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Parliament buildings

Parliament Buildings, Bern (in new window)

Parliament Buildings, Bern, with water jets© Catherine Wenger

The Three Confederates (in new window)

The Three Confederates© parlament.ch

The Swiss parliament and government building, the Bundeshaus, with its imposing green dome, stands high above the Aare river in the capital, Bern. It has become so much of a landmark that it is hard to imagine what the city skyline looked like before it was there. But the building was only completed in 1902.

In 2004 the square in front of the Bundeshaus, formerly used mainly as a car park, was redesigned. It was repaved with granite slabs from the Alps, and 26 water jets - one for each canton - were hidden at surface level. These have proved a popular attraction, especially on hot days. The new square has won two international prizes.

Time has taken its toll on the Bundeshaus itself: a two-year renovation programme started in the summer of 2006. 

The Three Confederates

The Bundeshaus was designed to represent the "idea of Switzerland," so it is not surprising that it is full of artwork depicting the glories of Switzerland's past. Indeed, a huge 16.2 % of the construction budget was allocated for the decoration. And of this work, none is more impressive than the great statue of the three confederates, regarded as the founders of the Swiss state who swore the oath of confederation on the Rütli meadow in 1291. The statue is impossible to miss: it stands in a huge niche at the top of the first flight of stairs leading out of the vestibule.

But at the opening ceremony in 1902 it wasn't there. The niche was there, the idea was there, a design for the statue was there, but the confederates themselves had not been carved. Instead, a boys' choir stood in for them, and gave a lusty rendering of patriotic songs. (The Swiss still hadn't got round to choosing an anthem.)

For such an important work, nothing could be left to chance. Members of the Assembly found the original design, commissioned from sculptor Hermann Baldin, unsatisfactory, despite repeated reworkings. The version submitted to them in December 1901 - just over three months before the building was inaugurated - was felt to be anatomically incorrect. They asked Baldin to make yet another model, this time showing the three unclothed, and then invited an anatomy professor to give his verdict. Alas! He too concluded that the anatomy was "not quite right." Baldin lost the contract.

His would-be successors did not have an easy time of it either. Most of the new designs, the jury said, made the confederates look either like "ruffians from a melodrama" or "a group of opera singers, twisted into impossible contortions as they belt out a top-C." Their expressions made them appear wild and prehistoric - and not very bright.

The group was eventually carved by the sculptor James André Vibert and unveiled in 1914. Vibert, a pupil of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, had ample experience of Swiss historical art. Not only had he already produced several of the statues in the new Bundeshaus, he had even - thanks to his impressive physique - been the model for a halbardier in the famous picture by the Swiss artist, Hodler, showing the Retreat from Marignano. The contract for the missing statue must have given him particular satisfaction: his original submission for it had been rejected in favour of Baldin's.