Souvenirs from Switzerland, Lucerne
When visiting Lucerne, in central Switzerland, tourists are impressed by the beauty of one of its saddest monuments: the Lion Monument, an iconic Swiss landmark since the 19th century and a tribute to the country’s contribution to protecting the heritage of Western Europe. The Lion Monument (Löwendenkmal in original German) is a symbolic sculpture dedicated to the Swiss Guards killed during the 1792 French Revolution. It is impressively six-meter high and represents a lion in its last moments, agonizing due to a spear stab and protecting a shield with the French royalty symbols while another one depicting the Swiss coat of arms lies beside it. Reminiscing Switzerland’s heroic past, the Statue is currently a popular tourist attraction and its symbolism is now celebrated on a resin fridge magnet souvenir available online.
The Swiss Guards and the French Revolution
Starting with the 17th century, Swiss mercenaries had been hired to protect the French Royal Court. In October 1789 when the French Revolution started on the streets of Paris, King Louis XVI tried to protect his family from the crowds by moving them to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. On the 10th of August 1792 the revolutionaries attacked the building and following the King’s orders, the Guards abandoned their weapons. The outcome was devastating: 600 Swiss Guards were killed by the angry Parisians due to the lack of ammunition and the Royal family members were captured. Other Swiss died later during the bloody massacres of September or were too injured to survive. Only 100 Swiss escaped death and most of those sacrificed were high ranked officers. One of the most brutal episodes was the guillotining of Karl Josef von Bachmann, the Major responsible for supervising Tuileries’ protection.
The Lion Monument, a Tribute to Sacrifice
The idea of dedicating a monument to the memory of the Swiss killed belonged to Karl Pfyffer von Altishofen, one of the Guards on leave in Lucerne during the French events. A fund-raising campaign began in 1818 with opposition from Switzerland’s Liberal politicians; however these didn’t represent a majority and Pfyffer was supported in the end by Lucerne’s officials. Finally Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen was commissioned to create the Monument. The place chosen for the sculpture was an old sandstone quarry close to Lucerne. The monument was carved between 1820 and 1821 by Lucas Ahorn and inaugurated on the 10th August 1821; the sculpture was bought by the town of Lucerne in 1882. The Latin dedication on the Monument Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti translates as ‘To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss’ and there is also a list of the Guards massacred or surviving. American writer Mark Twain dedicated an emotional tribute to the sculpture’s beauty and symbolism in his work A Tramp Abroad from 1880.
The Heritage of Swiss Mercenaries
The sculpture also illustrates the important role played by the Swiss mercenaries prior to the French revolution with a staggering 40,000 of them working for foreign governments. The tradition of Swiss mercenaries dates back to the 15th century when the Swiss soldiers defeated the Habsburgs and Charles the Bold of Burgundy. It soon became a profitable business for aristocrat families in Switzerland’s central districts. The soldiers were recruited and trained to serve foreign armies or royal families commonly in France and Italy. The issue of supporting mercenary troops was strongly challenged during Reformation by Zwingli but Swiss patrician families and young people for whom this represented a good career opposed the project. It was probably one of the most important grounds on which Central Switzerland opposed Reformation and remained essentially Catholic.