Le Temple de la Nature, Chamonix

Image of a stone building - Temple de la Nature

Contributor: Patrick Vincent

Location: Montenvers, Chamonix, France

Description: Built in 1795 as a refuge for travellers visiting the Mer de Glace, the Temple de la Nature immediately became a popular tourist attraction and one of European Romanticism’s most recognizable landmarks. It normally took travelers two and half hours by mule to ascend from Chamonix to the Montanvers meadow, located 1915 meters above sea-level. Accompanied by guides and porters, they often rested half-way at Claudine’s fountain, named after the heroine of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian’s Claudine, nouvelle savoyarde (1793), before braving a ravine infamous for its avalanches. At the refuge, they were welcomed by a resident shepherd and could take refreshments, including milk mixed with kirsch, or purchase crystals, stone paper weights, and other curiosities. The most popular activity, however, was looking through the visitor book, leaving one’s own name with comments, but also copying the choicest inscriptions. A visit to the Temple de la Nature thus enabled ordinary tourists and celebrities alike to admire one of the Alps’ most spectacular glaciers in the last years of the Little Ice Age, while also participating in the period’s vibrant album culture and contributing through it to a transEuropean tourist sensibility.

A one-room octagonal shaped stone pavilion with two windows and a chimney, the Temple replaced a wooden cabin ironically referred to as the ‘chateau’ that an English expatriate, Charles Blair, had erected in 1779. Blair’s building was the ‘hut upon the mountain’ where Mary Shelley has the Creature narrate Victor his tale in volume two of Frankenstein. After Blair’s hut fell into disuse and was transformed into a stable, French diplomat Charles-Louis de Sémonville, passing through in 1793, suggested a new, larger construction meant to honour both natural religion and revolutionary politics. As Genevan writer and climber Marc-Théodore Bourrit describes it in his Description des cols, ou passages des Alpes (1803), Sémonville first stated that ‘no picturesque site, no Romantic tableau offers themselves to us, independently of their creator’, then expressed the hope that the Temple would be dedicated ‘to nature by a friend of liberty’. Financed by Félix Desportes, the Directoire’s emissary in Geneva, and supervised by Bourrit, the new shelter took three and half months to build, and cost eighty-five louis. Inside the pavilion, mounted on stone bands, were medallions inscribed with the names of the French and Genevan naturalists who had helped ‘discover’ Chamonix, including Horace Bénédict de Saussure, Jean-André Deluc, Déodat de Dolomieu, Marc-Auguste Pictet, and Bourrit himself. Sometime after 1797 the building was pillaged and the names partly whitewashed. After a first restoration, new names were added, including those of Gustave de Pontécoulant, Barthélémy Faujas, and Louis Jurine. But it was the names left in the visitor book, as well as on the walls, table, and benches, that most intrigued travellers.

Passing through in 1817, for example, Thomas Raffles explains that the custodian ‘pointed out to us amongst the autographs of many eminent personages, that of the Ex-Empress of France, Maria Louisa […] The Empress Josephine was also here on the 29th August, 1810’. The latter’s short poem praising the sublimity of the scene, adapted from the third book of Abbé Delille’s L’Homme des champs (1800), was apparently purloined by an English tourist, but the lines were preserved and reprinted in several Swiss tours: ‘Ah! Je sens, qu’en milieu de ce grand phénomène / De ce tableau touchant, de cette terrible scène, / Tout élève l’esprit, tout occupe les yeux, / Le cœur seul, un moment se repose dans ces lieux.’ [ ‘Ah! I feel, that in the midst of this great phenomenon / From this touching picture, from this terrible scene, / Everything raises the spirit, everything fills the eyes, / The heart alone, a moment rests in these places.’] Other recorded inscriptions include an apocryphal and largely meaningless sentence attributed to Germaine de Stäel, dated 17 August 1815: ‘Si les passions n’anéantissait–(probably anéantissaient)– la sensibilité du cœur, on verrait les hommes s’abstenir des choses impures, et que le sentiment reprouve, mais l’âme incliné vers sa perfection me saurait composer avec ses principes, et jeter dans la vie une autre vie, qui conduirait à un avenir sans avenir’. [‘If passions had not annihilated the sensitivity of the heart, one would see men abstain from impure things, and feeling re-emerge, but the soul inclined towards perfection would teach me its principles, and call into life another life, which would lead to a future without a future’. ] Such sentimental and sometimes even nonsensical effusions drew the following acerbic comment, in French: ‘In July 1809 I gave a register to Montanvers, so that travellers could leave their reflections: –I regret it. What I read in it,–what I read here, fills me with despair. One has good sense when one decides to visit Chamonix Valley, but I see that one loses it upon arrival’.

