The story of Carouge

From Roman times through the Middle Ages to the industrial era, Carouge has succeeded in transforming and reinventing itself. In turns French, Italian and under the authority of Geneva, it has nevertheless always maintained its status as an « open city ».

Since the Romanisation of the Allobroges (120 BC) the hamlet of Carouge, admirably situated on the bank of the turbulent Arve, saw the passage of merchants on their way from the south to converge in Geneva and the Swiss plain beyond. The bridge over the Arve, the counterpart to the Pont du Rhône which so preoccupied Julius Caesar, was a vital crossing point. Thus the international trade routes converged towards this bridge, whose exact location has not yet been determined. It is of course a fact that Carouge takes its name from the Latin for ‘carrefour’ (crossroads). Although we are not yet certain of the bridge’s position, we can nevertheless affirm that for over 2000 years, the current Rue Ancienne was travelled by international traders. Few sites share this privilege of sustainable development. This route was never abandoned, and even in the darkest hours of the Middle Ages, the merchants passed through this hamlet.

Carouge becomes part of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia

When in 1401 the dynasty of the Count of Geneva died out for want of an heir, Carouge passed under the authority of the counts and then the dukes of hamlet benefited from the protection of the House of Savoy for nearly four centuries, until the Savoy. The autumn of 1792, when the ancient duchy was annexed by revolutionary France. The Treaty of Turin in 1754, which put an end to the system of « shared power » – between the Republic of Geneva and the Duchy of Savoy – caused the territory of Carouge to come fully within the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, with its capital in Turin. The story of a peaceful hamlet admirably situated on the bank of the Arve might have lasted for several more decades or even longer. But this prospect did not take into account the immeasurable wealth of the Republic of Geneva, which was highly coveted. Wishing to take indirect advantage of the commercial traffic coming to and from Geneva, Turin planned to revitalise the port of Collonge-Bellerive – opposite Versoix – but it was a dead end and no transit was perceptible; subsequently, Sierne was envisaged, and it was finally the site of Carouge that was selected. Men and merchandise passed through in abundance, and it proved to be a successful choice: in 1772, the number of inhabitants was recorded as 567, rising to 1454 in 1781, then 3171 in 1786 and as many as 4672 souls in 1792, at the time of its annexation by France.

A new town

It was during the decade of 1760-1770 that the development of Carouge came within the political and economic objectives of Turin. Preoccupied by the chaotic expansion of the town, the Sardinian authorities wanted a regulatory plan. A number of these were considered and it was finally the Robilant plan (1781) that served as a framework for the construction of the new town. However this was adjusted by Domenico Elia and Giuseppe Viana (1781-1783), and then by Lorenzo Giardino (1787). Despite the modifications, the principle remained the same: the area to be urbanised was configured around traffic arteries, forming a regular grid of islands. Only the Rue Ancienne (on the line of an ancient route) broke the symmetry of the checkerboard plan.

Carouge under the French, then under the authority of Geneva

Carouge was attached to France on 2 October 1792. The population welcomed the Revolutionary armies and the Jacobin discourses of the ‘popular societies’. Religious practices were suspended and the church of Sainte-Croix hosted meetings of the revolutionary clubs; many streets changed names. Initially included in the ‘département’ of the Mont-Blanc, the district of Carouge was subsequently attached to that of the Léman, when this was created in 1798. Carouge thus passed under the authority of its rival Geneva, which had been chosen as the new ‘département’s’ administrative centre. French until September 1814, Carouge then joined the kingdom of Sardinia after a brief occupation by the Austrians. At the Treaty of Turin of 16 March 1816, the commune of Carouge was attached, with no great enthusiasm on the part of its population, to Geneva and thus to the Confederation.

Carouge, an industrious city

Carouge is also an industrious city. The development of the bank of the Arve and the diversion of the Drize, channelled to cross the town, encourages the setting up of mills. In the 18th century the tanneries, often accused of contraband, and the watchmaking workshops, which never managed to compete with those of Geneva, were the principal industries. In the 19th century, an imposing cotton mill (Foncet & Odier, 1807-1822) and faïence manufactures (Herpin, Baylon, Dortu, and later Picolas, Coppier) took over. Generally speaking, Carouge businesses suffered from the attachment to Geneva, as they lost their traditional outlets.

The establishment between 1870 and 1912 of numerous businesses and mechanical workshops, and the creation, in 1958, of the FIPA (Fondation des terrains industriels Praille-Acacias), charged with making the most of the rail connection Cornavin-La Praille, allowed Carouge to enhance its industrial vocation. But over the past few years the massive influx of fashion boutiques and gadget shops has tended to drive out the little circle of traditional shopkeepers, replaced in their turn by the emergence of a modern and dynamic tertiary sector.

An open city

The term « open city », frequently used in reference to Carouge, is justified on more than one count. First, despite, being a border town, Carouge has never had fortifications or even an enclosure. In addition, this first architectural consideration was complemented by a religious freedom that was exceptional for the time: this Catholic territory welcomed Protestants and Jews, and these communities were able to practise their religion freely. The Count of Veyrier, who did so much for Carouge, wrote that even « Mohammedans » were welcome. Lastly, its population was cosmopolitan: in 1786, 51% of its inhabitants came from France, 26.3% from Savoy or the Piedmont, 7.8% from Germany, 6.5% from Geneva, and 5.5% from the Confederate cantons.
Interestingly enough, taverns and other cabarets abounded, and the police were not particularly concerned with morals. Furthermore and in order to build on its success, two annual fairs and a weekly market were authorised as of 1777.
© Dominique Zumkeller, archivist of the City of Carouge from 1999 to 2014