Grand Tourismo

Appreciation that borders on abuse?

Is it possible to understand the framing of a vista, whether on canvas or on Instagram, as a form of violence that takes place when the human imagination draws its focus on a particular perspective? Or is it merely a question of filtering, given we have long ago lost sight of the original, so that we can only be stimulated by never ending layers of representations and misrepresentations.

 

By Peter Lang

After researching and contemplating the transformations re-shaping the German countryside for LABLAB, in what would become the essay: “Destruction, Nostalgia and Re-invention: the German Case,” I realized that a part of my thesis still needed work. The romantic contemplation of the landscape that I had described spilling out from the Dusseldorf Academy in the 19th century channeled its momentum towards Italy. Italy’s picturesque mountains, rolling landscapes and historic towns attracted artists and writers seeking to refine their skills and develop their artistic repertoire. Though nothing on the scale of today’s mass tourism, the Grand Tour appealed to a European educated upper class, whose travels and experiences were obsessively documented and retransmitted in published accounts, engravings and literary guides. In a sense these were early processes of commercialized travel, and as such the Grand Tour would become a well-rehearsed ritual that would survive into the late 19th century.

Of the top destinations, clearly the cities ranked the highest: Venice, Florence, Rome, and Naples were requisite stops. But many travelers extended their tours into the surrounding countryside, seeking out spectacular landscapes and picturesque scenes to record in their sketchbooks and on their portable painting easels.  Two locations that topped the list of Grand Tour sites were the iconic parks at Tivoli and Terni, respectively Parco Villa Gregoriana, and the Cascades at the Marmore.  I decided to visit these two sites in the summer in 2020, and I am providing accounts from my visits in the essay below.

What drives my continuing interest in this subject, is not so much re-imagining what these many exalted locations would have once been like or once looked like,  but instead what has become of these places over time, after these early waves of privileged northern European visitors are supplanted by more coordinated and deliberate touristic ventures. It is apparent from today’s perspective that many of these Grand Tour celebrated locations have been altered,  becoming more like representations of what they once stood for. A deeper question, however, is how do so many of these exalted landscapes become targeted for a kind of appreciation that borders on abuse? By that I mean why do we humans demonstrate a tendency to both admire, and harm those very things we have come to reward for being the most beautiful and meaningful? For centuries the exaltation of these illustrious landscapes, through iconic paintings, descriptive songs, celebratory prose, inevitably render these places into something else, something more like phantomatic expressions of what they once were.

The more an iconic landscape is loved, the more it is the subject of political exploitation and commercial gain. In the process such natural panoramas are damaged, even destroyed, and possibly even worse, negligently restored. The framing of a vista, whether on canvas or on Instagram, inevitably leads to its objectification. Interestingly, when these sites cannot be visited, as is the case right now under the Covid19 pandemic, social media steps in, continuing the process of reification through the on-line dissemination of related memes and emojis.

Can we understand this transformative process as a form of violence that takes place when the human imagination draws its focus on a particular perspective? Or is it merely a question of filtering, given we have long ago lost sight of the original, so that we can only be stimulated by never ending layers of representations and misrepresentations. With the two case studies that I present here below, I hope to provide some personal observations on how to understand two particularly significant natural landscapes and their much vaunted reputations.

 

Parco Villa Gregoriana; “A Hellish Landscape.” Tivoli, Lazio.

Tivoli is an Italian hill-town that within its municipal district has a number of world class villas, numerous ancient ruins, significant historic waterworks, travertine quarries and two extraordinary water parks. Situated at the foothill of Tivoli is Hadrian’s Villa, the sprawling complex of offices, baths, and palatial structures where Emperor Hadrian lived and governed. At the top of Tivoli is Villa d’Este, famous for its 16th century gardens and cascading fountains. Within walking distance from Villa d’Este, on the other side of the historic town centre is Parco Villa Gregoriana located on a precipitous river gorge. By foot it might not take more than 10 minutes to go from Villa d’Este to Villa Gregoriana, yet these two landmarks could not be further apart in appearance or in significance. Villa d’Este’s majestic villa and gardens are classical late Renaissance; the Parco Villa Gregoriana’s, crossed by the Aniene river, is a site that has been populated for thousands of years. The park gets its name from Pope Gregorio XVI who in the early 19th century oversaw the engineering that regulated the flow of the Aniene, critical in protecting Tivoli’s population centre.

One could characterize Villa d’Este, its classically planned park with decorated sculptural fountains and pools as relatively tame compared to the wild natural landscape at the Parco Villa Gregoriana. The palatial residence and gardens were commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II of d’Este, and emerge out of a late classicist Renaissance tradition.  

