The fire in Rennes

The fire in Rennes

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Title: Map of the city of Rennes ... part of which was set on fire on the night of December 22 until 27

Creation date : 1720 -

Date shown: December 30, 1720

Dimensions: Height 435 cm - Width 555 cm

Storage place: Institute Library website

Contact copyright: RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) / Gérard Blot

Picture reference: 09-576058 / Ms1307Reserve-Number5

Map of the city of Rennes ... part of which was set on fire on the night of December 22 until 27

© RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) / Gérard Blot

Publication date: February 2019

University of Evry-Val d'Essonne

Historical context

The scars of a battered city

On December 23, 1720, in the early evening, a fire took place in the city of Rennes, the administrative center and seat of the Parliament of Brittany. To put an end to it, the inhabitants are forced to demolish buildings whose ruins form a protective glacis.

The author of this plan is not identified, but it works quickly, because it is dated December 30, 1720, only three days after the end of the drama. Indeed, this renowned architect is linked to the architects Mansart and Gabriel who are closely involved in the reconstruction of Rennes.

Remained in handwritten form, this document is probably based on an earlier plan which serves as a basis for the outline of the districts, before adding flat areas of color and a legend which evoke the disaster: "What is washed in red marks churches, main buildings and burned houses, what is colored yellow marks houses that have been forced to be demolished to preserve the rest of the city, and what is washed in black marks what is preserved . "

Image Analysis

The city of ruins

The inventory covers the entire walled city and the outskirts of the suburbs. The plan allows observing the study of the devastation within the old town. The main buildings are represented, more particularly in the burnt area which stretches between the right bank of the Vilaine and the medieval rampart, between the Palace of the Parliament and the apse of Saint-Pierre Cathedral. The foyer is a carpentry workshop on rue Tristin, near the Place de la Grande Pompe, whose fountain is not enough to extinguish the plague. Among the destroyed buildings were the churches of Saint-Sauveur and Saint-James, the Tower of the Big Clock, the market halls, the presidial, the Hôtel d´Argentré and the Hôtel des Monnaies.

In total, almost half of the city is reduced to ashes, in a densely urbanized and populated area. If the human toll, never formalized, reports about ten deaths, 8,000 inhabitants are also uprooted, in the heart of an apocalyptic landscape. On both banks of the Vilaine, the preserved buildings are immediately requisitioned to accommodate the populations, such as the Palace of the Parliament and the various convents. In addition, several engravings describe this sad spectacle, as well as a material state completed at the end of winter: 32 streets were damaged with 945 buildings destroyed. The reconstruction and the spending are going to be colossal!


Rebuild the city

Like other representations of fires in the modern period (cf. The fire at the Palais-Royal opera house by Hubert Robert), this plan reminds us that the urban territory is deeply dangerous, with little developed means of fight and embryonic prevention tools. While it is not an isolated case, the fire in the city of Rennes left an impression with the extent of the material damage and its social consequences.

Immediately after the disaster and the first public assistance measures, reconstruction projects followed. The wounded city plan gives way to master plans for a regenerated city. In a context where Enlightenment town planning insists on the identity of the city and the beauty it conveys, these projects go beyond the framework of the destroyed area. The challenge is to fundamentally remodel the site, through arrangements that combine beauty and utility.

A first redevelopment project was drawn up by Isaac Robelin, director of the fortifications of Brittany, but its scope and cost led to a change in strategy. Royal power intervenes directly and diligently Jacques Gabriel, while it is the capital of a country of states, theoretically enjoying administrative autonomy. Gabriel partially took over the Robelin project, developed a checkerboard plan and increased the number of places in order to ventilate the living environment, inaugurating two decades of work. In addition, an urban planning regulation prescribes rules for the construction and maintenance of buildings, in order to reduce risks. More broadly, the action of the king's architect and engineer underscores the interventionism of the king who waits to control the development of a provincial town whose decision-making autonomy has become a lure.

  • Brittany
  • Reindeer
  • plan
  • fire
  • city
  • town planning
  • Lights
  • ruins
  • reconstruction


Jean DELUMEAU and Yves LEQUIN (dir.), The Misfortunes of Time. History of plagues and calamities in France, Paris, Larousse, 1987.

Catherine DENYS, "What firefighting teaches us about urban police in the 18th century. », In Thunderstorms, Literature and Culture (1760-1830), Orages Association, 2011, p. 17-36.

Jean-Louis HAROUEL, The beautification of cities: French town planning in the 18th century, Paris, Picard, 1993.

Claude NIÈRES, Reconstruction of a city in the 18th century: reindeer 1720-1760, Paris, Klincksieck, 1972.

Michel VERNUS, The fire, the story of a plague and the men of fire, Yens-sur-Morges, Cabédita, 2006.

François VION-DELPHIN and François LASSUS, Men and fire from Antiquity to the present day: From mythical and benefactor fire to devastating fire, Besançon, University Press of Franche-Comté, 2007.

To cite this article

Stéphane BLOND, "The fire in Rennes"

Video: Places to see in Rennes - France