Sarnen, watercolour by David Alois Schmid, c. 1832
Sarnen, watercolour by David Alois Schmid, c. 1832 (detail). Staatsarchiv Schwyz

Sarnen – History at a scale of 1:1

A walking tour of Obwalden’s principal town. A connection, a story, emerges from the juxtaposition of locations and features. It recounts the history of a dynasty, typical for Central Switzerland, embodied in buildings. Four generations of Imfelds.

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer

Kurt Messmer is a freelance historian with a focus on history in public space.

Aerial view? No; it’s imagination, draughtsmanship and an artistic wash. The view of the Sarner valley floor has an evocative force. Far more than just an instructive overview, with its neat yet relevant aesthetic it becomes an invitation to reconstruct the past, right where it all happened.

Mark out the area

No space without a history, no history without a space. A place seen in a picture becomes a lived experience.
Bird’s-eye view of Sarnen, 1884
Bird’s-eye view of Sarnen, 1884, washed pen and ink drawing. In the upper part is Lake Sarnen, with Sachseln on the left and Giswil on the right at rear. Five years later the Brünig railway line would run from Lucerne to Brienz, but for now, it isn’t there. Nothing is known of the artists L. Wagner and H. Müller, including their first names and other details of their lives. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
The 13th century wave of city foundings ran out of steam in the foothills of the Alps. Langnau im Emmental, Beromünster, Stans, Schwyz, Altdorf, Glarus, Herisau, Appenzell remained small provincial towns. Sarnen also falls into this category. There is no encircling wall. The bird’s-eye view reveals: Sarnen, principal village, not main town, has no beginning and no end. The village square, centrepiece of the community, makes an appearance, but only on the periphery. The same applies for the Landenberg and the parish church, on the far right, both slightly oversized, as if to balance the scene. The rural valley floor is dominated by a crossroads, as if marking a point zero from which roads criss-cross the landscape in every direction. This centre has no centre function. Neither the convent and the Capuchin monastery in the middle distance, nor the religious college over towards the lake, on either side of Brünigstrasse, bear any relation to this crossroads. Rivers, spanned by bridges, frame the valley floor. Shortly before, in 1882, the courses of the inflowing Melchaa on the left and the outflowing Sarner Aa on the right were corrected. More ground for building was now available.

Places have voices

The heart of Sarnen is the village square – more precisely, the village fountain, constructed in 1604, as evidenced by stone numerals on the trough.
Sarnen, watercolour by David Alois Schmid, c. 1832
Sarnen, village square, around 1832. Lines of sight provide a clear view of the Landenberg, a substantial presence with its imposing bulk. Watercolour by David Alois Schmid (1791–1861). A watercolourist, panorama painter and engraver from Schwyz, Schmid is known for realistic depictions. His play with light and shadow is also delightful. Staatsarchiv Schwyz
Who should adorn the fountain? He alone can have that honour – Brother Klaus, with rosary and a pilgrim’s staff, clad in the simple garments of a hermit, and his gaze can be in only one direction, towards Flüeli-Ranft. However, the homage that is shown him at the Ochsen inn on the right is more practical. The ornate fountain pillar is being used as a post for the clothesline. The saint tolerates this with serene equanimity. The Rathaus, still the seat of the canton’s governing council, cantonal council and state chancellery, draws the eye in the centre of the picture. But if you boast such workmanship, you can afford to step back a little. A first building dates from 1419, and a new building from 1551, as evidenced by the Gothic windows on the base. The current Baroque building was erected on top of that in 1729-1731. Obwalden entrusted this task to Hans Georg Urban, a Lucerne stonemason, who subsequently received numerous commissions for high-profile construction projects in the city of Lucerne and surrounding countryside. And no wonder – in Sarnen he had created a masterpiece as the first example of his prowess: a magnificent frontage, two-sided outdoor flight of steps, the entrance hall set about with columns and lavishly decorated. Surmounted by a roof gable, that and a domed clock tower on the roof ridge accentuate the axial symmetry of the structure and take the building to another level of grandeur. Bearing in mind that a Rathaus originally served many different purposes. Sarnen is a typical example: salt warehouse, butcher’s hall, dancing venue, court of law, bailiff’s residence, prison. Hintersassen, the lower-status non-citizen residents, have their lodgings behind the Rathaus, as opposed to the Landammänner, the local gentry who built grand houses here. To the left of the Rathaus, the Wirz family, to the right the Frunzes; on the opposite side, not visible in the watercolour, the Heinzlis and the Imfelds. A Landammann was a chief magistrate for a Canton, a position of considerable distinction. The Imfeld saga can now begin.
Mural in the Haus am Grund, Sarnen, 1607.
The founding father of the Sarnen Imfelds, Landammann “Niclaus im Feld” (before 1500-1556). The double legend is significant: on the one hand “landtvogt [bailiff] in Frienämpteren”, on the other “hauptmann [captain] in Franckrich”. Mural in the Haus am Grund, Sarnen, 1607. Staatsarchiv Obwalden

