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Field Trip to the Grisons

Last December, Jeremie was lucky to spend two weeks photographing visitors’ books in the Grisons. We are very grateful to the Badrutt Palace in St. Moritz and the Kronenhof & Bellavista in Pontresina for hosting us and giving us access to their archives.

The Badrutt Palace at the center of St. Moritz.

The Badrutt Palace holds visitors’ books from 1896 until 1935 as well as books from the former Hotel Beau-Rivage, from 1884 to 1894, and the Hotel Caspar Badrutt, from 1872 to 1894. The two hotels eventually merged and became the Badrutt Palace in 1896. In Pontresina, the Kronenhof has conserved its visitors’ books from 1879 to 1939.

The Kronenhof in Pontresina.

In addition, Jeremie visited the Kulturarchiv Oberengadin in Samedan. The cultural center, which is also home to a museum, stores a rich collection of archives from the Engadine valley. We are very thankful to them for helping us sort through their vast inventory. We were able to find several visitors’ books from the region, including additional visitors’ books from the Kronenhof in Pontresina, as well as books from the Hotel Adler, the Weisses Kreuz, the Hotel Saratz and the Engadinerhof, all in Pontresina.

The Kulturarchiv Oberengadin in Samedan.

We wish to give special thanks to Evelyne Lüthi-Graf, director of the Swiss Hotel Archives, who helped us organize this wonderful research trip. The expedition allowed us to add 30 visitors’ books to the list!

The view from Jeremie’s workstation at the Badrutt Palace.

A visit to the San Gottardo Archives

In late October, before the winter snow closed the pass, Jeremie and Patrick spent two days in Airolo at the archives of the San Gottardo Museum. We wish to thank the museum director, Carlo Peterposten, who showed us 9 visitors’ books from the Hotel Mont Prosa and 16 visitors’ books from the San Gottardo hospice, both located at the San Gottardo pass.

Travellers with little or no means could get a free meal and a bed for the night at the hospice, while guests who could afford it stayed at the Hotel Mont Prosa, where they could find more comfortable quarters and individual rooms. As one of the main passes across the Alps, the San Gottardo had been a busy pass long before the nineteenth century. Its importance faded with the opening of the San Gottardo railway tunnel in 1882. As the longest tunnel in the world at the time, its opening changed the face of Europe, and helped regionally, for example, by developing tourism in the canton of Ticino.

As the visitors’ books date from before and after the opening of the tunnel, we hope that they will help us understand how the situation changed for the hotel and hospice once travellers started taking the tunnel instead of crossing the Gotthard pass.

The Old Sosta, or store house, which houses the Saint-Gothard National Museum
The Hotel Mont Prosa, with the old hospice in the background
The Hotel Mont Prosa, today known as the Hotel San Gottardo

Swiss Guest Books in the Romantic Period

In October 2019, we presented our project at the REVE workshop in Ravenna, a group of Romantic-period scholars interested in the material culture of the Romantic period. Because few guest books from the first half of the nineteenth century have survived, one has to rely instead on the many published and unpublished travelogues, letters, journals, and articles in which they are mentioned, and entries often transcribed, in order to be able to reconstitute Romantic-period visitor book culture. In Robert Southey’s unpublished 1817 journal, for example, held at the Keswick Museum,  we have found 16 references to guest books. Looking at these and at several other sources, we wish to briefly point out some of the ways in which these were used in the Romantic period, and how they might still be useful to scholars today.

From very early on in the nineteenth century, visitor books in Switzerland served the legally-enforced function of registering clients, allowing the state to police the movements of foreigners. But these same books were also an early and useful form of information technology, enabling tourists among other things to keep track of other tourists. Time and time again, Southey looks up the names of friends and acquaintances who had already accomplished or were in the process of accomplishing a tour on the Continent. In Sion on 24 June, for example, he writes: ‘Our passport was required, and the book was brought to inscribe our names. I found in it the names of Lady Fleming, of Eustace, and of the Awdrys.’ Visitor books could also be a discreet way to identify fellow tourists at one’s table d’hôte or to identify their national origins. At the Ile St. Pierre in 1817, the utilitarian-minded Louis Simond writes that, ‘Looking over this book, we ascertained that the proportion of travellers from different countries stands thus: fifty-three Swiss and Germans, four Prussians, two Dutch, one Italian, five French, three Americans, and twenty-eight English.’

Much like today’s TripAdvisor, they also commented on their own or on other establishments, the risk being that the inn keeper may have penned the review, or that opinions diverged. Southey thus notes that ‘The Savage at Meyringhen had been marked as a house of extortion in one of the Books which we had seen, and as an excellent house in another. We found good fare, and charges which previous extortion made us think reasonable.’

