Robert Macfarlane on mountains, Romanticism, the sublime, etc.


The cultural understanding of mountains seems so bound up with the aesthetics of the sublime and the advent of Romanticism that it is hard to understand exactly what mountains meant before the eighteenth century. Were they simply seen as blanks, deserts, wild places?

It would be wrong to propose that there’s no refined mountain perception prior to Romanticism. You only need to look at someone like Leonardo da Vinci. He’s making extraordinary sketches of mountain phenomena in the Italian Alps: they’re beautiful, and attentive both to meteorology and geology. In so many ways—as he always does—da Vinci anticipates what’s to come by several centuries. There’s also a biblical tradition of revelation at height: Moses, obviously, on Sinai, or on Mount Pisgah, looking down into the promised land. So there are visionary traditions that precede the late eighteenth century. Petrarch claims to have climbed Mount Ventoux in April 1336; doubts have been voiced about whether he actually made the ascent, but the falsifiability of the account doesn’t really matter, because he gives us one of the first expedition journals (the book of Exodus would be another of these), and one of the first mountain descriptions in which mountain and text, or mountain and representation, become blurred almost to the point of interchangeability. So, in one sense, you can construct a tradition of the visionary and the beautiful for mountains which precedes Romanticism, going as far back as you want to go. But on the other hand, it’s quite possible to argue that mountains existed as little more than wallpaper, by and large, through the Medieval and Early Modern periods.

more from Cabinet here.