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Art and Culture
Art and Culture
Its position at the crossroads of three important civilizations—French, Italian and German—has made Switzerland a melting pot combining the cultural characteristics of its neighbors, drawing on their cultural and artistic heritage, and adapting them to suit its own traditions. Swiss art did not acquire its own identity until the late 19C, but it soon influenced the Continent’s cultural history rapidly, carving a niche in the international avant-garde art scene.
Architecture through the Ages
Under Roman Rule
Roman customs and traditions exerted a strong influence over early Swiss cultural heritage: Vestiges of the Roman period bear the signs of Imperial art, but with strong regional and popular characteristics. Some sites contain many remains dating back to this period. One of the most famous, the site of Augst near Basel, provides a fascinating insight into daily life under the Romans and some of their remarkable technological achievements, such as villas fitted with sewers and central heating.
Mosaics and frescoes also reflect the high degree of sophistication and taste for refinement of this civilization. The Villa Rustica at Orbe features magnificent mosaics depicting mythological scenes; the Villa Commugny near Nyon boasts mural paintings with trompe-l’œil façades and narrative scenes.
Early Middle ages
The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5C led to a slackening of artistic activity. Evenually, a new aesthetic—inspired by Christianity—revived artistic life as the Church played a key role in art throughout Europe. The early Middle Ages were characterized by the development of religious mural paintings. The only remaining example, the ceiling of Zillis church , has scenes illustrating the Life of Christ, featuring angels, allegorical figures and mythological beasts. Evangelization spread throughout the country from the 7C, evidenced by the construction of many convents, which became bastions of artistic activity and were seen as temples of cultural life. The Convent of Sankt Gallen exerted considerable influence within Europe between the 8C and 10C. This flourishing of the arts was reflected in the superb illuminations and manuscripts from the 7C that have been carefully preserved in the library.
Romanesque and Cluny
Switzerland underwent a variety of influences, illustrated by its churches, which imbibed the artistic movements of surrounding countries and then moulded them to suit the Swiss national character.
The stamp of Lombard art can be observed in most churches in the Ticino area, such as the Chiesa San Nicolao in Giornico , with its doorway columns resting on crouching beasts. Likewise, in the Chiesa Santi Pietro e Paolo in Biasca , the basilica, displaying three naves and a single apse closing off the chancel, is typical of Lombard architecture. Lastly, in Zürich, the north doorway of the cathedral is shaped like a triumphal arch, a common occurence in Italy.
Burgundian influence is best observed in Basel Cathedral , one of the last great Romanesque monuments, marking the transition between Romanesque and Gothic art, with a three-tier elevation, lancet arches, and the polygonal chancel. Another instance is the carved tympanum on the famous “ Sankt-Gallen Doorway ,” a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture: Figures portraying Christ between St Peter and St Paul and the parable of the Wise Virgins and the Foolish Virgins display astonishing grace and fluidity.
The influence of Provence is especially evident in sculpture. The four statue-columns depicting the Apostles in Coire Cathedral bear a strong resemblance to earlier sculptures in Saint-Trophime at Arles with the tight folds of their robes falling stiffly over their legs. However, the capitals in Geneva Cathedral are more reminiscent of those found in Lyon or Vienne.
Lastly, Germanic Romanesque art is illustrated by the Münster zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen , distinguished by stark geometry surrounding a square and pure architectural lines.
The foundation of Cluny Abbey Church in 910 led to the creation of several hundred convents over the next two centuries. Cluny left its mark on many of these buildings, which featured the same tall, slender proportions. The abbey churches in Romainmôtiers and Payerne in the Vaud canton were early examples of Romanesque architecture influenced by Cluny Abbey. Romainmôtiers‘ abbey is a replica of the Cluny Abbey Church. The abbey in Payerne , with its double elevation, chapels, apsidioles, and its narthex at the entrance, represents pure Cluniac tradition.
The 12C saw the golden age of Romanesque art with the emergence of a new Christian community, the Cistercian Order. Simplicity, austerity and formal perfection were its dominant traits. Bonmont Abbey near Nyon is a fine example of Cistercian architecture, with its plan designed after a Roman cross.
