Gustave Revilliod (1817-1890) and his life’s work: the Ariana
Geneva owes a great deal to Gustave Revilliod: one of Geneva’s most beautiful museums and an encyclopaedic collection of 30,000 objects. While Revilliod’s collections are now distributed between Geneva’s various municipal museums, his soul, humanism and open-mindedness continue to pervade the museum, which is now dedicated to ceramics and glassware.
Always close beside him, Godefroy Sidler (1836-1910) became Gustave’s steward, travel companion and faithful friend, and finally the first curator of the museum. Sidler helped Revilliod in making choices for his collection, accompanied him on numerous journeys and oversaw the construction of the Musée Ariana.
Gustave Revilliod, a man whose eyes were fixed on the whole world
A Genevan patron, scholar and collector actively involved in public life, Gustave Revilliod came from a well-off family originating in the Savoy region, who had been established in Geneva since the 16th century.
Having inherited a substantial fortune (his father hoped he would use it productively rather than spend it), Revilliod devoted his life to travel, the arts and extending his country’s influence. An outstanding collector, he was interested in all art forms, purchasing an eclectic mix of works from the past and present including paintings, coins, sculptures, prints, textiles, furniture, weapons, books, gold and silverware, as well as ceramics and glassware. He also performed a number of official duties, including representing Switzerland at the opening of the Suez Canal.
Upon his death, during his final trip to Cairo, Gustave Revilliod bequeathed to the City of Geneva his estate, part of his fortune, his collections and the museum, “which will be the pride of our country and will contribute to the artistic education of the generations that come after us”.
Located midway between the Italian Palace and the Basilica, and borrowing from both Renaissance and baroque styles, the Musée Ariana strikes a unique figure in the protestant area of Geneva.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Gustave Revilliod decided to build a museum on his Varembé estate to house his collections, for which he had little space at his town house in the Old Town. He named it the Ariana after his much-loved mother, Ariane Revilliod-De la Rive (1791-1876).
It took over 10 years to build, with construction started by Emile Grobéty (1844-1906) before being taken over by Jacques-Elysée Goss (1839-1921). Some features included in the original plans, such as the monumental staircase intended to dominate the entrance hall, never saw the light of day. However, the building’s symmetry, its elliptical dome, the marble double colonnade and the star-shaped vault make a strong impression on visitors. The rich iconography of the ceilings painted by Frédéric Dufaux (1852-1943) is as spectacular as the statues and busts on the building’s façades, which were begun by Luigi Guglielmi (1834-1907) and completed by Emile Leysalle (1847-1912). Lastly, the sphinxes that keep watch at the original entrance, on the lake side, were sculpted by Emile-Dominique Fasanino (1851-1910).
Half the park it once was
Bequeathed by Gustave Revilliod to the City of Geneva, the vast Varembé estate extended as far as the lake. Visitors could arrive by boat, disembark onto the jetty and enjoy some refreshments at the floating restaurant before making their way to the museum on foot. In the 20th century, the park was parcelled off on multiple occasions and underwent numerous reconfigurations.
The most significant of these was undoubtedly the construction of the Palace of Nations, between 1929 and 1937. The demolition of the Revilliod property and its annexes, as well as the loss of the view over the lake and the Alps, were the most severe consequences of this building’s construction.
While the UN’s establishment on the Ariana estate was not in line with the donor’s final wishes, we can imagine that it might have stirred a sense of pride in him that his estate could serve the cause of multilateralism.