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Stone Castle of Chillon Imprisons Dark Memories

August 13, 1989|WILLIAM C. BRISICK | Brisick is a free-lance writer living in Westlake Village .

MONTREUX, Switzerland — Chillon! Thy prison is a holy place,

And thy sad floor an altar--for 'twas trod,

Until his very steps have left a trace

Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,

By Bonivard! ...

--Lord Byron

The rocky islet of Chillon, which Lord Byron helped make famous in the above sonnet and in his longer poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon," hugs the eastern end of Lake Leman (best known as Lake Geneva) a few kilometers from here.

Byron created an unforgettable portrait of Francois Bonivard, who languished for four years in the Chillon castle dungeon. Even if not exactly true to the facts, the poem is a heart-rending statement of a man's devotion to his religious beliefs and a splendid introduction to one of Europe's most exemplary castles.

Chillon, even without Byron's testimony, imposes itself upon one's consciousness. Three semicircular towers of the 13th Century dominate its exterior wall, while from the center of the fortress the castle keep rises above them. Edging in from the lake, the waters of the moat offer a tranquil contrast.

The interior opens the darker aspects of castle life--the dungeon, torture chamber, gibbet and arsenal, as well as its lighter side--the banquet and receptions halls, bed chambers and chapel.

These are aged spaces; they echo with stories of counts and dukes, of revelry and religiosity, of a spirit of long ago.

Chillon is a "restored" castle, to peg it correctly. The Bernese of Switzerland shored it up after a strong earthquake in 1584, but it was the archeologist Albert Naef, helped by detailed plans that showed the changes through the ages, who did the major work of restoration at the end of the 19th Century.

Chillon served many functions. At one time a fortress, a lookout, a princely residence, an administrative center, prison and arsenal, the building--perforce--always needed a bit of remodeling.

The Romans, judging from coins and other remains founded in excavations in 1896, probably used the rock as an outpost. Later generations recognized the strategic position of this little islet: Between the lake and the mountains it stood above the narrow road that led south into Italy. It was an ideal spot for defense and to collect taxes on goods that passed that way.

The castle keep, an old tower of refuge, probably was built in the 11th Century; on the land side--the most vulnerable point of attack, the formidable towers, comprising a second exterior "curtain" wall, were added two centuries later.

It was then that the House of Savoy held dominion over this part of Switzerland, and its counts made Chillon their ducal residence. The Bernese ended all that in 1536 when they captured the castle from their Catholic enemy and in the process freed its most famous prisoner.

Lake Leman lies by Chillon's walls;

A thousand feet in depth below

Its mossy waters meet and flow;

Thus much the fathom-line was sent

From Chillon's snow-white battlement,

Which round about the wave enthralls:

A double dungeon wall and wave

Have made--and like a living grave.

As the prior of St. Victor's, Francois Bonivard had been imprisoned by Duke Charles III of Savoy because he favored the Reformation and wanted to introduce it in Geneva.

Byron, who visited Chillon in 1816, cast the situation in his poem, taking a bit of artistic license in the process. By then, Byron's celebrity notwithstanding, the castle had seen its better days; it was fast becoming a neglected anachronism.

Years later the restoration changed all that, and today's visitor, with only a soupcon of imagination, can easily move back a few centuries in time.

The old moat, having been cleared of detritus from the ages, still laps its water against grassy shore and stony wall. One crosses it via a covered bridge; it replaced the old drawbridge that must have succumbed to too many foot soldiers, too many closings and openings.

Stately courtyards flanked by several levels of ceremonial halls and living quarters fill the upper floors, while down below, on the less penetrable lake side (surely the dankest part of the castle) the dungeon spreads its gloom.

"There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,/ In Chillon's dungeon's deep and old," wrote the poet. But the vaulted ceiling and the columns of unembellished stone speak of a harmony, a quiet aesthetic, that belongs as much to a church as to a dungeon.

From 1532 to 1536 Bonivard was here, chained to one of the pillars. The pillar still stands, close to the one where Byron, in the tradition of graffiti makers through the ages, carved his name. Now, 173 years later, the poet's name merits a glass-enclosed case, and like most graffiti, appears indestructible.

Not far from the dungeon, castle restorers found the ruin of what was the original chapel, a tiny structure hiding such fragments as a delicate shrine and a Carolingian altar stone.

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