The various figures and motifs represented in sculpture tended to reflect their architectural environment; they did not seek to depict reality but to express the supernatural. Imagery was extremely rich and punctuated by references to the Old and New Testaments. The capitals of the Église St-Jean-Baptiste de Grandson are among the most minutely executed in Switzerland, including the “Eagle with Spread Wings” and “St Michael Slaying the Dragon.”
Gothic art and the ribbed arch were introduced to Switzerland in the 13C by Cistercian monks. In architecture, the Gothic style was conveyed by systematic use of lancet arches and flying buttresses to support the imposing nave and high clerestory windows enhanced by stained glass. In sculpture, it led to the creation of statues carved out of the same block of stone as the column. This new movement paved the way for many great construction projects, including Geneva Cathedral . In the 13C and the 14C, the Franciscan and Dominican religious orders developed an unadorned style of their own. The abbey at Königsfelden , founded in 1308 by the Franciscans, reflects such austerity, with its flat, wooden ceiling crowning the bare nave.
Economic recovery was instrumental in allowing art to expand throughout Europe. From the 14C onward, foreign artists were often called upon for projects in Switzerland, bringing with them many styles and techniques. Byzantine influence was evident in paintings such as the frescoes adorning the narthex of the 13C Payerne Abbey Church , devoted to the theme of the Apocalypse. Paintings often associated religious and secular elements: In Romainmôtiers, episodes from Genesis were depicted alongside scenes of musicians. In Gothic art, paintings were often replaced by stained glass.
Gothic painting flourished under such artists as Konrad Witz (1400-46), who worked in Basel and Geneva. His most famous canvas, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1444), represents Lake Geneva and its shores and displays both astounding realism and minute attention to detail. The religious subject is presented, perhaps for the first time, in a recognizable, rather than an idealized, landscape. However, in this he appears to have been an exception, since most of his contemporaries remained closer to the symbolic, more iconic representation associated with the Gothic tradition. Up to 1536, painting prospered with a fair amount of creativity. On the eve of the Reformation, fewer works were commissioned as reformers turned against visual imagery, and ended the last remaining vestiges of medieval art.
Gothic sculpture displays a far freer approach, shedding Romanesque aesthetics for a more humane, graceful representation. Burgundian, Germanic and Lombard influences were still felt in projects involving artists working elsewhere, such as the German sculptor Peter Parler , who executed the chancels in the cathedrals of Fribourg and Basel around 1350. In the late 14C, an international style spread to all of Europe. Works of art became smaller so they could be transported more easily and foster cultural exchanges among countries. The Marian cult and the worshipping of saints became widespread and many sumptuous altarpieces were commissioned; the one designed for Coire Cathedral is an outstanding example.
Sculpted doorways also drew inspiration from Gothic art; the celebrated painted doorway in Lausanne Cathedral is a telling example. Remarkably well-preserved, the polychrome panel illustrates the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin and is clearly based on the one in Senlis Cathedral. This religious imagery was exceptional for the Gothic period. Such works were seen as decorative as well as intended to enlighten the faithful. The ultimate expression of Flamboyant Gothic is the doorway of Berne Cathedral , portraying the Last Judgement . The graphics are said to be the most detailed in Europe and every episode is conveyed by a sculpture.
Sculpted furniture also was key to the development of Gothic art and exemplified the artistic changes occurring between the 13C and the Reformation.
The late 15C and the early 16C were characterised by flourishing arts and political upheavals. Large altarpieces were replaced by painted panels and canvases. The Renaissance also added a touch of humanism.
Arcades, considered to be typically Renaissance, were becoming more widespread in Switzerland; the Hôtel de Ville de Palud in Lausanne is the most representative building of this period. Architects from Berne, including Abraham Düntz and Samuel Jenner , displayed a novel approach to their art from 1667, advocating a plain, sober style devoid of Baroque embellishments. It was in this spirit that the oval became a popular feature of many buildings. This simple geometrical figure allowed the faithful to be reunited in an area that was both simple and aesthetically pleasing, as is evidenced by the Temple de Chêne-Paquer (1667) in the Vaud canton.
