It’s a giant dying lion carved into the cliff face of a former sandstone quarry, above a pond and set in a landscaped garden in this medieval town. It is often referred to as the “saddest stone” as it commemorates the sacrifice of 800 Swiss guardsman in the pay of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution – but is now threatened with decay, chiefly from melting snow.
Not surprisingly, the Lion Monument, one of Switzerland’s most loved icons and described by American author Mark Twain as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world”, is visited by some 1.4 million tourists who come to gaze at the regal beast, dying from a spear wound marked by a shield bearing the mark of the French monarchy. Above it is the inscription: HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI (To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss).
The monument, ten metres in length and six metres in height, has a very emotional history. When the angry masses stormed the royal palace on August 10 1792, the 800 Swiss guardsmen stood as the defenders of the the monarchy – but in vain. Their defeat was devastating.
Surrounded by popular tourist attractions like the Glacier Garden, the Alpineum and the Bourbaki Panorama, the monument was initiated by Karl Pfyffer von Altishofen, a junior lieutenant with the Swiss guardsmen who was on leave at the time and thus escaped the massacre.
In 1793 he felt obliged to erect a monument in honour of his fallen officers, comrades and soldiers and it took almost 30 years to complete amidst of several design and architectural changes. The monument was designed by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and hewed by Lukas Ahorn. Completed in 1821, it will mark its 200th anniversary in 2021.
“Before the Lion Monument was erected, the area had not yet been built on. However, intensive construction began in 1870. Due to the constant building activity, with numerous new buildings and conversions up to the present time, the situation of the garden with the lion monument has steadily deteriorated,” Damian Suess of Lucerne Tourism told this visiting IANS correspondent.
“The Lucerne administration took over the monument in 1882 and in 1891, a report on its condition was drawn up. On the basis of that report, it was decided that the conservation of the monument, renewal of the weathered areas, preservation of the rock around the monument and the laying of a protective stiffener above the rock face would be done,” Suess explained.
In 1902 construction of a new framework to protect the monument from snow in winter was planned and executed – but tragedy struck in 1950.
“That autumn, a piece of the lion’s thigh, at least a meter long, detached and fell into the pond. That was a major blow for the authorities, who were struggling hard to protect the monument and restoration work immediately began,” Suess said.
Rock protection measures were undertaken in 1978 and minor repair work was carried out on the lion in 1982. On the upper right side, a larger rock section of approximately 15 tonnes was stabilised and in 1990, the monument was thoroughly washed with water.
Drainage has been a perpetual problem.
The area behind the quarry is heavily forested with the temperature plunging to zero degrees Celsius in winter accompanied by snow. A series of pipes were laid to prevent the melting snow in spring from seeping into the rockface and to drain the water into the pond.
“Despite all efforts, the condition of the monument deteriorated rapidly. Taking this seriously, all copper pipes for draining the water were replaced in 2004. Further measures were taken in 2008 to improve the water flow and thus protect the monument,” Suess pointed out.
So, in order to save its most beloved monument from adverse climatic conditions and erosion, the Lucerne administration has spent millions of Swiss Francs and is expected to do so for many more years because it attracts great testimonials from people around the world.