Alpine passes took on growing importance during the dynastic and geopolitical struggles that began with the Italian Wars after 1494. As Habsburg and French ambitions clashed over the territories and wealth of Italy, the smaller polities controlling the passes that connected northern Europe to Italy, from Savoy in the west to Tirol in the east, faced new threats and new opportunities for collective or individual gain. The house of Savoy’s sixteenth-century travails were shaped by these circumstances, which played an even larger role for the smaller pass states of the Swiss Confederation. The Grey Leagues (Graubünden, Grigioni, Grischuns), Uri and the Wallis (Valais) each saw great instability as kin-based factions and ambitious climbers sought support from powerful outsiders interested in sending men, materiel and trade through the mountains, northwards or southwards. In these small polities, ruthless individual actors repeatedly rose to power by combining factional, military and commercial power for shorter or longer periods, before their often spectacular falls. Helmut Stalder’s biography of Kaspar Stockalper (1609–1691) covers one of the most successful of these figures, who achieved nearly complete control not over the Simplon pass but also much of Wallis’s internal economy in the mid-seventeenth century, garnering equally extraordinary wealth in the process before his abrupt departure from power in 1679.
Kaspar Stockalper was a scion of a family influential in the upper Zehnden of the Republic of Wallis and firmly established in the town of Brig at the foot of the Simplon. He was a student at the Jesuit school in Brig when it was closed by the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1627, part of a conflict involving the bishop of Sion (Sitten), Francophile leading men, and his uncle Anton II Stockalper, who was publicly executed by the rival faction in October of the same year. Kaspar continued his studies in Freiburg i.B., but returned after two years to begin his own political career in Brig, where his family remained influential despite the setback of 1627. As he took up his first public offices, he also began building a network of outside connections that eventually led to his partnership with Flemish and Italian merchants in a trading company that began its work in 1633. He added the concession to operate a key iron mining and smelting operation in 1635–1636, and began occupying more important offices in Brig and its allied Zehnden, weaving together commercial, political and social influence with growing confidence. As Stalder astutely observes, Stockalper practiced a „systematisch angestrebte und fortlaufend realisierte engste Verzahnung von wirtschaftlichen und politischen Aktivitäten, die sich gegenseitig bedingen und verstärken“ (p. 52). In the weakly institutionalized Alpine republics of the time, this was a common formula for success, usually entangled with political subsidies (Pensionen) from foreign rulers and profits from the highly politicized business of raising mercenary regiments.
With the death of the previous Wallis strongman, Michael Mageran – the man responsible for Anton Stockalper’s execution – the way opened for Kaspar Stockalper’s period of dominance. The various enterprises he had launched previously made him the leading candidate to replace Mageran politically as well as economically, and Stockalper soon gained not only a seat on the republic’s Landrat (council) but also the exclusive right to control traffic over the Simplon. Other political offices and monopolies quickly followed, including in 1647 the highly lucrative salt monopoly, and even a monopoly on snails (which were valuable because they could be consumed on Catholic fast days). His diplomatic assignments on the republic’s behalf, meanwhile, allowed him to claim a share of the mercenary regiments the republic’s elite families sent to French service, another major source of both political influence and economic gain. His brother-in-law ascended to the bishop’s seat in 1640, further cementing Stockalper’s central position in the strategically located Wallis. By the 1650s, Stalder describes how his economic enterprises extended „krakenartig in alle Lebensbereiche und Landesteile aus, ziehen alles an sich, womit sich Geld machen lässt, und pressen den Reichtum heraus“ (p. 91). Stockalper ascended to the republic’s highest political office, Landeshauptmann, in 1669.