The elevated geography of Villa Gregoriana, on the other hand, held strategic importance from early on. The striking waterfalls and gorge were, in the early Roman era, referred to as the Valle dell’Inferno (Valley of Hell). Romans channelled the flow of the Aniene, and built villas, temples and an acropolis. The remaining ruins from these Roman era buildings and temples, along with the sacred grottos and magnificent cascades would become in their ensemble a magnificent visual tableau—an enchanted cliché,  that beginning in the 18th century, would serve as a panorama for contemplation and inspiration. Artists and writers from across Europe, attracted to the ruins dotting the landscapes in Italy, began to venture over to Tivoli to sketch and paint these vistas. German, Flemish, Dutch, English, French and Italian artists left their indoor studios and hometowns to sketch and paint this landscape in the open air.

 

Wolfgang Goethe posing while visiting the Roman campagna, 1787. Staedel Museum Frankfurt. Photo taken by a private person visiting the museum.

 

The writer Henry James in the tradition of Wolfgang Goethe and René de Chateaubriand made a special trip to Tivoli to visit Villa d’Este, but bored, quickly scurried over to Villa Gregoriana, where he found everything there —the scenery, the people, and all the related activity to be much more tantalizing. The American turned Englishman wrote in 1909 in Italian Hours:

I am putting here, however, my cart before my horse, for the hour just glanced at it was but a final tag to a day of much brighter curiosity, {his visit to Villa d’Este?} and which seemed to take its baptism, as we passed through prodigious perched and huddled, adorably scattered and animated and even crowded Tivoli, from the universal happy spray of the drumming Anio waterfalls, All set in their permanent rainbows end Sibylline and classic illusions and Byronic quotations; a wonderful a wondrous romantic jumble of such things and quite others – – heterogeneous inns and clamorous “ guingettes” and factories grabbing at the torrent, to say nothing of innumerable guides and donkeys and white-tied, swallow-tailed waiters dashing out of grottoes and from under cataracts, and of the air, on the part of the whole population, of standing about in the most characteristic “contadino” manner, to pounce on you and take you somewhere, snatch you from somebody else, shout some thing at you, the aqueous and other uproar permitting, and then charge you for it, your innocence aiding.

Henry James, Italian Hours (London 1909)

 

I also felt exuberant when I first crossed the gates into the Gregoriana park. There was hardly anyone around. The experience of reaching the waterfalls, and then hiking down the gorge to the where the river spills through rock and tunnels through caverns to head on further down the valley is very intimate and personal. The trails taking you down the hillsides are themselves simple and hand crafted, with carved wood or split stones for steps. At each twist and turn of the trail, the views are reframed, the vistas change and draw the visitor further into the landscape. At the very bottom is the Grotto of the Sirens, where the waters turn to torrents and roar past.

I came here to understand the meaning of the landscape, as a veduta, a panorama, that makes us feel humble and awestruck. Nature in all its beauty, in all its power. But there was something that was troubling me, not about what I held before my eyes, but what I couldn’t get out of my mind.  Before this park was restored by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano beginning in 2002, this place had become a garbage dump. Refrigerators, old furniture, car parts, junk. Though what I beheld before me was pristine, when I looked around, I imagined I could still see the discarded rubbish everywhere. Was this landscape, immortalized in the works of William Turner, Gaspard Dughet, Simon Denis, Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld and others, whose depictions of these waterfalls are found in major museum collections, prescient documents on a much more bleak future?

Cascate delle Marmore: “Horribly Beautiful.” Terni, Umbria.

I had heard of the famed Cascades of the Marmore, and I imagined them as wondrous waterfalls in the midst of an expansive forest. As it often happens in Italy, some of the most incredible places in the world are located off some banal nondescript secondary road, in between numerous petrol stations, run of the mill caffe bars and drab supermarkets.  The Cascate delle Marmore is a mere 15 minute drive outside the industrial city of Terni, in Umbria, where there is a large concentration of historic steel-mills. The location of these mills is strategic, they are taking advantage of the lower cost energy reaped from hydroelectric generators located in this area.

When you follow the signs to the Marmore, you end up turning into a welcoming center and parking lot that must have been built back in the late nineteen-eighties. The entry complex has seen better times. It’s a low budget postmodern design with minimal flourishes. What you find is a V shaped plan opening to a piazza lined with tourist shops selling plastic rain ponchos. Surprisingly, this is not where you access the waterfalls. You need to turn around and go in the opposite direction, and follow a basic sidewalk running just alongside the highway in the direction you just came from.  You only realize you are actually next to the waterfalls once you hear the blaring disco music coming from Lord Byron Plaza. At that point you turn in the direction of an enormous forested hillside and you can catch for the first time the sight of the cascades, although only a trickle of water seems to pour over the edges of the clifftop.

The great spectacle everyone is awaiting takes place only a few times a day, according to a pre-announced schedule posted at the entry and on the official website. This happens for very practical reasons, the huge volumes of water that spill out over the falls are otherwise channeled for the remainder of the time to the hydroelectric plants. A count-down soon begins, and everyone lines up to get a good view of the spectacle. Thousands and thousands of liters of water pour into the valley, and me along with a few dozen others in my immediate vicinity clutch our raincoats and prepare to get soaked. 