Almost out of nowhere

Niklaus Imfeld was born sometime before 1500, up above in Lungern. He would forge a number of careers in the valley below. Around 1525, he married Wiberta von Einwil from an Obwald Landammann family, in Sarnen. The union paved Imfeld’s way into the upper echelons of ruling society: magistrate, Talvogt of Engelberg, Landvogt in Baden, Landammann of Obwalden, member of the Privy Council, envoy to the councils of the Swiss Confederacy and, in 1548, to the French king. At the same time, he was in the service of the French and was the first Obwaldner to acquire the title of knight. A familiar pattern when ascending to the ruling elite: one gives the other a reciprocal hand up, politically, socially, economically, militarily. Around 1546 Niklaus Imfeld had a house built, the likes of which the denizens of Sarnen had rarely seen. The rooms were decorated with frescoes, and Obwalden and Schwyz provided Standesscheiben, stained glass sheets presenting the coat of arms of a canton of the Old Swiss Confederacy – for Imfeld’s private house. The partisan of France was not lacking in wealth, power and reputation, nor in political rivals. One of these advised Imfeld: “Wann du nun din Huse ufmachest, so schryb denn daran: Zwing Underwalden.” Close to the bone. Imfeld, first generation.
Sarnen, Maria Lauretana village chapel
Sarnen, Maria Lauretana village chapel. The first building dates from 1556, a second from 1658-1662, Baroque, using the old tower. The monumental entrance area in Neo-Renaissance style followed in 1866. Kantonale Denkmalpflege Obwalden
The progenitor of Sarnen’s Imfeld family, Niklaus, endowed the village chapel in 1556. A hundred years later, another Imfeld distinguished himself with a new construction project. The “side altar on the women's side” was financed by Johann Imfeld (1609-1675), great-grandson of the progenitor. Imfeld forever.

A visual embodiment of the family’s superior status

Imfeld, second generation. Marquard (c. 1525–1591) outshone everyone before and after him. Like his father, he held all the important offices, but in greater numbers and more often – Landammann and envoy to France, for instance. Altogether, he accepted 113 legations. In addition, he became Landessäckelmeister (treasurer) and Pannerherr (standard-bearer). His second wife was a Wirz from Sarnen, his fourth a Lussi from Stans. Like the House of Habsburg: “You, happy Obwalden, marry!” Marquard also attained the status of knight. There is nothing higher. He had reached the top.
Sarnen, Haus am Grund
Sarnen, Haus am Grund, the most imposing manorial residence in the town centre. The modular construction was erected in its present form in 1588-89, owner: Marquard Imfeld (c. 1525–1601). The remains of the stone part of the house behind it date back to 1286, and the part with the two window axes at the end dates from 1822, the last major construction phase. Kantonale Denkmalpflege Obwalden
If made of wood, and not stone, the house should have an even more impressive appearance. It has that. A magnificent gable front with three main floors and two attic storeys, partitioned with traditional Klebdächer, rises above a stone base. These roofs extend beyond the deep arcades, making the building appear even wider and more massive. The timbered façade in the lower section is embellished with a double indented frieze and an inset ogee arch. Soignez les détails.

