The small fort
A square tower-like building (280 square metres) comprised of two large transversal vaults braced on each side by three other perpendicular vaults. These are topped by a compact mass of stone and lime meant to steady the building and resist bombing.
A parapet wall surrounding the terrace also compresses the thrust of the vaults. The entrance to the fort is on the western façade and is reached by a drawbridge strung over a dry moat.
Anne Hilarion de Tourville
Musée de la Marine, Paris.
Beneath the main entrance hall lies a cistern that collects the rainwater from the terrace.There is a room on each side of the entrance : from the southern one a narrow staircase leads onto the terrace.
After the entrance there are two ransversal vaulted rooms, followed by a further series of three rooms , the one in the middle probably sheltering the powder magazine recognizable by its central position, its vents providing the necessary ventilation
and protecting the entrance from missiles.
The fort was built according to the metric system (as it was defined during the French Revolution of 1789).
The fort’s ground floor is 5,50 metres above Feau level, the terrace 10,00 metres
the top of the parapet 12 metres the average height of the rampart 11 metres.
— Georges Boursier pays daily visits to the Island that he wants to turn into a new Capri. —
Article by J.B. Nicolaï.
As they were very happy and wanted it to be known, to give this happiness a perfect setting the manufacturer bought his muse an island. « We shall build a theatre here for the muses of the sea », exclaimed Liane Degaby…
Every one agreed that it really was an enchanted abode, tales were told of the delightful and unforgettable moments spent between sea and sky, all attested by the visitors’ book …
This tiny sea crossing – that nevertheless required the authorization of the State Officer – turned into an idyllic cruise, an invitation to a journey towards the sun, the rocks and the sea…
Gouache de Raphaël Ponson
There exists off the coast of Marseilles, between the ancient Réserve and the cove of Maldormé, a small square islet that is a kind of introduction to a further group of islands, If, Ratonneau and Pomègues, that stretch out towards the horizon. In the summer mists it looks like a sandcastle waiting for some maritime giant to fish it up in his landing net.
It is called l’Ile Degaby, anciently named the Fort de Tourville or Fort d’Endoume.
It is preceded by l’Ile Doume, , that has given its name to the village of Doume with which it forms an archipel.
From the rocks of Malmousque bathers have always been tempted to reach it in a few minutes’ swimming ; with a bucket of sand’s throw children project towards it their treasures and conquests : the Château d’If, just behind it on the western side, majestic with its beautiful fortress, remains the invincible citadel that they may approach by boat when they are older.
But this island, this white rock, projecting slightly from under the small fort, is both close and far away, like dreams that appear and disappear :is this magic created by the constant rocking of the waves ?
As far as legends go, it can hold its own. But of course it cannot beat If with its fortress, its Comte de Monte-Cristo and Abbé Faria, Its alleged Masque de Fer and its prisoners during the French Revolution.
But this little fort’s austere architecture, whose walls made of beautiful dressed stones are both naïve and frightening, can also fire the imagination.
It’s easy to imagine that already in Phocée’s time Degaby Island was used by the Greeks to reconnoitre the coast before choosing the largest, most beautiful and best sheltered Lacydon to settle the Phocean fleet and found Massalia.
In the XVI th century the island was a kinf of barbican, a maritime projection preceding the real fortifications. It protected the town on its southern side and was meant to capitulate first in case of invasion. Louis the XIVth decided, in order to reinforce the defenses of the bay, to have a fort built on the temporary installation already backed on the walls of a powder magazine that still exists today. This fort was completed in 1703 and named Tourville in memory of the Admiral who fought so many battles to chase the Barbary States out of the Mediterranean Seas.
Ah, that M.de Tourville, who died precisely in 1701 and whose memory Louis the XIVth wanted to honour : no mock captain indeed, but a captain whose contribution to all the royal conquests of the Grand Siècle was considerable.