Stalder’s account makes excellent use of a vital surviving source, Stockalper’s account books, which meticulously trace his growing wealth, and also contain commonplaces or short musings about his fortune and status in the world. The account books also reveal how Stockalper, once his economic position was secure, began routing a growing part of his fortunes into land purchases, often enough facilitated by the legal and political pressure he could bring to bear on unwilling sellers. By the peak of his power, he controlled a substantial part of the best land in the whole region, including extensive holdings in the Val d’Ossola south of the Alps. This genre of source, even when Stalder abundantly enriches it with material from the republic’s political records, provides only a limited insight into Stockalper’s personality. Stalder makes a valiant attempt to place Stockalper’s piety in the context of both the neighboring Calvinist tradition and Iberian late Scholasticism in a chapter drawing on some of the personal material in the account books. Stalder reasonably concludes that Stockalper – who invented an anagram for his name, „Sospes lucra carpat“, God’s client shall seize the profit (p. 110) – saw himself as a loyal client who could expect rewards from God for enterprises such as founding or supporting convents – even when such investments were beneficial to the donor in terms of properties controlled and income received.
By the 1650s, as Stalder shows, Stockalper began seeking noble status in various ways. These included his spiritual donations, his purchase of a barony from the Duke of Savoy and, most spectacularly, the construction of a monumental personal residence in Brig – which Stalder calls his „Alpine Versailles“ (p. 128) – that began in 1649 and continued well into the 1660s, though Stockalper never fully completed it. The massive structure, with four main floors and an attached arcaded courtyard and gardens, remained the largest secular baroque building in Switzerland, decorated with a program of features and inscriptions intended to demonstrate „Stockalpers Reichtum, seine Herrschaft und seine spirituelle Auserwähltheit“ (p. 125). He accompanied the construction with the creation of a family entail intended to keep his properties and privileges intact for the future generations he imagined, though in the end, none of his sons survived him.
Stalder lucidly details the process by which Stockalper’s seeming dominance in the Wallis crumbled quickly after 1678. The reasons were many: in addition to the envy of other magnate families, as well as adherents of a closer alliance with France, he had come into conflict with both his brother-in-law and son-in-law. In addition, his policy of marrying his sons out for generous dowries while sending all of his daughters into cloisters annoyed many elite families of Wallis, who saw this as a way of excluding them from his circle of power as well as a miserly effort to avoid paying dowries. A group of conspirators assembled, and used the republic’s assembly of May 14 to isolate Stockalper and compel him to step down or else lose his head that very day. Stockalper, apparently caught by surprise, complied, signing the proffered list of charges and relinquishing reelection as Landeshauptmann. A negotiated settlement reached on May 24 included high payments from Stockalper to his rivals and abandonment of his salt monopoly and other public charges, allowing him to be released from captivity in Sion (Sitten), although he still faced numerous private suits.
In comparison with similar situations in, say, Graubünden, this was a surprisingly mild outcome, since Stockalper retained not only his life, but also much of his private property, if not his monopolies. Nevertheless, he was now vulnerable and faced a mountain of suits before unsympathetic tribunals. Without his political influence, his economic and legal situation was precarious, even if his clientage in Brig assured his personal safety for the moment. When the council ordered his house arrest in October 1679, he therefore escaped to his trans-Alpine properties, moving into his palazzo in Domodossola. Several years of political wrangling followed before Stockalper ultimately returned to Brig in 1684, accepting a hero’s welcome from his fellow citizens as one last dig against his remaining enemies who had tried to block his return. Stalder completes his narrative with a brief reflection on later perceptions of Stockalper.
Like comparable magnates in Graubünden and Switzerland, Stockalper’s rise depended on weak states and powerful kin networks that were confronted with the opportunities for wealth offered by nearly endless war among much larger states eager to control the strategic passes. Stockalper seized his moment in the 1630s, and leveraged great-power rivalry and local predominance to reach extraordinary wealth and influence, if only within a rather small polity. After all, while his „Alpine Versailles“ in Brig may have stood out among baroque palaces in Switzerland, it pales compared to the French original. Stalder’s account is heavy on financial and political maneuvers, given the nature of the sources, and succeeds at giving the reader a very plausible and well-founded picture of a clever, greedy, and arrogant figure of largely conventional religious, political and social views. Stalder’s efforts to keep the narrative accessible to non-specialists means the focus stays largely on Stockalper and the Wallis, rather than delving into the historiography of elite formation in the Alpine arc or engaging in comparative analysis of personal hegemony in the face of weak institutions. While this may leave some questions unanswered for the curious professional historian, Stalder’s thorough research and accessible narration make this book enjoyable for more readers while offering some very useful insights for the historians’ guild.