Innovation in representing the mountain landscape

Par Lorenza Gasparella, Ph.D. in Landscape and Environment, Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche (Italy)


This contribution, which starts by examining the Panorama of the Engadine that Giovanni Segantini designed for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, retraces the relationship between the perception and representation of mountain landscapes.
The Panorama of the Engadine’s 400 square metres of painted surface was an artistic synthesis that represented not a real area but a territory reshaped by the imagination. The observer was optically and emotionally engaged through a “script of the landscape”. In this way, the idea of Engadine became a shared narrative capable of structuring a whole system of values and an iconic mythology. The landscape’s archetypal figures have gradually been moved to a more conceptual level and have taken a backseat to a communication strategy. In addition, advertising has replaced the visual arts to convey images, symbols, ideas, beliefs and behaviour patterns.

The bucolic and romantic image of the mountain landscape is disappearing in favour of exploring places of everyday life. Perhaps one of the most urgent tasks is to learn to see things anew, including the landscape, which is all too often reduced to something that is photographed without really being looked at. A new reading mode and the production of unconventional images can make it possible to restore the relationship with places.


In 2013, in a local newspaper, an article reported that some of the mayors in the province of Padua, Italy, were not allowing flocks of sheep under transhumance to pass through their territory. Similar actions were later confirmed in other towns in the surrounding provinces. The motivation was always the same: Flocks leave dirt behind and stop traffic[1].

Currently, we are witnessing a revival of transhumance in Italy’s Eastern Alps. Although it still involves a limited number of animals (less than 1 percent of the national total), it is of both traditional and economic importance. It cannot be considered simply a folklore phenomenon. It now has to be managed, even though it seemed that this activity was destined to disappear.

There is no question that economic, social and political factors caused the loss of transhumance routes. But might it also be related to the issue of representation?

Representation as synthesis

We can consider landscape representation as the result of various operations: synthesis, selection, abstraction, cancellation and forgetfulness. It goes without saying that the complexity of reality cannot be represented in its totality. Some elements are chosen, while others have to be obliterated as a result of two opposing factors: the over-representation of images and the lack or total absence of representations.

Giovanni Segantini’s Trittico della Natura is the result of an idea for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 – one that was never executed for the fair. He assembled and synthesised Alpine nature as a whole, including its seasons, by emotionally involving the viewer. He did the same with the original project, the Panorama of the Engadine, where the viewer’s gaze would have to be isolated from the space around and from other onlookers (Lardelli, 1987). Originally, it was intended to be a promotional message for the Engadine, representing the imposing masses of the Bernina and Albula and all the major towns in the valley “faithfully reproduced with their picturesque beauty and their great hotels”[2].

In the end, it became the representation of the idea of Engadine – capable of structuring an entire system of values and an iconic mythology to bring the viewer to a new way of perceiving nature. It is an artistic synthesis aimed at representing reality reshaped by imagination, like the works of Alexander Cozens, William Turner and John Ruskin, who represent the Alps as moving masses, as the domain of powerful natural phenomena and as alternations of light and colour, respectively (Schama, 1995).

Representation as selection

The Alps are a rather recent myth: According to Claude Raffestin (2000), in each period of history, descriptions of the mountains have combined objective information with mythical elements that act as a kind of mirror for the ideologies and preoccupations of their time. Until the middle of the 18th century, the Alps were considered an obstacle that was hard to pass through and characterised by hardship and danger. At the time, this barrier was the initiatory moment in most of the diaries of the Grand Tour d’Italie, and until the early part of the 20th century it was narrated by using fictional suggestion (Brilli, 1988).

Although myths have changed, from the works of Thomas Platter in the 14th century to those of Elisée Reclus in the 19th century, they persist to the extent that the Alps as an “object” continue to crystallise fascinations and generate utopian visions (Raffestin, 2000).The Apennines, crossed quickly because of climatic factors related to fast-changing weather, have been described much less; they were also not completely explored.

Olevano in the Lazio region hosted a group of German landscape painters in the mid-19th century. And already in 1789, Sir Richard Colt Hoare had explored the Abruzzo region. Jacob More subsequently traversed the Aniene Valley, Abaham Luis Ducros scouted the mountains and forests of the Roveto Valley, and Edward Lear explored the cities and villages of Marsica in 1843 and 1844. Ferdinand Gregorovius writes of his travels in 1871 that he saw the “wild and yet so little known Abruzzo”[3].

