvaged from the buildings. The master builder therefore adapted to these constraints and ingeniously used them to his advantage.
Gothic in style, the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny adopts part of an exceptional residence, the private town house, an urban architectural composition which saw huge success throughout the entire Ancien Régime. Its windowless crenelated wall edges a vast interior courtyard accessible through a double door and a gate. The facades are heavily sculpted in a flamboyant gothic style. On the pediments of the high windows and on sections of the staircase, the weapons of Jacques d’Amboise affirm the power and the rank of the man who commissioned this building. The central body of the residence is flanked by two wings, one on the East side where the kitchens are located on the ground floor and the other on the West side, forming a gallery on the second floor above a series of open arcades. The architect skilfully made the most of this irregularly shaped plot of land and the presence of the ancient buildings, finding novel solutions to the constraints faced.
The chapel, the jewel of the residence, occupies a unique location at the back of the building, highlighting its private nature. Almost square in shape, from its unique central pillar unfolds a dense network of ribs. Under the shade of the wall’s canopies are not statues of the Apostles but those of the members of the family of Jacques d’Amboise. The exaltation of his family in this private place of worship is a demonstration of his personal position. The two holy women painted on the walls of the apse in approximately 1500 by an Italian artist were once accompanied by an image of the Pietà though this is no longer visible today. The chapel also once functioned as a place of passage in the building’s layout, enabling the Abbot to access the garden directly via a spiral staircase in a vaulted room. This once rather modestly sized garden used to provide a link with the main body of the building. On the west side, two rooftop gardens were created on the thick arches of the frigidarium and the current Roman room (room 10).
Today, the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny is at the same time close to and quite different from how it looked in the Middle Ages. On the one hand, its facades and roofings benefitted from high-quality restoration work in the 19th century, scrupulously led by Albert Lenoir in accordance with original provisions. On the other hand, the urban materials that once formed the structure have now disappeared following the work of Baron Haussmann, which significantly modified the perception of this remarkable example of civil medieval architecture, an “urban jewel” as Prosper Mérimée once called it.