Book: The great Genevan residences have their bible

The great Genevan residences have their bible

Published today at 08:46

Once upon a time… The fifth volume of “monuments of art and history of Switzerland” dedicated to the Canton of Geneva was published a few months ago. After Geneva on the water in 1997, in 2001 there was the Saint Gervais district, of which not much solid remains, then nine years later “the fortified city” and its enormous walls which disappeared in the middle of the Nineteenth century. Then came public spaces and buildings in 2016. It was high time to return to the private sector, even if Geneva has become the city par excellence (if I dare say so!) for civil servants. The current volume is therefore devoted to “large urban residences” built and furnished between 1670 and 1790. “Home sweet home”, Protestant oligarchy version.

A world hungry for luxury

But make no mistake! The idea of ​​a small, austere and thrifty republic was born in the 19th century, when religion became confused with a certain masochistic idea of ​​existence. “A sugar or not at all”. Before that, there existed under the Ancien Régime among the elites a temptation for luxury such that sumptuary laws had to multiply and above all be repeated, a sign that they were constantly being mocked or misused. An enormous work of historiography (I am thinking in particular of that of Corinne Walker Weibel) has proven, archives in hand, that patrician residences included hangings, mirrors and paintings annoyingly contradicting the restraint traditionally attached to Calvinism. The current work, by Anastazja Winiger-Labuda, offers proof of this not only through text, but through images. Ancient and modern iconography play an important role in “Geneva, great urban residences 1670-1790”.

The Hôtel de Sellon, rue des Granges, where the Zoubov Foundation is located today.

Everything was born from a favorable economic situation. A small city on a European scale at the time, but a larger city in the Swiss nebula of the time, Geneva was then a hardworking and rich city. There was gilding and silk. This was followed by trading, banking, Indian manufacturing and watchmaking. A context well defined by the “historical overview” signed by Barbara Roth-Lochner. This in-depth text knows not to get lost in details. Enormous fortunes were thus built. They made it possible to build sumptuous houses from the reign of Louis A good surprise when we know to what extent Geneva suffered elsewhere from the town planning of the 1900s, then the 1960s. These eras of demolition, however, did not leave much of the lower town, where the enormous building commissioned in 1677 by Elisabeth Baulacre, wife of Andrion. A formidable businesswoman, that said in passing. All that remains is the memory, and a single, slightly blurry photo taken in 1877…

The Hôtel Lullin, then from Saussure to La Tertasse. The richest ever built in Geneva.

Seeing this big was not without problems, as the introductory text reminds us, then the descriptive histories of Anastazja Winiger-Labuda. Geneva was enclosed within its walls. In the 18th century, they occupied much more land than the city itself. It was therefore necessary to acquire numerous medieval plots in contiguous strips to finally have the desired space. Construction then proved to be long and expensive. The “Age of Enlightenment” will, however, create opportunities. Rue des Granges or Beauregard will thus be created, as we know them today. The same subdivision operation, with panoramic views of the countryside (then considered more interesting than the harbor), will not succeed on the Saint Antoine bastion. There were still crises, economic or political, during the hundred and twenty years considered.

The grand salon of the Hôtel de Saussure around 1900. A somewhat shapeless jumble.

After having defined the general framework, the author (or author, I don’t know what to say anymore) continues her work, one house after another. Each time, it is a question of creating a history that is both archival and aesthetic, knowing that a building undergoes many more modifications during its existence than a painting or a sculpture. Every generation, or almost every generation, transforms and adapts. Buildings are changing hands more and more, often by forced sale. The ideal was to show the reader successive states, which can turn out to be a bit disappointing. In the Lullin, then de Saussure house on rue de la Cité, the most sumptuous ever built in Geneva, the large living room with white and gold woodwork worthy of Versailles only dates from 1930. It then succeeded a sort of 1900 jumble, a photo of which is also reproduced. The lounge of the Lullin hotel, then Necker on rue Calvin, has stood the test of time. “Attributable to Jean Jaquet”, a local sculptor very active in interior decoration in the 1780s and 1790s, the wall decorations were just enriched with gilding and a trompe-l’oeil ceiling around 1880.

The Louis XV style woodwork decor created in its place in 1930.

Throughout the pages, the reader travels through a certain number of residences, some of which remain in private hands. I am thinking of the Hôtel Buisson, through which “luxury was introduced into Geneva” in 1700. It was restored by the Barbier-Muellers. Or at the Thélusson building, which underwent years of construction by the Freymonds. Anastazja Winniger-Labuda analyzes not only the exterior, with its courtyards invisible from the street, but each decorative element preserved. In this regard, the author (I ended up adopting this feminization) can once again happily go beyond her temporal framework. We are at the Micheli house, 3, rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. In this residence, often retouched by a family who owned it from 1584 to 2018, two discoveries took place in 2020, then in 2022. Under a false 18th century plaster ceiling hid a real 17th century joist beam with verses taken from the psalms. We remain there in seriousness and respectability. Another ceiling revealed, however, featured little chubby and buttocked loves, much more unexpected. Adaptations of engravings published in 1608.

The decor of the 1780s at the Hôtel Lullin, then Necker. A creation attributed to Jean Jaquet.

All this is told to us by Anastazja Winiger-Labuda in a neutral style. The point here is not to comment or judge, but to present. The series in which the work is part is intended to be scientific. This is of course a selection. It includes beautiful bourgeois houses like that of the Robins at la Taconnerie or that of the Pauziers on rue Verdaine. The book speaks well of “exemplary achievements”, in other words serving as examples. “Pars pro toto”, our Roman friends would say. We could indeed have considered as a bonus the Maurice house on promenade Saint Antoine, the Liotard building on rue des Chaudronniers, the Calandrini house at Puits-Saint-Pierre, the spectacular (and immense) Roux house in Chantepoulet or even the Cayla house at Bullying. But this would have been to the detriment of the stylistic analysis, which would therefore be done at a rapid pace. And then, as a state archivist said to my historian father: “you have to leave some to others.”


“Geneva, large urban residences, 1670-1790”, by Anastazja Winiger-Labuda (the first four volumes of the series were all collective!), published by the Society for the History of Art in Switzerland, 300 pages with notes . A miracle that the book exists in paper form. The Canton of Geneva, which as everyone knows is poor, had planned a few years ago to continue the series online, which would have made them purely consultation works.

An old image of Maison Thélusson. The apartment has just been sumptuously restored.

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Born in 1948, Etienne Dumont studied in Geneva which were of little use to him. Latin, Greek, law. A failed lawyer, he turned to journalism. Most often in the cultural sections, he worked from March 1974 to May 2013 at the “Tribune de Genève”, starting by talking about cinema. Then came fine arts and books. Other than that, as you can see, nothing to report.More informations

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