I met Helvetia on an early morning walk on my second day in the Swiss city of Basel. I didn’t know who she was then, but the more I learned about her, the more I liked her. My eye was drawn by her pensive pose, as she perched high on a wall above the left bank of the Rhine. The sunlight made the windows of the building behind her glow, and I walked closer for a better look at this intriguing figure.
Climbing the stairs to the Middle Rhine Bridge (Mittlere Brücke) , to put myself on her level, I soon saw she was a fellow traveller. Behind her, hidden by the wall on which she sat, was a suitcase. She had also laid down her shield and spear, and her bronze body was wrapped in a flowing robe.
My admiration was immediate, and I wanted to know more about this wonderful sculpture. Later I found out that it is “Helvetia on her travels” (“Helvetia auf Reisen”), by artist Bettina Eichin. Created around 1979/1980, Eichin’s Helvetia has a new slant on the figure so often seen on Switzerland’s stamps and coins. I remembered her from my young days as an avid stamp collector, but this depiction makes her seem much more human.
Helvetia is the female national personification of Switzerland, officially Confœderatio Helvetica (the Swiss Confederation; which also explains the ch suffix on Swiss websites and email addresses). She is usually depicted in a flowing gown, with braided hair crowned by a wreath symbolising confederation. She carries a spear and a shield branded with the Swiss flag. Her name comes from Helvetii, the name of the Gaulish tribe which lived on the Swiss Plateau, between the Alps and the Jura Mountains, before the Roman conquest in the 2nd century BC. Helvetia was roughly the western part of modern Switzerland.
Eichin’s Helvetia has gone on a trip around Switzerland in the final decades of the 20th century. Arriving in Basel, she rests, putting down her shield and spear and holding her wreath in her hands as she contemplates the Rhine.
What does she see? At this time of day, it is peaceful. A trio of young women – out early or on their way home after a night out – wave for my camera as they head across the bridge to Kleinbasel (little Basel), on the right bank. Ducks skim the water. Later, the trams will begin to rattle over the bridge, and swimmers will cast themselves in to the swift current to float past her, barely giving her a glance. Boats will start to move up and down the powerful waterway, and the people of Basel – and the many tourists exploring this lovely city – will be out in force.
But I’m glad I met Helvetia right now, when it is quiet and calm, and I have time to admire her, photograph her, and wonder what she would have thought of what she observes. Reluctantly, I take my leave. The rest of Basel, and Switzerland, awaits.