Letter from Europe

Alpine horizons

Issue no. 2020/33

Picture above: The Piave Valley in the Dolomites, eastern Alps (photo © Rechitan Sorin / dreamstime.com).


The English, like travellers from other countries, were enthralled by the scenery of the western Alps. But it wasn't until well after the Golden Age of Alpinism that mountaineers and travellers began to explore areas further east in the great Alpine chain. We look at how in the last quarter of the 19th century, the eastern Alps fired the western imagination.

Dear fellow travellers

The role of mountains in nourishing the imagination is a theme we have touched upon from time to time in hidden europe. Earlier this year, in issue 61 of the magazine, we noted how the mountain landscapes of the western Alps, once reviled for their bleak desolation, were rehabilitated by Romanticism as awe-inspiring scenes of wonder. But it took time for travellers to discover the eastern Alps.

The English, like travellers from other countries, were enthralled by the scenery of the western Alps, but the mountains further east in the great Alpine chain remained relatively unknown. Alpine Club members focused their attention on the great peaks of Savoy, Switzerland, north-west Italy and western Austria. Fewer mountaineers ventured to the Dolomites and Julian Alps.

The so-called Golden Age of Alpinism was of course a very Anglo-centric affair, shaped by the expeditions undertaken by early members of the Alpine Club in London and the climbing partners and guides in Switzerland and France upon whom they relied. And it had everything to do with bagging summits and male ego.

The first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 is often judged to mark the end of the Golden Age. Yet, at that stage there were many technically challenging peaks in the Dolomites which had simply never attracted the attention of alpinists. Here was virgin territory.

Curiously, it was two women travellers who did much to up the visibility of the eastern Alps in the English-speaking world. Amelia Edwards and Lucy Renshaw set out from Venice in 1872 to explore the Dolomites, taking with them two bottles of cognac, plenty of chocolate and English biscuits, plus an ample supply of Liebig’s meat extract - the latter a staple much esteemed by Victorian travellers.

The journey is documented Edwards’ book Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys. It’s a volume that tells more about the English upper classes than about the Dolomites, but it had the effect of putting the eastern Alps on the map in the salons of London. Before long the Alpine Club was shifting its focus east to discover a new range of unclimbed peaks, some of which were to defy any successful ascent until the very end of the 19th century.

But the rise of the eastern Alps in the English imagination was helped by other trends. Just a year or two before the Edwards and Renshaw journey, the English artist Josiah Gilbert had propelled the topography of the Dolomites onto the English artistic horizon with his book Cadore, or Titian’s Country - which celebrated the landscapes around Pieve di Cadore, the birthplace of the great Renaissance artist Titian.

The eastern Alps in general and the Dolomites in particular were thus framed within a very different narrative from that which had dominated the Golden Age of Alpinism. Here there was clearly more to do than merely bag unclimbed summits. A great stream of English artists and writers set out for the region, following the example of Amelia Edwards and Lucy Renshaw in using Venice as a jumping-off point for expeditions into the hills.

In the wake of the English, travelling with their English biscuits and meat extract, others followed. And within a very few years writers were extolling the virtues of the eastern Alps and wondering just how these mountains had passed unnoticed for so long. The American novelist Henry James captured the prevailing mood in 1890, when he wrote:

“The Dolomites, which I didn’t know, are divine and knock the poor old Swiss ‘fine scenery’ to pieces.”

Henry James

It is a telling example of how places fall in and out of fashion.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)