Although the Reformation gave a new lease of life to civil architecture, the building of religious sanctuaries slowed down during the 16C, with reformers appropriating those Catholic churches which already existed.
In German-speaking Switzerland, Late Gothic architecture, influenced by Germanic art, coexisted with Renaissance tradition in good harmony. The city of Schaffhausen is a perfect example of this trend with its richly sculpted “olliers.” These Gothic towers, originally placed at the corners of houses, were subsequently moved to the centre of the façade above the main entrance. Italian influence gradually spread to the Ticino canton. This was reflected in the frescoes adorning Santa Maria degli Angioli in Lugano or those displayed in the former town hall of Lucerne. These two different manifestations of Renaissance art, associated with the north and the south respectively, are indicative of distinct cultural traditions.
Painting and Engraving
Artists such as the Berne painter Niklaus Manuel Deutsch (1484-1530) successfully negotiated the transition between Gothic and the more modern approach of the Renaissance. Hans Holbein the Younger , a German who settled in Basel, not only produced the portrait of his patron Erasmus (displayed in the city’s Museum of Fine Arts), but undertook many influential façades and frescoes. The Reformation seriously jeopardized his career and painting at large. Although reformers objected to religious images, they tolerated decoration with foliated scrolls, such as those in the Temple of Lutry (1577).
This period was marked by the invention of printing, which spread the views advocated by the Reformation. Printing was first introduced into Basel in 1468, and from then onwards, books replaced manuscripts. The new medium made it possible to popularize ideas more quickly and effectively. Urs Graf (1485-1527), a famous engraver, depicted macabre, erotic and military scenes, which carried strong dramatic impact.
The stiffness that characterized this period was to replace the ornamental profusion of Late Gothic. The decline in commissions from the clergy led to the sudden construction of fountains to enhance urban landscapes, a feature typical of Renaissance art in Switzerland. The centre of the basin was taken up by a tall sculpted and gilded column, frequently surmounted by an allegorical figure such as Justice. A monument of this type can be found in Lausanne: It portrays a young woman with her eyes blindfolded holding a pair of scales and a sword.
Society became more refined, elegant and sophisticated. Literary salons and musical societies flourished. Geneva and Lausanne dazzled the rest of Europe and attracted foreign artists and intellectuals. The period was symbolized by a taste for the extravagant and a strong spirit of imagination, fantasy, and freedom.
Up to 1770, Switzerland was mainly dominated by Baroque architecture, sculpture, painting, and applied arts. To serve the views of the Counter-Reformation, Baroque was applied to religious buildings, becoming Rococo. The abbey church in Einsiedeln built by Kasper Moosbrugger (1656-1723) between 1674 and 1745 is a perfect example, as is the abbey church and library of Sankt-Gallen designed by Peter Thumb (1681-1766) and Johann Michael Beer . Jesuits and Franciscans encouraged construction of Baroque chuches in Lucerne, Fribourg and Solothurn. This grand era produced sumptuous creations featuring scrolls, painted ceilings, and lavish ornamentation. The abbey church in Disentis/Mustér (1695-1712) shows the influence of Austrian Baroque.
The association of painting and sculpture with architecture is a typical feature of Baroque art. Trompe-l’œil motifs extended architectural plans, as do the paintings in Sankt-Gallen by Johann Christian Wentzinger (1710-97).
In the 18C, French architects such as Saussure came to work in Switzerland and exerted a strong influence over local artists. In Berne, the Swiss adapted Mansard’s principles to their own country’s traditions. However, the most outstanding architectural achievements derived from the French model are to be found in Geneva— Hôtel Buisson , Hôtel de Saussure —and in Solothurn— Hôtel de la Couronne .
The art of the portrait, much en vogue during the 18C, marked the revival of painting with the Geneva-born artist Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-89), with realistic style, and a light, confident hand featuring bold color contrasts and finely observed details. At the end of the 18C, it became fashionable to give free rein to one’s feelings; in his portraits Anton Graff (1736-1813) depicts his subjects with a modish Romantic sensibility.
