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The fascinating history of the Bartholdi Fountain in Lyon

Stunning metal fountain created by Bartholdi in the centre of Lyon city, France

Created in the late nineteenth century, the Bartholdi Fountain in Lyon, France, is a spectacular achievement of dramatic movement created from metal and water.

It portrays a strong and confident woman driving a chariot drawn by four wild horses through a cascade. As usual with a fountain of its era, the sculptural elements of the fountain are symbolic. But when you ask the local ‘Lyonnaise’ inhabitants about the symbols, they go a bit vague. As it turns out, there’s a good reason for that.

Bordeaux beckons Bartholdi

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi shot to fame in 1886 after designing the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France to the United States. Soon, status-seeking French city leaders competed to have Bartholdi design a grand sculptural fountain. After some haggling about the fee, Bartholdi accepted a commission from the city of Bordeaux. He set about creating a sculptural fountain to represent that city.

Since Bordeaux is located on the River Garonne, which is fed by four main tributaries, Bartholdi hit upon the idea of a young and prosperous woman above a cascade to represent the Garonne, the chariot to represent the city, with the four wild horses for the river’s tributaries.

The ‘Bordelais’ civic leaders liked the idea and Bartholdi went ahead and created his fountain. In an unusual move, Bartholdi crafted the fountain not by casting bronze in a mould, but by welding an iron frame and then hand-hammering the sculptural skin from sheets of lead. The finished fountain was 4.85 metres high, 9 metres wide and weighed 21 tonnes.

The Bartholdi fountain in Lyon

In the meantime, a new group of civic leaders in Bordeaux decided that the fountain was too expensive. They refused to pay and naturally Bartholdi refused to release it from his workshop. The city authorities in Lyon (Bordeaux’s arch-rival) heard about the spat. They seized the opportunity to acquire such an impressive fountain to sit opposite Lyon’s Museum of Fine Arts – unaware or unconcerned that the entire symbolism of the fountain screamed ‘Bordeaux!’

In 1892, the fountain was installed and activated in Lyon to great fanfare. But uproar followed when word got around about the fountain’s Bordeaux symbolism, including its ‘single river’ cascade. Unlike Bordeaux, Lyon is situated on two rivers: the confluence of the Rhone and Saone – therefore requiring two cascades for Lyon. Arghh!

So if you visit Lyon, enjoy the fountain. Just don’t expect straight answers if you start asking tricky questions about it.

You’ll find it at the Place des Terreaux in the 1st arrondissement.

Written by Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France.

More about Lyon

Day trip to Lyon from Paris by train

Top ten free things to do in Lyon

Vieux Lyon, the fabulous old district

Lyon’s silk weaving history

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