Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A town hall for centuries

IT was called the Judgment House up until the 16th century. Here were the civil and criminal courts for the Swiss city of Basel. Today, much added to, altered, and restored over the centuries, it's the Rathaus, or Town Hall, the place where the parliament of the half-canton of Basel city and also its executive council meet. A striking building, it overlooks the stall-filled Marktplatz, a ``ruddy Rathaus'' (as one guidebook alliteratively and accurately describes it, referring to its predominant, all-over covering of earth-red paint). It is not only important civically, it is also a marvelously colorful and entertaining building.

The paintings, as well as the carvings and sculptures, which seem to decorate virtually every last face, cranny, and niche, drive home the message of justice and law by means of classical or biblical scenes. They remind people that they should be incorruptible, just, conscious of the Higher Judge. There are paintings of the Last Judgment. There is the story of Susanna and Daniel. Figures representing law, judgment, or even ``rough justice'' are on every side - Moses, Alexander the Great, Herod.

About these ads

These visual admonitions, however, are not always presented with seriousness. There must have been a deliberate irony, for instance, in placing a painting of Prometheus - who in Greek mythology stole the fire and was punished in ghastly fashion until rescued by Hercules - at the entrance to the fire insurance office. At the door of the tax office is a ferocious-looking man with two watchdogs - as if anyone needed to be discouraged from entering a tax office. In the Gothic chamber where the executive council meets is a carved scene called ``The Triumph of the Rabbit Kind.'' It shows a bunch of eager rabbits turning the tables on human hunters, one of whom they are rather merrily roasting on a spit: That's justice!

The artwork on this building also celebrates the history of Basel and the famous people of the city. The rabbit frieze may well be a homage to one of Basel's mayors, Jakob Meyer zum Hasen: Hasen means rabbit. Meyer's own features are well known to posterity in a painting (the ``Meyer Madonna'') by one of the most perceptive portrait painters in the history of art, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Holbein himself played a role in the decoration of the Rathaus, in 1521-22, at a crucial point of development in its history. On March 12, 1521, the ``small'' and ``big'' councils of Basel unilaterally broke away from the rule of the bishop. What this act represented was the culmination of a gradual increase in the power of the guilds in Basel and a parallel decrease in the power of the Roman Catholic Church.

This happened at the same time that the move to reform the Church, prompted and encouraged in Basel by such Protestants and humanists as Erasmus and Johannes Oekolampadius, was under way. The Reformation was to win the day here in 1529 when the mass was abolished.

The Rathaus came forcefully into its own when the small and big councils broke with the bishop in 1521. For the first time the big council of more than 200 people assembled in the building. The Rathaus had now grown to be a symbol of the people's independence from ecclesiastical power.

A new chamber was immediately allotted to the big council, and Hans Holbein agreed to decorate it. It is almost as if the people felt a need to compete with the way art was used to embellish, instruct, and persuade people inside the churches.

Unfortunately Holbein's paintings were lost during renovations in the 1820s. But the same Romantic period added some of its own touches to the building, and these were inspired directly by the works of Holbein. On the marketplace fa,cade are some groups of figures, and a ``Triumphal Procession of Children,'' painted in the 1820s, which derive from the 16th-century artist. They replaced paintings by Hans Bock the Elder, done in the early 17th century. Other works by Bock, often restored, have, however, survived until today.

About these ads

It was as late as the early 17th century that a small but significant change was made to one of the figures above the pretty clock on this fa,cade - the central of three figures. A woman, she is holding a sword and scales. She represents Justice. But until 1608 she had held a baby: She was the Holy Virgin. But even in rigorously Protestant Basel apparently no need was felt to alter the two saints - patron saints of the city - on each side of her: the German Emperor Henry II (he holds a church) and his wife, Cunegund (she holds a cross.)

It is tempting, on a first encounter with the Rathaus, to think of it as one complete building, built in the early 16th century. But in fact it is a hodgepodge of different periods both inside and out. Externally it is the red-brown paint, and the diamond patterns of the terra-cotta roof tiles, that hold it together.

In the 16th century there was very little painting on the building at all. It was then also a completely symmetrical fa,cade, with its three-arch arcade, central clock, and central little golden turret. Over the succeeding centuries it acquired new wings, towers, and chambers.

When you move into the inner courtyard, you are surrounded by contributions from a range of different periods. The brightly painted and gilded figure of Lucius Munatius Plancus, the Roman colonel sent to this part of Switzerland by Julius Caesar, was made in 1580 and given to Basel by a sculptor from Strasbourg, Hans Michel.

The painting up in the gallery was produced by Hans Bock and his sons in 1610-11, a not unimpressive mannerist work. On the fa,cade opposite the marketplace entrance, paintings in storybook colors celebrate the time when Basel joined the Swiss Federation (1501). There is a procession of thuggish soldiers in bright medieval or Renaissance costumes above the first-floor windows, redolent of history - actually the work of Wilhelm Balmer and Franz Baur in 1903.

There are new parts to the building at this time also, and some ceilings painted with delicate flower patterns that seem to be a Swiss version of William Morris wallpaper. And the Grossratsaal of 1904 (where parliament meets today) was painted in our century also by Emil Schill. His work belongs broadly to Jugendstil, or art nouveau. Pictures over four entrances underline the point by illustrating Four Cardinal Virtues - moderation, justice, courage, and prudence.

For 4 centuries this building (which received its most recent restoration in the early part of the 1980s) has, with impressive moral and stylistic consistency, insisted on the visual expression of civic goodness and responsibility. And it has done so both with due solemnity and a light, colorful touch, with high seriousness, and, here and there, a little bit of mischievousness.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.