THE DESERT DE RETZ

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Welcome to the Racine de Monville Home Page, the first and most authoritative website devoted to the Désert de Retz, the most romantic folly garden in Europe.

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WHAT IS THE DESERT DE RETZ?

Constant Bourgeois du Castelet, Le Désert de Retz, 1808

The Désert de Retz is the best surviving example of the eighteenth-century Jardin Anglo-chinois, or folly garden, and was designed and constructed between 1774 and 1789 by a wealthy aristocrat, François Racine de Monville.

In eighteenth-century France, the term désert was defined in the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Francaise as "an isolated, rarely-frequented and deserted place."

The term "désert" referred to an isolated, rarely-frequented and deserted place.

Located on the edge of the Forêt de Marly in the community of Chambourcy, approximately 20 kilometers west of Paris [geographical coordinates Lat: 48°53'22"N Lon: 2°1'4"E], the Désert de Retz originally extended over forty hectares and contained a botanical garden including rare and exotic varieties of trees, ornamental plants and flowers that Monville imported from around the world; a kitchen garden, and a dairy farm.

This map of the Désert de Retz as it existed in 1785 shows the original extent of Monsieur de Monville's property. Today half of the original estate has been converted into a golf course.

In addition, Monville constructed seventeen structures known as follies or fabriques.

Reflecting the 18th century interest in antiquity, these included an ice-house in the form of a pyramid, an Egyptian obelisk, and a temple dedicated to the Greek god Pan. The hightened interest in the contemporary civilizations of the Orient led Monville to construct a Chinese house (the first in Europe). A Tartar tent on an Island of Happiness invited visitors to investigate then-unknown civilizations and cultures.

Georges-Louis le Rouge, Column House, 1785

The most remarkable of the fabriques, however, was Monsieur de Monville's Column House, also known as the Broken Column.

It was a false ruin 50 feet high in the shape of a truncated section of a gigantic Tuscan column, evoking the glories of ancient Rome.

The end of the 18th century in France was marked by visionary and utopian architecture, whose most famous practitioners were the triumvirate of Étienne-Louis Boullée, Jean-Jacques Lequeu [2] and Claude Nicolas Ledoux. Monville's Column House is one of the few examples of 18th century visionary architecture to actually be realized.

The Column House contained a ground floor and three upper stories. The interior was divided into oval rooms whose walls were decorated with Toile de Jouy. Upper floors were reached by a spiral staircase lit by a glass skylight. Rare plants and flowers were hung along the banisters; visitors thus felt the experience of exploring a real ruin that had been invaded by vegetation.

The Column House was used as a summer home by Monsieur de Monville, and remains the outstanding feature of the Désert and one of the most unusual residences in Europe. The Désert de Retz was open to the public and Monsieur de Monville received many famous personalities as his guests, including Queen Marie Antoinette, Thomas Jefferson, Emperor Joseph II of Austria and King Gustavus III of Sweden.

After passing through the hands of a number of owners during the 19th century, the Desert de Retz was acquired by Frédéric Passy, founder and president of the first French peace society, the Ligue Internationale et Permanente de la Paix, who was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize along with Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, in 1901. Passy lived at the Désert de Retz with his family until 1930.

In the 1930's, however, after serving as a commercial dairy, the garden was abandoned and went into a long period of decline. A number of the structures, most lamentably the Chinese House, deteriorated to such an extent that they disappeared entirely.

In the 1950's, the Désert de Retz intrigued André Breton and his Surrealist friends, who congregated there. It also inspired Collette's Paradis Terrestre. Artists' continuing fascination with the garden has made the Desert de Retz one of the most consistently documented gardens in history.

Column House after Restorations

In recent years, the Désert de Retz has become a cause celèbre en France. After decades of neglect and depredation, the Désert was saved in extremis by the direct intervention of the French government; then-Minister of Culture André Malraux promoted the enactment of a law allowing the French government to intervene when privately-owned historical sites were in danger, and the law was first applied to the Desert de Retz.

In 1973 a first, limited campaign of restoration was underaken under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. The Column House, the Pyramid and the Temple of Pan were shored up to prevent further deterioration.