In travel chronicles, pragmatic interests take precedence over artistic ones: the quality of the roads that makes it possible to pass over or through the mountains was noted with precision, as were the sublime landscapes. Therefore, this kind of representation developed from an act of selection, and Philippe Petit-Radel’s Carte d’une partie de l’Italie is a clear example of such a strategy of representation. Despite some deviations from the traditional Grand Tour itineraries included in the representation, the Italy of Petit-Radel is composed of solids and voids. Except for some particular areas, there are no indications of cities or places (Brilli, 1988).

The map inserted into the Winter Sports brochure sponsored by ENIT (Italian National Tourist Board) in 1935 was very similar to the Petit-Radel map. The codes of representation were not much different, but all geographical indications had been removed. And while the hydrographic system had been important in 1811–1812, the mobility infrastructure was no longer the only sign of connection between tourist destinations and major cities.

From illustrations of railway timetables during the 1880s to advertising campaigns in the 1940s, the attractiveness of a mountain place was linked to a particular experience: its accessibility. Particularly during the 1920s and the 1930s, many tourist advertising campaigns were developed. However, most of them were concerned only with some specific areas, whose attractiveness is linked to the possibility of reaching the peaks by some means of transport, exploring them as skiers or mountaineers or admiring them from afar while immersed in a soothing landscape, for example the ones that Franz J. Lenhart developed for the Dolomites. There are only a few examples of the representation of the Apennines during the same period, and they are mainly aimed at a national audience[4]. During this period, there was an overproduction of images of some areas and a decline in the representation of others.

Representation as abstraction

Over time, the “image” was transformed from the element that makes it possible to shape the experience of reality to a product of a communication strategy. Taken to the extreme, a dichotomy between the promotional image of the landscape and reality is revealed.

Criticism of the tourist exploitation has always been present in parallel with tourism development in the Alps. Alphonse Daudet’s Tartatin sur les Alpes, dated 1885, is a clear example of such criticism. Another example is La montagna presa in giro by Giuseppe Mazzotti and Sante Cancian, published in 1931. This work is interesting especially because of its illustrations. Some photographs taken by Mazzotti have been related to drawings by Sante Cancian, who has used graphic codes similar to the contemporary touristic advertising in his vignettes. Except for a few cases, specific locations have not been represented and, even if some sites are recognisable, they were chosen as symbolic places. In this way, the arguments in the pamphlet do not refer to a specific complaint but criticise an entire system of exploitation and disvalues, regardless of place.

Many contemporary series of photographs and documentary films follow this approach. In some of his works, photographer Walter Niedermayr (1999; 2013; 2017) seeks to represent ski areas and holiday complexes, ski lifts, multitudes of skiers and waste abandoned on the glaciers, which he emphasises by using techniques like underexposure and desaturation. Vague indications of places are relegated to the captions.

In his documentary film Peak, Hannes Lang (2013) chooses to remove any clear indication of specific places almost entirely. He recorded a “world to the limit”[5], documenting, for example, when the installation of giant tarpaulins is not an ecological operation to help prevent glaciers from melting but is in fact a commercial action to secure ski lifts built in melting permafrost. This is an example of how some places no longer work as they were designed. And yet, we often continue to chase an idea of the future that is already outdated.

Representation as deletion

Removing some elements related to ‘modernity’ from the representations of some places (with the aim of maintaining supposed originality) negates the exploitation and physical transformation of sites.We can think of how most postcards, or many other promotional images, transform many elements of the romantic image of the Alpine landscape into an imaginal content.

These representations are not wrong by themselves. The paradox of many kinds of tourism-related advertising is that the idealisation on which they are built is so perfect that you cannot find their promises in real life (Augè, 1997). The most obvious element, the image of places, implies that many protective actions are aimed at constructing an “artificial setting”[6] rather than really defending the sites. Moreover, denying aspects related to the construction of both places and landscapes implies losing the capability to understand and represent the effects that economic activities have produced in a society and its territory (Turri, 1998).

 Representation as forgetfulness

The removal of some elements from a representation can also be unintentional, but it is always linked to an inability to perceive the territory’s complexity. A paradigmatic case is the change of tratturi representations. Various cartographic documents depict transhumance roads that have crossed the regions of central and southern Italy for hundreds of kilometres since prehistoric times.