Another tourist piqued by the absurdity of these visitor book entries was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who rode up to the Montanvers with Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont on 25 July 1816. As Mary recorded in her journal, they encountered ‘Beaucoup de monde’ along the way, whereas Percy in A History of a Six Weeks’ Tour states that they dined on the grass in front of the Temple. While neither text mentions it, we know thanks to Raffles, Byron, Southey and various other contemporary accounts that they too left a comment in the album in reaction to its many sublime effusions in praise of the Creator. Robert Southey’s unpublished journal of his 1817 Continental tour provides a full transcript of the Shelley party’s entry that is particularly insightful regarding Romantic-period visitor book practices:

There is an Album here, from which I copied four inscriptions. Some leaves have been torn out by mischievous and dishonourable persons, who found it less trouble to injure the book, than to transcribe the writing they wished to possess. A little ribaldry had been inserted—it was very little, a good deal of sentimental folly, and a few effusions of vanity. There were inscriptions in Russian and in Hebrew, as well as German, Italian, Spanish, French and English. Many had been written in so pale an ink as to be almost illegible, –this was the case with John Coleridge’s.

Mr Percy Bysshe Shelley

Madame son épouse               }                   ἕκαστοι ἄθεοι [all are atheists]

Pheoffterygna la soeur

to this record some person has very properly added,

καὶ εἰ τοῦτο ἀληθές ἐστιν, ἕκαστοι μῶροί εἰσι καὶ δύστυχοι (sic), δοξάζοντες ἐν τῇ ἀφροσύνῃ αὐτῶν … εἰ δὲ τοῦτο οὐκ ἔστιν ἀληθὲς ἕκαστοι ψεῦσται
[If this is true, all are miserable and mad, because they forged this opinion in their folly… but if it is not true, then they are all liars]

In a letter to John May, Southey recopied Shelley’s inscription and suggested that the author of the Greek addendum was the Oxford don Edward Copleston. The poet also transcribed witty entries by his friend Richard ‘Conversation’ Sharp and by two aristocrats, Lady Hervey, and Lord Cranborn. But it was the Shelley party’s entry, one of several they left that summer in Chamonix’s visitor books, that sparked one of the Romantic period’s best-known literary controversies, adding to the poet’s notoriety.

Many other famous writers visited the Temple de la Nature in the first half of the nineteenth century, including Chateaubriand in 1805, the Wordsworths in 1820, Victor Hugo and Charles Nodier in 1825, James Fenimore Cooper in 1828, Alexandre Dumas in 1832, John Ruskin in 1835, George Sand in 1836, and Charles Dickens in 1846. The Temple also features in many period novels and poems, including Charlotte Anne Eaton’s satire of the Geneva summer of 1816, Continental Adventures (1826), in which an inscription in the visitor book helps further the romantic plot. When the Victorian writer and entertainer Albert Smith opened his show entitled ‘Mont Blanc’ at Egyptian Hall in 1852, the ascent to Montanvers had lost any sense of exclusivity, and its dilapidated albums had become a commonplace found in almost every Swiss travelogue. Today, while all but one of these books have disappeared, the Temple survives as a sort of visitor book in stone. Tucked away behind two hotels constructed respectively in 1840 and 1890, yet closed to the public and in poor condition, it forms part of a rare ensemble of buildings that need to be preserved as a testament to Romanticism’s cult of mountains, nature, and literary celebrity.

William Bartlett, ‘Mer de Glace (Chamouni)’, in W. Bartlett and W. Beattie, Switzerland, illustrated in a series of views taken on the spot (London, 1836), volume 1

Date: 1795

Creators: Charles-Louis de Sémonville, Félix Desportes, Marc-Théodore Bourrit

Subject: Alps, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Robert Southey, Richard Sharp, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas

Media rights: both images courtesy of the author

Object type: building

Format: cement and stone

References 

Bourrit, Marc-Théodore Bourrit. Description des cols, ou passages des Alpes. Genève: Manget, 1803.

Eaton, Charlotte Anne. Continental Adventures. A Novel. London: Hurst, Robinson, 1826.

Hansen, Peter H. The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Raffles, Thomas. Letters during a Tour through some parts of France, Savoy, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, in the Summer of 1817. Liverpool: Thomas Taylor, 1819.

Shelley, Mary. The Journals of Mary Shelley. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott Kilvert. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Southey, Robert. A Journey through France, the Italian Lakes & Switzerland by Robert Southey & his friends Senhouse & Nash in 1817. Keswick Museum and Art Gallery ms. 289.

Southey, Robert. Robert Southey to John May, 1 August 1817. The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Five: 1816-1818. Ed. Tim Fulford, Ian Packer, and Lynda Pratt. Romantic Circles Electronic Edition. http://www.romanticcircles.org/editions/southey_letters/Part_Five/HTML/letterEEd.26.3005.html

 

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