Désert de Retz

Sep 14, 2020 0 comments

François Racine de Monville had at his disposal a large estate on the edge of a 2,000-hectare-forest, in the commune of Chambourcy, about 15 km to the west of Paris. Being an 18th-century French aristocrat with a sizeable passive income generated from numerous land holdings in Normandy, Monville had little to worry about finances, so he spent most of his spare time learning new social skills and honing his many talents that made him very popular at parties. A handsome and charming man, Monville danced so well that he was invited to all the balls. He was an accomplished horseman, excelled at fencing, played the flute and the harp, and could shoot a bow-and-arrow “as well as an Indian.” But it was in architecture and landscape design where he really blossomed.

Photo: Département des Yvelines/Flickr

Moneville’s architectural virtuosity can be sampled at the aforementioned estate which the aristocrat bought in 1774. Moneville called it Désert de Retz, On the sprawling grounds of this 40-hectare estate, Monville erected nearly two dozen follies, each representing different periods of history and parts of the world. There was a Chinese house, a ruined Gothic church, a decaying Greek temple, an Egyptian obelisk, a Tatar tent, and an ice-house in the form of a pyramid. The best-known feature was the Broken Column House, so named because it took the form of a ruined classical column. Inside the truncated structure ran a spiral staircase connected to four or five floors with rooms for Monville’s visitors, although Monville himself preferred to stay in the much smaller Chinese House. Among the many personalities and guests Monville entertained at his unusual residence included Queen Marie Antoinette, Thomas Jefferson, Emperor Joseph II of Austria and King Gustavus III of Sweden.

Photo: Département des Yvelines/Flickr

When the Revolution broke out, Monville sold Désert de Retz with the intention of fleeing the country, but he did not. Perhaps the swiftly changing political landscape during the Revolution influenced him to remain. In 1794, Monville was arrested and imprisoned, having found guilty by a Revolutionary Tribunal. He was released less than three months later, eight days after Maximilien Robespierre's execution, which marked the end of the Terror. Monville’s short stint in prison broke him down both physically and physiologically, and he died in compromised health three years later at the age of 64.

Désert de Retz passed through the hands of a number of owners. In the 1930s the garden was abandoned and went into a long period of decline. During this period, a number of structure, most lamentably the Chinese House, crumbled away and disappeared.

The garden was rediscovered in the 1950s by André Breton and his Surrealist friends. Since the mid-1980s the Désert de Retz has undergone a concerted restoration, returning portions of the landscape to as they were during Monville's time. The Column House in particular has been carefully renovated.

Photo: Elring/Wikimedia Commons

A cross section of the Broken Column House at the Désert de Retz. Photo: Jardins anglo-chinois/Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Département des Yvelines/Flickr

Photo: Lionel Allorge/Flickr

# https://www.wmf.org/project/désert-de-retz
# http://www.desertderetz.info/welcome.htm
# http://www.parcsafabriques.org/retz/dRetz1e.htm
# https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Désert_de_Retz


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