I’ve been visiting Geneva several times a year for over a decade, but despite the fact that probably half the stamps in my passports say “Geneva,” I’ve never really spent any time walking around the city and seeing something other than the inside of a hotel, the inside of a meeting room, or the inside of the Palexpo center near the airport, where the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie is held each January. This last month, however, thanks to the schedule for the GPHG, I found myself in the city with a bit of time on my hands, and did more walking around Geneva in a few days than in the entire previous decade or more. Now, Geneva is an easy city to affectionately mock. It is famously buttoned down, with little or nothing to do on a Sunday (everything is closed and I do mean everything) and not a great deal to do in terms of nightlife; it’s home to some very buttoned-down industries (banking, watchmaking, pharmaceuticals, the UN) and overall, very much feels like what it is: the “Protestant Rome,” and a city which is still so staid in its habits, that you practically expect to run into John Calvin rounding a street corner, with a scowl on his face, about to rail at all and sundry about how the presence of a Starbucks on the Quai de Bergues is a sure sign of the city’s collective moral degeneracy.
Even the fact that Geneva has a surprisingly large, thriving red light district (prostitution in Switzerland has been legal since 1942, and generates CHF 3.5 billion annually, compared to CHF 19.4 billion in watch exports for 2016) seems only to further underscore the degree to which Geneva gives the impression of being a town where punctuality is prized, profit is revered, and discretion is appreciated. (I discovered the existence of the red light district by accident, on my first visit to Geneva, when, after following as I thought, to the letter, instructions from a friend to a falafel stand called Parfum de Beyrouth, I found myself instead in front of a block-long storefront with a large red neon sign that said, somewhat unimaginatively but with indisputable clarity, “Sex Shop.”) After all this is a city where a pressure relief valve for a hydroelectric plant is a major landmark and source of civic pride. However, it’s not without certain austere charms of its own, as well as a good deal of historic interest, including a number of public clocks and sundials. One of the most important of these, as well as one of the oldest, is in the heart of the city itself.
The center of Geneva, both geographically and historically, is a small island in the middle of the Rhône, which divides Geneva in half as it empties out of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) before turning south and flowing through France, and finally emptying into the Mediterranean just south of Arles and east of Marseilles. The Rhône was a vital waterway during the classical era but was also turbulent and difficult to navigate, as it’s fed by glacial melt, and tended to flood in the spring. There were relatively few places where crossing the river was possible; Geneva first appears in historical records as a border town of a Gallic tribe called the Allobroges, who held territory to the south of Geneva. Julius Caesar famously dismantled the bridge there in 58 BC to prevent the Allobroges from advancing further north. The city was held by the Romans, then the Franks, the Kingdom of Burgundy, and the Dukes of Savoy. The Bishop of Geneva was its prince and ruler until the Reformation, when the city became an independent republic, and with the exception of a brief period during the French Revolution when it was occupied by France, it remained essentially an independent city-state until becoming a part of the Swiss Confederation in 1814-15.
The Dukes of Savoy’s rulership was contested by the Council of the city, and on December 12th, 1602, one Duke attempted to take Geneva by surprise attack. The attack was repelled, supposedly partly thanks to a citizen named Catherine Cheynel who poured a large cauldron of hot vegetable soup on the heads of soldiers trying to scale the city walls (the event is commemorated to this day on December 12th, in Geneva, by the festival of L’Escalade, during which the youngest child of the household smashes open a chocolate cauldron full of candy while reciting, “Thus perish all enemies of the Republic!”)
There has been a bridge over the Rhône at what is now modern day Geneva for probably at least 2,200 years, and for much of that time, the island was fortified; the Tour de L’Ile (“tower of the island”) with its distinctive “hat” is the last remnant of a castle that once stood on the island, which was built from 1215 to 1219 by the then-bishop, Aymé de Grandson. I passed the tower crossing the Rhône from my hotel to the Old City, on a walk up to the Cathedral of St. Pierre and remembered that this is in fact the same structure in which Vacheron Constantin had its headquarters at one time. There isn’t much information available in English, but through a friend in Geneva (born and raised there, and extremely vocal about Geneva being “the best city in the world,” as she says) I was able to get some information from the city library.
The city of Geneva’s Directory of Buildings and Classified Objects, has an entry for the tower reads, in part, “This tower is the last vestige of a castle built between 1215 and 1219 by the Bishop, Aymé de Grandson, to control the passage of the Rhone and the defense of Geneva … Its original appearance, however, has been extensively altered over the centuries, especially in 1682 (modification of the crown, and installation of the clock), and most recently in 1898 (restoration by Edmond Fatio), following a popular vote favorable to the conservation of the building.”
And in the article by Louis Blondel “The Tower and Castle Island” published in the journal Geneva, in 1937, we read: “The fourth floor was originally a terrace with battlements … this is recognizable on all old engravings previous to 1670, and a plan view of the same period. It was raised (in height) as we have said, in 1680, to place a steeple and a clock that still exist. ”
The tower is now owned by the City of Geneva. The entrance is on the eastern side and on the right is a monument to the Genevan patriot, Philibert Berthelier, who was beheaded in 1519 for rebelling against the rule of the Duke of Savoy. Around the corner from his permanently scowling visage (being beheaded probably does little for one’s mood) is a plaque commemorating the visit of a tourist named Julius Caesar in 58 BC. The clock at the top of the tower, like the tower itself, has gone through several incarnations.
