Central and Southern European Seats of Government

The buildings where legislatures meet in central and southern Europe (France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) reflect both the long histories of their countries and the modern governments they house.

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In fact, the governments of many of these countries are among the oldest in the western world, and the buildings where their laws are created attest to their longevity. 

As you visit each one, consider how history has shaped the architecture and how the architecture reflects history. 

The Palais Bourbon, Paris, France

It may be surprising to you that the building where France’s democratically elected legislature meets carries the name of the royal family that was ousted during the French Revolution. The Palais Bourbon was built in 1722 by a daughter of King Louis XIV. 

Like other royal properties, it was confiscated during the Revolution of 1789-1799 and became the property of the people of France. Since 1830, it has housed the National Assembly, a bicameral parliament with an upper and lower house.

An Added Touch of Grandeur

In 1756, Louis XV sold the Palais Bourbon to the military hero Prince de Condé. Condé added this gate with columns and military decorations. When revolution swept away the monarchy in 1780, Condé and many others went into exile.

Statue de la Loi (Statue of the Law)

Many government buildings exhibit statues of the Roman goddess Justice. She is often blindfolded or carries a balance scale or sword. In this work by Parisian Vincent Emile Feugère Forts, the sword of justice faces downward.

Paris Police Prefecture

This unit of the National Police protects the safety and security of the government. Created by Napoléon I in 1800, it is headed by the Prefect of Police. Today, government headquarters in most European capitals are on constant high alert.

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

This magnificent building opened in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet, Germany’s parliament. In 1933, the building was badly damaged by fire. 

Its closure gave the rising Nazis an excuse to suspend many rights provided by the German constitution parliament rarely met during the Nazi years. After World War II, the parliaments of East and West Germany met separately in Berlin and Bonn. 

In 1999, the fully renovated Reichstag was chosen as the meeting place of the Bundestag, the reunified German parliament.

Wrapping the Reichstag

In June 1995, the internationally famous artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Reichstag with over 100,000 meters of fabric, aluminium, and rope. Five million visitors viewed this gigantic work of art during its month-long exhibit.

Letting in the Light

Look up and you’ll see the enormous glass dome at the centre of the Reichstag’s roof. The dome offers a 360-degree panoramic view of Berlin. Its 360 mirrors shine natural light on the main debating chamber below.

Long, Long Lines

For security reasons, visitors to the Reichstag must make reservations in advance, provide the names of each person in a visiting party, and go through security screenings before entering. Tours are free, but the lines move very slowly. 

Enormous Dimensions

As you can see, the building dwarfs its visitors. Its 6 stories cover about 13,290 square metres, and its 4 towers are 40 metres high. ‘Dem deutchen Volke’ (To the German people) is inscribed above the main entrance.

The Old Royal Palace, Athens, Greece

Designed by Bavarian architect Friedrich von Gärtner, this neoclassical building was built between 1836 and 1843. It provided a home to the Greek kings and queens until the monarchy was abolished in 1924.

At various times, the Old Royal Palace served as a hospital, a refugee shelter, and a museum. Today, it houses the Hellenic Parliament, a unicameral (one chamber) legislature of 300 members. 

Constitution Square

Athens’ Constitution Square is within walking distance of the Acropolis, the centre of ancient Greek politics and culture. To many present-day Athenians, the square represents the epicentre of modern Greek politics and commerce. In recent years, numerous mass protests have taken place here. 

By John PhillipsLIFE Photo Collection

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

This monument was installed in 1932 to commemorate all soldiers who died in service to the country. The relief shows a dying soldier of ancient Greece. The wall on either side is inscribed with excerpts from Pericles’ famous funeral oration. 

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

Changing of the Guard

The Tomb of the Unknown Solider is guarded by soldiers wearing traditional uniforms called ‘foustanella’. The white skirts have 400 pleats, the number of years Greece was ruled by the Turks. The guards change every hour in a slow dance-like march.

The Palazzo Madama, Rome, Italy

The baroque Palazzo Madama is an architectural time capsule. It was built on top of the ruins of the ancient baths of Nero, which date to 62 AD. The ‘new’ building was finished in 1505 as a Roman residence for the Medici family, a leading family of Florence.