Anne Hilarion de Cotentin, comte de Tourville, was born in 1642 in Normandy ; his family inscribed him at a tender age into the national legend by enrolling him in the Order of Malta when he was fourteen. He became a ship’s captain at 25, and fought in that same year the heroic battles of Agosta and Palermo, making the southern seas resound with tales of his courage, from Algiers to Tripoli,, boarding galley after galley.
He waged an eight hours’battle at the head of his small fleet in 1677 thus winning for himself an appointment as squadron commander and General Lieutenant of the French Royal Navy before he reached the age of 35. After freeing the city of Brest from the English and Dutch fleets he finally became Vice-Admiral of the Seas of the Levant in 1689. It is easy to understand that his name graces many of the forts, capes and peninsulas of Normandy, but his Mediterranean fame attributed it to this island off Marseilles in the XVIII th century.
And then the centuries went by, first one, then two… without any notable event. In 1861 the fort was reorganized and its architecture became the one that we are familiar with today.
A few decades later came the « Belle Epoque » ; the Exposition Universelle, with its colonial dreams, bringing to the Phocean city scores of fancy-dress commanders and their operetta troops of music-hall artists. A few months before the 1914-1918 war the legend attempts to rear its head once again on the Mediterranean coastline. Will island and sea, those exotic symbols, tell us how many Sunday-clothes sailors anchored their dreams there for a handful of dollars or some cabaret dancer’s fine eyes ?
The pleasure island…
Liane Degaby, a famous artist during the years just beforej the Great War, had posed to advantage for the national cause. « If it’s an absolute necessity » she sighed, draped in scant and invisible dignity, a heart offered to peace for the benefit of her republican sponsors or perhaps already in answer to some impresario’s demands. However that may be, she made a fine marriage. André Lavai, a manufacturer of Marseilles, fell for her charms.
As they were very happy and wanted it to be known, to give this happiness a perfect setting the manufacturer bought his muse an island. « We shall build a theatre here for the muses of the sea » exclaimed Liane Degaby…
Everyone agreed that it really was an enchanted abode, tales were told of delightful and unforgettable moments spent between sea and sky, all attested by the visitors’ book…
This tiny sea crossing – that nevertheless required the authorization of the State Officer – turned into an idyllic cruise, an invitation to a journey towards the sun, the rocks, the sea…
The war broke out, the war ended, and the gallant André Lavai returned to Marseilles. Then there were fewer trips to the island. The lootings and the vandalism curbed the famous owner’s enthusiasm. She who had planned to leave this symbol of beauty to the city of Marseilles, she who had shown such generosity, was forced to conclude in despair « The island will become my tomb ». The ,couple had a cross erected, but the tomb itself remains a mystery. Was it in fact ever built ? Another mystery that the legend prefers to ignore
After the parties, the receptions, came decades of sleep, the abandon of the island, another war. The the renewal of the 60’s gave birth to grandiose schemes. M.Boursier, a restaurant owner and businessman, planned to turn it into a hotel complex with a dance floor and a casino, and even envisaged a connection to the mainland by cable car, tunnel or funicular railway… and finally by helicopter.
Water-colour by M. Ducaruge, Architect Provence Magazine 12/10/1965
Water-colour by M. Ducaruge, Architect Provence Magazine 12/10/1965
The Amercan dream vanished once more and the island changed hands again. Twenty years later it was deserted, belonging only to visitors, dreams being no one’s property in particular.
Sold once again in July 2001, the island’s present owners have resumed the tradition of festive events created by Liane Degaby and it has become a privileged scene for exceptional public or private events.
The island possesses a natural well, a marine grotto whose waters change colour according to the time of day, in succeeding shades of blue and green…it continues to arouse passions and nourish the imagination as it fends the deep blue sky with its rocky hull.
(Text adapted from an article by Adrienne Borrelly-Strappazzon published in the « Marseille-Revue Culturelle » N° 181, September 1997.