Voltaire and His Creation, Ferney

Why would a world-famous writer and philosopher at the height of his creative powers choose to bury himself in a tiny hamlet of no more than 150 inhabitants in the middle of nowhere? Voltaire was a sociable being, certainly not someone to chase solitude, but what he did crave was freedom: to think and write what he pleased. And Ferney’s very isolation and distance from Paris were what made the location attractive to him.

Or perhaps it was the view from the terrace?
Or perhaps it was the view from the terrace?

After a stint in Prussia, Voltaire was aching to return to Paris, but Louis XV was not keen to have the writer back, agitating spirits. So in 1754 Voltaire started searching for a town with a thriving printing industry (he knew he couldn’t stop himself from writing). He was told that in Lyon he would be persona non grata (conservative archbishop etc.), so he settled initially in Geneva, a traditional place of refuge for Protestant French.

You can see he was a born troublemaker: on the church he built for his villagers, he not only clearly states that it was Voltaire who built it for God, but his own name is in bigger letters than God's.
You can see he was a born troublemaker: on the church he built for his villagers, he not only clearly states that it was Voltaire who built it for God, but his own name is in bigger letters than God’s.

However, the Calvinist spirit of that town soon quashed his enthusiasm, so after just three years he escaped outside the city limits, to a domaine which had previously been disputed between Savoy and the Swiss: Fernex. So many place names in the area end in ‘x’ – Gex, Ornex, Echenevex, Founex, but the final letter is not pronounced, so one of the first things Voltaire did was change the spelling of the place-name to correspond phonetically.

The chateau is currently under (some much needed) renovation.
The chateau is currently under (some much-needed) renovation.

Of course, Voltaire was already 64 when he moved to Ferney, so one might well have expected him to live in peaceable retirement, but he was not the kind to put on his slippers and smoke his pipe and just receive a couple of visitors with whom to reminisce about past glories. His energy was astounding, although even he could not have expected to live for another 20 years here.

Always thinking ahead, he even built his own grave, in a pyramid shape outside the church - neither in nor out, as he called it.
Always thinking ahead, he even built his own grave, in a pyramid shape outside the church – neither in nor out, as he called it.

By the time of his death, he had drained the marshes around the hamlet, created a flourishing town of more than 1200 inhabitants, predominantly Huguenot watchmakers and artisans who had fled the persecutions in Paris. He built a church, a school, a water reservoir, a theatre, many streets and houses, lent money for the artisans to set up their businesses (with an interest rate ten times lower than the usual ones), introduced a breed of sheep and cattle (their descendants still roam the fields around the chateau today) and new methods of farming, even tried to set up a silkworm farm.

Just beyong the flower show, you can see the fish pool he installed on the grounds.
Just beyond the flower show, you can see the carp pool he installed on the grounds.

Every year, he spent between 70 to 85% of his income on Ferney itself, and his niece Mme Denis claimed that the town ruined Voltaire. But he never regretted it.

Voltaire built a small theatre on his grounds, like this orangery which still stands today, but he soon had to move it into the village itself, as there were too many people coming to watch his plays.
Voltaire built a small theatre on his grounds, like this orangery which still stands today, but he soon had to move it into the village itself, as there were too many people coming to watch his plays. The carriages coming from Geneva caused the first traffic jams in the area!

After his death, unfortunately, things went belly up. Mme Denis couldn’t wait to leave the countryside and rush back to Paris, and in just 4 months she had sold the chateau, the library (to Catherine II of Russia) and the manuscript collection, as well as all precious objects. The chateau was bought and sold on in quick succession, most of its period detail was lost in the process, while bits and pieces of Voltaire’s heritage were sold or demolished. People began to abandon the village; the watch and jewellery makers moved back to Geneva.

In the late 19th century the village became a tourist attraction once more because of Voltaire, and this building once housed a hotel.
In the late 19th century the village became a tourist attraction once more because of Voltaire, and this building once housed a hotel.

It took over 100 years to reach the population levels of Voltaire’s time and 200 years to reach those prosperity levels once more. So it’s not surprising that the townspeople have always felt gratitude towards their benefactor and wanted to add his name to that of his village. They first did so in 1780, two years after Voltaire’s death, but in 1815 it reverted back to the old name. Napoleon could be very autocratic, when he wanted! Finally, with the celebration of the centenary of Voltaire’s death, in 1878 the village was allowed to change its name officially to ‘Ferney-Voltaire’.

Just down the main driveway of the chateau stood the house of Voltaire's great friend, the polyglot traveller and seaman ('cher corsaire') Henri Rieu, who translated, copied and lent books to Voltaire. It's now the Catholic school St. Vincent.
Just down the main driveway of the chateau stood the house of Voltaire’s great friend, the polyglot traveller and seaman (‘cher corsaire’) Henri Rieu, who translated, copied and lent books to Voltaire. It’s now the Catholic school St. Vincent (Voltaire must be turning in his grave).
Another grand old lady with Tsarist connections lived down the same driveway.
Another grand old lady with Tsarist connections lived in secluded surroundings on the same driveway.
And this is the house I would love to renovate and live in, also on that driveway, on the corner. It was once the village pub and cabaret, later on it became the workshop of the sculptor Lambert, who bought the chateau and bequeathed a statue of Voltaire to the village.
This is the house I would love to renovate and live in, at the bottom of the same driveway, on the corner. It was once the village pub and cabaret; later on it became the workshop of the sculptor Lambert, who lived in the chateau and bequeathed a statue of Voltaire to the village.
Voltaire was generous and liked to build houses for his friends, so they could all live close to him. This building is now the Protestant temple and vicarage, but on its ground he originally built the Palais Dauphin for his friend Mme de St Julien, but the building collapsed due to a faulty design before she could move in. Opposite it was the best and most epensive residence in Ferney (after the chateu) - Le Bijou, which Voltaire built for his nephew, the fabulist Florian.
Voltaire was generous and liked to build houses for his friends, so they could all live close to him. This building is now the Protestant temple and vicarage, but on its ground he originally built the Palais Dauphin for his friend Mme de St Julien. The building collapsed due to a faulty design before she could move in. Opposite it was the best and most expensive residence in Ferney (after the chateau) – Le Bijou, which Voltaire built for his nephew, the fabulist Florian.
I can't help but think that Voltaire would have loved all the bustle of festivals, music and colour in his old domaine.
I can’t help but think that Voltaire would have loved all the bustle of festivals, music and colour in his old domaine.

 

 

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19 thoughts on “Voltaire and His Creation, Ferney”

  1. Great post to enjoy with my morning coffee…I learned so much about Voltaire! Tx for the explanation, foto’s .

  2. What a fascinating post, Marina Sofia! Thank you! I’d no idea of the richness behind the town’s history, and your story really taught me. I love the ‘photos, too!

  3. Absolutely fascinating — many thanks. I’ve been meaning to learn more about Voltaire since recently I was writing about his lover and collaborator Emilie du Chatelet, and you’ve reminded me of that resolve.

  4. My goodness, Marina, you work so very hard. Every post is interesting and informative, you post glorious photos, all is well-considered and worthy of far more comment than I can ever give.
    I value every post you make, and, whilst I cannot comment properly on all of them, believe me, they are amongst the ones I truly look forward to seeing.

    1. That is quite one of the nicest things I’ve heard – that means such a lot to me, you have no idea. Honestly, I probably spend far too much time on the blog instead of writing my fiction and poetry, so I will need to remedy that in the near future, especially as life gets more hectic.

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