Vincenzo Vela's Victims of Labour memorial in Airolo.
Vincenzo Vela's Victims of Labour memorial in Airolo. ETH Library Zurich

Victims of Labour – a memorial that broke the mould

Artists were among the many to draw inspiration from the opening of the Gotthard railway tunnel 140 years ago. Prominent Ticino sculptor Vincenzo Vela created a contemporaneous memorial to those lost during its construction, entitled Victims of Labour. This key work was not particularly well received at the time, however.

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting worked as a cultural editor and currently heads the visual arts division in the City of Zurich’s Culture Department.

The art section of the Swiss National Exhibition of 1883 in Zurich displayed the huge breadth of artists’ reactions to the ground-breaking construction of the Gotthard railway tunnel. Scarcely known at the time, Zurich sculptor Richard Kissling (1848-1919) showed his sculpture of Alfred Escher, the driving force behind the tunnel through the Alps, which had opened the year before, in 1882. Kissling's plaster model earned him the 1884 commission to create the monumental Alfred Escher Fountain, which stands to this day in front of the main railway station in Zurich. Alongside his plaster model of Escher, Kissling presented a group of figures that he called Zeitgeist, his proposal for a Gotthard memorial. The sculpture consists of a naked male figure, sitting on a winged rail car and looking ahead with an enthusiastically outstretched arm. Muscular workers toil in a crouched position to his right and left. Zeitgeist has crowned the arched gateway in front of Lucerne station since 1907.
Richard Kissling’s plaster model of Alfred Escher, circa 1883.
Richard Kissling’s plaster model of Alfred Escher, circa 1883. Swiss National Museum
Ticinese sculptor Vincenzo Vela (1820–1891) was also inspired by such a spectacular feat of engineering. Both the aesthetic and the content of Vela's proposed Gotthard memorial were highly unconventional for the time. The plaster model of his relief shows the body of a worker being carried away by his downcast colleagues. Vela's figures are realistic right down to their shabby clothing. Their bodies may be strong, but unlike Kissling, Vela was not trying to replicate the classical ideal. These physiques bear the marks of hard work, their backs bent, veins protruding on their powerful hands. Vela also modelled the miner's lamp that one of the workers holds over the dead man, as though he particularly wanted to illuminate his tragic fate. While Vela also references historical traditions in art, he reinterprets them. For example, he cites the death of Greek hero Meleager, a frequent motif on Roman sarcophagi, and often used since the early Renaissance on Christian depictions of the deceased being carried to their grave. The victim's trailing arm, the braccio pendente, is recognisable in particular as classical iconography. At the same time, unlike Kissling, Vela's workers and their suffering are the actual subject of the piece. The artist seems to anticipate a line from Bertolt Brecht's famous poem, Questions from a Worker Who Reads: ‘Who built Thebes of the seven gates?’ Not the king, but thousands of workers.
Bronze cast of Vela's Victims of Labour at the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna in Rome.
Bronze cast of Vela's Victims of Labour at the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna in Rome. Wikimedia
It was widely known that many scores of workers suffered accidents while building the first Gotthard tunnel from 1872. The casualty list stated 171 fatalities, but many were injured and simply sent home without any aftercare. These workers came from impoverished villages in northern Italy. Detailed contemporary reports give a picture of the long-term effects of their appalling working and living conditions. They talk of inadequate standards of hygiene and safety at the construction site, toxic dynamite fumes and drilling dust, malnutrition, typhoid, and hookworm infestations. In 1875 there was a furore throughout Europe when a miner's strike was brutally suppressed by a police unit from Altdorf, killing several workers. Yet conditions remained the same. Primary responsibility for this lay with engineer and businessman Louis Favre, from Western Switzerland. When bidding to build the tunnel, Favre had undercut his competitors, thereby securing himself the contract. Favre himself died of heart failure when viewing the tunnel in 1879, not long before the north-south breakthrough.
Workers in front of the Gotthard tunnel. Graphic reproduction, circa 1875.
Workers in front of the Gotthard tunnel. Graphic reproduction, circa 1875. Swiss National Museum
The Victims of Labour relief was one of Vela's later works, but he was still ahead of his time. Part of the memorial's unusual history is that the artist had not actually been commissioned to do it. He had submitted the plaster model for the Swiss National Exhibition of 1883, at which he had been invited to represent Ticino. Vela hoped that this would attract great attention for his design, and pushed for it to be cast in bronze for the Gotthard tunnel's southern portal. Born in 1820 in Ligornetto, by the time of his invitation to the National Exhibition, Vincenzo Vela had become one of the most important sculptors of the 19th century both at home and abroad. He distanced himself increasingly from the classical style that was still popular in his youth, turning instead to the more realistic depiction of the human body in the Italian verismo movement. Today Vela is recognised among its principal practitioners. Verismo prepared the way for modern sculpture from Rodin onwards.
Portrait of Vincenzo Vela.
Portrait of Vincenzo Vela. Wikimedia
Vela won a number of awards while still studying at the Brera Academy in Milan. His statues for funerary monuments and memorials were in great demand. One of his early masterpieces was a marble sculpture of the slave Spartacus, breaking free of his chains. The commissioned work caused a stir at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. A short time later he created a sculpture of William Tell for the city of Lugano. Yet Vela also regularly worked in the orbit of the great and powerful of the time. In 1856 he accepted a professorship at the Accademia Albertina in Turin from the Italian King Vittorio Emmanuele II. French Empress Eugenie commissioned him to design a monument to Christopher Columbus. Finally, in 1867 he gained great acclaim for his sculpture of the last days of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. It is now at the Musée national du Château de Versailles. Vela gave up teaching that same year to withdraw home to Ligornetto, where he fitted out his villa with a studio and a private museum. His work gives countless clues that he was a reformer and a politically astute man of his age. In addition to Spartacus he created a monument in Como to Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian freedom fighter of the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy. Vela, who also served for a time on the Grand Council of Ticino, left his villa and all the art it contains – including numerous plaster models of his famous sculptures – to the Swiss Confederation. The plaster model of Victims of Labour occupies a prominent position in what is now a museum, still run by the state.
How Vincenzo Vela envisaged Napoleon's final days. The work originates from the 1860s.
How Vincenzo Vela envisaged Napoleon's final days. The work originates from the 1860s. Wikimedia
Vela did not live to see the bronze cast of his memorial to the workers of the Gotthard, or its placement where he had wished, by the entrance to the tunnel. He died in 1891. Funded by donations, commemorative headstones for the victims of construction work on the Gotthard were erected by artist Pietro Andreoletti in the cemeteries of Göschenen and Airolo. Businessman Louis Favre was given his own monument in 1893, in Chêne-Bourg. Vela's influence is also felt here, however, with the relief on the base echoing his own work. That is hardly surprising. After its exhibition in Zurich in 1883, Victims of Labour was suddenly everywhere. Magazines and newspapers printed reproductions and Vela himself, an experienced self-publicist, put out a photograph of the model. From 1904 onwards the work regularly featured in school textbooks in Ticino, and it made an appearance in a book on the history of the canton of Zurich as late as 2009.