Dealing in mercenaries

For a long time, research on “Reislaufen” (Swiss mercenaries were known as Reisläufer) was mired in the established notion of these soldiers of fortune and what was supposedly their sole motive, poverty. Today, there is a broader approach. At its centre is a complex business model. From the 16th to the 18th century leading families, especially in Central Switzerland, ran the mercenary business in the role of general contractors, passing the business down for generations, with the full participation of the family’s women; they often pulled the strings at home in Switzerland, organised, kept the accounts and expanded the crucial network when they married. In addition to numerous official posts in Obwalden, Marquard Imfeld’s main job was his mercenary business. He had mercenaries recruited, equipped and paid, and made them available to the French king as his own private troops. Imfeld put up the finance in advance, as was usual in the mercenary dealing business, and was only paid by the client afterwards. Just how vicious and capital-intensive that business was can be gleaned from a letter from his brother-in-law, who was sorting out an outstanding pension payment in France, 300,000 gold crowns – a horrendous sum. How things turned out, we don’t know. One thing is certain: Imfeld was running a family military enterprise with an international outlook, while deliberately using the advantages of his situation at home. Geographically, the Confederation was a hub of Europe, and its neutrality at the time, “sitting quietly”, was a favourable basis for good business. The Imfelds are not an exceptional case. They are, rather, a model example, as evidenced by the Wirz and von Flüe families in Sarnen, other families in the towns such as the Pfyffers in Lucerne and the Erlachs in Bern, and in rural areas there were the Redings in Schwyz, the Zurlaubens in Zug, the Tschudis in Glarus, and the Salis family in Graubünden. A wide-ranging system of general contractors.

Ancient origins for young aristocracy

Melchior Imfeld (1573–1622), third generation Imfeld, son of Marquard, bred to a career in public office similar to those of his father and grandfather.
Sarnen, Haus am Grund, the Estrichsaal (detail)
Sarnen, Haus am Grund, the Estrichsaal (detail), fully painted in 1607 on the orders of the then head of the household, Melchior Imfeld. At top, a genealogical table of four generations of Imfelds; below, the direct male ancestors. Kantonale Denkmalpflege Obwalden
When Melchior Imfeld could see his way clear to being elected governing Landammann for the first time, he celebrated his ascent to the loftiest heights of public office by having the attic level of his house painted from floor to ceiling with pictures, transforming it into a ceremonial hall. He was following the example of his cousin Peter, in front on the village square. Melchior too engaged the local master Sebastian Gisig (1573–1649) for this. Class consciousness demands that one put one’s status on display. The result is the self-aggrandisement of a dynasty. At home, it is a means of positioning oneself higher up the social ladder, while abroad it enables one to present oneself on an equal footing in courtly society. The Renaissance, the “rebirth” of the classical age, offered the right ambience for this. Gisig the master stonemason based his commissions on works of his era, including Raphael (1483-1520), and his motifs hark back to late Roman times. The depiction of the victory of Emperor Constantine at the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD may, in the time of the Counter-Reformation, pay tribute to the first Christian emperor. Beyond the religious reverence, however, the motif became his corporate calling card.

