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History of Voltaire’s Château

Voltaire’s château was built between 1758 and 1766, close to the Swiss border, and welcomed the Age of Enlightenment’s most illustrious philosophers over a period of 20 years. For this reason the residence was listed as a historical monument in 1958, and purchased by the State in 1999.

Titre : "Vue d'une habitation de Mr de Voltaire à Ferney" 

Voltaire’s Arrival at Ferney

In 1759, Voltaire purchased the domain of Ferney from the Budé family. At that time Ferney was a poverty-stricken hamlet, surrounded by marshes and populated by barely 200 souls.

Why did this renowned philosopher come and live in this remote area?

His arrival comes within the more general context of Voltaire’s presence in the region of Lake Geneva. After falling out with Frederick the Great of Prussia, with whom he stayed from 1750 to 1753, he had to leave and find a new residence. Renowned for its publishers and spirit of tolerance, Geneva quickly won his enthusiasm.

He initially stayed in Prangins and Lausanne in the canton of Vaud and then, in 1755, in the house Les Délices ("The Delights") in Geneva. He portrays the city as the homeland of freedom.  However, Voltaire quickly became disenchanted. The Protestant city did not take long to ban his works and prohibited theatre, to which he devoted himself with passion. Undesirable at the Court of France and kept in check in Geneva, Voltaire decided to buy two estates close to Geneva, but in France: Ferney and Tournay, in order to be “independent and entirely free”.

About this new home he declared “Is there a happier station in life? I find myself between France and Switzerland, without coming under the control of either the one or the other” and “after going to visit kings, I have made myself a king in my own home”.

"View of Voltaire's Chateau" 

The Construction of the Château

The deeds for the château were signed on 9th February 1759, in the name of his niece, Madame Denis.

Voltaire began the work in 1758 and called upon the services of Jean-Michel Billon, a famous Genevan architect. Since the defensive aspect was no longer fashionable, he had his residence built on the ruins of the old 12th century fortified castle in order to make it a “convenient, rustic and comfortable house”. The château, which was completed in 1762, was extended in 1765 by Léonard Racle, who added two wings in order to house the crowd of visitors who flocked around Voltaire. The mediaeval towers and wall were destroyed at this time.

The château thus took its final shape in 1766.

"Vue de l'intérieur de la chambre de Voltaire" 

The Château after Voltaire

After Voltaire’s death, the château and a part of the furniture were sold by his niece, Madame Denis.  The estate was dismembered by the Marquis de Villette, who owned the premises from 1778 to 1785. He adapted the château to orchestrate the posthumous cult of the great man, thus making the château of Ferney the first historical site devoted to the memory of a writer in France. 

After once again being acquired by the Budé family, the château was sold in 1845 to Mr Griolet, former mayor of the 5th arrondissement of Paris, who was declared bankrupt in 1847. He drastically changed the château in this brief period of time. In particular, he knocked down several partition walls, changing the original layout.

Claude-Marie David-Missilier, owner of the château after 1847, bought the land in order to put the estate back together, as well as the collections of furniture and paintings which had belonged to Voltaire. He created a new memorial place in the former billiard room, and rearranged the bedroom there. His son-in-law, the sculptor Émile Lambert (1828-1897), completed a large part of his work at Ferney. He inherited the estate in 1878 and placed several of his creations in the park.

The Lambert family’s descendants sold the château to the State in 1999. The estate as a whole now comprises the château (on the whole preserved in its external arrangement, but greatly modified on the interior), the park whose landscape design for the most part dates from the 19th century, the Orangery, the keeper’s lodge, built around 1900, and the chapel.

The site is now managed by the Centre des monuments nationaux

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