Musée de Bretagne, Collection Arts graphiques

The fire of 1720

Once upon a time... the great fire engulfed Rennes

In 1720, Rennes was hit by a huge and tragic fire that devastated almost all of the northern half of the city. The catastrophe led urban planners and architects to totally reconfigure the city centre, creating new squares and monuments, the most iconic of which is the town hall. This is the tale of a tragedy that shaped the city today.

“A sea of fire” submerged the city for a week

On the night of 22 to 23 December 1720, the city slept while a fire was accidentally started in a city-centre shop in Rennes. The story goes that the fire broke out in the backroom of a carpenter’s workshop on rue Tristin (now rue de l’horloge), following excessive drinking and a domestic argument. Although there are still uncertainties regarding the specific ignition of the fire, the rest of the story is undisputed and the die was cast: the fire spread rapidly, jumping from house to house and roof to roof.

Contemporary accounts and stories mention “a sea of fire” and apocalyptic scenes. Panic was such that residents feared that the entire city would go up in smoke. The Intendant even decided to knock down houses to create firebreaks and limit the spread of flames. The fire lasted for a week and could only be brought under control on 30 December after the heavens had opened bringing heavy rainfall the day before.

The catastrophe occurred just before Christmas and its magnitude can be explained by the winter setting. “There are several factors that explain the spread of the fire,” explains Gilles Brohan, head of cultural heritage and architecture at the Tourism Office. “The layout of the city is a legacy of the medieval construction with narrow, winding streets, half-timbered houses built very close together with corbels on some. These advancements on the roofs undoubtedly helped the fire to spread. The winter context of seasonal cycles meant that since summer, residents had been gathering stores to get through the winter: the granaries were full of wood for heating, bundles of sticks and logs, as well as foodstuffs such as hay for horses and livestock. So many materials that constituted a huge amount of fuel”.

Almost half of the north part of the city went up in smoke

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In a general assessment, it was a catastrophe as a significant part of the city was ablaze. 945 homes were destroyed, which was equivalent to 45% of the built surface, almost half of the upper city (located north of the Vilaine river)” explains Gilles Brohan “The impact was extremely severe, we estimate that 8,000 Rennes residents were left homeless from one day to the next”. 33 streets were either partially or totally destroyed. It was chaos and many residents lost everything. The only good news: the number of victims was limited and historians agree that only about ten people died on the first night.

Some monuments were saved and by a miracle, the fire stopped in front of the Parlement of Brittany and luckily the palace was preserved. At the top of rue Le Bastard, the Hôtel de Robien mansion is still standing today, although the rest of the street was reduced to ashes. The famous Saint-James belfry on Place du Champ-Jacquet was not as fortunate. It fell and, with it, “la Grosse Françoise”, the clock that was said to ring so loudly that it caused women to miscarry. It was the most popular monument and was visited by tourists who came to admire its automated clock.

The entire city was rebuilt as a matter of urgency, which was the start of a huge conundrum and a reconstruction process lasting from 1724 to 1760 and filled with twists.

The conundrum of reconstruction

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Reconstruction started with processes that were never finished as nobody agreed on the future plan for the city. Between removing the rubble, doing an inventory of buildings and recovering materials, the building site became immense. It was not long before the Royal Council decided to send engineers to assist local authorities. Isaac Robelin, who was responsible for Brittany’s fortifications, was the first to get involved. “He was a soldier who brought to the table solutions to a crisis situation” says Gilles Brohan. “However, his authoritarian demeanour very quickly clashed with Mayor Rallier du Baty and his advisors”. This also caused friction with the Parlement because the plan that he proposed was radical: he wanted to go beyond the scope of just the burned area, and to also open up the south part of the city. As the Vilaine river formed a natural barrier against flames, the districts in the south remained unsanitary and subject to flooding.

