A look at the Top Ten: Herrliberger‘s Schweitzerischer Ehrentempel

Printed by Daniel Eckenstein in 1748 in Basel (Volume 1)

No, William Tell is not included in this book that the Swiss engraver and publisher David Herrliberger had printed in 1748. It was not his intention to write a history book. Herrliberger was no historian. He was an entrepreneur. And he always had a nose for producing bestsellers. A compilation of the most important personalities from Switzerland – that was genius, because it gave the people a great conversation topic. Whether in the intellectual salons, at academy sessions or with afternoon guests, it could be wonderfully argued anywhere about who had been, justly or unjustly, included in the book. But of course, in order to do that, you had to know who was on the list and what they had done to get there. And that promised the publisher a high number of book sales…

In fact, the first volume of the “Schweitzerischer Ehrentempel“ was so successful that Herrliberger followed up with a second part in 1758. And in 1774, there even was volume no. 3.

But who was among the best-known Swiss at the time? Which professions did they come from? Well, one thing is for sure: The so-called Röstigraben [the cultural barrier between the German- and the French-speaking part of Switzerland] already existed in 1748. For Herrliberger, only one “great Swiss” came from French-speaking Switzerland; from Geneva, to be precise. If you wanted to, you could include one representative from Fribourg, which lies right on the linguistic border. But from the Italian-speaking part of the country, not a single person was featured in the book. Most of the “great” Swiss people came – no surprise here – from the city of Zurich, which happened to be Herrliberger’s hometown. Three were from Bern, the rest were distributed among Basel (2), Grisons (2), Lucerne (1), Schaffhausen (2), St. Gallen (2) and Uri (1).

When you go looking for Swiss personalities that are still known to us today you’ll be surprised: Neither Zwingli nor Calvin, neither Paracelsus nor Leonhard Euler, not even the Basel mayor Johann Rudolf Wettstein, who, after all, negotiated the Swiss neutrality at the Peace of Westphalia, can be found in the honorary compilation of famous Swiss people.

 

This goes to show how much our education compendium has changed since the Enlightenment. Back then, people were familiar with the most important scientists, politicians and military leaders, whereas these days, we tend to attribute a much higher relevance to the performing arts and – over the last few years – especially to sports. Let me put it this way: How many world-class generals can you name? How many internationally known professors? And how many actors? How many singers? How many athletes?

This little book is not only a historical testimony. It is above all a sign for the transience of fame and its measure. But, if we are to believe Albrecht von Haller, who provided the introductory poem to the Ehrentempel, that didn’t even mean that much to the presented “great” personalities of Swiss history, because, as he put it, fame is a mere “smoke”, and God the true reward for goodness [no attempt at a full translation shall be made here].

Der Ruhm, der Weise krönt, der um die Helden strahlt, / Und den bemühten Dienst erhabner Bürger zahlt, / Ist für sie selbst ein Rauch, den sie nicht ungern missen, / Der echten Tugend Lohn ist Gott, und ihr Gewissen. / Dann ist der Ruhm kein Dunst, wenn er den jungen Geist, / Der regen Flamme gleich, mit sich zur Höhe reißt, / Nach edler Ahnen Bild die Nachwelt reitzt zu streben, / Und größre Cäsarn zwingt, im Friedrich aufzuleben.

If you would like to know in detail who made it into the Swiss Ehrentempel, please visit the website of the Zurich main library. For your information: We only consulted volume 1 for our little statistics.

David Herrliberger is (of course) also included in the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.

And if would like to find out if you know today’s most famous Swiss personalities, do take this Quiz from the deutschlernerblog.