'Italy is only a geographical expression'.
............ Klemens von Metternich
It has never been easy to explain the reasons why I decided to write a book like this. People keep asking me, 'A book on the Italian mountains?' with the same dubious expression as if I were presenting a project on fishery communities in the Sahara or pastures and shepherds in New York City.
Italy is the country of art, the Mafia, good food and political scandals; nature does not have a remarkable place in its public representation. In addition, if we want to discuss nature, then we should look for a hybrid version rather than one based on mountains, because the Italian landscape is well known to be human-made, filled with memories and traces of culture. The Tuscan hills are probably the emblem of the stereotypical Italian landscape: olive groves and vineyards with a bell tower in the background are what everyone expects to see and the amount of human agency is rather high in this 'natural' scene. Mountains do not fit very well in this canonical representation; too wild and too northern', they seem to lack the typical ingredients of Italianness. In the international division of nature's work, mountains are everywhere but Italy, as the encyclopaedia of all landscape fantasies - that is, the Tourist Catalogue authoritatively states. Maybe, for Italy, a book on the sea or, even better, one on cities and their surroundings would have worked better. After all, beaches and Historic centres are what everyone wants to see in Italy. If you consider that I myself am not a mountain-climber, the motivation for writing a book like this becomes even more puzzling.
And yet, Italy is indeed one of the most mountainous countries in Europe, with 35 per percent of its territory covered by the Alps and the Apennines and 42 percent by hills. Therefore, if one looks at a geographical map of Europe, writing a book like this should be self-explanatory; an environmental history of it must deal with its rugged terrain. Is that all? Is just an ordinary physical map, one of those that was on the wall of every classroom in an Italian primary school when I was a child, what I need to make my point? Is it that physical geography dictates our history, or at least our narratives about history? This is not a deterministic book and I will not suggest that the orography of the country can explain its history or the basic character of its inhabitants.
Nonetheless, the prevalence of mountains in Italian physical geography may explain several aspects of its history, including the distribution of population and settlements, some economic patterns and even some geopolitical issues. However, I have not chosen those topics for this book. My faith in physical maps does not go so far. In fact, I believe that a physical map makes explicit many aspects that may be hidden in the public memory and can also be deceptive. By definition, it is fixed in time and space, appearing as the immobile background of historical dramas. Clearly mountains are fixed and quite immobile, as are plains and other physic features; nevertheless, as I argue in this book, they have been more dynamic than we think. The making of the nation has been interlaced with the shaping rural landscape in terms of both culture and ecology. Mountains did not move, but their place on the map of the nation did change. They entered and exited from the political representation of the national landscape in a dialecticalrelationship between nature and culture. The phisical mapcannot relate any of those movements; it is unable to show the mutual constituency of the natural and the political; the hierarchies that draw distances and inform our knowledge of space stay hidden in it. Looking at the map is not enough; we want to understand these issues, we need a narrative that blends nature and History. Practically speaking, we 'need' this book.
Historiographically, this book can be considered part ot recent scholarship on the making of national landscapes. It is not by chance that those studies come especially from Europe - that is, from a continent where the discourse of wilderness has never been particularly strong. On the contrary, the concept of landscape seems always to have been the lens through which we have understood European nature, a concept carrying an extraordinary measure of nation in it. As Thomas Lekan and Thomas Zeiler have written in their introduction to Germany's Nature:
For all its conceptual ambiguity and perhaps because of it, landscape offers one of the best tools for conceptualizing and narrating the messy, dynamic interaction between these different elements. It enables scholars to move beyond simple dichotomies between use and abuse, materialism and ideology, representation and reality.1...Continua