Guided by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Robelin suggested rebalancing the city by establishing sites of authority on the other side of the river. It was a rather visionary city-planning project for which he imagined establishing the new presidial court opposite the Parlement, on what is now the esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, in order to create perspectives by connecting the districts. Although his plan was rather well thought out, the cost appeared huge. The mayor vetoed it and wrote to the King, saying that “through his inflexibility, he has lit a fire that is even more devastating”.

An already tense situation was exacerbated by hiring a military man. Robelin was then invited to leave.

The King’s architect is in town…

To defuse the situation, the King sent his architect: Jacques Gabriel. When he arrived in the city, he immediately abandoned the idea of rebuilding the south side and concentrated on the area directly affected by the fire. Being more diplomatic than his predecessor, he knew how to play by the rules. The city was also flattered to have the king’s architect in their corner. “More than just the material goods that the king provided, it was symbolic recognition of the suffering faced by the residents of Rennes,” explains Gilles Brohan.

Gabriel designed his plan around two squares: he made a symbolic start with the Place du Parlement. This was a building that, according to him, had not had the improvements that it deserved. “Before the fire, there was a small square and you could make out the tall stone silhouette of the Parlement in the centre of a city made from wood,” says Gilles Brohan. “He started there to also reaffirm the royal power by using the square as the setting for an equestrian statue of Louis XIV that was initially intended for Nantes”.

Gabriel took his inspiration for the Place du Parlement from the Place Vendôme

He imagined a royal square that was arranged and modeled on the Place Vendôme in Paris, as well as being inspired by the style of Jules Hardouin-Mansart: “A large square that is typical of Enlightenment town planning. The similarity can be seen in the choice of materials with granite and arcades on the ground floor and limestone to demarcate the upper floors. You can see the architectural perspective that is evocative of the materials used on the older façade of the Parlement to continue the style despite being a century apart”.  

Just to the side, he created what was called Place neuve and is the current Place de la mairie, completely opening up the city centre. “For the people of Rennes at the time, it was a revolution. It changed the appearance of the city in terms of the materials used and, more importantly, opened up the city. The new orthogonal plan, with blocks intersected at right angles, carved the city into a logical form, that contrasted with the medieval-style overlapping medley of buildings that came before it”.

The urban plan for this place neuve planned for public buildings that were a legacy of the Renaissance, which was in turn inspired by antiquity. With the large central squares, the architect was inspired by the ancient Roman forum or Greek agora and he also imagined intermediary small squares between the districts that were spared from the fire and the new city, which still contribute to the Rennes way of living today. The fire was ultimately an opportunity to transform the city and change the era.

The spirit of Enlightenment washed over the new Rennes

The Rennes after the fire is pretty much the same one that we know today. With the new squares, Gabriel brought the spirit of Enlightenment to the city. These layouts were designed for ceremonies, but also for performances and festive events, gatherings and solidarity.

“Gabriel was clever at stitching together the old districts and the modern city that was being rebuilt” remarks the head of cultural heritage. “In addition to two large central squares, he also created small squares that add to the quality of life in Rennes. The urban vision aimed to create a connection and meeting spaces, also at an architectural level, to make the break as gentle as possible. We went from wood to stone without realising it.”

The architect also compromised on the permitted materials. It was more of a question of needing stone façade walls. Gabriel was aware that this would not be possible: there were only three masons in Rennes, compared to the masses of staircase craftsmen. There were also carpenter-joiners who usually worked with the wood that was used in abundance in local construction. It also continued to use wood in avenues and passageways. This allowed an entire organisation of professionals to take part in rebuilding the city after having seen their work disappear before their eyes. When the reconstruction of the city was complete, about 40 masons had moved to Rennes. Following the fire, the construction methods changed radically and continued to prioritise stone in the 19th century.

The town hall: the symbol of a city that rose from the ashes

The symbolic monument of reconstruction was Rennes town hall. One of the grievances expressed by the city community was that the architect imagined a clock tower to replace the old belfry that burned down. Rather than rebuild it right in the middle of the square based on models from the north of France, Gabriel integrated it into the new town hall that he built on the west side of the square.

