Voltaire in Ferney: little slices of life

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The castle - ©Brücke-Osteuropa / CC0 The castle - ©Brücke-Osteuropa / CC0
Ferney castle Castle Voltaire

From Budé to Voltaire

We are here in Ferney, where the famous philosopher Voltaire spent his last years... Guillaume de Budé owned the place in 1674 and found a ruined stronghold. Two years later, he mustered all his courage and restored the whole thing, adding a garden and surrounding his estate by a wall.

Bernard de Budé, Guillaume's brother, inherited it but he decided to sell it in 1758. To whom? To François-Marie Arouet, the famous Voltaire! Oh, at that time, the writer wasn't well thought-off by the king Louis XV. Exiled, he found shelter in Ferney, where he could keep on writing, away from the king's court.

Moving in Ferney!

In 1759, the building site began. Voltaire wanted a simple house, but with all mod cons: bathroom, stove... He said he made those cons for his niece only: “I would live with 100 crowns every month, but Mrs. Denis (his niece, Ed) deserves a palace, cooks, carriages, nice fireplace and feasts. For my part I only need cows, bulls and ploughs.”

After that, he added a small church next to the castle, “the only one dedicated to God. England has churches raised to saint Paul, France to saint Geneviève, but not a single one to God.” In 1761, the philosopher raised a theatre in the village: just imagine! People came from a long way to see performances. But the castle became too small for all his guests! So he decided to add two wings.

Hey, at that time he received hosts from all Europe, in Ferney! So he nicknamed himself “the inn-keeper of Europe”… A dozen of servants helped him, because he had 50 hosts at the same time! Voltaire spent a fortune for Ferney: “more than 30 persons and more than 12 horses to feed per day”, he confessed!

Life in Ferney

Voltaire woke up at 5AM, went to bed at 10PM. And he had lots of things to do! He wrote (especially Jean Calas' defence, a Protestant blamed wrongly for his son’s murder), he gardened, he received guests… and he had his own stud-farm and his watch factory.

Yes! He founded his own factory who made real jewels: soon, the English started to put in orders. Some gorgeous watches full of precious gems, less expensive than anywhere else… So, with all those hobbies, Voltaire confessed he had no time for himself.

Well, our Voltaire wasn’t an old scraggy mole hiding away in his hole! He started to transform the village of Ferney (some grotty houses) into a nice little city: 1200 souls and 80 houses! He re-raised houses, cleared lands for peasants, “put nurses to children”, also, his expression to say that he planted trees!

Belle et Bonne

Voltaire hosted people. Especially a pretty lady from the neighbouring village, Miss Reine Rouph de Varicourt: a young lady he nicknamed Belle et Bonne, “Pretty and Good”! She lived few weeks in the castle, because she wrote a letter to Voltaire, one day, to say that her parents wanted to send her in a convent, he had to stop that… Touched, Voltaire convinced her parents to let her come in Ferney… His niece, the plump Mrs. Denis, was pretty jealous of Reine, but…

Niece and mistress

Mrs. Denis? Yes, Marie-Louise Denis, Voltaire’s niece, who really loved her uncle. She bought him the estate of Ferney in 1759. She was also his mistress and his servant! Because our philosopher, all skin and bones, could hardly write, he needed his plump niece to help him. She almost became the “lady” of Ferney!

When Voltaire died in 1778, she sold his library to the empress of Russia Catherine II! Yes, because the empress, who loved and often wrote to Voltaire, wanted to reconstitute a “little Ferney” in the park of her Tsarskoie-Selo palace. Voltaire’s library would be the finest part, but Catherine never finished the plan…

The estate, for its part, was sold to Voltaire’s best friend, the marquis de Villette (he married Reine, the “Pretty and Good”): he put a cenotaph in his friend’s bedroom, with his heart inside, with the inscription: “His soul is everywhere, and his heart is here.”

The visit of Ferney

The marquis de Villette only kept the estate for 4 years only: then he sold it because he was ruined... In 1785 a Budé's descendant turned up, who added a neoclassical avant-corps to the façade. The French Nation bought Ferney in 1999: nowadays it houses a cultural centre. We still can visit Voltaire’s apartments, like his bedroom and his study... pretty touching and intimate!


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