Statue of William Tell on the village fountain in Loco in the Valle Onsernone. It was created by Ermenegildo Degiorgi-Peverada, circa 1896.
Statue of William Tell on the village fountain in Loco in the Valle Onsernone. It was created by Ermenegildo Degiorgi-Peverada, circa 1896. Photo: Noah Businger

Guglielmo Tell

When it comes to William Tell, the general consensus seems to be that he is a symbol of Switzerland’s patriotic national history. But a small monument in Ticino raises some questions.

Noah Businger

Noah Businger

Noah Businger is a freelance historian. He studied ancient Swiss history at the University of Bern.

In the hinterland of Locarno, on a steep slope in the Valle Onsernone planted with terraced chestnut groves, lies the village of Loco. The small village square is dominated by a massive 19th century fountain. In the centre of the fountain, elevated on a column, is a seemingly unspectacular monument featuring William Tell in a victorious pose after successfully shooting the apple from his son’s head. The marksman from Uri looks down on the square with a heroic and self-assured air, brandishing the arrow of freedom and justice aloft in his right hand. At first glance, it looks like just another monument featuring the well-known figure from Swiss historical legend. What is perplexing, however, is the location of the monument. Like all other areas of what is now Ticino, the Valle Onsernone was a subject territory of the Old Swiss Confederacy until 1798. The people of Uri, Schwyz and the other Confederates saw themselves as sons of Tell, but themselves ruled Ticino from Airolo to Mendrisio as foreign bailiffs. Ticino only became an equal canton of the Confederation in the 19th century. How did it come to be, then, that Tell of all people became a role model for the former subjects of the Confederacy?
The bailiffs from the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden resided in the ‘Palazzo di Landfogti’ in Lottigna from 1550 to 1798
The name of the building alone provides an insight into the power relations in Ticino in the early modern period: the bailiffs from the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden resided in the ‘Palazzo di Landfogti’ in Lottigna from 1550 to 1798. Their coats of arms are painted on the façade. The building now houses the Blenio Museum of history. Museo storico etnografico Valle di Blenio

First possible interpretation: Tell as an expression of national identity and patriotism

The monument in Loco is the work of artist Ermenegildo Degiorgi-Peverada (1866–1900). Originally from Loco, Peverada moved with his mother to Turin at a very young age. There, he trained as a sculptor with his stepfather, Pacifico Peverada. During the construction boom in Bern in the 1890s, Ermenegildo opened a subsidiary of his father’s business in the Swiss capital. Swiss national identity was already being carved in stone at the time. Wishing to project an image of prestige, the still young federal state was investing in significant buildings such as the federal palace. This construction activity attracted many artists to Bern, who decorated these iconic buildings with works that sought to promote a sense of national identity. The young Peverada also participated in the Confederation’s competitive bidding processes. Up to that point, he had made a name for himself mainly through the romanticised depiction of social subjects, such as the hardship of daily life in the Valle Onsernone. In Bern, Peverada sought to branch out, turning his hand to patriotic motifs. In 1896 he presented his Tell sculpture at the national exhibition in Geneva, thereby following a trend as national-identity-building sculpture was very in vogue at the time.
Photograph by Ermenegildo Degiorgi-Peverada, around 1898.
Photograph by Ermenegildo Degiorgi-Peverada, around 1898. Archivio Degiorgi, Lupo
Tell memorial in Altdorf by Richard Kissling (1848-1919).
Tell monument in Altdorf by Richard Kissling (1848–1919). Wikimedia
The Tell monument in Altdorf had been inaugurated the previous year. The competition procedure lasting several years, discussions about the various designs, and the ceremonial inauguration were events of national importance. William Tell was more popular than ever. It didn’t seem to matter that due to a lack of source material, historians in the 19th century had questioned whether Tell had ever even existed. At the inauguration of the Tell monument in 1895, a cantata was performed in which history and legend fought for dominance. Unsurprisingly, legend won the duel. Although Tell’s story failed to stand up to the historicity criticism, it became etched into the public imagination. The legend of Tell as a historical narrative, featuring the heroic acts of Switzerland’s forefathers, served as an example for the modern nation. The Tell monument in Altdorf was therefore a quintessential exercise in building a sense of national identity and patriotism. From then on, erecting a monument to Tell meant expressing a certain national self-image. Peverada’s Tell appears to be a continuation of this trend. Yet the sculpture was only mounted on its base in Loco in 1965; before that, it spent a long time in the museum there. Was the purpose of the Tell statue in Loco really intended to express allegiance to the nation state with its supposed ancient Swiss symbol? Was that even necessary? Isn’t there more to Loco’s Tell than that?
The story of William Tell is an inspiring one. One of those inspired was Italian artist Angelo Biasioli, who created this print in the early 19th century.
William Tell not only inspired Swiss artists, but was also a popular figure abroad, as shown in this print from 1820 by the Italian artist, Angelo Biasioli. Swiss National Museum

Second possible interpretation: Tell as an international symbol of national independence

After the French Revolution, William Tell – murderer of a tyrant and fighter for justice and liberation from iniquitous rule – became an internationally-recognised figure. As well as the national-identity-building aspect, the statue in Loco also features an unexpected international clue. This clue initially leads us to the lakeside promenade in Lugano, where the only other Tell monument in Ticino, created by Vincenzo Vela (1829–91), has stood since 1856. At the time, Vela was one of the most famous sculptors in Switzerland and Italy. He had lived for a long time in Milan and later settled in Turin. But after fighting against the foreign rule of Lombardy by Austria in 1848, on the side of the Italian Risorgimento, which championed national independence and Italian unification, he was forced to leave the country. Vela was commissioned to create his Tell by Giacomo Ciani, a hotelier and radical republican Italian immigrant. In Lugano, Tell appears without his son Walter and without the apple. Simply dressed and with his head lowered, Tell is holding the liberating arrow in the air. For Vela, too, Tell had symbolic significance as the marksman from Uri was a role model for the fighters of the Risorgimento. In him they saw the history of Switzerland staged and glorified as a universal example of national independence.
Vela’s Tell on the quayside in Lugano, photographed circa 1885.
Vela’s Tell on the quayside in Lugano, photographed circa 1885. Swiss National Museum
Plaster model of Peverada’s Tell in Loco, 1896.
Plaster model of Peverada’s Tell in Loco, 1896. Museo Onsernonese
Many aspects of the sculpture on the village square in Loco are reminiscent of the Tell figure in Lugano, and the two works look very similar. While Tell’s son Walter and the apple do feature in Loco, the arrow is the central object. Tell, who in both locations appears as an ordinary man, holds the arrow in his right hand, courageously, defiantly and assertively brandishing it aloft. The similarity is no coincidence as Ermenegildo Degiorgi-Peverada was heavily influenced by Vincenzo Vela. They met several times when they both lived in Turin, and Vela became Peverada’s role model – not only in art. Is the Tell in Loco ultimately just a homage to Vincenzo Vela? Or did Peverada want to draw on Vela’s message and, through his sculpture at the end of the 19th century, commemorate all the romanticised wars of unification that had taken place in previous decades?

History is fluid

After our various forays, we’re back on the village square in Loco and still don’t know with any certainty what this Tell statue is trying to tell us or what he stands for. Is he the Tell of Swiss legend? Is he a symbol of national allegiance? Or is he an international William Tell? Is this a tribute to the tyrant murderer, co-opted as the symbol of numerous revolutions and independence movements? Or is he another Tell entirely? This raises some interesting questions about how many more stories there are to be told about the figure of William Tell and how each different narrative presents a different perspective.

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