The man who invented the Canton of Geneva - Charles Pictet de Rochement

28 August 2007
The man who invented the Canton of Geneva - Charles Pictet de Rochement

Charles Pictet de Rochement (1755-1824)

If the city of Geneva owes its present structure to James Fazy, and the shape of la rade can be attributed to General Dufour, it can be stated that it was Charles Pictet-de-Rochemont who established the outline of the canton of Geneva. He was a statesman and diplomat who defended the status of Geneva and prepared the declaration of Switzerland’s neutrality at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Charles Pictet was born on 21 September 1755 at Cartigny near Geneva into an aristocratic but tolerant family. At the age of 20 he went to France and for twelve years pursued a career in the French Army. It was his marriage in 1786 to Ad?la?de Sara de Rochement that gave him a triple-barreled name. Two years later he entered the governing councils of Geneva and was made responsible for reorganizing the urban militia.

The impact of the French Revolution in 1789 on Switzerland in general and Geneva in particular was terrible. In 1792 the former city councils of Geneva were suspended and a provisional government took over, declaring all citizens equal. In 1794 Pictet was placed under house arrest for a year. His father-in-law, Jean-Fran?ois de Rochemont, was less lucky; he was executed.

Later, Switzerland served as a theatre of war and practically fell apart in the process. Napoleon had invaded in 1798 and everywhere egalitarian ideas took root and the old aristocracy was swept away. Armies devastated the countryside and the winter of 1800 would long be remembered as one of misery and starvation. Geneva was annexed to France. A few weeks later Napoleon issued a new constitution for a Helvetic Republic trying to replace the former archaic system of cantonal authorities with a centralized executive. This attempt to tinker with the cantonal system caused such a violent reaction that Napoleon withdrew his troops in 1802.

The power vaccuum thus created set off a civil war, during which Napoleon cunningly offered his services as arbitrator. He urged the Swiss to come up with a constitution themselves. The new constitution restored the notion of autonomous cantons, created six new cantons and gave a new name to the country-the Swiss Confederation.
Meanwhile, in 1798, Pictet-de-Rochemont had acquired seventy-five hectares of land at Lancy, centred on the present mairie de Lancy, and led the life of a gentleman farmer. He concentrated on the breeding of merino sheep and introduced the culture of maize to the Geneva region. His agrarian innovations spread. Alongside his life as a farmer, he wrote a great deal and founded a review entitled La biblioth?que britannique. From 1796 to 1815 he wrote the agricultural column in it.

Napoleon’s downfall led to the liberation of Geneva by Austrian troops. A new republican government was declared on 1 January 1814 and Pictet read the proclamation, no doubt written by himself, to a joyful population. Napoleon’s brief return to power in 1815-the Hundred Days-ending at the Battle of Waterloo does not seem to have had any effect on the events that followed.

Two apparently contradictory objectives of the new government, much favoured by Pictet, were to restore Genevan independence but also to make Geneva part of the Swiss Confederation. To achieve this it was necessary: (a) to make Genevan territory homogenous (it consisted of several fragmented communes); and (b) to connect it physically to the canton of Vaud and thus to Switzerland as a whole (Versoix was in France). Pictet participated in the first deputation sent in 1814 to request that the Great Powers support Geneva’s position. He then represented Geneva and Switzerland in several rounds of meetings held in Paris and Vienna during 1814 and 1815. While the victors were mainly interested in sharing the spoils of war, Pictet de Rochement’s political talent and diplomatic skills were aimed precisely at recovering Geneva’s independence and joining it to the twenty-one cantons then forming the Swiss Confederation, Valais and Neuch?tel having just entered as full and equal cantons.

The first confrontation in Paris was not a success since the French negotiator, Talleyrand, refused to let go of any part of the Pays de Gex. Later, in October 1814 there was the Congress of Vienna. Pictet participated actively in the relevant conclaves and negotiations, not waiting for suitable outcomes to come his way. The idea that Geneva should form part of the Swiss Confederation became a reality on 19 May 1815.

However, Geneva had been not yet been able to consolidate its fragmented territory. But now, following the change in Geneva’s status, Pictet could count on the backing of the Swiss Government and was given full powers to negoatiate. He soon achieved the territorial success he sought.

North of the lake, six communes were transferred from the pays de Gex, thus giving Geneva its connection with the canton of Vaud. As had already been decided in Vienna and Paris, by the Treaty of Turin in 1816 on the left bank another twenty-three communes were transferred from Savoy and became part of the canton. King Victor-Emmanuel I of Piedmont-Sardinia had himself only just recently recovered this territory. This extension of the cantonal land became known as the "communes r?unies", hence the road of this name in Grand Lancy. It was also stated that the non-Swiss customs posts were to be situated at least one league (approximately five kilometres) from the new Swiss frontier, thus creating the "zone franche" on both sides of the canton. Into the bargain, the Great Powers meeting in Paris recognized the "permanent neutrality of Switzerland" and agreed that Swiss neutrality was, indeed, in the common interest of all European countries. Pictet himself wrote the text of the declaration of neutrality.

In the summer of 1816 Pictet-de-Rochemont returned to his sheep and his maize fields having perfectly succeeded in his mission. The Swiss parliament or Diet, as it was at that time, expressed its recognition of his services.

He died on 28 December 1824 at Lancy leaving behind him a rich historical and political heritage to Geneva and Switzerland.



Thanks to the intricate diplomatic negotiations conducted by Charles Pictet-de-Rochement, the territory of the canton of Geneva grew considerably in size and homogeneity in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Previously Geneva had consisted of a patchwork of disconnected villages, such as Chancy, Jussy, Satigny and Cartigny (where Pictet himself originally came from). The addition of new communes of mixed Catholic/Protestant populations gave the canton a more regular outline and linked it solidly to the rest of Switzerland.

By the second Treaty of Paris (1815) France ceded six communes in the Pays de Gex: Collex-Bossey, Grand-Saconnex, Meyrin, Pregny, Vernier and Versoix (49.3 km2 and 3,343 inhabitants).
By the Treaty of Turin (1816) the Kingdom of Sardinia ceded the twenty-three Savoyard communes of: Aire-la-Ville, Ani?res, Avusy, Bernex, Carouge, Ch?ne-Th?nex, Choulex, Collonge-Bellerive, Compesi?res (which was divided into Bardonnex and Arare), Confignon, Corsier, Hermance, Laconnex, Lancy, Meinier, Onex, Perly-Certoux, Plan-les-Ouates, Pr?singe, Puplinge, Soral, Troinex and Veyrier (108.8 km2 and 12,700 inhabitants).