The wonderful city of Bern

The Swiss city of Bern is known for its bears, the heraldic symbol of the city since the 13th century. It also boasts medieval fountains as well as a startling collection of works by local artist Paul Klee.

According to local legend, Berchtold V, Duke of Zähringen, who founded the city of Bern, vowed to name it after the first animal he met on a hunt – which turned out to be a bear. Such stories cannot always be relied upon. Another possibility is that the city was named after the Italian city of Verona, at the time known as Bern in Middle High German. But now it is more commonly assumed that the city was named after a topographical feature of Celtic origin, possibly berna meaning “cleft”.

The medieval city of Bern is built on a narrow hill surrounded on three sides by the Aare River. Its compact layout has remained essentially unchanged since its construction during the 12th to the 15th centuries. Despite a major fire in 1405, after which much of the city was rebuilt in sandstone, as well as substantial construction efforts in the 18th century, Bern’s old city still retains its medieval character – including its many fountains.

Anna-Seiler(1)One is the Anna Seiler fountain, located in Marktgasse, which is a memorial to the founder of the city’s first hospital. Anna Seiler is represented by a woman in a blue dress, pouring water into a small dish. She is standing on a pillar brought from the Roman town of Aventicum (modern Avenches).

In 1354, Anna Seiler – who described herself as a citizen and resident of Bern – asked the city to help found a hospital in her house which today stands on Zeughausgasse. The hospital initially had 13 beds and two attendants and was to be in perpetuity. When Anna died around 1360, the hospital was renamed the Seilerin Spital. In 1531 it moved to the empty Dominican Order monastery St. Michaels Insel (St. Michael’s Island) and was then known as the Inselspital, which still exists over 650 years after Anna Seiler founded it.

The Anna Seiler fountain, which stands on the site of an old well, was most likely designed by Hans Gieng (c. 1510-62), a Swiss Renaissance sculptor best known for his fountains in Fribourg as well as the Old Town of Bern. Gieng, who was probably of Swabian origin, is recorded to have become a citizen of Fribourg and a member of the craftsmen’s guild in 1527.

Klee(2)Bern is also the home of the Paul Klee Centre, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. In 1997 Livia Klee-Meyer, Paul Klee’s daughter-in-law, donated some 690 works to the city and canton of Bern. Additional works and documents donated or loaned by the family and a further 200 loans from private collections have led to the creation of an outstanding collection which includes hand puppets made between 1916 and 1925 for his son Felix.

It was Paul Klee’s philosophy that, “Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht sichtbar” (Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible). He is buried just a stone’s throw from the Centre that bears his name.

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