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Alpes by Matthieu Gafsou

On mountains

Our image of nature—and specifically of mountains—is always the product of historical and cultural constructions.

For the Greeks and, to some extent, for the Romans, nature in general and mountains specifically were never an aesthetic phenomenon. Only nature that was dominated or domesticated by man was recognised by them and, in some cases, even considered beautiful. Wild, primeval nature did not interest in aesthetic terms. Mount Parnassus, Mount Helicon, Mount Ida and Olympus were sacred places for the Greeks, but in a very special sense: they were far away and belonged to mythology rather than to the space of experience. Mount Parnassus, for example, was first of all the mountain of Apollo and Dionysius (each god occupied a mountain peak, as it were), and only later did it become the sacred mountain of Apollo alone. Mount Helicon is important as well, because it is the mountain from which Pegasus flew towards the sky, giving birth to the Hippocrene spring, the source of inspiration. These mountains are, therefore, to be considered primarily as mythological images and, as such, abstract places.

The Greek were interested in the origin of things. Hence their interest into the origin of mountains, a topic resurfacing in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, when the question whether mountains were the result of volcanic activity or rather the consequence of tectonic factors became a much discussed topic. Classical Greek or Roman culture, unlike American Indian or Chinese culture, did not postulate the existence of scared mountains. In China, there are of course the five sacred mountains, Tài Shān, the supreme mountain, being the most sacred. For the Chinese, there is a relationship between the sacred nature of the mountains and the life force called ch’i (qi): there is a sacred spirit or pneuma within the mountains, but humans can also be possessed by this spirit. By reproducing these sacred mountains in a garden, the rock representing the holy mountain will contain the same force. This interpretation of nature is very different if we compare it to the highly rational, empirical approach of the Greeks.

On the construction of the idea of mountain

Although mountains are among the most extraordinary objects we know, our (aesthetic) idea of them is very recent. Mountains occupy a peculiar place in intellectual history. We could argue that it is not “natural” to be interested in nature, and that a kind of apprenticeship or domestication was required to learn to appreciate it. Our image of nature—and specifically of mountains—is, then, always the product of historical and cultural constructions.

The earliest representations of mountains in modern painting date from the 15th century. According to many art historians, the first painting to portray a realistic landscape is The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1444) by Konrad Witz, at the Art Museum of Geneva, which features Mont Blanc and the Môle. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the earliest to present a fresh view of mountains and of nature in general. This was new and revolutionary, and his paintings showing mountains are an extraordinary exception. The rule was to represent symbolic mountains by means of rocks or stones. Joachim Patinir, an important 16th-century painter and one of the first landscape artists in history, painted rocks that were part realistic, part fantastic. Why was this so? In the Bible, in the Old and the New Testament alike, nature has a problematic and negative place for a very simple reason: the true, valuable life of humankind is spiritual. The most important thing is man’s relation to God, hence his relation with nature is secondary. This explains the primacy of the invisible realm of prayer and the fundamental ambiguity of all natural phenomena. Moreover, the myth of the Flood (Deluge) was extremely powerful until the 17th century. History was thought to begin after the Great Flood, when mankind had to affront a harsh and negative nature.


Until the 17th century, mountains were perceived as dangerous, and it took time to transform this idea. Transformation came by means of the work of scientists, artists and travellers, involving an important step in the history of ideas, linked to the aesthetic of the sublime. In the course of the 18th century, the Alps became a kind of laboratory and the centre of the aesthetic of the sublime. When John Dennis crossed the Alps and wrote his Letter of Turin, he was at once frightened and surprised. Exposed to alpine scenery, he discovered a kind of oxymoric of paradoxical beauty, a contradiction we find again in the idea of the sublime. During their Grand Tour, travellers (like Dennis) painted or wrote, constructing culturally images of the mountain. One such traveller-scientist was Albrecht von Haller, a scholar who made a tour of the Swiss Alps in 1728 and published the poem Die Alpen (1731), translated into many European languages. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s highly successful novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), the main character speaks extremely positively of the Alps as well, thereby popularising the idea of the sublime mountains. Around 1700, mountains became trendy. The diffusion of guidebooks and manuals containing descriptions of places to visit (making them seem less dangerous than when they were completely unknown) was key to the creation of a positive perception. Later, in the second half of the 18th century, the advent of the panorama allowed people to ‘visit’ an entire mountain range, anywhere in the world, without danger. The interpretation of nature in general, and of mountains in particular, began as an ideological construction; later, during the 19th century, the mental image of the mountains had to be confronted with their physical transformation in situ.


On the infrastructural nature of mountains

There is, arguably, nothing more artificial than the Alps. In cities or lowlands, manmade things are clearly visible, but the barely visible—and sometimes invisible—system of mountains has been almots completely modified by humankind. We might say that, after the rhetorical sublime, the aesthetic sublime, and the sublime of nature, the fourth sublime is the sublime of architecture and engineering, of extraordinary human constructions that transform the reality of nature. The Alpine range altogether represents one huge infrastructure, one immense machine. We do not need in other words Bruno Taut’s otherwise wonderful Alpine Architecture to tell us how to build the Alps, because we have already built and rebuilt them in the first place.


This metamorphosis happened in several steps. Infrastructure has been present in the Alps for a long time, since for centuries its passes allowed communication for commercial reasons. The initial road system was very simple, and later modernised and standardised by Napoleon. The next step, in the 19th century, was the regulation of mountain torrents and rivers. Almost all the watercourses were transformed and subjected to control at that time—today, you can hardly hear the sound of torrents and waterfalls. Another step consisted in the construction of basins, large lakes, pipes and dams linked to the hydroelectric system of the Alps, with the result that infrastructure became present both inside the earth and on the surface.

Infrastructures have shaped new Alpine landscapes to the point that we could call them electrical or energy landscapes. Initially, this metamorphosis was seen as a disturbance, but it became quickly accepted, in part thanks to intense propaganda. Later, the places where dams were erected became the sites of ski resorts. In time, some of the infrastructural artefacts even became objects of aesthetic praising. There is a type of tourist who comes not to see nature but rather to admire manmade objects; this is, we could argue, the ultimate victory of humankind over nature.

Can we still experience a natural relationship with mountains? Our attitude towards nature in postmodern times is complicated. When relating ourselves to nature, we are lost in the layers of cultural construction. What we can do, however, is to be aware of the permanent re-invention of the idea of mountains—of the fact that we have learnt to love mountains because so many people have done so before us.


This text is based in the following sources:

Earth and Mountains”, interview with Michael Jakob in Earth Water Air Fire. The four Elements and Architecture, ed. ETH Zürich , Chair Prof. Dr. Josep Lluís Mateo (New York: ACTAR-D, 2014), 52-57 .

The imaginary mountains”, lecture by Michael Jakob at the Berner Fachochschule BFH, Switzerland, September 15, 2014

09.Feb.2017 5158 views
Michael Jakob

Michael Jakob (Timisoara, 1959) is Professor in History and Theory of Landscape at hepia (Geneva), Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Grenoble and lecturer at EPFL. He has been visiting professor at Harvard GSD, Princeton and ETH, among others. He studied law, philosophy, German and French literature as well as comparative literature at the universities of Tübingen, Stanford, Paris and Geneva. Among his most recent publications are Poétique du banc, Macula, Paris, 2015/ Sulla Panchina, Einaudi, Torino, 2014/ El banco en el jardin, Abada, Madrid, 2016; Cette ville qui nous regarde, b2 éditions, Paris, 2015. He is the curator of the exhibition The Swiss Touch in Landscape Architecture (2014-today).

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