This image is of the clock as it appeared after being modified in 1858 to show local time in Geneva, Paris, and Berne; this was done for several reason. The first was that Paris time was the time standard used by the Paris-Lyons-Mediterranean railway company, which managed the Geneva-Lyon railway line. Bern time was necessary for telegraph and telegram communications, and was also the time standard for Swiss railway lines other than the P-L-M. The large central clock received an electrical time signal from the observatory at Geneva, starting in 1852. The clock is shown here as it was after 1875 (when Vacheron moved out of the tower to its manufacture in a building across the street) but before 1879, when the two smaller dials were removed. (The sign says that Vacheron Constantin has relocated to the corner of the Quai de L’ile and the Rue de Moulins.)
The clock today has been restored to its original appearance, as it was in 1680. Below the clock, and just above the statue of Berthelier, is a rather enigmatic sundial.
There has apparently been a sundial on the side of the Tour de L’ile since at least the mid-18th century, where it provided a convenient time-reference for Geneva’s watch and clock-makers. For some time there seems to have been no sundial there at all – it’s absent in the photo from the 1870s, although it can clearly be seen in another engraving from 1822.
The current version of the sundial was installed in 1898, during the renovation of the Tower, and at first I didn’t have any notion of what sort of sundial it might be. It obviously wasn’t a conventional one, although I did recognize the figure-8 shape carved into the masonry. This is an analemma – a representation of the varying positions the Sun occupies in the sky at noon during the course of an entire year. You can think of it as a visual representation of the Equation of Time – in fact, if you bisect an analemma along its long axis and wrap the resulting curve around a circle, you basically get the contours of an Equation of Time cam as used in a clock or watch. I eventually discovered after some rooting around, that this is what’s called a Noon Mark sundial; it shows the moment of true solar noon throughout the year, and also shows the Equation of Time as the horizontal displacement of the analemma from a vertical line through its center, at the moment of solar noon on each day. Unluckily for me it rained the entire time I was in Geneva which is obviously not an optimal situation for a look at sundials, but you get the general idea.
Geneva is absolutely packed with public clocks, as you can probably imagine, and quite a few sundials as well. The clock and sundial of the Tour de L’ile are extremely interesting thanks to both their own history and that of the Tower, but you can hardly cross a street, especially in the Old City, without seeing some sort of timekeeper.
The Horloge fleurie is a flower clock, located in the English Gardens on the west bank of the Rhône. The face of the clock, and the slope on which it sits, are planted with about 6,500 individual flowers and ornamental shrubs and the seconds hand of the clock is the longest of any public clock in the world, at 2.5 meters. The clock was built in 1955 and still serves a noble purpose today in providing a background for God alone knows how many selfies every year.
If you’re a Rolex fan, there is a point of interest to be found on the other side of the river from the English Garden. On the Rue du Montblanc, two blocks from the Rhône, is the English Church of the Holy Trinity.
The tower clock of the English Church is rather modest, but it has a distinction probably unique among public clocks in Geneva – in fact, it might be unique among public clocks anywhere. It turns out, according to a story published in Watch Around in 2013-14, by noted horological writer Alan Downing, that the clock is being maintained by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, at the wish of Wilsdorf himself; in the story (which we originally covered last year) a secretary for the Foundation explained to the author, “It is in keeping with Hans Wilsdorf’s personal wishes that the English Church clock is maintained by Rolex.” “For how long?” Downing asked. The secretary replied, “Forever, I suppose.” The church had stopped paying someone to wind the clock, according to its records, in 1940 and the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation has been sending a man to wind it once a week, and otherwise maintained it, ever since. As to why, the Foundation told Downing that, “we regret to inform you that our communication does not include family or private matters,” but Wilsdorf originally founded his first company – Wilsdorf & Davis – in London in 1905; married an Englishwoman; became a British citizen; and had his wife’s funeral in 1944 at the English Church, so he had ample personal and sentimental reasons for being fond of the Church and its clock.
Near the Cathedral of St. Pierre, there’s a small but very old Gothic church, built in the 15th century (there has been a church there since the 4th century, when an early Christian basilica was built there). This is Église Saint-Germain de Genève. The current Gothic building is a renovation of an earlier Romanesque church, which was badly damaged by fire in the 1500s. This is one of Geneva’s oldest districts, with much of the architecture and arrangement of the streets dating back to the Middle Ages, and it feels it – there are all sorts of unexpected alleys and side-streets. On the back of the building, there’s a sundial.
This is a type of sundial known as a vertical sundial; the face of the dial is oriented in the vertical, rather than horizontal, plane. If the face of a vertical sundial doesn’t face due north, it won’t receive a full day’s worth of sunlight; this one is facing due east, so it can only show the time during morning hours. The design is rather mysterious – a translucent skeletal ghost appears to be riding an irritated donkey across a field of daisies, with a mountain in the background that looks a little like Ayers Rock in Australia. Maybe it means, “don’t annoy your donkey during morning hours when you’re crossing the Australian Outback or you’ll be pushing up daisies before you know it.” Your guess is really as good as mine.
The last sundial I discovered while walking around Geneva earlier this month, is located on the wall of the Archives d’État de Genève (the city archives) located on the Rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, across the street from City Hall. The ground floor of the archives is an open courtyard, decorated with several large cannons (the better to bring defeat upon any Enemies Of The Republic) and three large mosaics, depicting three eras in the history of the city: the Roman era, the Middle Ages, and the arrival of the Huguenot refugees in Geneva in the 16th century.
This sundial is also a vertical type, but oriented facing southeast, which allows it to tell the time for a longer duration of hours than the sundial on the Église Saint-Germain de Genève.
This is only a tiny fraction of Geneva’s total inventory of sundials and public clocks – one is not shocked to see many public clocks in Geneva but I wasn’t expecting so many sundials, and I’m curious as to how many there might be scattered throughout the city. As we mentioned before, there has been a bridge over the Rhône at what is now present day Geneva for over two thousand years, and I can’t help but wonder for how long sundials – and later, public clocks – have been part of Genevan public life, and how many there might be still present today.