The most significant period of the entire history of the Desert de Retz after its original creation by Monsieur de Monville were the years between 1986 and 2006. In 1982, two admirers of the Desert de Retz in their thirties, the architect Olivier Choppin de Janvry, and Jean-Marc Heftler-Louiche, a banker, established the Société Civile Immobilière du Désert de Retz, and acquired the garden. At the same time, the French Government authorized the creation of an adjacent golf course that would occupty part of the garden.

For the first time in more than fifty years, the Désert de Retz was in the hands of two owners whose only goal was to save it.

In 1986, after four years of work discussions and negotiations, extensive and costly projects to restore and consolidate the crumbling structures turned Monsieur de Monville's garden into a busy construction site.

The Pyramid Icehouse, which the years had been transformed into an amorphous, green mound of vegetation, was restored to its pristine, original glory. The exterior facade of the Column House was renovated, and, internally, the glass skylight and the spiral staircase partially restored. The Temple of Pan was consolidated and both the Gothic Church and the Open-air Theater were cleared of vegetation. A stone wall was constructed around the entire property and thousands of unwanted trees and shrubs were cleared. Monsieur de Monville's orchard was replanted and some of the commons buildings were restored. The Désert de Retz was opened to the public for the first time since the 18th century!

The restorations cost more than €2,500,000.00, of which €750,000.00 was a subsidy from the French government and the balance financed by private sponsors and the two co-owners themselves.

On September 17, 1989, as part of the annual European Heritage Day activities, then-Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, was invited by the co-owners, Olivier Choppin de Janvry and Jean-Marc Heftler-Louiche, to visit the Désert de Retz. Lang was accompanied by the media and a joined a group of visitors on a tour of the Desert de Retz. Watch the video from the archives of the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA) showing several of the buildings (Quicktime, running time 00:02:13).

L-R: Mrs. Heftler, Mr. Heftler, Mr. Choppin de Janvry, President Mitterrand, Mr. Lang

On July 20, 1990, upon the personal invitation of the two co-owners, French President François Mitterrand made an inspection trip to the Désert de Retz, accompanied by Minister of Culture Jack Lang. See photograph at left: From left to right: Mrs. Heftler, Mr. Heftler, Mr. Choppin de Janvry, President Mitterrand, Mr. Lang. Click on the photograph at left to view an enlargement.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Jimmy Carter, François Mitterrand visited the Désert de Retz.

In 2007, the Désert de Retz, which the two co-owners had placed in the hands of an administrator, was sold to the Société Foncière de Joyenval, owners of the adjacent golf course. Half of the garden was retained; the other half was relinquished to the town of Chambourcy for the token sum of one euro.

The Désert de Retz was officially reopened to the public on June 13, 2009. Guided tours of the Désert de Retz are conducted on a regular basis during la belle saison and are by appointment only. See the Contact page for details.


In the 20th century, many famous persons became interested in the Désert and visited the garden: artists Salvador Dali, Louis Aragon and Jean [Hans] Arp in 1927, author André Pieyre de Mandiargues in 1946, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1950, André Breton and 23 other surrealists in 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1979, former President Jimmy Carter in 1983, and the architect I. M. Pei in 1994. The renowned French actress Madeleine Renaud was a neighbor and often visited the Désert de Retz.



Scenes from at least three films have been shot at the Désert de Retz. In 1923 French director Abel Gance used the Désert de Retz as a decor for his film Au Secours!, starring Max Linder and Harry Houdini. In June 1994, several scenes from director James Ivory's film Jefferson in Paris, starring Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi and Jean Pierre Aumont, were shot on location at the Désert de Retz.


At least two surrealist paintings by French artist and film-maker Jean Barral were inspired by the Désert de Retz. One painting, Le Désert de Retz, was sold at auction on November 18, 2008, and fetched €1,900. La Colonne was auctioned on February 24, 2010, for €1,363.

Click on a thumbnail to view an enlargement.

Jean Barral, Desert de Retz

Jean Barral, La Colonne

Jean Barral, Désert de Retz.
Oil on canvas, 65cm x 80cm.
Jean Barral, La Colonne.
Oil on canvas, 60cm x 73cm.


