Monday, March 19, 2007

The Lion Monument of Lucerne

My favorite place on this planet is probably the Lion Monument in Lucerne, and I am not the only person to be greatly moved by that tragic monument. Mark Twain visited it on his second trip through Europe, and a German professor of philology by the name of Nietzsche chose the monument as the site to propose to his Beloved. (She demurred; he died a syphilitic.) Nothing of any import has changed since Twain wrote in A Tramp Abroad:

"The commerce of Lucerne consists mainly in gimcrackery of the souvenir sort; the shops are packed with Alpine crystals, photographs of scenery, and wooden and ivory carvings. I will not conceal the fact that miniature figures of the Lion of Lucerne are to be had in them. Millions of them. But they are libels upon him, every one of them. There is a subtle something about the majestic pathos of the original which the copyist cannot get. Even the sun fails to get it; both the photographer and the carver give you a dying lion, and that is all. The shape is right, the attitude is right, the proportions are right, but that indescribable something which makes the Lion of Lucerne the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world, is wanting.

The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff--for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. How head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion--and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.

Martyrdom is the luckiest fate that can befall some people. Louis XVI did not die in his bed, consequently history is very gentle with him; she is charitable toward his failings, and she finds in him high virtues which are not usually considered to be virtues when they are lodged in kings. She makes him out to be a person with a meek and modest spirit, the heart of a female saint, and a wrong head. None of these qualities are kingly but the last. Taken together they make a character which would have fared harshly at the hands of history if its owner had had the ill luck to miss martyrdom. With the best intentions to do the right thing, he always managed to do the wrong one. Moreover, nothing could get the female saint out of him. He knew, well enough, that in national emergencies he must not consider how he ought to act, as a man, but how he ought to act as a king; so he honestly tried to sink the man and be the king--but it was a failure, he only succeeded in being the female saint. He was not instant in season, but out of season. He could not be persuaded to do a thing while it could do any good--he was iron, he was adamant in his stubbornness then--but as soon as the thing had reached a point where it would be positively harmful to do it, do it he would, and nothing could stop him. He did not do it because it would be harmful, but because he hoped it was not yet too late to achieve by it the good which it would have done if applied earlier. His comprehension was always a train or two behindhand. If a national toe required amputating, he could not see that it needed anything more than poulticing; when others saw that the mortification had reached the knee, he first perceived that the toe needed cutting off--so he cut it off; and he severed the leg at the knee when others saw that the disease had reached the thigh. He was good, and honest, and well meaning, in the matter of chasing national diseases, but he never could overtake one. As a private man, he would have been lovable; but viewed as a king, he was strictly contemptible.

His was a most unroyal career, but the most pitiable spectacle in it was his sentimental treachery to his Swiss guard on that memorable 10th of August, when he allowed those heroes to be massacred in his cause, and forbade them to shed the "sacred French blood" purporting to be flowing in the veins of the red-capped mob of miscreants that was raging around the palace. He meant to be kingly, but he was only the female saint once more. Some of his biographers think that upon this occasion the spirit of Saint Louis had descended upon him. It must have found pretty cramped quarters. If Napoleon the First had stood in the shoes of Louis XVI that day, instead of being merely a casual and unknown looker-on, there would be no Lion of Lucerne, now, but there would be a well-stocked Communist graveyard in Paris which would answer just as well to remember the 10th of August by."

Little needs to be added to Twain's synopsis of the Lion Monument other than its history. When the survivors of the massacres returned to Switzerland, the eve of the French revolution was nigh; it was not until after the madness and bloodshed of the French Revolution and Napoleon ended at Waterloo that erecting a monument to their fallen comrades in arms became feasible. Led by Karl Pfyffer von Altishofen, (1771-1840), one of their lieutenants, they began collecting money for the monument in 1818; the monument, whose construction was supported by, among others, the Czar of Russia, and the Kings of Prussia and France, was unveiled on August 10, 1821, the 29th anniversary of the massacre.

A small hint for thoughtful visitors to the monument: Don't forget to also get a look at the memorial chapel that is also part of the Lion Monument, and which is not shown to the flocks of tourists, with its inscriptions of "Invictis Pax," that is "Peace to the Undefeated" and "Per vitam fortes, sub iniqua morte fideles," "In life brave, faithful in an unjust death." If you can muster expected in a church, it is worth seeing.

Links: The Homepage of the Lion Monument and nearby museums.
Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad as a free download.
Penguin Classic's 448 page rendition of A Tramp Abroad
Oxford University Press's 720 page rendition of A Tramp Abroad.

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