A prophet in his own land

It was the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna in Rome that in 1895 commissioned and exhibited the first bronze cast of the memorial. The Italian state had contributed more to the construction of the Gotthard tunnel than Germany and Switzerland combined, and the Italian workers who lost their lives remain in the country's cultural consciousness even today. In 2008, a replica of Vela's monument was unveiled by then-President of Italy Giorgio Napolitano in front of the Rome head office of Inail, the National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work. Despite acclaim for the plaster model, at first nobody in Switzerland wanted to make a bronze cast of it, and initiatives to that effect failed to attract sufficient support. Opinion did not change until the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the tunnel's opening, in 1932. With the support of the Federal Council and the Federal Arts Commission, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) was now interested in Vela's memorial, putting up a total of 30,000 Swiss francs (around 250,000 in today's prices) for the cast. After a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing, the work was finally placed in front of the railway station in Airolo. Hardly anyone saw it there, however. Those travelling to and from Italy rarely get off the train in Airolo, and the monument was popular in the main only as a postcard image, for example. In 1955 it was even mentioned in an advertisement for the chocolate malt drink Ovomaltine. With the NEAT project for a new railway link through the Alps even the old tunnel itself has lost importance.
The entrance to the Gotthard tunnel in Airolo on a colourised postcard from 1893.
The entrance to the Gotthard tunnel in Airolo on a colourised postcard from 1893. Swiss National Museum
It did not help Victims of Labour that the memorial culture of the 19th century has been viewed with growing disparagement since the beginning of the late modern period. The genre became increasingly unpopular, even where the subject and execution were innovative, as in Vela's case. ‘Memory culture’ is now more contentious than ever, with debate on what is to be remembered, who wants it to be remembered, and ultimately its artistic execution. With this in mind it is worth taking a fresh look at Vincenzo Vela’s Victims of Labour, especially in comparison with Richard Kissling’s Alfred Escher Fountain in Zurich and his Zeitgeist sculpture in Lucerne. Unlike much of the overblown allegory of the 19th century, Vela's work has aged well. As art historian Gian Casper Bott might suggest, it could even be seen as input to the current discourse on memorials. Vela delivers the counterpoint to the Escher monument, not least because the Escher family's colonial connections have since cast doubt over the man once hailed as the hero of a progressive Switzerland. It is more than that, however. Seen through the lens of Vela's entire oeuvre, Victims of Labour can be regarded as a critical – even self-critical – commentary of the ageing artist on his century's excessive fondness for the memorial. Thematically, the relief ties in with the Spartacus of his earlier years, to which his brilliant career owed so much.

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