“Le Grand Paysage”

The articulated structure of the Dolomites is scenic in itself, on a grand scale. For this reason the region has always had an enormous impact on the imagination of anyone who has visited it. The region is divided by two main valleys, the Isarco/Adige and the Piave, perpendicular to the Alps (that is in a north/south direction) used by travellers arriving in
Italy from Central Europe. They cut across the Dolomites as in a geological section, seeing the grandiosity of the landscape and the peculiarities which distinguish them from any other mountains with a dynamic, serial vision. English painters and German intellectuals were particularly sensitive observers of this extraordinary landscape. They came to Italy for the Wanderschaft, the formative journey, to visit places of classical and Renaissance culture. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) stood out amongst the many. Dürer discovered these mountains in 1494, the same year that America was discovered. A painter with an exceptional interest in nature, Dürer left five splendid watercolours of the porphyritic platform of the Adige Valley and the carbonate structures of the Adige and Sarca Valleys. These paintings, particularly Welsch Pirg (Italian mountain), are considered to be the first landscape paintings in the history of European painting. However, Dürer did not paint any of the landscapes he came across either before or after these. Goethe travelled through the region in September 1786. An author and intellectual with many interests, Goethe was particularly interested in natural sciences and mineralogy, so much so that he became Minister of the mines in Germany. His attention was particularly drawn by the Limestone Alps, “Kalkalpen”, on one side of the Great Brenner Mountain, “Gross Brenner”, where he had noticed the whitest and most compact limestone, present in great masses with infinitely indented shapes (Italienische Reise).

J. Gilbert, Catinaccio – Rosengarten, 1862J. Gilbert, Catinaccio – Rosengarten, 1862

Not all the large scale depictions, however, were able to capture the peculiarity of the Dolomite area, as is the case for the topographers’ bird’s eye view. Even the magnificent Atlas tyrolensis (Peter Anich and Blasius Hueber, 1774), considered to be the first unitary topographic map of European territory, treats the Dolomites in just the same way as all the other mountains. So it was not the need to depict the area graphically that led to a deeper knowledge of the Dolomites. It was scientific curiosity which brought a closer vision and the “discovery” of their exceptional beauty. This historic and conceptual approach was so important in understanding the aesthetic importance of the Dolomites that it deserves a specific paragraph. The observations of the first scientists to explore these mountains and to have first-hand experience, had vital importance both scientifically and aesthetically. Deodat de Dolomieu (1750-1801), Leopold von Buch (1774-1852) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), apart from being eminent scientists, were amongst the most important cultural figures in Europe in the XIXth century. They were the first to see the intrinsic beauty of the geological and geomorphological peculiarities of these mountains, as proved by their writings, thanks to their humanist groundings. As proof of the “universal spirit” of their culture it is known that Dolomieu liked to describe his naturalistic journeys as “courses philosophiques-mineralogiques” to stress the cultural value of his scientific expeditions. Dolomieu was a truly romantic figure of a scientist, in the aesthetic sense. After his trip to the Tyrol he wrote to Baron Gioeni “it is on mountains that one can understand lithology through personal observation. Samples on their own are without character”. It is not surprising that Dolomieu was described by some scholars as a “founder of on-site geology” (Enrico Rizzi, 2007). In fact, even though some scholars had already guessed that the Dolomite region held interesting scientific discoveries (Giovanni Arduino, Antonio Scopoli and Goethe himself), it took an untiring explorer like Dolomieu to adventure up those tortured peaks. This scientist, already interested in limestone for some time, was attracted by these summits to study the particular “marbre phosphorique peu effervescent” on site that other scholars had found in the river bed in the valley. However, having climbed to the top of these mountains, he did not only discover the mineral later called “Dolomite” in his honour, but also the powerful vision of “ces pointes aigues, ces crêtes déchirées, ces arêtes qui caraçtérisent et indiquent de loin les montagnes dites primitives”. Leopold von Buch was attracted to the Dolomites in 1822 to study their stratigraphy after Count Giovanni Marzari-Pencati, inspector of mines under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, published a study on the Canzoccoli quarry, near Predazzo in Valle di Fiemme. This paper demonstrated that granite was