Visitor books were not only useful: they were also source of literary entertainment. Dorothy Wordsworth notes in her journal in Chamonix, that

‘The Album of the Union Inn could hardly be read through in a whole week of bad weather. The names of many of our Friends and acquaintances were discovered; and quotations from my Brother’s poems—“Matthew” and “Yarrow Visited” with “Sad Stuff!” affixed to the latter, by way of comment, in another handwriting. Some spirited pencil sketches in the same book.’

The sketches and so-called album verse, more often doggerel, together with the caustic comments that often glossed these, delighted tourists, so much so that the visitor book led to its own literary sub-genre, poems supposedly written in visitor books (Wordsworth has one, Byron two). Travelers not only enjoyed leaving their own comments: they also liked to transcribe others’ comments, epigrams, and bon mots in their journals. Simond is again insightful here: he writes that ‘We copied a few of them as well as the critical remarks of less friendly travelers, some of them amusing enough, but it would scarcely be fair to swell this book with quotations of young ladies and gentlemen’s poetry.’

One of the most interesting features of Romantic guest book culture is the way in which they created an intertextual network linking people and places. John Roby, for instance, writes in 1838 that he is ‘very fond of these memorials. They are a link, a pleasant connection, a bond of hidden mystic sympathy with those who have gone before.’ To give just one example: On 7 July 1817, Southey wrote his name in visitor book of Elizabeth Grossmann, the celebrated ‘belle batelière’ of Brientz. In his own tour account, Simond writes that, ‘Turning over the last page we observed the name of Mr. Southey, who it seems passed a day or two ago, and recorded in the book his admiration of the belle batelière, who is he says like the Formarina.’ And a year later, Charles Lyell again noticed and copied down Southey’s inscription: ‘RS recognizes in Elizabeth a striking resemblance to la Formorina of Rafael,’ he wrote, before disputing the resemblance.

Guest books were best known as the hunting ground for celebrity autographs and comments. In Bern, for instance, Southey notes that ‘Kosiuzko’s name was in the book of visitors.’ Because of the public interest they generated, travelers used them to help fashion their identity, notably through self-disclosure. Byron’s entering of his age as 100 in a Geneva hotel, for example, or Shelley’s identification as an atheist at Montanvers not only contributed to these two poets’ mythical status, but also inspired hundreds of similar entries. As a result, many names and comments were forged, and the most interesting often pilfered, including Shelley’s page from Hotel de Londres, which was bound in a copy of the Revolt of Islam, and only recently rediscovered. As Daniel Wilson writes in 1824, ‘It is much to be regretted that the unpardonable licence of a few persons, I am afraid chiefly Englishmen, is rapidly tending to put an end to this innocent and gratifying custom,’ i.e. ‘the keeping of a stranger’s book.’

Tourism and Protection of Cultural Property

The newest issue of the magazine Forum PCP (Protection of Cultural Property) deals with the complex theme of tourism and the protection of cultural property. Jeremie Magnin contributed an article about his research and the Swiss guestbook project (pp. 54-59). In it, Jeremie examines Zermatt visitors’ books from the 1850s and 1860s to show how British guests identified themselves abroad, how this influenced their material and textual practices, and what their inscriptions had to say about the relation between individuals and national ideology. British travellers’ entries could be as short as signing their names, writing a few sentences or, in the case of mountaineers, regularly taking more than one page to write about their climbs. Many of the latter after 1857, when the Alpine Club was founded, include the initials “AC.” These two cryptic letters stood for a specific set of values and behaviour that the British mountaineers were particularly proud of, as they believed that it distinguished them from other guests. Our analysis of Zermatt visitors’ books demonstrates how these cultural objects were used to construct national identity, notably by helping promote the Alpine Club as a model for British values. If the mountaineers seem to form an elite of independent individuals, their visitors’ book entries also suggest a culture of cooperation, and an awareness that they relied heavily on other climbers, local guides and landlords for their successful ascents.

Forum PCP is available for download at the following link: Forum PCP No 33/2019 – Tourism and Protection of Cultural Property

More Hunting in the High Alps

Jérémie Magnin’s hunt for guest books has yielded a large number of new finds, but he has also taken advantage of the summer months to photograph manuscripts.  In July, Jérémie went to Zermatt to see the 1865 Monte Rosa book, still owned by the Seiler family.  He and Patrick Vincent also spent a day looking at books from the Simplon and Great St.Bernard Hospices in the archives of the Congregation of St-Bernard in Martigny, and two days at the Musée Alpin and the Association des Amis du Vieux Chamonix.

On a side trip to Montanvers, they saw what was left of the Temple de la Nature, built in 1795 to replace Blair’s Hut, and where many famous tourists, including Shelley, signed their name in the guest book. Two hotels were built beside it, the first in 1840, the second in 1890. The latter is still a hotel and has been beautifully restored. Even more impressive was seeing what was left of the Mer de glace. A different kind of inscription marks the glacier’s level in 1990, only thirty years ago.