The network included 14 main tracks, called the Tratturi Regi, 60 Neapolitan feet wide (111.11 m), and 70 tratturelli, ranging from 10 to 30 Neapolitan feet wide, with 14 connecting branches and large grassy areas for herds along the way, in addition to fountains, shelters and churches (Petrocelli, 1999).

Frequently, this was the domain of owners of properties adjacent to the sheep trails, along with the buildings and crops. Periodically, reintegration occurred. Essentially, reintegration consisted of new measurements of tratturi soils carried out by technical experts and surveyors and based on ancient documents and even the testimonials of places’ practices provided by some of the older residents.

In the Atlante del Regno di Napoli, published in 1808, apart from the tratturi network[7], not all infrastructures were represented. This demonstrated the social perception and the importance of the phenomenon of transhumance through the cultural mediation of surveyors and cartographers (Rossi, 2013).

Over time, the tratturi network was laid over other infrastructures, i.e. roads and railways, in representations. These paths were still indicated on the IGM maps of 1957 but disappeared in subsequent mapping campaigns. Since 1957, direct detection has been abandoned. Aerophotogrammetric methods proved to be reliable, time-saving and precise for the purposes of cartography (Cantile, 2013).

Certainly, pastoral activity lost its economic importance, and even the signs that it had imprinted on the territory became less evident. Where some tracks remain visible, it is no longer easy to identify them, especially if map drawing is deployed. Every indication of the tratturi network has disappeared in the current CTR vector map and appears only on some specific maps, but it is reduced to a diagrammatic element that loses every dimensional connotation.

This forgetfulness can also be traced to a lack of representation of the Apennines landscape. Apart from some works, for example a documentary that two anthropologists produced at the end of the 1970s[8], any reference to a past of poverty and deprivation has been removed and, consequently, all the related images as well. However, there are some exceptions, especially when communities recognise a place as a record of the tensions and contradictions rooted in changes of mentality and behaviour at the level of both individuals and the society (Luciani et al., 2012) in which they are able to represent themselves.


In 1983, Lucio Bortolotti published Ritatto di un bosco. Il bosco di Sant’Antonio di Pescocostanzo, a collection of images of centuries-old beech trees in a candlestick form to appeal for the preservation of the Bosco di Sant’Antonio (the Sant’Antonio Wood). The cattle pasture inside it and specific pruning techniques produced the typical shape of the old trees in the woods. The inhabitants of the town of Pescocostanzo were engaged in protecting it from 1951 until 1985, and still today, recognising this common sparse woodland as part of their landscape identity. At present, it is a forest protected by law but still inhabited (Luciani et al., 2012). It is an emblematic case of a place that remains alive and represents more than just the history of the community.

In 1994, in the documentary Mille anni, Ermanno Olmi showed the relationship between the Sant’Antonio wood and the inhabitants of Pescocostanzo. They walk, play soccer and climb one of the oldest trees of the Apennines, one of which gives the film its title. The Sant’Antonio Wood is part of the cultural identity of the Pescocostanzo community and, at the same time, an element of the imaginary that takes on many appearances, needs and symbolic interpretations. In this case, the archetypical elements have not been transformed into stereotypes, so their role has been preserved.

Each community shapes its environment with extraordinary complexity and in different ways. This forms the collective narration of the meaning and value of a territory by which a population represents itself. This process is not significantly derived from geographical location.

The history of a place, when it is critically known and valued by everyone living there and taking care of it, can make it possible to manage current changes in any place – in the Apennines as well as the Alps. The villages of Val Bavona (Ticino canton, Switzerland) preserve their buildings and their organisation from the 17th century. Until a few decades ago, traditional activities were still being performed. Tourism was not entirely absent. The valley had its ‘Grand Hotel’, built in 1880, but its organisation was still based on the seasonal vertical mobility of transhumance. Today the ancient paths have been almost completely erased by shrubs and landslides; many farmhouses have fallen down, others are ruined. The meadows are no longer cleaned up every year and are becoming increasingly rocky. However, there is life in the valley. It is still characterised by seasonal frequencies, even if their functions are different from what they used to be in the past.

