Geneva – Switzerland

Straddling the Rhone, where it issues from the bluest lake in the world, looking out upon green meadows and wooded hills, backed by the dark ridge of the Saleve, with the “great white mountain” visible in the distance, Geneva has the advantage of an incomparable site; and it is, from a town surveyor’s point of view, well built. It has wide thoroughfares, quays, and bridges; gorgeous public monuments and wellkept public gardens; handsome theaters and museums; long rows of palatial hotels; flourishing suburbs; two railway-stations, and a casino. But all this is merely the facade—all of it quite modern; hardly any of it more than half a century old. The real historical Geneva—the little of it that remains—is hidden away in the background, where not every tourist troubles to look for it.

It is disappearing fast. Italian stonemasons are constantly engaged in driving lines through it. They have rebuilt, for instance, the old Corraterie, which is now the Regent Street of Geneva, famous for its confectioners’ and booksellers’ shops; they have destroyed, and are still destroying, other ancient slums, setting up white buildings of uniform ugliness in place of the picturesque but insanitary dwellings of the past. It is, no doubt, a very necessary reform, tho one may think that it is being executed in too utilitarian a spirit. The old Geneva was malodorous, and its death-rate was high. They had more than one Great Plague there, and their Great Fires have always left some of the worst of their slums untouched. These could not be allowed to stand in an age which studies the science and practises the art of hygiene. Yet the traveler who wants to know what the old Geneva was really like must spend a morning or two rambling among them before they are pulled down.

The old Geneva, like Jerusalem, was set upon a hill, and it is toward the top of the hill that the few buildings of historical interest are to be found. There is the cathedral—a striking object from a distance, tho the interior is hideously bare. There is the Town Hall, in which, for the convenience of notables carried in litters, the upper stories were reached by an inclined plane instead of a staircase. There is Calvin’s old Academy, bearing more than a slight resemblance to certain of the smaller colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. There, too, are to be seen a few mural tablets, indicating the residences of past celebrities. In such a house Rousseau was born; in such another house —or in an older house, now demolished, on the same site—Calvin died. And toward these central points the steep and narrow, mean streets—in many cases streets of stairs—converge.

As one plunges into these streets one seems to pass back from the twentieth century to the fifteenth, and need not exercise one’s imagination very severely in order to picture the town as it appeared in the old days before the Reformation. The present writer may claim permission to borrow his own description from the pages of “Lake Geneva and its Literary Landmarks:”

“Narrow streets predominated, tho there were also a certain number of open spaces—notably at the markets, and in front of the Cathedral, where there was a traffic in those relics and rosaries which Geneva was presently to repudiate with virtuous indignation. One can form an idea of the appearance of the narrow streets by imagining the oldest houses that one has seen in Switzerland all closely packed together—houses at the most three stories high, with gabled roofs, ground-floors a step or two below the level of the roadway, and huge arched doors studded with great iron nails, and looking strong enough to resist a battering-ram. Above the doors, in the case of the better houses, were the painted escutcheons of the residents, and crests were also often blazoned on the window-panes. The shops, too, and more especially the inns, flaunted gaudy sign-boards with ingenious devices. The Good Vine-gar, the Hot Knife, the Crowned Ox, were the names of some of these; their tariff is said to have been fivepence a day for man and beast.”

In the first half of the sixteenth century occurred the two events which shaped the future of Geneva; Reformation theology was accepted; political independence was achieved. Geneva it should be explained, was the fief of the duchy of Savoy; or so, at all events, the Dukes of Savoy maintained, tho the citizens were of the contrary opinion. Their view was that they owed allegiance only to their Bishops, who were the Viceroys of the Holy Roman Emperor; and even that allegiance was limited by the terms of a Charter granted in the Holy Roman Emperor’s name by Bishop Adhemar de Fabri. All went fairly well until the Bishops began to play into the hands of the Pukes; but then there was friction, which rapidly became acute. A revolutionary party—the Eidgenossen, or Confederates—was formed. There was a Declaration of Independence and a civil war.

So long as the Genevans stood alone, the Duke was too strong for them. He marched into the town in the style of a conqueror, and wreaked his vengeance on as many of his enemies as he could catch. He cut off the head of Philibert Berthelier, to whom there stands a memorial on the island in the Rhone; he caused Jean Pecolat to be hung up in an absurd posture in his banqueting-hall, in order that he might mock at his discomfort while he dined; he executed, with or without preliminary torture, several less conspicuous patriots. Happily, however, some of the patriots—notably Besancon Hugues—got safely away, and succeeded in concluding threaties of alliance between Geneva and the cantons of Berne and Fribourg.

The men of Fribourg marched to Geneva, and the Duke retired. The citizens passed a resolution that he should never be allowed to enter the town again, seeing that he “never came there without playing the citizens some dirty trick or other;” and, the more effectually to prevent him from coming, they pulled down their suburbs and repaired their ramparts, one member of every household being required to lend a hand for the purpose.

Presently, owing to religious dissensions, Fribourg withdrew from the alliance. Berne, however, adhered to it, and, in due course, responded to the appeal for help by setting an army of seven thousand men in motion. The route of the seven thousand lay through the canton of Vaud, then a portion of the Duke’s dominions, governed from the Castle of Chillon. Meeting with no resistance save at Yverdon, they annexed the territory, placing governors of their own in its various strong-holds. The Governor of Chillon fled, leaving his garrison to surrender; and in its deepest dungeon was found the famous prisoner of Chillon, Francois de Bonivard. From that time forward Geneva was a free republic, owing allegiance to no higher power.