The current façade dates from the mid-1650s. Since 1871, the building has housed the Senate of the Republic, one of the two houses of the Italian parliament (the other is the Chamber of Deputies). 

Ornate Pediments

A pediment is a triangular or arched feature over a window or door, common in neoclassical and baroque architecture. These pediments are decorated with lions, lilies and images of Hercules, the Roman hero famous for his strength. 

Urns

Urns, or ornamental vases, sit along the Palazzo Madama’s roofline as purely decorative elements. Surface decorations like the urns, pediments and ornate cornice are a common feature of baroque architecture. 

Two Flags

Above the entrance hang the Italian flag and the flag of the European Union, an affiliation of 28 European states. Italy was a founding member of the EU in 1957. 

The Church

Throughout most of the Christian era, a large part of Italy was ruled by the Catholic pope. It was only in 1949, following a period of monarchical and then fascist rule, that Italy became a modern democracy.

The Palácio de São Bento, Lisbon, Portugal

The Palácio de São Bento in Lisbon was formerly a Benedictine monastery known as São Bento da Saúde (St. Benedict's Health) and dating back to the 16th century. The building endured a devastating earthquake in 1755. 

In 1834, the government took over the property as a meeting place for the Assembleia Nacional, the Portuguese parliament, and the building was renovated and refurbished. Today it presents an imposing neoclassical façade to the simple buildings across the street.

The Four Virtues

The four statues at the entrance to the palace show four virtues significant to the Portuguese people: Prudence, Strength, Justice, and Temperance. The portico has round arches borrowed from ancient Roman architecture.

Lions on Guard

Stone lions sculpted by Raul Xavier (1894-1964) guard the broad stairway that leads to the palace entrance. Busts, statues and relief work created by Xavier adorn public buildings throughout Portugal.

The Neoclassical Style

Neoclassical architecture borrows elements from the buildings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Palácio de São Bento is a great example: the façade features a central portico with arches supporting columns and a massive triangular pediment. 

The Tympanum Relief

The relief sculpture on the tympanum—the recessed part of the pediment—shows a figure representing the nation of Portugal surrounded by 18 other figures representing different aspects of society. The sculpture was created by Simões de Almeida.

The Federal Palace, Bern, Switzerland

The Federal Palace in the Swiss capital, Bern, provides a meeting place for both houses of the Swiss Federal Assembly—the upper house, the Council of States, and the lower house, the National Council.

It also houses the Federal Council, the country’s executive branch. Designed by architect Hans Auer, the building was dedicated on 1 April 1902. It includes a central assembly hall, a library and offices for various government departments.

The Dome

The dome brings the palace’s height to 64 metres (210 feet). It is decorated with the Swiss coat of arms and the coats of arms of the country’s 22 cantons, or states, that existed in 1902. Today, there are 26 cantons.

The Busy Bundesplatz

The Bundesplatz, or Government Plaza, is the centre of medieval Bern. For many years, the plaza served as a parking lot. Now thousands gather here for ‘Rendez-vous,’ a light and sound show put on each year for 6 weeks in October and November.

Granite from the Alps

The modern Bundesplatz is paved with 3,600 granite tiles from the nearby Alps. Hidden beneath them are 26 lighted water jets, one for each canton. The site hosts a weekly market and ice-skating in the colder months. 

The Palace of Westminster, London, England

A royal palace in one form or another has stood on the site of the present-day Palace of Westminster since the reign of Canute (1016–1035). A structure on the site was first used by Parliament in the 13th century. 

The palace as it had come to be was nearly destroyed in the Great Fire of 1834. The Palace of Westminster as we know it today was designed in the Gothic Revival style by Charles Barry and erected between 1840 and 1860.

Victoria Tower

The palace’s largest tower, Victoria Tower contains the Sovereign’s Entrance, an elaborately decorated archway used by the monarch whenever he or she enters the building. It also contains the Parliamentary Archives, with more than 3 million documents on 12 floors. 

Big Ben

This clock is a symbol of London. Completed in 1859, Big Ben has four faces. It chimes the hours, half hours and quarter hours. The tower was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to celebrate the queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The River Thames

In earlier times, kings, queens and ministers travelled conveniently—and anonymously, if necessary—to and from Westminster via the Thames. Henry VIII ruled primarily from Greenwich and must have spent plenty of time on the river.

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