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Literary escapade: Voltaire’s Château in Ferney

October 29, 2011 10 comments

In 1764, Voltaire purchased an estate in Fernex, France, near Geneva. He had been staying in Geneva but the Calvinist city prohibited theatre and luxury cars (how ironic). As he considered himself a man of theatre and loved to show off in golden carriages, he had difficulties to abide to the rules. He pissed off the local authorities and decided to move out. He was unwanted in Paris and his publisher and physician were in Geneva. So Fernex was an ideal spot. In France. Near Geneva. He renamed the place Ferney. When he settled there, the village consisted in 150 peasants cultivating swampy fields. Voltaire put into practice his philosophical and economical ideas and developed the place: he built houses, roads, started factories, had the fields drained. When he died in 1778, the small town had 1100 inhabitants.

The estate includes the gardens, the chapel and the house. The French state is currently renovating the place, only the first floor is available to visit, duly chaperoned by a guide. Inside, some furniture really belonged to Voltaire but subsequent (check) owners of the place modified the house. For example, a sculptor-owner added a sculpture of Rousseau and one of Voltaire in the entry hall. The two men were famous for disliking each other and are doomed to spend eternity together: face to face in this house, together in the Musée Carnavalet and side by side in the Panthéon.

Voltaire worked on the plan of the house when he transformed the medieval castle into a 18thC château. He proved himself a practical man. The ceilings weren’t as high as usual and the rooms were small; they were easier to heat up in winter. He had rotten tastes in painting and only wanted big golden frames as the candle light would reflect on them and improve the light in the room. That need for light – logical for a man whose library counted 7000 books – also shows in the oversized windows.

We saw his bedroom and the paintings there reflected his impertinence and his fidelity to protectors and friends. Above his bed, where people usually hung a crucifix, he had a painting of the Calas family, telling to the world that he worshipped earthly justice more than the divine one and that he rated tolerance and justice above religions. He kept a portrait of the mathematician Emilie du Châteley, an erudite woman he loved. He also had there a portrait of Frédéric II, Catherine II and of M. X, his favorite actor.

Ladies and gentlemen, after Balzac’s coffee pot, you can see Voltaire’s portable heater. During those years, Voltaire was still Voltaire: anti-clerical, impertinent, pretentious. After irritating the Calvinist authorities in Geneva, he also pissed off the local Catholic Church when he restored the church near his new château. Look at the sign on the church: it says DEO EREXIT VOLTAIRE MDCCLXI. A double impertinence as he put his name in bigger letters than God and as he dedicated the church to God himself instead of a saint. The guide said it’s the only Catholic Church not named after a saint. As a consequence, the archbishop of Annecy had forbidden his priests to celebrate his funeral. He had taken complicated disposition to be buried somewhere else. In the end, he died in Paris where he was admitted again after Louis XV had died.

As always I enjoyed walking in a great writer’s footsteps. I like Voltaire for his impertinence. I guess he’d have troubles with political correctness if he were alive now. In the 19thC, famous writers came to Ferney as a pilgrimage: Hugo, Stendhal and Gogol were among them. Common people came too as Voltaire was much admired for his defending the Calas and fighting for the rehabilitation of Jean Calas. At this time of the year, the mountains have a fur coat of russet trees, it was a sunny day. We had a lovely and interesting visit. 

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