He imagined building the mansion for the commander in chief opposite this new building. However, the plan for this building never became a reality. A century later, it was the Opera House that was built here. Its curves match those of the town hall, construction of which started in 1734. The building has a unique, three-in-one style of two symmetrical wings that flank the clock tower. To the right is the prédisial court (the seat of the Sénéchaussée, which is equivalent to the civil court) and to the left is the town hall. “The alcove in the centre was intended to house the statue of Louis XV” explains Gilles Brohan. “The king represented authority, with the two forms of local authority at either side: municipal power on one side and judicial power on the other”.

A classic symbol in a much less traditional shape: the onion dome that topped the belfry adopted 18th-century baroque styles that were still uncommon in France, and even less so in Brittany. The construction site lasted for a very, very long time and the building was completed in 1762, but the interior work continued into the 20th century. However, it was worth the wait – in the 18th century, the Rennes town hall with its onion dome was among the most remarkable architectural features on town halls across France.

“With its wings reminiscent of a harpsichord connecting the clock tower to the two wings at each end, the gaze is naturally drawn to the alcove in the central part. The building is designed to be a decoration that showcases the west side of the square.” The building’s style was directly inspired by the Institut de France that is opposite the Louvre in Paris and was formerly the Collège des Quatre nations, which was home to the Académie française and the Académie des sciences. It was, therefore, at this level that Rennes set its standards and its priorities. The architect’s tour de force was in the central part as the wings curved soften the closeness around the clock tower. It was another example of the royal architect’s signature haute couture.

“In Rennes, nothing catches, except fire”

Only an incident like the fire creates an opportunity to rebuild the map of the city to this extent. Even so, the fire left deep scars and anchored fears. After 1720, alcoves for statues of the Virgin Mary multiplied on the façades of buildings to protect against new fires. The étang de l’enfer (“Hell’s Pond”) was created in the Thabor gardens to have a water reserve at the highest point of the city. Wells were dug everywhere and residents were armed with buckets that were sorely lacking on the tragic night of 1720. A corps of volunteer firefighters was also established.

“Co-ownership was born in Rennes” after the fire

The memory of the fire transcends the generations through gwerz, traditional Breton songs that tell history. The popular saying “In Rennes, nothing catches, except fire” has lasted and it was even used by Monseigneur Brossays Saint-Marc a century later. As with any catastrophe, its popular appropriation made it possible to heal and recover from the trauma. However, the fire also led to deep changes in Rennes society. Co-ownership developed here, as well a stronger social mix than beforehand.

“Co-ownership was born in Rennes after the fire and with reconstruction. There was a change from individual private residences to collective buildings that housed several people. Owners were forced to come together to design a modern city”.

A turning point and a tale of resilience

Reconstruction combined populations on a large scale that had never been seen before. The increased density in the city centre actually created a paradox: it increased public spaces in squares, but created 550 additional dwellings by constructing buildings taller than the half-timbered houses. The materials and design of buildings enabled them to be built taller, which was essential to rehouse victims of the fire. A feat of skillful architecture, the topography and the buildings’ heights are harmonised up to the banks of the Vilaine river.

Beyond its tragic aspect, the Rennes fire restructured maps on all levels: on an architectural level with new buildings, new materials and new places to meet; on a societal level as the property crisis pushed owners to unite to be able to stay in the city centre, which mixed groups a little more. 1720 was a turning point for the city and a tale of resilience that shows that tragedies are also opportunities to change the era and the standard.

This period of Rennes’ history left another, more poetic trace to remember the tragedy. On Place de Coëtquen, where the fire stopped close to the Parlement, a fountain was erected in 1993. It was made by Italian plastic artist Claudio Parmiggiani and depicts the head of a muse sleeping on a wave. The sculpture is of Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health and hygiene, resting on water, which was the only solution to the fire.

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