We spend so much time not really noticing anything. When was the last time you seriously looked out of your window to see more than the weather? Quick flick of the curtains and the impression is registered, nothing more to do about it. Our lives are reduced to nothing more than glances, our noses point to the ground, showing the world we have places to go, important lives to get on with.
We think of our cities as utilitarian, convenient places where we can live with the least amount of hassle. Our transport, our entertainment, our work all neatly parceled in concrete boxes, preferably piled as high as the clouds, higher the better for more efficiency, for more productivity in less and less space.
So our days run on, one into the other, our heads down, bracing ourselves for the rest of our lives and possibly thinking of the day when we can shake the city off our backs and head off into that mystical place called the country.
We forget to look around us.
I walk around my city fairly often. It’s a bad habit of mine, I like to feel the place I call home, see what has changed, what is new, see if the streets I have walked so often will take me anywhere new.
Sometimes, I look up.
In Bern, the Münster is omnipresent:
At 100 meters, the spire towers over the city in all it’s stony magnificence.
The brave can walk up the 244 steps and survey the city from above – one day, I might do that again, but not today.
Today was reserved for something slightly less ordinary. I wanted to look up.
The city of Bern is divided into three parts – most people wander up and down Kramgasse, marveling at the most beautiful street in Europe, with it’s covered arcades, sandstone buildings and the endlessly wide street.
What happens, however, when you stray away from the street, turn left…
The old city comes into it’s own.
The last tiled wall in Bern, that once served as advertising for a tiler.
Nothing remains of Gottfried Künzi or his workshop, but in a backstreet arcade, his work lives on.
Even less remains of the patrician families who once graced the city with their airs and finery but their signs and symbols, now obscured, stand as monuments to their past.
One family went just a little bit further than the others, painting their family tree on the wall of their house – the Zeerleder Haus, Junkerngasse 51.
The lady looks down on the street, as we peasants scurry along, averting our eyes, no longer acknowledging her disdainful beauty.
And so we wander.
Fritz Traffelet was a man of singular talents. A painter and illustrator, he made a name for himself as an illustrator of military life – but in the city of Bern, he memorialized himself in a unique way. Above the entrance of his former atelier, a mural advertises his deeds and obvious lack of modesty.
His inscription runs thus:
“Here beauty and taste prevail,
Here it smells pleasantly of polish.
Here is painted in oil and paste: Friedrich Traffelet, master painter”
A man of singular humor, he didn’t end there. Above the mural is a further saying:
“From baptismal, wedding and grave bells
the sound of life is mixed.
Where from, Where to What for?
You ask in vain!”
He wasn’t done quite yet with his customers. A man of obvious discipline, he had little time for unruly apprentices.
If you can tear your eyes away from the imposing Münster, and Moses reigning on high in his shining robes…
You might just see an odd chimney
and a lost little window
The observant among us might be wondering what place does a heavily armed monkey staring at itself in a mirror have to do on a wall in Bern?
No, it has nothing to do with intelligent primates running wild through Bern’s streets after dark or even an allusion to carnival. It is the crest of the oldest guild in Bern – Zunftgesellschaft zum Affen or the stonemasons guild, established in the 14th century and is just one of the 13 guilds to be found in the city.
So why would the men who built the Münster want to be represented by a monkey?
“Ape of God” was a reference for stone craftsmen in early Christian times, the mirror he carries is his reflection to God and not an assessment of his face. The word “Aff” is a term for unworked stone – the craftsmen were not adverse to a little wordplay of their own.
His larger image stands proudly on Kramgasse above the entrance of guildhall.
I will come back to the guildhalls in another post…right now, we are running out of time and our necks are beginning to feel rather strained from all this upwards gazing in which we have indulged ourselves.
Leaving behind the monkeys and Moses, there is a little curiosity in the shape of an overburdened jester.
He doesn’t look too upset even though he has been holding up the tower of the May House for over 500 years.
He has, after all, a little grinning frog for company.
Hotelgasse isn’t really a street anyone walks down, it’s more of a passage from Kramgasse to the Casino, graced by nothing in particular but another little frog –
(Strictly speaking, you have to look down to see him, but since most people don’t notice him at all, I thought I would give him a small space…)
But he is not alone. A knight stands guard.
Of course it is very possible that you really only ever wanted to see the Münster, after all you can hardly avoid it.
But as you wander, let your eye walk with you, through small side streets….
and windows that see nothing at all…
…past stone faces who stare emptily into a lost past…
…and a golden man with a bell, high up in his tower, who sees everything.
“It’s a strange city… filled with things that are not obvious.”