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Historic buildings in the canton of Grisons - from power and religious fights to art

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

Instead of modern sterile white cubes, art in Grisons (Graubünden) is often found in historic buildings. This article highlights some of the historical events that shaped today's canton of Grisons from the perspective of these present-day art pilgrimage sites.


Fundaziun Capauliana at Sennhof Chur

Chur describes itself as the oldest town in Switzerland.[1] Although archaeological finds near the Sennhof and around the Welschdörfli area show that Chur was already intermittently settled in 11,000 BC, it was the Romans who conquered it in 15 BC and took it as a permanent seat.[2] In 451 the episcopal see came into being.[3] The bishopric not only influenced the ecclesiastical order, but also had economic or political power over their domain. It was first attached to the Italian ecclesiastical province of Milan and from 843 to the German diocese of Mainz.


In the 14th century, the mood among the local inhabitants regarding the church deteriorated, as the bishops were absent at the time, sold or mortgaged lands and aligned themselves more closely with Austria. As a result, the local residents joined together to form the Gotteshausbund (Church League) and demanded self-determination and autonomy. In 1527, the Reformation of the city of Chur [4] followed, which again brought religion-led unrest between the Reformed and Catholic adherents in the canton. In 1603, the then Chur city council and the bishop's mint master built the Sennhof.[5] After a few years as an alpine dairy, soap factory and living quarters, the city of Chur bought the building in 1817, which then served as a correctional facility until 2020.


Current construction at Sennhof Chur


Currently, flats as well as space for gastronomy and small businesses are being built in the Sennhof, where also art will find its place: from 2023, the Fundaziun Capauliana collection will move into parts of the extraordinary premises to bring its collected treasures to the public. The Fundaziun Capauliana was founded in 1986 by the Grisons-born Duri Capaul and his wife Clara Capaul-Hunkeler.[6] Throughout their lives, the couple collected pieces with a connection to Grisons, including many works of art by well-known names such as Segantini, Giacometti, Carigiet, Fontana and many more. But also cards, posters, flyers and more belong to the large collection, which will now be passed on as a foundation. If you would like to browse through the collection now, you can do so in the online catalogue.


Museum Sursilvan Cuort Ligia Grischa in Trun

In his will of 675, the Bishop of Chur Tello inherited property in Trun to the Disentis Monastery.[7] A predecessor of today's building of the Museum Sursilvan was used by the monastery as its administrative headquarters.[8] Due to various wars in the region, the then Abbot of the Disentis Monastery initiated the founding of the Oberer / Grauer Bund (Upper/Grey league) in 1395, following the example of the previously founded Gotteshausbund.[9] Even today, the founders of the league can be seen on the ceiling in the imposing room of the court (Landrichtersaal). From then on, the Oberer /Graue Bund met and held its meetings in the building of the Museum Sursilvan. In the 1670s, Prince-Abbot Adalbert II de Medel rebuilt the building in its present form. His successor added to the impressive interior. Due to another fire in the Disentis monastery, it suffered financial difficulties and sold the building of the Museum Sursilvan to the wealthy businessman Gion Giachen Cavegn, who used it as living space.

Impressions of the Museum Sursilvan


In 1934, the building was reopened, freshly renovated, and the Cuort Ligia Grischa Foundation was established. It received donations from local artists, which are on display, for example Alois Carigiet or Matias Spescha. In addition to the art, there are souvenirs from past generations on display, such as the impressive wooden interior panelling of the abbot's room, sleeping quarters in low rooms or the old kitchen.


The third league that makes up the canton of Grisons is the confederation Zehngerichtenbund (Ten Courts League) in the Praettigau region, founded in 1436. Even today, the Dreibündenstein (Three Leagues landmark) marks the place where the territories of the Drei Bünde (Three Leagues) meet. However, it took until the 18th century before Grisons came into being in its present form and Tarasp also became part of what is now Grisons and the Veltlin was separated from Grisons. More about this later.

View from the Dreibündenstein



Not Vital at Schloss Tarasp

Tarasp Castle has been enthroned in the Lower Engadine since 1040, built by Ulrich I, who probably came from Italy.[10] The Lower Engadine was attached to the diocese of Chur, for this was repeatedly gifted with lands and was thus able to establish itself firmly in the Lower Engadine. The next generations of the lords of Tarasp were connected to the various monasteries in the area. Ulrich II was first in the Disentis monastery and later became bishop in Chur. His brother Eberhard founded the monastery of Scuol. Two generations later, Ulrich IV endowed in the monastery of Marienberg in Venosta Valley. Inheritances to the diocese continued to occur. In the 12th century, the last male ancestors of the Taraspers died and so, around the 13th century, changes of ownership to various counts and dukes from the surrounding area (Tyrol, Toggenburg, Chiavenna) started.[11]