Carol Markel is an American who lives in New York City. She engages in a variety of creative activities such as drawing, painting and collage. A Francophile, Carol Markel's painting, Folly Wedding, was inspired by the Désert de Retz.

Read Carol Markel's account of her visit to the Désert de Retz on September 25, 2011, illustrated with photographs by Dianna Cramer, on her blog, Femme et Fleur.

Click on the thumbnail to view an enlargement.

Carol Markel, Folly Wedding.

Carol Markel, Folly Wedding, acrylic and collage on board 2000, 20" x 30"


Lirio Garduño-Buono is a Mexican artist and poet who lived in Paris during the 1980s and the 1990's. She currently resides in Mexico. You can see more of her paintings and read her poetry in her blog.

One of Liro Garduño-Buono's poems, Lejos de Retz 1789, was inspired by the Désert de Retz.

Click on the thumbnail to view an enlargement.

Lirio Garduño-Buono, The Chinese House.

Lirio Garduño-Buono, Pina Bausch inside the Broken Column.

Lirio Garduño-Buono,
The Chinese House.
Acrylic on canvas, 72 cm x 126 cm
Lirio Garduño-Buono,
Pina Bausch inside the Broken Column.
Drawing (ink, crayon) on paper, 21.5cm x 29 cm


VIDEOS OF THE DESERT DE RETZ

Watch this four-minute slide show--a diaporama--of the Désert de Retz from 2014 including pictures of the restored Temple of Pan. Music: Préludes, Livre II: No. 7 "La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune," by Debussy, played by Aldo Ciccolini.

This 33-minute video of a lecture in "French-English" by Olivier Choppin de Janvry, one of the previous co-owners of the Désert de Retz, was delivered on June 5, 2009, and uploaded to YouTube in 2015.

Take a short guided tour of the Désert de Retz. Your tour guides? Dr. Pierre Morange, Mayor of Chambourcy, and François Racine de Monville himself—-in voiceover!

Watch Les Folies de Retz, a one-minute forty-nine second slide show of the Désert de Retz--past and present--with a Nino Rota composition, "La Poupée Automate," from the film Il Casinova di Federico Fellini played on the celesta as the soundtrack. [Pace Shazam.]

Le Désert de Retz à Chambourcy... Créé en 1774 par François Racine de Monville est une vision idyllique d'un paradis terrestre. La commune de Chambourcy en est propriétaire depuis le 20 décembre 2007 et a entrepris sa restauration. Entretien de Patrice Carmouze avec Pierre Morange, le député-maire de Chambourcy. Flag_fr.gif


WHAT'S ON THIS WEBSITE?

The Racine de Monville Home Page contains an extensive Chronology of the extraordinary life of the creator of the Désert de Retz, François Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville, along with a comprehensive bibliography of Sources of information about the Desert de Retz and its historical context.

View twenty-five color photos of the Désert de Retz.

Twenty-five photographs of the Désert de Retz and links to photographs on other websites are located on the Photos page.

The News Log documents and information from the media about the Désert de Retz as well as updates and news about this website.

The Francophilia page contains over 50 carefully selected links of interest to Francophiles and Francophones.

The Gardens page has links to landscape architecture and gardening sites.

Purchase books about Désert de Retz from Monsieur de Monville's aShop.

The Search page offers a short history of web search and links to the best search engines. There is also a Sonnet written one of the owners of the Desert de Retz with links to online translation.

You'll also find an interactive Map of the Désert de Retz and a page devoted to some of the unresolved mysteries surrouinding the life of Monsieur de Monville.


OTHER DESERT DE RETZ RESOURCES ON THE INTERNET

A French-language site, Le Boudoir de Marie-Antoinette, maintains an interactive forum devoted to the Désert de Retz, with discussions and photographs including some monochrome views of the ruined interior of the Column House before restorations were undertaken.

Dominique Césari has created a very comprehensive site about folly gardens in France and elsewhere in Europe. The site includes a page devoted to the Désert de Retz with a map of the garden as well as numerous original photographs taken by Michel Sarrasin in 1986 and by Césari himself in 1999.

Additionally, Césari has posted reproductions of five rare monochrome postcards depicting the Désert de Retz in the early 20th century as well as reproductions of equally rare post cards depicting many other French folly gardens including Mauperthuis, Bonnelles, Betz, Courteilles, Mortfontaine and Bellevue. Unfortunately, the English-language site has not been updated since 2002.