Standing on Lord Byron plaza, next to a sculpted bench with a book and a cape on top, you can read the lines of his famous poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the IV canto:

LXXII

Horribly beautiful! but on the verge,

From side to side, beneath the glittering morn,

An Iris sits, amidst the infernal surge,

Like Hope upon a death-bed, and, unworn

Its steady dyes, while all around is torn

By the distracted waters, bears serene

Its brilliant hues with all their beams unshorn:

Resembling, ‘mid the tortures of the scene,

Love watching Madness with unalterable mien.

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, George Gordon, Lord Byron

Canto the Fourth

Byron’s depiction of an iris spinning helplessly around in a torrent of water reflects on the “horrible beauty” of this maddening struggle between a flower and a swirling whirlpool. Byron envisions a turbulent destiny, a struggle between fragile beauty and brute force.  The spinning dance will only end when the flower succumbs to the waters that are engulfing it. In a way this is also the story of this majestic landscape, caught up in the turbulence of much larger forces that encircle it.

How else can you explain that these landscapes of such incredible natural beauty end up sorry-full incarnations of their former selves. The spectacle of the Cascades has been for years under the control of a clock.  Why does the store on Byron plaza sell snow globes with miniatures of the cascades inside instead of flowers, instead of single irises? There is no more wild left here. These landscapes are no longer the same, they have been injured over the years by careless mismanagement.

As the Russian artistic duo Komar and Melamid discovered back in the mid 90s, landscape paintings, not portraits or city scenes, are consistently the most popularly accepted art form.  In a poll of people’s opinions taken from over 13 different countries, the “people’s choice” was far and away the landscape painting with a blue water feature. According to the art critic Benjamin Sutton, writing in artsy.net, the painting Komar & Melamid produced in 1994 for the Alternative Museum in Manhattan looked “… like a rushed Hudson River School canvas that had been touched up by Thomas Kinkade.”

What if the thing we most desire is not really the existential experience of standing before a awe-inspiring natural spectacle, witnessing nature’s most incredible performances, but instead, all we want is for that image to be packed neatly into a frame, so that we can put the real thing aside, to forget about it. In that case, wouldn’t a painting by the cult television artist Bob Ross, whose oeuvre is all about landscapes that are entirely of his imagination, created inside a black box TV studio, be just as rewarding or even more so? 

The only way to make sense of our attraction to these great indomitable landscapes is to understand why we harm them by reproducing them, by packaging them, if we so admire them why can’t we let them be. If all our adoration for the environment, our countless paintings, poems, recitals, musings, leads only to their degradation, their erasure, or perhaps their designation as a UNESCO world heritage site what does this mean for the long run?

 

Postscript:

There is more to this cautionary prophesy, however. If the Grand Tour artists had the power to congeal their subjects inside these depictions of majestic “natura morte,” or monumental still-lifes, the real-life transformations that ensued around these territories were inevitably entropic. These glorious landscapes began to gradually erode, degrade, fold into themselves. The more these sites became popularized, the more they were likely to lose their primacy, becoming deprived of the very wild natural beauty that was so coveted in the first place. But as we saw how events unfolded back in Düsseldorf, there were competing outcomes behind the landscape’s overall degradation. It appears that together with an intensified esthetic appreciation comes massive investments in industry.  When the picturesque and the assembly line become nefariously intertwined we witness another dimension emerging:  a kind of hybrid coexistence, where the picturesque and industry comingle.

In the case of Tivoli, the dreamlike prospects are couched in much more foreboding realities, if one is ready to consider the huge waterworks around the river Aniene, that were developed to fend off the great risks of flooding and that serve both the town’s aesthetic dependency on water and the region’s industrial demands. These include the vast Travertine stone quarries, that date back to the ancient Roman era and that pot mark the city’s surrounding countryside. These quarries have steadily grown to satisfy global demands, but more recently, far more economically competitive travertine quarries are emerging from remote and far-flung locations. The region struggles to contain these multiple phenomena, where tourism, industry, services and domestic life coexist juxtaposed over a network of active and abandoned quarries, piecemeal urban agglomerations, historically preserved historic landmarks and notable landscapes.

Terni, about a hundred kilometers to the north from Tivoli, has gone through similar  transformations, as the stunning waterfalls set to clock timers can attest. While the impressive rock and wooded topography around the Marmore falls has been whittled away over the centuries, the waterworks and steel industry has grown by impressive dimensions. Though the steel works are no longer the economic powerhouses they once were in this region, their presence nonetheless suggests an almost total subjection of these once pristine areas.

The question that remains, given there is no turning back time, is how to begin to understand and untangle these naturalistic landscapes and industrial environments in ways that can reveal alternative futures, that could become more organically interwoven and more harmoniously supportive. There is much urgency here, especially given the powerful environmental and climatic shifts that are now affecting our planet. Will we be up to the task? Or will we continue to fix our attention in piecemeal fashion in ways that discriminate between appreciation and oblivion.