Gentlemen and peasants

Imfeld, fourth generation. The pattern continues with Johann Imfeld (1609-1675), who belongs to the second line of Sarnen Imfelds: studies with the Jesuits in Lucerne and Milan, the now expected career in public office, knighted by the Pope, military enterpriser, but now working for Spain, as his father had.
Sarnen, the Hofmatt, built in 1643 for Johann Imfeld (1609-1675)
Sarnen, the Hofmatt, built in 1643 for Johann Imfeld (1609-1675). The size and number of rooms indicate a residence for several generations, as well as rooms for maids and servants. In the 19th century, the timber structure was given a smooth façade and plastered, and has looked like a stone building since then. The fretwork embellishments date from 1900. Kurt Messmer
The great-grandson of the progenitor had his house built not in the centre of the village, but further towards Lake Sarnen, near the parish church. Wall paintings remained an attribute of elegant, aristocratic living. Of particular interest is the garden room, the sala terrena.
Sarnen, the Hofmatt, garden room, panorama of Obwalden (detail), 1643.
Sarnen, the Hofmatt, garden room, panorama of Obwalden (detail), 1643. The unknown artist created the illusion that an atrium supported by magnificent columns leads directly to the outdoors. Kurt Messmer
Sarnen, the Hofmatt, view from the “Panorama Room”.
Sarnen, the Hofmatt, view from the “Panorama Room”. Here and there, landscape and wall painting seem to blend into one. Unlike the village square, the garden is a private, informal area. Kurt Messmer
In the 17th and 18th centuries garden rooms became fashionable in Europe – ground-floor spaces, especially in castles. If it was good enough for princes, it was good enough for Johann Imfeld. He had the Hofmatt fitted out with a “Panoramazimmer”, a panorama room. The interior was intended to create a connection to the outside space, bringing the landscape into the house. A series of rural scenes unfolds: a fishing boat on Lake Sarnen, Brother Klaus’s chapel in Ranft, the church of St Niklausen, a herd of grazing cows, shepherds hurrying down a slope. Common people, farmers, shepherds, sailors. They were among the many peasants who, in 1653, gave refuge to the ringleaders of the Peasants’ War who had fled from the Lucerne area. They protected the fugitives from being seized by the Lucerne city authorities when the latter despicably broke the moderate peace agreement and, having survived a scare, took drastic punitive measures. In 1654, Johann Imfeld received a gift – the Lucerne city charter – from these same authorities in this very war, for his work as an arbitrator. Lords to lords, peasants to peasants.
Imfeld coat of arms
Imfeld coat of arms. It depicts a silver cross of St Anthony, framed by two stars above and below and two lilies on the left and right. The lily alludes to the family connection to France. Register of the municipality of Sachseln

All-round “respectability”

From 1548 to 1699 nine Imfeld officers served as Landammänner, for a total of 43 years. Only the Wirz family can claim anything in the same category, having produced eight Landammänner and 30 years in office. The Sarner Imfeld line continued until the middle of the 19th century. 59 representatives of the family were clergymen; an Imfeld became abbot of Einsiedeln. An unprecedented position of power. In Obwalden, as in the other rural towns in Central Switzerland, in Glarus and Appenzell, the Landsgemeinde had the final say. In patrician towns – Bern, Lucerne, Freiburg, Solothurn – an exclusive circle of leading families ruled. The councillors elected themselves and held office for life. In guild towns – Zurich, Basel, Schaffhausen, St Gallen – the guilds were a decisive force. But there too, there had been an “aristocratisation” since the 16th century. Conclusion: the political system may be completely different, but the result is similar everywhere: government by the men of “high renown, the noble and the thoroughly respectable”.

On searching and finding

History is projection, imagination; it plays out in the head. If we step into the past, take it under our feet, an additional quality comes into play: the sensory. Spend time in the place. Wait and see what happens. Change your location. Compare and contrast. Feel distances from buildings not just spatially, but also as a sign of nearness and distance. Treat lines of sight as windows. Let the size and appearances of buildings work their magic on you. Try to absorb the atmosphere. History is indivisible. There are many formulas for exploration at a scale of 1:1. More important than a specific approach is “anew”, going there again, twice, five times, ten times. Layer after layer is added, deposited, broadens the horizon. In between, there’s always the astonished question: why didn’t we notice this or that earlier? Time and again the joy of discovering, and often the joy of finding what we weren’t even looking for.

Further posts

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