After 1750, historical painting returned to fashion with the emergence of Neoclassical style. Events of national importance were commemorated and the country began to develop a patriotic consciousness and sense of national identity; the Geneva artist Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours (1752-1809) worked on the Allegory of the Republic of Geneva in 1794. These portrayals of Swiss history remained popular until the mid-20C.
At the end of the 18C, a new genre appeared: Landscape painting. Celebrating Mother Nature in lush landscapes became a feature of Swiss painting and, for the rest of Europe, defined Switzerland in the popular imagination. The two forerunners of this movement were Wolf (1735–83) and Johann Heinrich Wüest (1741–1821), The most famous English exponent was JMW Turner , whose views of Lake Geneva, Lucerne and Montreux fired a growing British enthusiasm for the Alps and helped launch the Swiss tourism industry.
Around this period, many Swiss artists traveled abroad (Rome, Paris, or Munich) to complete their training, and some settled in those countries. Heinrich Füssli (1741–1825), anglicized as Henry Fuseli, became well known in London. His tortured, obsessive visions often draw on literary works and are thought, in turn, to have been one source of inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein . Dismissed as a sensationalist by some critics, his weird, nightmarish canvases exerted considerable influence on his peers and on following generations.
Republican ideals and nationalistic values found natural expression in the Neoclassicism that permeated official art and academic works. With this return to themes taken from Antiquity, new genres emerged, characterized by strong emphasis on emotion and feelings.
The gradual fading of Baroque led to sober Neoclassicism, which embodied the republican ideal. In Lausanne, the edifice housing the Great Council, is a perfect example. Designed by the architect Alexandre Perregaux in 1803-06, it became a symbol for the Vaud canton. In Avenches, the Casino, a private club, was conceived as a small temple of antiquity. The masterpiece of Palladian architecture remains the Gordanne in Féchy ; with its cupola and its portico flanked by Ionic columns it seems to date back to Antiquity.
After 1840, the trend turned toward classical landscaped gardens and mock ruins. The Château de l’Aile in Vevey , conceived by Philippe Framel and Jean - Louis Brocher in 1840-42, is an excellent representation of this lighter, neo-Gothic current.
Alongside academic Neoclassicism, new genres caused a revival of the pictorial art form, namely Romanticism, Symbolism, poster art and satire.
Nostalgia and sentimentality reflected the romantic spirit of the century, aptly conveyed by the works of Charles Gleyre , whose tender, graceful characters are bathed in a soft light. Landscape painting also took on a sentimental dimension, with light playing an essential part of the composition. Alexandre Calame (1810-64) paid tribute to Alpine landscapes by revealing their grandiose, mysterious nature. Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) adopted a similar approach; his Isle of the Dead (1880-86) is an eerie landscape shrouded in silence and mystery, said to have inspired the famous symphonic poem by Rachmaninoff.
At the end of the 19C, painting explored a new form of expression under the influence of Symbolism, which offered a spiritual or even mystical explanation for reality. Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) is seen as a Symbolist for his symmetry that reveals a sense of unity inherent in the world ( Truth , 1903). Félix Vallotton , a member of the Nabis movement, contributed to Symbolism by describing the social mores of his time in accordance with the theoretical principles of a pure and symbolic art form.
Lastly, poster art and satire developed considerably throughout the 19C thanks to Vallotton, Théophile - Alexandre Steinlen (1859–1923) and Eugène Grasset (1845–1917). Their role was to expose injustice, to defend the oppressed, and to describe daily life in a simple manner, making art accessible to a wide cross-section of the population.
Sculpture saw a tremendous revival during the 19C. Salons in particular were instrumental in popularizing small sculptures among private collectors, especially those belonging to the bourgeoisie. In the public sector, this art form was expressed through the decoration of theaters, casinos, banks and rail stations. It accompanied the other changes affecting Swiss urban landscapes and fostered deep feelings of patriotism and national identity.
