Matthäus Merian, Topographia Helvetiae, Rhaetiae et Valesia. Published in Frankfurt in 1654.

There are probably very few people who shaped their contemporaries’ conception of the world as profoundly as Matthäus Merian the Elder did. He was a gifted artist. His copper engravings turned books into bestsellers. Well more than 9,000 etchings are said to be the fruits of his artistic activities. Most popular are his city views. They are being reproduced to this day, influencing our image of the past.

Matthäus Merian was more than an imaginative artist. He was a successful publisher and knew exactly what the reading public liked to spend their money on. His first big success was Theatrum Europaeum, sort of a contemporary history work starting in 1633. For all those who were longing for distant countries in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War – which made pleasure trips impossible – he published his Topographia Germaniae, a description of all German-speaking regions of that time.

It is remarkable that Merian’s work begins with Switzerland, a country that – shortly after the first volume was published – was to break off all relations with the Holy Roman Empire in the context of the Peace of Westphalia in 1642. To understand this choice, one has to know that Matthäus Merian was Swiss himself, born in Basel and apprenticed in Zurich to be precise. Therefore, he could largely draw on his own impressions while creating his Swiss city views. However, this was not true for all of them. Regarding towns he hadn’t seen himself, he had local people describe him what the view was like, or, he used older copper engravings as models. In this process, he did commit some mistakes – which could cause disgruntlement. Legend has it that the upper class of Appenzell Inner-Rhoden was rather angry about the fact that their main town had been depicted smaller than that of Appenzell Ausser-Rhoden – even though, they argued, Appenzell was certainly larger than Herisau…

Incidentally, Merian did not solely rely on his impressive images. He collaborated with Martin Zeiller, a Protestant poet, who wrote pictorial texts to accompany the depictions of his Topographia, which was designed in the style of a travel guide.

One may certainly wonder whether Switzerland – without Matthäus Merian – would have become such a firmly established part of any educational trip. Even Goethe perceived it as such and found the material for a Tell play there, which he warmly recommended to his friend Schiller.

Schiller never travelled to Switzerland. He probably imagined the country exactly as Matthäus Merian depicted it.

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