Flag_fr.gif Consulter le site de Dominique Césari sur les Parcs à fabriques en France et en Europe. Sa page sur le Désert de Retz comporte une historique, un plan du lieu, une bibliographie et de nombreuses photographies. Malheureusement, aucune mise à jour depuis 2005.


In September, 2007, Alexander Trevi, a landscape architect working and living in Chicago, posted some of Michael Kenna's photographs and other photographs as well as some personal observations about the Désert de Retz on his blog Pruned: On Landscape Architecture and Related Fields.

September 27:The Broken Column House, September 28: A Pyramid for Serving Glaciers, September 30: At the Gates of the Désert.


Flag_fr.gif L’Histoire de Chambourcy place le Désert de Retz dans le contexte historique de la commune camboricienne.

The Getty Research Institute has created a virtual exhibition, Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed. "Ruins are both symbols of decay and emblems of continuity over time. From the early 1500s to the contemporary period, images of ruins have occupied a central place in our collective imagination. They provoke reactions ranging from nostalgia to foreboding, from dreams of grandeur to fears of mortality."

The virtual exhibition includes two engravings of the Column House at the Désert de Retz, reproduced from the series published by Georges-Louis Le Rouge in 1785; a general view and a cross section.


This beautiful winter view of the Temple of Pan is by Michael Kenna, whose photographs illustrate Diana Ketcham's book about the Désert de Retz. Links to more photographs of the Désert de Retz by Michael Kenna can be found on the Photos page.


The Wikipedia has entries on the Désert de Retz in English, Esperanto EO_Flag.gif and German de.gif.
Artikel zu Desert de Retz in der deutschsprachigen Wikipedia.


OWNERSHIP OF THE DESERT DE RETZ

The table below shows all the owners of the Désert de Retz, from its origin in 1774 to the present.

DATE OWNER TERMS OR CONDITIONS OF TRANSFER
September 12, 1774 François Racine de Monville Thirteen hectares purchased for 24,000 livres.
July 21, 1792 Lewis Disney Ffytche Purchased for 108,000 livres
1793-1811. The Désert de Retz was confiscated on October 19, 1793 after Disney Ffytche had left France, and placed under the guardianship of a caretaker, Citizen Vincent Simon, who lived on the premises. The proprerty was returned to Disney Ffytche in 1795-1796, then confiscated a second time.
September 3, 1811 Jean-Baptiste Lebigre-Beaurepaire Property sold by the town of Chambourcy for 138,000 francs.
February 1, 1816 Lewis Disney Ffytche Purchased a second time, for 85,015 francs, settling the claims of Monville’s creditors.
Oct. 2, 1822 Françoise Elisabeth Hillary (Daughter of Lewis Disney Ffytche) Inheritance
Oct. 28, 1824 Auguste Guillaume Hillary (Son of Françoise-Elisabeth Hillary) Purchased for 100,000 francs
May 15, 1827 Alexandre-Marie Denis Purchased for 120,000 francs
June 18, 1839 Jean-François Bayard Purchased for 120,000 francs
June 29, 1853 Victorine Eugénie Puche-Bayard (Widow of Jean-François Bayard) Inheritance
July 22, 1856 Frédéric Passy Purchased for 125,100 francs
1907 Pierre Passy (Son of Frédéric Passy) Gift
April 7, 1936 Crédit Foncier Foreclosure
1936 Société Neueburg (Georges Courtois) Price unknown
Dec. 31, 1981 Groupe Worms 300 hectares, including 40 hectares of the Désert de Retz, acquired for a fee of 500,000 francs
December 13, 1986 Société Civile Immobilière du Désert de Retz (Olivier Choppin de Janvry and Jean-Marc Heftler-Louiche) Acquired for 20,000 francs
December 21, 2007 Municipality of Chambourcy Acquired by the Société Foncière de Joyenval for 1,650,000 euros. Half the garden relinquished to the town of Chambourcy for a nominal amount of 1 euro


If you would like to learn more about the Désert de Retz or join the mailing list, see the Contact page.
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This page revised October 16, 2016.