European mountains are cultural heritage, not just natural heritage

Rocca Calascio is a mountaintop fortress in the province of L’Aquila in Italy. It testifies to the long relationship between humanity and the mountain, and how natural landscapes are also cultural landscapes. Credit: UNESCO, Author provided

In 2019, mountaineering was recognized by UNESCO as intangible heritage of humanity and “a shared culture made up of knowledge of the high mountain environment, the history of the practice and the associated values, and specific skills”. However, mountaineering is inextricably linked to the mountain, a place of extraordinary interest that must be defended even more. The Alpine landscape protection initiatives address the issues of spatial planning, sustainable development, tourism, agriculture and energy, but it is also essential to approach these subjects through the prism of the historical and cultural values ​​of the mountain.

A session at the 10th International Congress of Associazione Italiana di Storia Urbana (Italian Society of Urban History) focused on this specific topic. Title “The mountain landscape between eremitical contemplation, aesthetic appeal and sporting conquest”Session 6.03 explored current challenges and called for protecting mountains not only as but also like .

To achieve this ambitious goal, we must know and value the multiple meanings and cultural values ​​of landscapes. Only then can we implement integrated protection strategies similar to what is happening in the best-known monumental sites.

Bearing the brunt of climate change

Due to melting ice and snow, mountain ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change. They are also exposed to increasingly intensive visits, which can damage them irreversibly if the values ​​to be protected are not clearly identified. However, their cultural relevance is often neglected or exploited by tourist promotion and distorted by folklorization phenomena.

Reflection on natural and cultural heritage should not be limited to sites of outstanding universal value; it must recognize mountain territories as places to be preserved not only for their environmental characteristics, but also for their historical and cultural values.

Over the past 50 years, many alpine environments have changed considerably in appearance and within a few years, several glaciers could disappear completely. This is not just a serious environmental problem, but an irreparable cultural loss. Glaciers are indeed archives of valuable information for science, as well as historic landscapes in decline.

From the 17th to the 19th century, young upper-class European men had to assume a ‘big tour‘ across Europe to Italy. The “eternal snows” forced travelers to make at least one stop in the Alps on their adventurous and difficult journeys to get there (William Windham 1741; Pierre Martel 1742).

Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC., and has left traces in the descriptions of historians. Built over the centuries, structures such as huts and shelters, roads, pilgrims’ hospices and churches have shown the depth of our relationship with mountain territories. During the First and Second World Wars, more notable material evidence was left behind, including fortifications, tunnels, trenches, shelters, barracks and places of the Resistance.

These artifacts are part of a vast cultural heritage whose knowledge is essential to preserve them. In fact, such sites, often abandoned, are hardly perceived as monumental. What is needed is that they be seen in a broad perspective that considers them as a “system” to be protected for their historical, aesthetic, landscape, identity values, and not just as individual artifacts.

The cultural appeal of mountain landscapes

The spiritual and intellectual attraction for the mountain is attested by hermits, artists and scientists long before the age of mountaineering, which officially begins with the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786. However, expeditions to the mountains started much earlier for scientific and cultural reasons (Albrecht of Haller 1729; Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1764; Horace Benoit de Saussure 1774).

Since then, scholars and travelers have turned not only to the monuments of antiquity, but also to the wonders of nature, especially the Alpine glaciers. The first material evidence of alpine visits was the “Temple of Nature”a refuge built in 1795 at Montenvers to observe the Sea icestill visible today among later built hotels.

In the same years, the ascent of the Gran Sasso d’Italia by Orazio Delfico in 1794 was considered the first ascent of the highest peak of the Apennines. However, as early as 1573, Francesco de Marchi, an architect following Margaret of Austria, reached the summit of the mountain and published the chronicle of the ascent in his “Treatise on Military Architecture”. Other writers and scientists who climbed mountains include Francesco Petrarca on Mont Ventoux in Provence (1336), Leon Battista Alberti on Monte Velino in Abruzzo (mid-15th century), Leonardo da Vinci on Monte Rosa and possibly also in Abruzzo (late 15th century). at the beginning of the 16th century).

“Cathedrals of the Earth”

In the English writer John Ruskin celebrated the mountains by describing them as “[Cathedrals of the Earth]” []. Following Lord Byron’s description of them as [“Palaces of Nature”]such an expression both captured the magnificence of the landscapes and invited visitors to respect them as sacred.

All this demonstrates a very close relationship between the protection of cultural and mountain heritage. Thus, the cultural values ​​of the mountain preceded the interest in mountaineering which developed with the birth of the Alpine Clubs first in the United Kingdom (1857), then in Austria (1862), in Italy (1863) and in France (1874). Since then, the mountain has become increasingly synonymous with competitive challenges, sometimes with alienating results.

Founded by John Muir in 1892 in San Francisco, the Sierra Club was, on the other hand, one of the first organizations for the conservation of the mountain landscape. Far ahead of his time, Muir saw mountain parks and reserves as a necessity for human well-being and as “sources of life”.

“It is by far the grandest of all His special temples of Nature that I have ever been allowed to enter. It must be the sanctum sanctorum of the Sierras.” (John Muir, Letters to a Friend. Written to Mrs. Ezra S. Carr (1866-1879) in J. Muir, Andare in montagna è tornare a casa. Scritti sulla natura selvaggia (trans. it. Caterina Bernardini)

Any thoughts on the future of heritage must take into account the close interaction between the material and the immaterial (otherwise we risk neglecting material goods linked to immaterial values), then extending it to safeguarding the planet as world heritage. In this sense, it is necessary to integrate the defense of the territory and the environment with the identification of its multiple cultural values.

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