Geneva, the crossroads of Europe
It’s a place synonymous with international diplomacy and human rights. But despite its long history and scenic location at the southern tip of the Alps’ largest lake, the Swiss city of Geneva doesn’t register on many travel itineraries. As part of a 10-day work trip, I’m treated to a walking tour with longtime guide and resident Ursula Diem-Benninghoff, who is a fount of knowledge on her adopted home city.
Our tour begins in the neighborhood of Carouge, founded in 1786 by the Duke of Savoy (who was King of Sardinia) as a trading post intended to rival Geneva on the opposite bank of the Arve River. Even now the architecture remains distinct, with rustic window shutters and pastel-colored walls suggestive of northern Italy – a marked contrast to the more somber buildings in Geneva’s center. Carouge was eventually merged with its larger neighbor in 1815, when the Genevan city-state expanded and joined Switzerland as its 22nd canton.
The further we walk into the heart of the city, the more I learn how Geneva’s fortunes were built on trade and immigration. Another guide would later illustrate how Switzerland as a whole was shaped by the entrepreneurial spirit of its newcomers: “The first watchmakers were French, the first chocolatiers were German, and the first bankers – the Medicis – were Italian.”
Ursula explains that Geneva grew important in medieval times because of its role as a strategic crossing over the mighty Rhône River. It seems unimaginable today, but the next bridge was only at Lyon, roughly 200 kilometers (124 miles) downstream. Trade fairs were regularly set up in town, and they became an important center for Italian exports and re-exports beyond the Alps. The Medicis, a powerful Florentine family, responded to the fairs’ popularity by opening a Geneva branch of their eponymous bank in 1425. Other Italian houses followed suit, and the city enjoyed a decades-long boom as an international financial center.
Ursula also tells me an anecdote about the etymology of the word “bank”. Moneylenders at Geneva’s medieval trade fairs would sit on long benches, known as “banca” in Italian. Running out of money was to figuratively have a “broken bench”, or “banca rota” – an expression that eventually found its way into English as the word “bankrupt”.
But for medieval Geneva, turbulent times were just over the horizon. Eventually the economy suffered as traffic to its trade fairs declined and the Italian bankers relocated to Lyon. Attempts by neighboring Savoy to exert greater control over the city – including two invasions – fueled a growing movement to break away from Savoyard rule altogether. These efforts eventually succeeded in 1526, when Geneva’s newly elected ruling council voted for independence while forging an alliance with Bern and Fribourg, two powerful cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy. Much like NATO today, the other Swiss cantons swore to protect the newfound republic against future invasion.
In Geneva’s hilltop old town, Ursula points out 14th- and 15th-century houses that started out as two-storey buildings, but an extra two or three floors were gradually added as the population in the walled city doubled from 10,000 to 20,000. “It was to house the refugees,” she says. Amid the religious wars of 16th-century Europe, Geneva was seen as a safe haven for Protestants fleeing severe persecution in Catholic France and the Italian states. One such refugee was the French lawyer-theologian John Calvin, whose fame and revolutionary sermons turned the city-state into an important center of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin was known for his strict austerity, but harsh rules had been put in place by the city’s ruling council even before his arrival: dancing was prohibited, as was any profanity, cards and dice, excessive drinking, and sex between unmarried couples. All residents were obliged to attend Sunday sermons or pay a small fine. Geneva’s primary place of worship, the formerly Catholic St. Pierre Cathedral, was stripped of its frescoes and bright colors.
The only place in the cathedral where modern-day visitors can get a feel for its past glory is the Chapel of the Maccabees, repainted in the 19th century with vibrant shades of blue, red, gold and black. Ursula tells me that some of the frescoes are original, saved from certain destruction by an extra floor that shielded them from view.
Inside Maison Tavel, the oldest house in Geneva (dating from at least the 1330s), we take in an enormous model showing the city’s appearance before 1850, when its formidable Vauban-style walls and bastions were torn down. The intricate masterpiece is attributed to local architect Auguste Magnin, who spent 18 years creating his model in time for the 1896 National Exhibition in Geneva. I’m amazed that even in the 19th century, up to 40,000 people could be crammed into such a small area.
At the Town Hall just down the street, Ursula shows me several portions constructed in a Tuscan style. “It’s like something you’d see in Florence, with the flattened arches,” she says. I can see why – with its heavy-set porticos and balustraded arcades, parts of the structure have a distinctly Italian feel. I’m not surprised to learn that this was the work of refugees, who brought their skills and sense of aesthetics with them.
Across the courtyard stands the Alabama Room, a witness to Geneva’s history as the birthplace of international law. It was here that the first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864, paving the way for the activities of the Red Cross. The groundbreaking institution was founded a year earlier by local businessman Henry Dunant, who grew up in a family of devout and charitable Calvinists.
Ursula tells me that Geneva’s Calvinist tradition encouraged peace-making, and the cantonal government took a keen interest in arbitrating international disputes. In 1872, the Town Hall became the setting of a tribunal session that ruled on a case between the United States and the United Kingdom known as the Alabama Claims. The dispute had arisen in 1869, when the U.S. government sought damages from the U.K. for attacks on Union merchant ships by five Confederate Navy vessels (chiefly the CSS Alabama) built in British shipyards during the American Civil War.
What unfolded in Geneva would impact the world for years to come. It was a precursor to the Hague Conventions, the League of Nations (forerunner of today’s United Nations) and the International Court of Justice. In the end, the international tribunal endorsed the American position, and Britain agreed to pay the U.S. $15.5 million (more than $295.5 million in today’s terms) as compensation. Standing across the courtyard from the Alabama Room, I can’t ignore the wonder in Ursula’s eyes and the palpable excitement in her voice. “I’ve been inside three or four times, and I always get goose bumps knowing that this is where history was made.” ◊