I swear, nothing beats coincidence.
I’ve always had a thing for the Swiss Guards. Don’t ask. Doubt if I could answer. I am admittedly a history geek. It may have been the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, Pirates, or Alexander the Great’s Army who captured our imaginations, or the guerrillas who followed the Swamp Fox Francis Marion into the fens of South Carolina during the Revolutionary War, or even the Marauders with whom Frank Merrill crept into the jungles of Burma during World War II.
For me it was the fearsome mountain mercenaries of Switzerland. Loyal and true (to the highest bidder), they struck fear into the hearts of European foes for centuries, and still famously form today’s Vatican Guard. I mean, we’re talking Switzerland, people! Yes, these badass mercs hail from a country more famous in public perception for its neutrality, its yodelers, its St. Bernards, even its throat lozenges.
There is a bit of a story that surrounds my family in Italy. It seems that our family can trace its lineage to Swiss Guards.
In October of 2012 I was on my way to Italy. Thus, for reasons that can only be described as seraphic serendipity, I found myself enjoying an espresso in a café in the airport in Zurich when whom should I find seated at the adjoining table but an actual Swiss Guard. He had heard me droning on (and on) to my wife about my goal to see the colossal, 33-foot by 20-foot “Weeping Lion of Lucerne” carved into the cliff of an alp commemorating a Swiss unit wiped out during the French Revolution, and that was enough to spark our conversation.
He was out of uniform, of course, home from couldn’t-say-where for the holidays, and though he was wary of “talking too much out of the schoolbooks” (as he told me in his quaint, if just-off English), we had a jolly conversation about the history of his military organization as well of its future. Turns out the Swiss have been sending mercenary regiments to bolster European armies as line troops and royal bodyguards since the 1400s. “We were such a poor country, it was the only work most young men could find,” he said. These professional warriors, armed with long pikes and halberds, were mostly veterans of the Hundred Years War, and were valued for their fierce, take-no-prisoners attacks in deep, massed columns. They were also renowned for their successful resistance to incursions by the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, which never could conquer Switzerland.
He encouraged me to study what he called the “massive Swiss upsets” in 14th-century battles against overwhelming Austrian odds, particularly at Laupen and especially at Morgarten—where a force of 1,500 Swiss infantry defeated an army of mounted Austrian knights variously reported between 9,000 and 20,000 strong. (Naturally, he went with the 20,000 figure.) He was certainly proud that military experts from Machiavelli to Sir Charles Oman have commented on the Swiss Guards’ “pure love of combat,” but it was to the Lion of Lucerne that our conversation eventually returned.
The Lion is indeed a sight to behold. The mortally wounded beast—his head bowed, a spear impaling his heart, protecting with his final breaths two shields bearing the Swiss coat of arms and the French fleur-de-lis—commemorates the “loyalty and bravery” of the 760 Swiss Guards massacred in Paris’s Tuileries Palace in 1792 while defending France’s Louis XVI during the French Revolution.
At the mountain’s base a gin-clear stream flows into a pond, and with the sun at just the proper angle an image of the noble lion is mirrored among the water lilies. A plaque informed us that when the French Revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace the French King sent word to the red-coated Swiss Guards to retire or surrender. They refused. And died. The image sent chills.
As I paid our bill my new friend suggested I look up what Mark Twain said of the carving—his actual words were “your famous American Samuel Clemons.” I did,
“The most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world,” is how Twain described the sculpture. “The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion—and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.”
Needless to say, there is nothing more I can add … except to wonder how wonderful it would be if this world never had to again cause to erect a weeping monument to any young men slain in combat.