BMCR 2020.07.50

Mountain aesthetics in early modern Latin literature

William M. Barton, Mountain aesthetics in early modern Latin literature. London; New York: Routledge, 2016. 254 p.. ISBN 9781138228641 $124.00.


This volume is a result of research done for a Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies’ 2011-2014 project on changes in attitudes towards mountains, with a natural focus on the Alps. Its back cover is most succinct:

“In the late Renaissance and Early Modern period, man’s relationship to nature changed dramatically. An important part of this change occurred in the way that beauty was perceived in the natural world and in the particular features which became privileged objects of aesthetic gratification. This study explores the shift in aesthetic attitude towards the mountain that took place between 1450 and 1750. Over the course of these 300 years the mountain transformed from a fearful and ugly place to one of beauty and splendor. Accepted scholarly opinion claims that this change took place in the vernacular literature of the early and mid-18th century. Based on previously unknown and unstudied material, this volume now contends that it took place earlier in the Latin literature of the late Renaissance and Early Modern period.”

The priamel for William Barton’s revisionist account of that change starts, as many do, with the principle asserted in Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s 1959 Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory – that a Romantic change in our aesthetic view of the mountains was rooted in 17th century vernacular literature, particularly Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth.[1] Others who root the same change in Rousseau or von Haller in the 18th century will be swept away by the same priamel.[2] Barton’s thesis is, rather, that the Neo-Latin texts presented in this volume, written in the lingua franca of post printing-press 1450-1750, are the truly primary instigators of our modern mountain aesthetic. In support, Barton presents copious evidence in both Latin and translation, ranging from Leon Battista Alberti’s 1447 Descriptio Urbis Romae to Alexius Planch’s 1754 Dissertatio physico-historica de Montibus – the point at which the influence of von Haller’s 1729 Die Alpen and Rousseau’s 1761 Julie do begin to outweigh that of the Latin texts on the formation of the mountain aesthetic. Of particular note is the fifteen page appendix of annotated bibliography of all sources from the period (alphabetical, not chronological), including many which lie outside the main lines of discussion, included for the benefit of the reader.

Barton’s main argument is developed over the first three chapters:

Chapter One reviews classical and biblical paradigms of mountain environments, mainly via their receptions in Simmler’s 1574 Die Alpibus Commentarius and Burnet’s 1681 Telluris Theoria Sacra, respectively. Barton reminds us here that, while the classical tradition sees mountains as cold, snowy, fearful, remote barriers to the homes of the gods and the biblical tradition views them as places of might and power regardless of whether they reflect man’s humility or God’s dominance, both traditions are mainly lacking in any sense of a purely aesthetic appreciation for mountain environments.

Chapter Two proposes that the discovery of mountain environments’ aesthetic qualities in 16th century Latin authors was influenced by the technical descriptions and painted depictions of contemporary geographical writers and landscape artists. Shared by both is a concept of prospectus ‘view’. In Conrad Gessner’s 1555 Descriptio Montis Fracti as well as his correspondence and co-publications with Joachim Vadianus (1484-1551) and Benedictus Aretius (1505-1574), the view both of and from the mountain allows its many peaks, ridges, folds, lakes, glaciers, moraines, and other features to become a singular, unified referent. In reverse, the likeness of those views to a map (‘quasi in tabula’) leads cartographers and artists to represent landscapes, through the Renaissance use of Neo-Latin sources, as composites of elements used by, e.g., Pliny to describe the pastoral setting of the ancient Mediterranean villa.

Whereas the authors in Chapter Two mostly experienced mountains by autopsy and ascent, not so the theologians and natural philosophers of Chapter Three. They, while often at odds with each other, did converge on the topic of God as architect of the earth and the question of whether mountains can therefore reveal something about the origin of, and divine plan for, our world. Aristotelian considerations propelled Valerio Fausti’s 1561 De Montium Origine beyond mere visual concerns to the issue of the artistry behind the beauty of the mountain environment. Meanwhile, Moses’ hexameron continued to serve as the geologist’s primary text, but did little to settle the question of whether God himself created the mountains (and if so, for what purpose?) or whether they were, rather, topographical deformations of a primevally smooth, divine perfection. The logjam breaks with Josephus Blancanus’ 1619 Sphaera Mundi and the 1681 Latin draft of Burnet’s Sacred Theory, whose hole-ridden argument for the current earth as a postdiluvian ruin contributed to his emphasis on mountains as “broken, shattered masses…” (“there is nothing more doubtful, crude, or disturbed… there is not even a shadow of beauty or a trace of art or deliberation”), even as he himself ambiguously found that looking at huge mountains “delights my eyes and my mind” second only to the heavens themselves. Several Dissertationes de Montibus across the continent rebutted Burton’s Theory, culminating in Scheutzer’s 1702-1711 Itinera Alpina, which constituted both a return to autopsy and, as a result, a positive mountain landscape aesthetic. Most noteworthy in Scheutzer’s account are early hints of the Romantic pleasure in the precipitous fear that comes with mountain travel – when viewed at a safe enough distance.

A final Chapter Four presents a series of literature reviews, methodological concerns, and case studies designed to draw a link between the Neo-Latin materials presented in the book and the modern environmentalist tradition. It closely reviews Allen Carlson’s work on environmental aesthetics, particularly his criticism that we appreciate nature by the canons of art rather than ‘for itself’. Barton develops this view with an example in which the formal scenic properties of the environment provided their viewers with significant explanatory power: the case of Nicholas Steno’s 1669 De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus, which found the rhythmic undulations of the Tuscan landscape (recognized as such already in Leonardo da Vinci’s 1473 Arno Landscape) to be revelatory of their stratigraphic formation.

Thus it transpires that the Early Modern aesthetics of mountain environments have an epistemological footing; that a mountain’s beauty relies on our knowledge of ‘what it really is’ more than on subjective flights of imagination or fancy; that we cannot appreciate per se that which lies outside our understanding.[3] In this way, Barton’s careful documentation of the Neo-Latin scientific, artistic, and theological traditions which arose in the 15th-18th centuries as the first systematic attempts to fill in the gaps in our mountain knowledge support his thesis that those same texts were instrumental in promoting a new, positive sense of the mountain aesthetic. I also found this book to be an opportunity to develop and refine personal environmental paradigms and sensitivities by considering landscape texts from a philological perspective, and recommend it for this purpose as well.


[1] Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s preface reminds us that her main idea came from her student’s thesis. Barton reminds us that Sacred Theory was originally written in Latin. For Classical references to mountain experiences, see also H.F. Tozer (1897), A History of Ancient Geography: 313-337.

[2] See also now Simon Bainbridge (2018), “‘The Columbus of the Alps’ Rousseau and the Writing of Mountain Experience in the British Literature of the Romantic Period” in Russell Goulbourne and David Higgins (eds.), Jean-Jacques Rousseau and British Romanticism: Gender and Selfhood, Politics and Nation: 51-74.

[3] Conversely, for a sense of how the construction of the mountain as object depends on the construction of the subject, see Bernard Debarbieux (2015), The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present and Susan Schrepfer (2005), Nature’s Altars: Nature’s Altars: Mountains, Gender, and American Environmentalism. For the mountain aesthetic in Latin literature outside of Europe, see also Rafael Landivar’s pre-1781 account of the eruption at Jorullo in Book 2 of Rusticatio Mexicana – recently called “the finest extended description of a volcanic eruption in all Latin literature, both scientifically accurate and emotionally horrifying” (John Byron Kuhner, “In search of the American Virgil” The New Criteron 38.7: March 2020).