Tarasp Castle and the stairs of the "house to watch the sunset" by Not Vital


While the independent Three Leagues (Drei Bünde) were formed in the 14th and 15th centuries, Tarasp remained in the possession of the Austrians. Because of its affinity with Austria, Grisons did not officially join the Swiss Confederation when it was formed in the 14th century, but was merely an ally. In the 17th century, the Bündner Wirren (revolt of the leagues) took place. This meant that the Engadine was the scene of the dispute between Spain-Austria and France-Venice over control of Grisons' Alpine passes as well as religion.[12] It was only when the French pushed back the Austrians in Grisons that the Three Leagues became part of Switzerland.[13] Napoleon Bonaparte's mediation helped to bring peace and order to what is now the canton of Grisons. With the distribution of territories between Austria and France, Tarasp became part of Grisons. The church lost its influence over the territories, as church and state were separated (secularisation). Napoleon attributed Valtellina, which at that time belonged to the Three Confederations, to the Cisalpine Republic (today Italy).[14]


Entry and courtyard of the Tarasp Castle


In the 20th century, the German Karl August Lingner, founder of Odol mouthwash, bought the castle. He adorned it with incredible interior architecture from all over Europe, which remains in certain rooms to this day: an organ-equipped armoury with an impressive coffered ceiling, Delft tiles from Holland in the bathroom, Flemish tapestries and wooden panels from the Tyrol. In 2016, Engadine-born Not Vital acquired the castle. He renovated it and complemented it with art from all over the world - his own, as well as that of Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso or Frank Stella. The works are often placed inconspicuously and naturally in the room, as in an ordinary flat but uniquely surrounded in their context by knight's armour, old furniture and the impressive interior architecture. Right next to the castle is one of Not Vital's "Houses to watch the sunset". A detailed tour can be booked online or is available for reading on the blog of dominiquevonburg.ch.


View from the "house to watch the sunset" of Not Vital at Schloss Tarasp



Muzeum Susch in the old monestary brewery

In the 12th century, a monastery was founded in Susch in the Lower Engadine, which was on the pilgrimage route to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.[15] The monks brewed beer in the monastery until, probably triggered by the Reformation and revolt of the leagues, they withdrew to the Marienberg monastery founded by the Taraspers.[16] The property then passed to the Catholic-oriented von Planta family and later Campbell. In 1917, poor management and financial problems, as well as the outbreak of war, led to the liquidation of the brewery. From 1991 it became a brewery museum for a few years, but this too was not profitable. [17][18]


Outside view onto the Muzeum Susch with the entrance by Mirko Baselgia


On 2 January 2019, the monastery reopened its doors, freshly renovated and since then under the name Muzeum Susch.[19] Grazyna Kulczyk had acquired the brewery and surrounding buildings to show contemporary art and thus created a new art hotspot with international relevance in the village of 200 inhabitants. From 2015 to 2018, the architects Chasper Schmidlin and Lukas Voellmy converted the building. Now art, architecture and surroundings form a uniquely harmonious unit. The Engadine landscape comes into the building, be it through exposed stone in interior rooms or the direct view of the river Inn flowing by. Elements of the previously managed brewery are also still visible, or are visible again, such as the grotto where the beers were stored or the re-created passageway between the old brewery building and the extension of the brewery situated on the opposite side of the road.


Art (Miroslaw Balka & Sara Masüger) and interior of the Muzeum Susch


Art is an integral part of the building through commissioned works that fit perfectly into the exhibition rooms, the entrance door to the auditorium by Mirko Baselgia, visible from the outside, or the tunnel by Sara Masüger penetrating through the wall. In addition one can find a tower of Not Vital. Nevertheless, the traditional white cubes have not completely disappeared. Walking through the building, one can still find more classical museum rooms, where the art is more in the foreground, but it is often accompanied by elements like the stone floor or visible wooden beams. You can find out more about the renovation or the founder in the Swiss television feature.


The cantonal border of Grisons is set today and the influence of religion in politics is moderate. But what about the alliances? The population within Grisons seems to be sticking together: Ski resorts are joining forces, Grisons Tourism is promoting the canton, and the only disagreement is perhaps over the Romansh dialects. On the other hand, the opinions regarding alliances with neighbouring countries or other cantons still partly resembles the ancient situation. On the one hand, external support is needed to realise large-scale projects, on the other hand, one cannot quite identify with the foreign pioneers. The colourful individuals of the art scene definitely stand out in the mountain villages, similar to the nobility in the Middle Ages. Personally, I am quickly inspired by art and mountains, rustic in the historic buildings instead of building new blocks. And that is why every support comes in handy for projects like the Muzeum Susch, the Engadin Art Talks, the St. Moritz Art Film Festival or the Pop-Up Art Parcours in Ardez. Now it is time for the Obere/Graue Bund as well as the Zehngerichtenbund to follow suit, because the Engadin is still a longer journey despite mastering the Alpine passes, schreibt Schreiber.

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This article provides a tiny summary of Grison's rich history written in the most digestible way possible and with the aim of drawing attention to the abundant art sites available in the canton of Grisons, as this blog promises to do. If you find any discrepancies, I look forward to your feedback through the contact form in the «About» tab.

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