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d. 20 April 1865 in York Township, Canada West


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VILLENEUVE, ROBERT DE, engineer, cartographer, draughtsman, probably a pupil of Vauban, who recommended him at the beginning of 1685 as a military engineer for New France; b. c. 1645, place unknown; d. in France some time after 1692.

Villeneuve reached Quebec at the beginning of May 1685 and applied himself immediately to the instructions received from the king. An analysis of the tasks which he carried out from June to November of that year makes it clear that he had been instructed by Versailles to make accurate surveys of the promontory of Quebec, with the object of fortifying the town.

His first completed piece of work was a plan of Quebec. On it can be seen the houses which then existed, shown to scale. Two lines are also visible, intersecting at right angles: one passes along the centre of Sous-le-Fort street; the other is parallel to the Château Saint-Louis. On the east-west line, the engineer has set up two sections, which show the rock of Quebec in relief and the outline of the houses in the Upper and Lower Town. In this way we have a precise idea of the Château Saint-Louis, built by Huault de Montmagny in 1647; it was a long building of attractive proportions, with a hipped roof.

Despite frequent indispositions, Villeneuve completed a considerable amount of work up to November. He carried out surveys at Trois-Rivières and at Montreal; he went to Cataracoui and made sketches of Fort Frontenac and its surroundings. Meanwhile the Intendant de Meulles* instructed him to draw up the plans for a powder-magazine which was to be constructed in one of the bastions of Fort Saint-Louis; the contract prepared by François Genaple* on 12 Aug. 1685 tells us the name of the builder, Jean Le Rouge*. This powder-magazine, completed in 1686, was demolished in 1893.

Villeneuve spent the winter of 1685–86 drawing the map of the surroundings of Quebec, with the help of notes made since his arrival in the country. Then he drafted a memoir on the state of the Château Saint-Louis; another on the digging of a well in the Upper Town; a third on improvements to the appearance of the Lower Town; and finally a fourth on the state of the prison. It was probably because of these memoirs that the disagreement between Governor Brisay* de Denonville and the engineer erupted. On 8 May 1686 Denonville wrote to Versailles: “I propose to send to Niagara this year the sieur Dorvilliers [Rémy Guillouet* d’Orvilliers] with the sieur de Villeneuve, the draughtsman you gave me, in order to make a plan of it. . . . I shall see whether I cannot make a trip there myself, so that I can give you a more reliable report; for when it comes to trusting the Sieur de Villeneuve alone, he is a very good, very accurate and very true draughtsman, but in other respects his mind is not well enough ordered, and is too limited for him to be able to offer any views as to the establishment of a post, and to run it on his own.” Villeneuve was often sick, and was ill adjusted to the climate. He spent the summer and autumn of 1686 doing numerous sketches of the surroundings of Quebec, the Île d’Orléans, Montreal, Chambly and La Prairie-de-la-Madeleine. But, wrote Denonville, “he did not have the leisure to make fair copies of them.”

The following year the quarrel worsened. Villeneuve’s delays in carrying out the surveys, his dissension with Major François Provost*, his difficult relations with some of the king’s officials, everything contributed to make his life miserable. Denonville was exasperated: “This engineer of ours,” he wrote to the minister on 8 June 1687, “is a fool, a libertine, a débauché, whom we have to put up with because we have business with him. . . . He is a spendthrift. Yet he works amazingly well with his hands, and very quickly when he wants to. Monsieur de Vauban can readily describe to you his type of mind. Had he not been staying in my house and receiving board from me, I should never have been able to get anything out of him. . . . The intendant will acquaint you with the way in which he has covered our magazine [powder-magazine]; the stone roofing, being made of blocks, has not been tight enough to prevent water from coming in through the jointing, besides which the lime and the cement which have been used do not stand up at all to the frost in this country. . . .” On 6 Nov. 1687, another letter from the governor, countersigned by Bochart* de Champigny: “He is a very good draughtsman, and has an astonishing ability for mapping the outlines of a terrain; which is a great help for M. de Vauban, who can send us a plan from France for fortifying the terrain which we shall have reported to him.”

Villeneuve, discouraged, asked to go back to France. The next day he changed his mind. On 13 Nov. 1687 he left the governor’s residence and went to live in the Lower Town, at Étienne Landron’s house. On 8 March 1688 he received an order from Louis XIV to return to France; however, with Denonville’s authorization, he remained at Quebec and continued his work as a cartographer. Finally Vauban administered to him a series of reprimands which, as Denonville and Champigny wrote on 6 Nov. 1688, “made him more tractable and more amenable to reason.” Having been recalled again on 1 May 1689, he put the finishing touches to the map of the surroundings of Niagara, completed the plan of Fort Frontenac, and left the country in November 1689.

Villeneuve returned to Quebec in April 1691. He no longer had any effective authority. It was his temporary successor, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin*, who in June 1691 drew the plans of the Batterie royale which Claude Baillif undertook to build at the end of Sous-le-Fort street. The following year, Villeneuve wanted to go back to France to explain to Vauban the relief drawing of the rock of Quebec. He left the country for good in November 1692.

That Denonville and Champigny somewhat exaggerated Villeneuve’s weaknesses of character is possible. But they were right to praise his talent as a draughtsman. He was more of an artist than an engineer. And to his taste for sensitive and precise drawing we owe charming pieces of work – for example the excellent surveys of 1685 and the plan of Quebec during the siege of 1690.

Gérard Morisset

AJQ, Greffe de François Genaple, 12 août 1685, 13 nov. 1687. APQ, Manuscrits concernant la Nouvelle-France, 2e série, 1614–1727, IV, 271, 370, 374, 380, 385; V, 209, 220, 234f., 237, 303f., 318, 408, 420f., 445, 448, 452f., 476, 617; VI, 111, 197f.; VII, 240; Ordres du roi, XII, 65; XIII, 51; XV, 36, 56, 104f.; XVIII, 4. Correspondance de Frontenac (1689–99), APQ Rapport, 1927–28, 140f., 144. P.-G. Roy, “Le sieur de Villeneuve, ingénieur du roi,” BRH, X (1904), 280–2.

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Cite This Article

Gérard Morisset, “VILLENEUVE, ROBERT DE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 20, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/villeneuve_robert_de_1E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/villeneuve_robert_de_1E.html
Author of Article:   Gérard Morisset
Title of Article:   VILLENEUVE, ROBERT DE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1966
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   April 20, 2024