by Paul Doolan
This article first appeared in Cream: urban lifestyle magazine, September/October 2004
Alone among European cities Zurich can boast a restaurant named after a political assassin. It is, one must admit, an unusual phenomenon – imagine Kabul with a Cafe bin Laden. Café Orsini, on the corner of the Waaggasse and the lovely Munsterhof, is named after a political radical who, even in failure, managed to change the course of European history and caused Italy to be born.
In 1848 the entire continent of Europe was convulsed in a series of violent revolutions. Like most revolutions, they failed, and in the conservative fallout that followed young radicals from all over Europe, including members of the republican Young Italy movement, fled to that bastion of liberalism, Switzerland. Some of these left wing asylum seekers, like the German “Poet of Freedom” Georg Herwegh, hung out in a café that belonged to the luxurious Hotel Baur en Ville next door, where they enjoyed singing Herweg’s popular revolutionary hit of the time “We have loved long enough. At last we want to hate…”
A decade later an Italian nationalist called Orsini, lobbed a few bombs at French Emperor Napoleon III in Paris. He had been a member of Young Italy and a devotee of its founder Mazzini, a man described by the leader of Austria as “the most dangerous man in Europe”. Like all followers of Mazzini and Young Italy, Orsini had sworn to defy every form of monarchy. To kill a monarch would always have been a good day’s work, but Orsini was particularly unhappy that Napoleon (who, by the way, was brought up in a country house, Schloss Arenenberg on the Bodensee, not far from Zurich) had not liberated the Italians from the Austrians who dominated the peninsula. Orsini’s bombs missed their target but did kill a number of bystanders and wounded scores, including himself. His trial and consequent execution was the news of the time. Here in Zurich the anti-monarchist patrons of our café declared their support for revolution by raising their glasses to Orsini. Georg Herwegh than hung a portrait of Orsini prominently in the café. This would have been like hanging the hammer and sickle on the wall during the hottest days of the Cold War. Gradually the café came to be referred to as Café Orsini. The portrait has been removed but the name remains.
With Orsini dead Napoleon III, who I am convinced was a bit of a softy with an incredible desire to be liked, decided to come to the rescue of the Italians after all. He made a pact with the Italian King of Piedmont and together they cold bloodedly tricked Austria into war in 1859. To make a long story short, (and believe me, that is difficult for an Irishman) the war led to Italian unification in 1860. That war gave us a new word for ‘red’ – ‘magenta’ after the colour of Italian, Austrian and French blood spilt in the Battle of Magenta. The war also led to the setting up of the Red Cross by Swiss man Henri Dunant, who is buried in Sihlfeld Cemetery in Zurich. Appalled at the terrible shedding of blood that he had let loose, Napoleon III, giving ear to his soft heart again, brought hostilities to a premature cessation. Peace negotiations were held in, of all places, Zurich. The French and Austrian delegates were housed in the Hotel Baur au Lac, where the negotiations took place. The representatives of the Kingdom of Piedmont however, thoroughly despised by the Austrians, took separate lodgings, at the Baur en Ville. We can only wonder how they felt when they discovered that next door was a café with a portrait of the would be killer of kings!
Today Café Restaurant Orsini is an upmarket eating establishment. You won’t find many left wing radicals hanging out there any more, at least not any poor ones. And the cuisine? Why, Italian of course.