The Chateau de Chillon in Switzerland is the unlikely ancestral home of the royal house that ultimately united Italy. Located on the shores of Lake Geneva in the heart of the Swiss Alps, Chillon is geographically, architecturally and culturally worlds away from Italy. And yet the rulers of this ancient Burgundian stronghold, in defiance of the vast wealth and resources of Italy’s city states, not to mention the military and diplomatic efforts of Europe’s great powers, slowly but surely extended their influence across the peninsula over seven centuries. Interestingly, by the time the Catholic Savoys had conquered Italy in the 19th century, their castle and lands in Switzerland had long since been confiscated by the Protestant Cantons. The Chateau de Chillon was immortalized in the 19th century in a poem by Lord Byron.
During the 10th and 11th centuries, the territories which had once comprised the Empire of Charlemagne were in the process of fragmenting into a large collection of small kingdoms and city-states. Most of which were loosely incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, which at the time stretched from the North Sea to Rome. One of the successor states, located in what is now Western Switzerland, came under the control of the House of Savoy at the beginning of the 11th century. At some time around 1160, the Counts of Savoy established themselves at the Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva.
For most of the Late Middle Ages Savoy was a mid-sized realm that stretched from Western Switzerland to the Mediterranean, incorporating the Italian territory of Piedmont and parts of Southeastern France. For four centuries the Savoys ruled their territory from Chillon. The counts were elevated to the title of duke in 1416. After the Hundred Years War, the Burgundian loss seriously weakened the House of Savoy. This loss, combined with the rise of hostile Protestant Princes in Switzerland, pressured Savoy to reestablish itself in more the more friendly lands of Italy to the south.
In 1563, the forces of the City of Berne conquered the Canton of Vaud, the traditional Savoy homeland. The Savoy court was subsequently moved to Turin. As it turned out, this was ultimately a fortuitous move for the Savoys. In 1720, the Savoys came into possession of the island of Sardinia, and by 1743 the joint Sardinian-Piedmont state was known as the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Dukes of Savoy were now Kings of Sardinia, which they held until the Napoleanic period, at which time they were annexed for a few years by the French. The Napoleanic Wars ravaged the city-states of Italy, leaving a power vacuum that Savoy would ultimately fill by unifying the Peninsula.
In the meantime, Vaud was also occupied by Napolean, who was hailed as a hero who liberated the populace from the Protestant Bernese. In 1803 the Canton of Vaud joined the Swiss Confederation, and the Chateau de Chillon became the property of the Canton. In addition to its history as home of the Savoys, the chateau is also famous for being famous. A prominent monk was imprisoned there in the early 1500s, a relatively minor event that achieved worldwide notoriety in Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon. It has also appeared in the works of Dumas and Hugo, and is mostly renowned now for its literary references.
The Chateau de Chillon looks like it was lifted straight out of a Wagnerian opera. Its waterside setting beside Lake Geneva at the foot of the mountains gives it the appearance of being a part of the landscape, rather than towering over it. Most of the current castle dates from the 13th century, when it was substantially expanded and strengthened. Up close, the castle appears much more formidable. The overall structure consists of two-dozen large but closely built buildings and towers. Six of the latter protect the outer walls on the land side. The only entrance to the castle is by a covered bridge which stretches out over the edge of the lake. The bridge is covered with a roof, an extreme rarity in medieval architecture.
Inside the walls the tightly packed buildings of the castle leave only enough room for a small courtyard. The main buildings and residences of the castle face the lake. Most of the interior has been refurbished as a museum, although several of the areas, including the chapel and the ducal apartments, have been preserved. The museum has among its exhibits medieval armor and weapons as well as other artifacts from throughout the castle’s history. There is also a major collection of antique pewterware. Chillon is also occasionally home to other temporary exhibits as well.
The Chateau de Chillon is located about halfway between the towns of Montreux and Villeneuve, approximately forty miles east of Geneva. It is accessible by rail and by bus, as well as by boat. It is open from April to September from 9:00am-6:00pm; in March and October from 9:30am-5:00pm; and from November to February from 10:00am-4:00pm. Admission is CHF10.00 for adults and CHF5.00 for children (discounts for students, military and senior citizens). Web: www.chillon.ch (official website).
The immense Alpine mountains of Switzerland shelter scores of castles built during the uncertain days when the Holy Roman Empire was splintering into hundreds of tiny states. After Chillon, one of the next most important, as well as one of the oldest and most impressive, is Lenzburg Castle in the Canton of Aargau outside of Berne. Vaduz Castle is located in nearby Liechtenstein. This mountaintop home of the Liechtenstein royal family is a fair match to the Neuschwannstein Castle in Bavaria and the High King’s Castle in France. Also in the area are the Chateau de Gruyeres and Rapperswil Castle.