The exuberance of Rococo was replaced by the grandiose dignity of Neo classicism.
The early 19C was also marked by a return to the styles and qualities of the Middle Ages, particularly in painting and architecture. Nostalgia for the past and for bygone feudal traditions can be felt in the creations dating from this period, resulting in a neo-Gothic trend.
To counter this Neoclassical movement, Vincenzo Vela (1820-91) produced naturalistic sculptures and developed the concept of Vérisme . He was much appreciated in France, where, in 1866, he painted The Last Days of Napoleon I , which portrays the emperor as an ageing, disillusioned man. Vela was known for speaking out in favor of the oppressed and his political commitment took shape in Memorial to the Victims of Work in 1883.
In the latter part of the 19C, sculpture flourished with a new freedom of expression. The Symbolist movement and Art Nouveau both gave a new lease of life to sculpture. Auguste de Niederhäusern , known as Rodo, drew on Rodin’s Symbolist theories and produced sculptures from which matter projected, like his Jet of Water from 1910-11. The different arts were skillfully combined under the influence of Art Nouveau . This approach was successfully explored by Hermann Obrist , who strove to achieve the merging of art, spirit and nature through his utopian reflection on the spiral—the ultimate expression of vital energy.
20C and early 21C
Switzerland was part of the cultural wave that swept through Europe, most notably after 1930. The country was the recipient of artistic trends from abroad and began playing an active role in the international art scene.
During the 1920s, Swiss architecture was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement of Walter Gropius. Artistic creation was seen as a means of associating all art forms to create a new architectural identity. The notion of “order” was abandoned and buildings were stripped of their ornamentation. Robert Maillard (1872-1940) specialized in designing bridges with “aesthetic perfection.” Charles Édouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), alias Le Corbusier , opted for functional architecture and became known as the “builder of radiant cities.” Most of his work was carried out abroad, as his unusual views on architecture were not always well received at home. Karl Moser developed a new art form using modern materials such as reinforced concrete to design huge areas where light played an essential role. Sankt Antonius Kirche in Basel is his most typical work. In Lucerne, his work was continued by his pupils Fritz Metzger (St Charles’ Church) and Otto Dreyer (St Joseph’s Church).
Post-war architecture developed mainly in the Ticino area, Basel, Baden and French-speaking Switzerland, as economic growth required building up areas which, until then, had remained unexploited. Switzerland’s national road network was the main achievement of this period.
In this utilitarian atmosphere, Christian Menn and Rino Tami produced outstanding creations, such as the south entrance to the Sankt Gotthard tunnel at Airolo (Ticino), designed by Tami.
With the decline of industry, disused warehouses and factories were converted into arts centres, a trend which became a distinguishing feature of the period. Contemporary architecture became linked to the prestigious image of firms which offered their patronage and for which it acted as a showcase.
Since the mid-1970s, environmental concern has spurred an ecological approach to architecture. In the 1960s, Aldo Rossi reacted against the “radiant cities” of Le Corbusier and advocated a universal vision of townscapes. Each building is designed for a particular purpose but nonetheless remains open to change if the situation requires it. His example was followed by architects Luigi Snozzi , Aurelio Galfetti , and Mario Botta , known for his pure, geometrical proportions. Botta conceived the Tinguely Museum in Basel, and the Cappella di Santa Maria degli Angeli on Monte Tamaro. Post-Modernism explored the history of architecture, focusing on its structure, materials and motifs. Bruno Reichlin and Fabio Reinhart drew inspiration from past masters such as Andrea Palladio in the 16C and Francesco Borromini in the 17C. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron developed an aesthetic based on surprising and unexpected juxtapositions of materials.
In the second half of the 20C, modern architecture returned to fashion as buildings originally designed in the 1920s and 1930s needed restoration and the designs of Karl Moser , Rudolf Gaberel , and Maurice Braillard were updated. The talent of Swiss architects did not pass unnoticed abroad: Bernard Tschumi took part in the Parc de la Villette project in Paris, and Mario Botta , as Switzerland’s most celebrated architect, was commissioned to design buildings in Tokyo, San Francisco, and Paris.
