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Mise à jour: 27.08.2018
 

The Geneva Library’s Voltaire Institute and Museum: “Paradise on Earth is where I am”

We owe so much to Voltaire: the ideas of freedom of speech, separation of church and state, civil liberties and human rights. Now in the middle of one of Geneva’s most ordinary residential neighbourhoods, an elegant 18th century country house tells the story and preserves – in books and paintings and objects – the memory of the man whose cheeky smile inspired “the grace of civilization” (Victor Hugo).
Voltaire Museum and Library at Les Délices
© Christopher Park / Ville de Genève

Voltaire’s “Delights”

In 1718, a brilliant and boisterous Parisian poet of 22 years of age called François-Marie Arouet published his first play, a tragedy about King Oedipus, under the pen name that would make him one of the most famous but also one of the most reviled names of his time: Voltaire. His free-thinking, incisive and often waspish wit got him in a lot of trouble with the French church and monarchy. Stints in prison, banishment from Paris and exile to England did not dampen his spirits or his prolific writing. In 1755, Voltaire discovered a large, furnished country estate near enough to the city walls of Geneva that if things got sticky with the French authorities, he would have asylum close at hand.

He was also very well connected in Geneva, notably to the lawyer Jean-Robert Tronchin and art collector François Tronchin who purchased the estate for Voltaire. When the writer moved in with his niece (and mistress) Marie-Louise Denis, they made a few improvements to the already superb residence: a long gallery was used to stage Voltaire’s plays (public theatre was forbidden as immoral in Geneva back then) and Voltaire gave the estate the name that now refers to the whole Geneva neighbourhood surrounding it: "Les Délices" – The Delights.

It wasn’t all fun and amateur theatricals. With Cramer, his new editor in Geneva, able to distribute forbidden books throughout Europe, Voltaire was writing a lot. The 1755 earthquake and tsunami in Lisbon inspired one of his most controversial texts, the "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster", where he questions the existence of a benevolent God.  The philosophical pessimism of the Lisbon poem laid the ground for one of Voltaire’s best-loved works, also penned at Les Délices: the satirical novella Candide. And he was entertaining a lot of guests, “For 14 years, I was the innkeeper of Europe,” said Voltaire later in life. Among the many famous visitors at Les Délices was the scientist and philosopher D’Alembert, whom Voltaire helped write at least thirty articles of his Encyclopédie, that instruction manual of the Enlightenment.

Voltaire’s Institute

In 1760, Voltaire moved to an even grander estate at Ferney further away from Geneva, but still close enough to take cover if he got into hot water. Five years later, he sold Les Délices to his friend Tronchin. The growing city gradually ate up the estate and the house itself went through several transformations until it was purchased by the City of Geneva in 1929. A wealthy Polish-Briton with a scholarly passion for Voltaire and the Enlightenment, Theodore Besterman, provided  artworks and manuscripts from his collection of Voltairiana for the City to open the first Voltaire Museum in Les Délices in 1945. In 1954, Les Délices became a museum and research institute, directed by Besterman and where he began his authoritative edition of Voltaire’s correspondence.

After coming under the Geneva Library’s governance in the 1970’s and developing its resources for scholars and researchers, the villa itself underwent some major refurbishments, between 1989 and 1994. Very little of the interior in which Voltaire lived was left, and the building’s vocation had changed from an 18th century residence to a cultural institution at the eve of the 21st century.

Voltaire’s Smile

On the first floor, visitors can see the gallery, restored to its original "home theatre" proportions, hung with paintings of Voltaire and his contemporaries (three portraits of celebrated actors of the time, known to have performed Voltaire’s plays, are at the “stage” end). Rare books and autographs are against the walls (including a 1718 edition of Oedipe) On the left, in the Grand Salon, is a famous portrait of the young Voltaire by Largillière, already displaying the impish grin that Victor Hugo made famous in his quip: "Jesus wept, Voltaire smiled. From that divine tear and from that human smile is derived all the grace of civilization."

On the second floor, a life-size terracotta statue of Voltaire seated, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, was created a few months after Voltaire’s death in 1778 from sketches the sculptor made during Voltaire’s last night at the theatre in Paris. Voltaire’s amused smile (by now 83 and completely toothless) is still beaming from atop his throne of books and drapery.  In the corner of the building, in what is believed to be the location of Voltaire’s bedroom, six period engravings show the monumental scale of destruction in Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake.

Voltaire From Alzire To Zaïre

And finally, our excuse to come here in the first place. Through a door in the gallery, visitors enter the Library in a long annex perpendicular to the house. The stacks contain more than 30’000 items, of which 2’500 are actual works of Voltaire: his plays, novels, treatises, essays and his voluminous correspondence… available naturally in the original French, as well as in 24 other languages, with a lion’s share of English translations and critical works. But if you need a Chinese translation of Candide, they have that too (94 editions in French, and 50 copies of various 20th and 21st century translations). Its extensive collection of manuscripts, critical editions, original imprints and paraphernalia makes the Voltaire Library at Les Délices one of the most important venues in the world for the study of the 18th century and the Enlightenment. But you don’t need to be a historian, a philosopher or a literary buff to browse the stacks in the little paradise of Les Délices. Apparently, after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015, the number of people asking for a certain title went through the roof: Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance.

Access to the Voltaire Museum and Library is free although books may not be borrowed. Open Monday to Friday, from 2PM to 5PM and on the first Saturday of the month from 2PM to 5PM. Group tours with a docent may be organised on request, as well as visits in the morning.

Coordonnées

Musée Voltaire

Rue des Délices 25
1203 Genève
Tél.+41 22 418 95 60
Fax+41 22 418 95 61
institut.voltaire(at)ville-ge.ch
http://www.bge-geneve.ch
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