Swiss Castles: A Visit to Tarasp

Photo courtesy of Nina Froriep
Photo courtesy of Nina Froriep

I’ve always been interested in buildings as whole, though I photograph mostly portals—windows and doors. Buildings are a visible externalized carapace for a person, a way of judging their social status, their hopes and aspirations, their peculiarities.

View from the castle
View from the castle Tarasp

Castles, of course, are more than just personal expressions. They were built to proclaim the power of their owner, and to defend his accumulated wealth. These days, money hides in electronic strings of ciphers, in unseen places, available only to those who have the codes. But historically, castles put their owner’s wealth on display. Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria still has shelves of clunky golden objects, graceless and overly ornate, calling attention to their heft of precious metal. Ludwig was the last king of Bavaria; it too tired of regal extravagance, choosing to opt for more democratic model.

Older castles can have complicated histories. Castle Tarasp, which I visited recently, is one of those. It still stands in the Swiss canton called Grisons in English, and Graubünden in German. Built in the 11th century by nobility from Milano, it  stands guard over the area surrounding the resort village of Scoul. Its genesis is common—rich and powerful men, perhaps out of favor, looking for a new place to establish themselves. After the line of Tarasp died out, the castle became part of the holdings of the church, and then was passed back and forth to various members of nobility.

The first unusual owner was an Austrian prince and his descendants. That doesn’t sound so strange—except that Graubünden, where the castle is located, had already joined the Swiss Federation. Can you imagine the Alamo having remained under Mexican rule, while the rest of Texas joined the United States of America? To top it off, the Austrian rulers were Catholic, while that part of Switzerland was predominantly Protestant.

The old chapel, with a painting by artist Not Vital
The old chapel, with a painting by artist Not Vital

Six-hundred men of arms were garrisoned in the castle, and an artificial lake protected it from attack on the south—on the north, the hill rose higher, giving the castle a protected flank. After the castle was reassigned to Graubünden, as part of Napoleon’s reorganization of Europe, it was abandoned and forlorn. The canton sold it to the only interested party for a paltry sum. For half-a century, the castle endured a succession of owners who had no interest in taking care of the decaying edifice. They took what they could of value, and sold it, leaving behind an empty husk.

Photo courtesy of Nina Froriep
Photo courtesy of Nina Froriep

Here comes my favorite part of the story. At the beginning of the 20th century, a certain Dr. Ligner drove one of the first automobiles to Graubünden, anxious to take to visit the thermal baths. Dr. Ligner was from Dresden, in the east of Germany, and he’d made a fortune on his mouthwash recipe. Finding his trip impeded by Graubünden’s automobile ban, he was forced to hire a farmer and his ox-cart to pull the car along. During his journey, he asked about the once majestic, crumbling castle, and learning of its plight, made an offer for it. Dr. Ligner threw himself into the project, acquiring tapestries and medieval furniture, and restoring the inside. He died before he was able to move in, and the estate went to a close personal friend, and stayed within that family.

Until last year, that is. Now, in a bizarre twist, a world-renowned sculptor Not Vital (please note; his name is an authentic Swiss one, and no reflection on his energy level), purchased the castle. Mixed with the old wooden stools and leaded glass are bright, metal abstract sculptures, and Andy Warhol lithographs of cows. Unclear what purpose the castle serves for the eccentric Not, whom the New York Times profiled in 2013.  There, it was written that “in recent times, Vital has begun to emerge as a major artistic philosopher of habitat and material life.”

Artist and bon-vivant Julian Schnabel wore a bathrobe to parties. Heaven knows what Not wears in the castle, at private soirees. After getting an intriguing glimpse of a tall and commanding man in a hat during our tour, I received confirmation that Not was indeed visiting the premises. He’s a man interested in many things, with different residences on various continents.

May the castle continue to be reborn under the auspices of various owners. I hope that history survives, side by side, with the startling innovations of its present owner.

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