Painting and Sculpture
The Modernist movements which spread to Europe at the end of the First World War were represented in Switzerland only through temporary exhibitions. Swiss painting became isolated as ideas from abroad were perceived as a threat. Themes of isolation and escape became common in the work of Alberto Giacometti and Meret Oppenheim . However, from 1915-1920, Zürich and Geneva became the center of opposition to conventional art.
This was Dadaism, which abolished logic, concentrating on absurd and irrational aspects of everyday life. In this period of the First World War, the barbaric products of civilization were denounced through collages, photomontages and poetry. It was abroad that avant-garde Swiss sculpture truly blossomed, with Hans Arp , Sophie Taeuber-Arp , and Alberto Giacometti . In the 1920s, Hermann Scherer and his highly Expressionist wooden sculptures introduced a touch of novelty.
The inter-war period saw a revival of Swiss sculpture. Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) renewed the representation of human figures with his symbolic creations, inspired by tribal art. His spindly, elongated sculptures present a rough texture bearing the imprint of his thumbs and the blade of a knife, and convey the fleeting, elusive nature of man. Max Bill was a staunch defender of Concrete Art, which advocated order and rationality. Both his paintings and smooth, aesthetic sculptures ( Endless Ribbon , 1935) are governed by rigorous mathematical considerations.
Simultaneously, a form of national art emerged, with many public buildings commissioned by the State. The regime wanted to maintain calm and order and encouraged art aimed at achieving a state of well-being. Any doctrine straying from this vision of happiness and seeking to combine different art forms was deemed degenerate and was systematically rejected (Meret Oppenheim, Sophie Taeuber-Arp).
During the Second World War, Switzerland became a refuge for many European artists, for example Germaine Richier , who expressed the war’s traumas through highly imaginative sculptures, with strange mutilated surfaces featuring human, vegetable and animal motifs. Some Swiss artists returned to their home country, such as Paul Klee (1879-1940), who explored the inner world of dreams and imagination, creating a new style halfway between Abstract and Figurative art, based on color and perspective.
Sculpture returned to vogue after the Second World War, and Zürich artist Hans Äschbacher (1906-80) created precariously superimposed blocks of marble or granite that seem to defy the laws of gravity. Walter M Förderer (b 1928), designed St Nicholas Church in Hérémence as a huge concrete sculpture. Walter Bodmer , a forerunner with his experimental wire paintings, undertook research in monumental iron works, focusing on lightness and transparency. The iron sculptures of Bernard Luginbühl (b 1929) and Jean Tinguely (1925-91) were far more imposing, overpowering, and excessive: The former showed nostalgia for the bygone era of the Industrial Revolution, while the latter expressed his contempt for history and the art trade through ephemeral, self-destructive machines. His sculpture, Eureka , exhibited at the 1988 World Fair in Brisbane (Australia) was crafted with the precision that has earned the Swiss their worldwide reputation.
During the 1960s, André Thomkins , Daniel Spoerri , Dieter Roth , and Karl Gerstner spearheaded the Fluxus movement. Thomkins worked on the notion of changing identity and function while Spoerri paid tribute to objects with his ironical booby-trapped paintings.
Since the 1980s, Samuel Buri and Markus Raetz have worked on the concept of metamorphosis. Buri is perhaps best known for his garish, life-size polyester cows which he exhibits at shows and fairs. Markus Raetz studies the changes occurring in the human body and head, as well as the effect of shade and movement. He also designs large pieces, displayed in outdoor settings.
Art lovers will enjoy admiring works typifying the following famous painters and artistic movements:
Ο Paul Klee at Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne
Ο Jean Tinguely at the Musée Jean-Tinguely in Basel
Ο Arnold Böcklin and Konrad Witz at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Basel
Ο Félix Vallotton at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne
Ο Impressionism at the Fondation Collection EG Bührie in Zürich and the Stiftung “Langmatt” Sidney und Jenny Brown in Baden
Ο Post-Impressionism at the Villa Flora in Winterthur and the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen
Ο Contemporary art at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel
Many Swiss villages and cities offer admirable examples of Roman and medieval character.