deposited on top of limestone in this area, turning upside down the theory that all the rocks were of sedimentary origin (the so-called Neptunist theory), also held by von Buch. Von Buch could not remain indifferent to this news and rushed to the mountains to verify personally this “strange” stratigraphy. However, once in the Dolomites, he was so struck by the extraordinary beauty of the mountains that he opened his speech to the Berlin Royal Academy of Science with an aesthetic description of the Valle di Fassa. The same happened to Alexander von Humboldt, fellow scholar of von Buch. In September of the same year von Humboldt joined his friend in the Dolomites to help him in his research to defend the Neptunist theory. Von Humboldt, a great scientist and sensitive humanist, was greatly impressed by the beauty of these mountains. In “Kosmos”, his main work, he acutely remarked that the geognostic phenomena of the Dolomites “excite the imagination as well as the powers of the intellect” and, to conjure up an idea of the exceptional scenery of the Dolomites, he compared them to the mountains painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the background of the “Mona Lisa”. However, Leopold von Buch was the key figure in the fame of the Dolomites. He became the reference point for scientists and also for all the intellectuals and literary figures interested in the Dolomites, who saw a sort of guarantee of exceptionality in his absolute authority on these mountains, even from the aesthetic point of view. His influence and cultural prestige attracted the most important scholars of the day and he is known to have written about 3,300 pages to contemporary scholars. “La Nave d’Oro”, the inn at Predazzo, where von Buch stayed, became the meeting point of the best geology and mineralogy scholars of the day, transforming Predazzo into a historic place for world geology research. The frontispiece of the visitors’ book of the famous inn is also proof of the indissoluble tie between scientific and aesthetic interest in the Dolomites. It is entitled: “Memorial of the famous travelling philosophers who, in their literary travels for geognostic observations, honour Predazzo and Michele Giacomelli’s hotel”. The aesthetic sensibility of these great scholars, who could not avoid describing the exceptional beauty of the Dolomites in their scientific tracts, was thus the first means of broadcasting the new-born aesthetic fame of these mountains. Thus a new motivation to visit the mountains began: the aesthetic experience. To the sensibility of the first scientists, who conceived aesthetic knowledge as a metaphysical, philosophical experience, intimately connected to scientific knowledge, was added the sensibility of the first travellers who instead tended to regard aesthetic knowledge as an emotive experience. In 1837 the first guides expressly aimed at travellers and adventure lovers were published: “Murray’s handbook”, published in London by John Murray and “Reisehandbuch durch Tirol” by Beda Weber. In these guides the “Dolomite Mountains” are described as unequalled, attracting the attention of the first English and German speaking travellers. Murray’s descriptions in particular reflect the most significant aspect of the beauty of the Dolomites, that they are a magnificent example of the aesthetic of the Sublime. The characteristics of the beauty which Murray emphasises, almost exactly correspond to the categories of the Sublime described by Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in his famous Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful of 1757. The “steepness” in Murray corresponds to the most impressive type of the “vastness” in Burke, the “barren sterility” to the “privation”, the “gigantic walls, all running in a vertical direction” to the “magnitude”, the “dazzling whiteness” to the “colour”, etc. The reference to the sublime is very important. The sublime is in fact an aesthetic category expressly referring to nature. Burke wrote: “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment (…) No work of art can be great and sublime as it deceives; to be otherwise is the prerogative of nature only”. The elaboration of the concept of sublime was of vital importance for the definition of the paradigm of natural beauty in western culture. It is not surprising that Murray wrote, when giving a concise, powerful image of the Dolomites, “Altogether they impart an air of novelty and sublime grandeur to the scene which can only be appreciated by those who have viewed it.” For Murray the beauty of the Dolomites is of a new type that cannot be imagined, it has to be seen. In this sense the beauty of the Dolomites is astonishing. But if astonishment, as Burke has written, is the effect of the sublime of nature, so the Dolomite beauty, is sublime. This concept is constantly repeated in subsequent travel literature, due to the curiosity aroused by Murray’s powerful descriptions. The first travel logs are basically descriptions of the astonishment and amazement that the