Inhabitants have operated transformations in their homes without selling or selling off land and houses. Scrupulous maintenance, driven by the vigilance of a shared approach, deterred them from the temptation to have a new settlement when old buildings could be renovated. Here, identity is actively preserved by a community with a rare degree of awareness of their particularities and diversity. Furthermore, historical misery was perceived and described as a legacy to be appreciated and passed on to future generations (Luciani & Boschiero, 2006).

In 1970, Plinio Martini, a primary school teacher, poet and writer who was born and raised in Val Bavona, collected experiences and information from the inhabitants about each alp and several place names. He was worried that, as trails and shelters were forgotten, the names of the places “full of very useful suggestions for philologists and historians” (Martini, 1970) might also be consigned to oblivion. He considered this a modest work that might be able to capture the attention of some researchers in the future who could read his notes “with sympathy, respect, and perhaps even with a little wonder” (Martini, 1970).

New technologies for an old imaginary or old techniques for new images?

Martini’s passionate work can be considered an atypical example of topography and is very interesting at a time when cartography, i.e. the drawing of maps, has replaced the representation of places. Unlike the great transhumance routes of the Apennines in ItalEastern Alps, shepherds’ ways are fleeting signs, especially because they are not exclusive trails but paths that are shared and have multiple functions.

While researching transhumance routes in Italy’s Eastern Alps, we were able to identify an ancient trail from an unexpected source: the Military Topographic Map of the Duchy of Venice, drawn up at the initiative of the Austrian General Staff between 1798 and 1805 and built by a group of surveyors coordinated by Officer Anton von Zach. The 120 topographies were accompanied by 922 handwritten sheets of military descriptions, each of which makes clear the particular author’s sensitivity in describing the places. One of these annotations produces a precious note that clearly identifies “there is a footpath between the rocky spikes of Forca Rossa and L’Alta, from Franzadaz to Valle di Canale. No one goes there except hunters and shepherds with their sheep that are used to walk this way. [Cencenighe-Selva] Sections XI.7-XII.7. First Lieutenant Ludwig Geppert” (Rossi, 2005). This example is a method of representation that could add complexity to the conventional signs of graphical representation.

With the success of maps as symbolic depictions rather than detailed descriptions and topographic surveys, the representation of places is becoming increasingly abstract, which is reflected in the plurality of specialised languages and diagrams. But while this kind of representation is needed to manage macrodynamics, it is not as effective to account for the microdynamics that make it possible to identify solutions for territories that have specific needs.

Realities, experiences and knowledge can be communicated through representative practices that cannot be confined to a purely graphical convention. Representations must describe the structure, organisation and sense that man has imposed on places through a critical approach considering territory not exclusively as a simple scenic background or a set of functions on a certain measurable area.

We need more pilot books such as the necessary complements of nautical charts that are still used by sailors and contain all the information that is impossible to draw on maps but represents the world’s concreteness more fully. A complex interpretation of the environment is possible if you take another look at the landscape and consider the material practices that formed places, flattened in the two-dimensional space of images.

Perhaps one of the most urgent tasks is to learn to see anew (Augè, 1997), even in our daily routines. Often, we give up “looking at” the environment around us and instead reduce it to a subject to be photographed. This attitude leads to a loss of knowledge about the landscape, which is a functional knowledge of the use of the environment in the absence of which there is no reference for the ecological extent of actions for the dual role of being both perceiver and producer of the landscape.


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[1] A great deal of information about the everyday life and issues of transhumant shepherds in Italy are collected in the blog Storie di pascolo vagante:

[2] From the lecture delivered by Giovanni Segantini on 14 October 1897 in Samaden, Switzerland. Text reported in Lardelli, 1987.

[3] From Wanderjahre in Italien. Extract reported in Brilli, 1988.

[4] A virtual online gallery displays travel brochures and advertising of the 1920s and 1930s:

[5] This is the subheading of Hannes Lang’s documentary film, Peak. Running time: 86 minutes. Countries: Germany, Italy. 2011.

[6] From an interview with Hubert Kostner by Weber+winterle. In:

[7] Many surrounding Roman roads, despite being paved with stones, were not preserved, except for the ruins of some bridges and a few other parts.

[8] Anna Cavasinni and Fabrizio Franceschelli still document traditional Apennine activities with an anthropological-historical bent.


Citer ce billet
Stéphanie Rouanet (2017, 21 juin). Innovation in representing the mountain landscape. Les carnets du Labex ITEM. Consulté le 13 juin 2024, à l’adresse