Fountains, always charmingly decked with flowers, are a welcoming note to the lively squares and streets of many Swiss towns and cities.
Originating beyond the Alps, arcades ( Laufen in German) became popular from the 14C onwards, when they were adopted by Berne.
Such painting (not to be confused with sgraffito , “The Engadine house” ) has been popular since the Renaissance, especially in German Switzerland.
Throughout Switzerland, the shutters of historic monuments and public buildings are painted with chevrons in the colors of the canton’s coat of arms.
These are especially popular in German Switzerland. In addition to providing towns like Lucerne with pleasant sheltered walks, the roof protects the walkway, reducing maintenance on a structure made wholly of timber. The latest covered bridge built in Switzerland was in 1943 (Hohe Brücke, on the road from Flüeli to Kerns).
These corbelled loggias ( Erker in German), sometimes built over two storeys, are to be seen in northeastern towns and the Engadine region where they are often elaborate works of art decorated with carving and painting.
Public buildings testify to the quality of civil architecture in the Gothic, Renaissance and Classical periods. Their rooms are richly ornamented and furnished with stucco, woodwork, glazed cabinets, and magnificent porcelain stoves.
Important buildings, like the great Gothic cathedrals, are Swiss specimens of foreign styles.
Carefully adorned with flowers, the Swiss peasant house shows, especially in German Switzerland, a remarkable care for comfort and propriety as well as a highly developed practical sense.
The Bernese Oberland House
The Swiss chalet style features a low-pitched roof, with wide eaves on all sides; in the high valleys, it is still covered with shingles weighted down by large stones. The ornamentation is profuse: The beams are carved with facets and the props of the roof are elaborately finished.
The Central Switzerland House
A highly distinctive style of building, recognizable by its steep roof and separate weatherboards sheltering the row of windows on each storey. The ground floor is high above the ground.
The Appenzell House
In this rainy district, farm buildings are grouped together to form a single block and wooden shingles cover the roof and sometimes part of the façade. The gable invariably faces the valley, and the windows of the cellar are located at “ground level” to aid in an even temperature.
The Bernese Country House
A huge roof extending down to the first floor at the sides also covers a large barn. The wealthier country dwellers, imitating townspeople, often choose to remove the triangular roof surmounting the gable and replace it with an imposing timber arch with wood paneling.
The Ticino House
A stone building of a somewhat primitive design with outdoor stairs and wooden galleries. Because of the uneven shape and size of the stones used in its construction, the Ticino house has very thick walls (up to 0.9m/3ft) and is roofed with stone slabs.
The Valais House
Living quarters (wooden section) are joined by open-side galleries to the kitchen area (masonry section). Nearby stands a raccard , a small wooden barn perched on piles and used as a granary or storehouse. These are known as a torba in the Ticino area.
The Engadine House
The typical Engadine house, a massive grey structure, has plenty of room under a broad gable crowning a façade. Floral, geometrical or heraldic designs frequently adorn the white walls. These may be decorated by a technique known as sgraffito ,obtained by applying a layer of rough gray plaster, covering with a coat of limewash, and scraping the surface into designs such as rosettes and foliated scrolls.
Wonderful examples of local furnishings are at the Engadine Museum at Sankt Moritz. The most typical room is the sulèr , a covered court common to the barn and living quarters, which serves both as a study and a meeting room. This cool, dark room, featuring carefully kept stone flags, a low, whitewashed vault and coffered ceiling, is lit only by an opening in the carriage gate.
Language and Religion
One of the successes of the Swiss Confederation is the coexistence of four languages and several religions in a single community.
German-speaking Swiss represent 64% of the Helvetian people. Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German) is a dialect of the Swabian group, with many local variations. It can be difficult to follow at first, even for native Germans and Austrians. It is used in daily conversation, while classical German ( Hochdeutsch ) is reserved for official business and correspondence. On the other hand, the French-speaking group (18%) have seen their dialect fall more and more into disuse. Italian (11%) is spoken almost entirely throughout the Ticino and in part of the Grisons (Graubünden).
