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Photo by Monique Ligtenberg

The connection between the Alfred Escher statue, Wilhelm Tell, and the history of the Philippines

Written by Stephanie Willi; read by Michèle Breu & Denise Hasler

While waiting for a tram at the Bahnhofplatz, my gaze often wanders to the statue of Alfred Escher, standing tall on its pedestal in front of the entrance to Zurich’s main station. I don’t find the statue particularly beautiful, nor am I particularly interested in Alfred Escher. Rather, the statue reminds me of my second home: the Philippines. But one thing at a time:

The bronze statue of Alfred Escher was made in 1889 by the Swiss sculptor Richard Kissling. Kissling designed not only the Escher statue, but also the Tell monument, earning him much acclaim and the title of the “national sculptor” of Switzerland. His solemnly dramatic statues brim with “masculinity” and are characterized by exaggerated heroization and idealization. Escher’s statue at the main station, for example, stands as a dominant figure on its pedestal, dressed in a discreet, everyday suit. His left hand is casually propped up, the right one is clenched into a fist and slightly elevated, resembling the pose of an orator speaking convincingly to his audience. His gaze is directed into the distance, specifically in the direction of his life’s work: the Gotthard Tunnel. 

In contrast to Kissling’s otherwise traditionally Swiss works, he also designed the José Rizal monument in the Philippine capital, Manila, in 1912. José Rizal was a Filipino writer and physician whose life and literary works became the inspiration for the Philippine independence movement. The bronze and granite Rizal Monument was unveiled in Manila in 1913. The base of the monument contains the remains of the Filipino national hero. 

Today, the monument still stands enthroned in the middle of the Rizal Park, closely guarded by Filipino soldiers. Every time I travel to the Philippines with my family, we make a point of visiting the Rizal monument. As a result, there are many photographs of the statue on my laptop – some even with me posing in front of it. 

Kissling is not the only thing that connects Wilhelm Tell and José Rizal; in 1886, Rizal translated “Wilhelm Tell” by Friedrich Schiller into his mother tongue, Tagalog. One year later, he traveled across Switzerland. Commemorative plaques in Bern and Schaffhausen, as well as a bust in Wassen bear witness to this. In the story of Wilhelm Tell, Rizal saw parallels between the suppression of the peasant population in the canton of Uri by the House of Habsburg and the subjugation of the Philippines by the Spanish colonial power. 

The Philippines were still a Spanish colony at the time of Rizal’s trip to Europe. In his writings, Rizal criticized the abuse of power by Spanish priests and monks, and he addressed the growing dissatisfaction with the Spanish colonial power. His revolutionary texts, which led to his execution, triggered the two-year-long Philippine Revolution in 1896, as the country sought independence from Spain.

This interwoven story of Wilhelm Tell and José Rizal is emblematic of the 10,000 Filipinos in Switzerland and their descendants, including myself, who count both Switzerland and the Philippines as their “homes”. So when I wait at the Bahnhofplatz and look at the statue of Alfred Escher,  I feel, for a brief moment, closer to the Philippines and my Filipino family, from which I am otherwise thousands of kilometers apart.

Stephanie Willi studied History and Philosophy of Knowledge (M.A.) at ETH Zurich and is currently working at the University Archives of ETH Zurich. She is particularly interested in the history of the Philippines and completed her studies with a thesis on Hans Menzi, a Swiss Abroad in the Philippines (“Alin Mang Lahi. Hans Menzi - ein Leben zwischen der Schweiz und den Philippinen”).

Further reading: 

‍‍Hug, Annette: Wilhelm Tell in Manila, 2016.

Hug, Annette: Revolutions Entwined. “Wilhelm Tell” in Tagalog. Essay, 2015.

Matta, Marianne: Richard Kissling (1848-1919), der schweizerische “Nationalbildhauer” im 19. Jahrhundert. Bemerkungen zu einigen Denkmälern und Denkmalentwürfen, in: Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte, Heft 2/1980, S. 151-161.