The alphorn, or the alpenhorn, is a trumpet-like musical instrument made of wood. The use of the alphorn is seen mainly in mountainous regions, can be very popular in some areas, and like yodeling or the accordion, it has become an emblem of traditional Swiss music.
The melodies of folk music vary between regions. Generally those in pastoral areas are floating and wide-ranging. In the inner and southern Alps, however, the melodies are more songlike, and of more limited range. Common and popular themes are about love and the homeland, but patriotic and pastoral themes, as well as hunting themes, are also commonplace.
The Alpine folk culture is characterized by very expressive dances. Small musical ensembles can be found in the more mountainous areas, particularly in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
The most common form of woodcarving is chip carving. Such carving is normally for the decoration of everyday objects, such as milk stools, neckbands for bells, wooden spoons, or walking sticks. Figure carving is also common, particularly of Nativity figures. In some areas, the façades of houses are richly decorated using woodcarving. This is widespread in the Bernese Oberland region where Protestant Christianity predominates. In Roman Catholic regions, this is far less common.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was not only a writer but also an influential philosopher of the eighteenth century (his statue in Geneva).
As the Confederation, from its foundation in 1291, was almost exclusively composed of German-speaking regions, the earliest forms of literature are in German. In the 18th century, French became the fashionable language in Bern and elsewhere, while the influence of the French-speaking allies and subject lands was more marked than before.
Among the classics of Swiss German literature are Jeremias Gotthelf (1797–1854) and Gottfried Keller (1819–1890). The undisputed giants of 20th century Swiss literature are Max Frisch (1911–91) and Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–90), whose repertoire includes Die Physiker (The Physicists) and Das Versprechen (The Pledge), released in 2001 as a Hollywood film.
Prominent French-speaking writers were Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Germaine de Staël (1766–1817). More recent authors include Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (1878–1947), whose novels describe the lives of peasants and mountain dwellers, set in a harsh environment and Blaise Cendrars (born Frédéric Sauser, 1887–1961). Also Italian and Romansh-speaking authors contributed but in more modest way given their small number.
Probably the most famous Swiss literary creation, Heidi, the story of an orphan girl who lives with her grandfather in the Alps, is one of the most popular children's books ever and has come to be a symbol of Switzerland. Her creator, Johanna Spyri (1827–1901), wrote a number of other books on similar themes.
In the 16th century Protestantism had a strong influence on visual arts in Switzerland. Samuel Hieronymus Grimm was a well-known 18th-century watercolourist and ink wash artist, although he created much of his notable work while in England. There was almost no influence from Italian or French Renaissance. Chiefly in modern times did Swiss artists begin to emerge internationally. Alberto Giacometti is said to have derived much of his inspiration from the Etruscans, but became internationally known. Jean Tinguely fascinated people from all over the world with complex moving sculptures constructed entirely from scrap materials. Paul Klee is sometimes regarded as Switzerland's most original and impressive painter.
Despite the relatively small number of internationally famous artists, there are considerable art collections in renowned museums around Switzerland. These are not only found in the cities of Zürich, Basel and Geneva but also in smaller towns such as Schaffhausen, Martigny and Winterthur. The museums in the smaller towns pride themselves for their contribution to the arts, which exceed what is commonly found in provincial areas.
Graphic arts flourish in Switzerland, as does creative photography. Examples of this can be found on calendars, magazines and outdoor billboard advertisements.
There is a strong architectural tradition in Switzerland. The Romanesque style of the 12th century can be found in the cathedrals of Basel, Sion, Chur, Geneva and Lausanne. This style, which is rich in expression, can also be found on many castles and fortresses around the country, many of which preserved in a good condition. The cathedrals of Schaffhausen, Zug and Zürich are of the Gothic style, and the churches of Einsiedeln and St. Gallen are of Baroque style. During the Renaissance, a large number of architectural masters gave their talents to Italy. Most of these came from the southern canton of Ticino. The Prisons near the Doge's Palace in Venice and the Rialto Bridge in Venice were built by Antonio da Ponte. The Bridge of Sighs in Venice was built by Antonio Contino, and Domenico Fontana (1543–1607) designed the entire Lateran Palace in Naples as well as the facade of the St. John Lateran Church and the Royal Palace in the same city. Fontana's nephew Carlo Maderno was an architect to Pope Paul V. San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, the gallery of the Palazzo Spada and the Filippini monastery were built by Francesco Borromini, and Carlo Fontana was responsible for the facade of San Marcello al Corso and the Montecitorio Palace; Baldassare Longhena, from Maroggia, built the church of Santa Maria della Salute, the Rezzonico and the Widmann palaces; all in Venice.
Giliardi and Oldelli families from Ticino set up architecture practices in Russia. Giovanni Giliardi built The Orphanage in Moscow, and his son Domenico Giliardi was in charge of the rebuilding Moscow public buildings, including the University, after the Great Fire of 1812. Domenico Trezzini built many places in St. Petersburg by the orders of Peter the Great; Pietro Trezzini (not related to Domenico) continued the tradition in 1740s. Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) was probably the most creative Swiss architectural export in the 20th century. He was the driving force behind the International school of architecture that heavily influenced almost every trend in buildings throughout the entire Western hemisphere in the recent past.
Distinctive architecture of high quality can be found around Switzerland. It is often considered as particularly innovative modern architecture. Mario Botta is a famous architect who influenced modern architecture. The architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron from Basel received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2001, and in 2009 the prize was awarded to Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.