Romansh was recognized as a fourth national language in 1938. The Romansh League has done all it can to preserve and even spread its use in schools and in the press. Of Latin origin, Romansch is used by just 7% of the Swiss in the Grisons canton , especially in the Engadine and Grisons Oberland.
German, French, and Italian are the official languages of the Confederation and are used as such by the authorities and the federal civil service. At least two languages are taught compulsorily in schools.
Until the middle of the 19C, the religious question seemed an obstacle to unity in the Confederation. This was proved by the Sonderbund War of 1847, but since 1848 complete tolerance is the rule. Today Protestants represent 44% of the population, and Roman Catholics 47%.
The Swiss Protestant temperament, in its fundamentally democratic and patriotic aspects, owes more to the forceful personality of a man like Zwinglithan to the strict doctrine of Calvin , whose influence was felt chiefly in Geneva. The flexible organization of Protestant churches reflects the federalist structure of the country and allows subsidized state churches to exist alongside free churches supported by donations.
Roman Catholics are attached to their dioceses: Basel, Lausanne-Geneva-Fribourg, Sion, Chur, Sankt Gallen and Lugano. Clergy are distributed among some large abbeys like those of St-Maurice, Einsiedeln and Engelberg.
The small Jewish population lives mostly in large cities such as Basel and Zürich.
Traditions and Folklore
Swiss folklore can always point to a rich collection of local costumes, and it is in the mountains that visitors have the best chance of seeing people who wear their traditional costumes every day, especially in the Gruyères and the Valais.
The armailli (herdsman) of Gruyères still wears the bredzon , a short cloth or canvas jacket with puffed sleeves which dates back to the Empire period, embroidered with thorn-points and with edelweiss on the lapels. The straw toque edged with velvet is called a capette . Similar costumes are found in the pastoral districts of the Bernese Oberland, although less often, but the man’s jacket from this area is often made of velvet.
At Evolène the women’s working dress includes a simple frock, with a red and white neckerchief, and a straw hat with a brim edged with velvet and turned down over the ears; the crown is encircled by crochet-work ribbons arranged in bands. On high feast days the women of Evolène put on a rustling silk apron and the mandzon (a sort of jacket with long sleeves), and a very flat, round felt hat on top of a white lace bonnet.
Pastoral traditions are still very much alive in mountain districts like the Val d’Anniviers,where life is governed by the movements of cattle from the villages to the mayens and the high Alpine pastures ( alpe ). The trek to summer pastures creates joyful and picturesque parades (late May, early June). Scores of beasts with beribboned and flower-decked horns move along the roads with cowbells tolling, escorted by herdsmen carrying necessities for living in the chalets, including a huge cheese-boiler on a yoke. In the Valais the end of the journey is marked by cow competitions , after which the “queen” of the herd may wear the giant bell reserved for her.
Midsummer festivals lessen the loneliness of the armaillis by bringing a crowd of friends and relatives up from the valleys. The return from the alp, referred to as the désalpe , is equally spectacular and lively. The open-air performances of William Tell at Interlaken begin with a procession of this kind.
Urban traditions – These are generally patriotic and civic, like the commemoration of the Escalade at Geneva or the Knabenschiessen at Zürich. In quite a different spirit, more like the Rhenish customs, Basel Carnival, in which there are masked dances and processions preceding Lent, brings a touch of frivolity to the city of Erasmus. From behind the mask of some grotesque figure the merrymaker is free to taunt and tease friends and acquaintances.
Traditional rustic sports survive only at certain village fêtes in German Switzerland, where you might see games like wrestling on the grass, stone throwing, flag throwing and, most inscrutable of all, Hornuss , a team sport in which defenders with paddles try to deflect a puck which is hit, like a golf tee shot, as far as possible up the field. A summer festival in the Emmental is also the place to hear the cavernous tones of the great trumpet, the Alpenhorn; the voices of yodellers may also be heard.