Désert de Retz  

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The Désert de Retz is an Anglo-Chinois or French landscape garden - created on the edge of the forêt de Marly in the commune of Chambourcy, in north-central France. It was built at the end of the 18th century by the aristocrat François Racine de Monville on his 40 ha estate. It is notable for the construction of 17 (or 20) buildings, of which only 10 still survive, referring to classical antiquity or in an exotic style. Those buildings include: a summer house (the "colonne brisée", or ruined column), in the form of the base of a shattered column from an imaginary gigantic temple, an ice house in the form of an Egyptian pyramid, an obelisk, a temple dedicated to Pan, and a (now-lost) Chinese pavilion.



The Désert de Retz is a folly garden, a mix of rare trees and small buildings (called fabriques). Created from 1774 to 1789 by François Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville in the Marly forest near Paris, it was very famous during the 19th century and it was visited by famous people such as Thomas Jefferson, Marie Antoinette, Benjamin Franklin, and King Gustavus III of Sweden.

The "desert of Retz" was built on the site of the abandoned and ruined village of Saint-Jacques-de-Retz to the north of Chambourcy, on the fringes of the forest of Marly. It was a Romantic garden made up of a number of follies, including a ruined column, a pyramid, and a Chinese pavilion. It was declared a historic monument in 1941.

The Desert of Retz was of importance to the surrealists in the early 20th century. Salvador Dali, Louis Aragon and Jean Arp in 1927, author André Pieyre de Mandiargues in 1946, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1950, André Breton and other surrealists visited it.


In 1774, Monville bought the house, its service quarters and an estate of about 13 ha from Antoine Joseph Basire, and then extended the estate 90 arpent by 1785. In July 1792, Monville sold the Désert and his two hôtels in Paris to the Englishman Lewis Disney Ffytche and as the property of an English subject these were seized and sold in 1793 on the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition. In 1811, Lebigre Beaurepaire bought the Désert, but he did not honour his debts, and the estate was again seized and in 1816 sold back to Disney Ffytche after the Bourbon Restoration. Ffytche's grandson Auguste Guilaume Hilary took possession in 1824 and sold it in 1827 to a notary of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Maître Alexandre Marie Denis. Denis sold it in 1839 to Jean-François Bayard, a nephew of Eugène Scribe.

In 1856, Jean-François Bayard's widow ceded it to Frédéric Passy (1822-1912) and his son Pierre (born on the estate) added a hen farm but in 1936 was forced to sell the estate due to financial difficulties, with the buyer being Georges Courtois. Courtois bought into via par a société named Neueberg. When he realised how much work was needed to restore the Désert (now nearly in ruins), the new owner decided not to do so, though the architect Jean-Charles Moreux bemoaned its ruined state. It was decided to list the estate and its buildings on 9 December 1938, resulting in a decree signed on 30 August 1939, and published 25 November 1939. However, the société owning it changed the statutes, forcing the authorities to resume the procedure to have the Désert finally classed as a monument historique, which came with a decree of 9 April 1941, against the owners' wishes. On 8 December 1966, André Malraux, then minister of culture, strongly evoked the estate's state before the Assemblée Nationale l’état du domaine and had them vote for the law of 30 December 1966, which allowed the Désert to be saved. The main effect of this law was to force a building's owner to pay 50% of the cost of the work. On 31 December 1981, the Worms group bought the Désert and gave it to the Société Civile du Désert de Retz.

Part of the former estate has since 1992 been occupied by the Joyenval golf course.


The 1785 plan in Monville's hand mentions:

  • The ruined column
  • Rock at the entrance to the garden
  • Temple to the God Pan
  • Ruined Gothic church
  • Chinese house
  • Dairy
  • a "Métairie arrangée"
  • Hermitage
  • Orangery
  • "Isle du Bonheur" (Isle of Happiness)
  • Greenhouses
  • a "Chaumière" or thatched cottage
  • Tomb
  • Pyramid icehouse
  • Obelisk
  • "Communs"
  • open-air theatre.

To this list may be added:

  • Tartar tent
  • Temple of repose
  • Little Altar.

Famous visitors

The garden was visited around the time of its creation by Gustav III of Sweden (to whom Monville offered some drawings) as well as the Prince de Ligne, the Duc de Chartres, and (American Ambassador to France, later President) Thomas Jefferson (who visited in September 1786 with Maria Cosway and was inspired by the ruined column). Later visitors included Colette and André Breton.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Désert de Retz" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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