sight of these “strange mountains” provoked in visitors. These tales describe the curiosity aroused by their appearance on the horizon, and the surprise on their sudden apparition, accentuated by long, difficult journeys to approach them which increase the narrative suspense. Amongst the most important accounts of this type are the book by Josiah Gilbert (painter) and George Cheetham Churchill (naturalist), published in London in 1864, and the book by Amelia B. Edwards (author), published in 1872. The success of the first, “The Dolomite Mountains”, introduced these mountains as the “Dolomites” to the public at large, extending the name of the mineral to the whole region. The second, as can be guessed from the title “Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys”, spread the image of the Dolomites as an unspoilt world, “uncorrupted” by industrial civilisation. This romantic image of uncontaminated mountains was one of the main reasons compelling subsequent travellers to go to the Dolomites. Some of them wrote different types of books, preferring folklore and ethnography to adventure. Amongst these are the book by Rachel Harriette Busk from 1874 and the album by Elizabeth Tuckett in 1871. In the former, “The valleys of Tyrol: their traditions and customs and how to visit them”, the author preferred small villages, often excluded from classical itineraries, and gave original information on their architecture, uses and customs. It was in this book that Busk called the Marmolada “the Queen of the Dolomites” for the first time, the name used throughout the world for this mountain. The latter, “Zigzagging amongst Dolomites”, collects a series of sketches and notes on places and conditions in which the author’s brother conducted his alpine excursions, the great mountaineer Francis Fox Tuckett who opened the crossing of the Bocca di Brenta and conquered the Civetta at this time. Other important titles in travel literature include: “Holidays in Tyrol” (1876) by Walter White, “Les pays des Dolomites” (1880) by Jules Leclercq, “Aus den Alpen” (1896) by Robert von Lendenfeld, “Die Dolomiten” (1910) by Theodor Christomannos. Climbing in the Dolomites began later than in other alpine regions, in 1857 with the ascent of Pelmo by Sir John Ball, naturalist and first president of the English Alpine Club. With his book, “A guide to the Eastern Alps” of 1868, trait d’union between alpine exploration and the opening of the Dolomites to tourism, ends the conceptual trail of the “approach” to the Dolomites. Alpine literature had a determining role in publicising the name and aesthetic vision of the Dolomites to the world. The first famous mountaineers were also excellent writers such as Sir Leslie Stephen, literary critic who edited the publication of the “Dictionary of National Biography”, Douglas William Freshfield, educated at Oxford in history and Civil Law and a refined writer, or Paul Grohmann, with a degree in law from Vienna and founder in 1862 of the Österreichischer Alpenverein (the Austrian Alpine Club), together with the famous geologist Edmund von Mojsisovics and Guido Freiherr von Sommaruga. To the books of these legendary figures of alpine exploration (W.D. Freshfield “The Italian Alps”, 1875, P. Grohmann “Wanderungen in den Dolomiten”, 1877), other texts of great value should also be cited: “A pioneer in the high Alps” (1874) by Francis Fox Tuckett, “Im Hochgebirge” (1889) by Emil Zsigmondy, “Climbing in the Dolomites” (1896) by Leone Sinigaglia. The books of great mountaineers (Emilio Comici, Tita Piaz and Reinhold Messner) belong to this genre of literature as do those of great authors, especially Dino Buzzati, one of the most important writers of the XXth century. Their books bolstered the celebrity of the Dolomites as “the most beautiful mountains in the World”. After the first great ascents, the Dolomites were considered to be a true frontier world amongst the international mountain climbing environments, compared to the Alps, full of difficulties, immersed in hard, wild nature. Over thirty years, from 1870 to 1900, world-famous people in the history of mountaineering came to the Dolomites attracted by the fascination of adventure and competition at the highest level. The Dolomites, with their extraordinary shapes and vertiginous, vertical rock faces, were an extreme test, a sort of challenge to technical and expressive perfection in climbing. A different, aesthetic attitude towards these mountains began, as expressed in the words of Emilio Comici: “To know how to devise the most logical and elegant way to reach a summit whilst spurning the easier, more convenient slope, and to climb it with a conscious exertion of all the nerves, muscles, fibres, desperately tense to beat the attraction of the void and the eddy of giddiness, is a real work of art; it is an action of great human beauty which, as such, dwells in the spirit of great artistic creations”.

le Grand Paysage : A.B. Edwards, The Sass da Ronch, 1874  le Grand Paysage : A.B. Edwards, The Sass da Ronch, 1874