hidden europe 61

In the Eye of the Beholder

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: A classic staging of the sublime: JMW Turner's painting ‘The Devil’s Bridge, St Gotthard’ (1803–4), part of the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (photo © Andrewrabbott licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).


Attitudes towards mountain landscapes have changed dramatically over the years. Alpine scenes once reviled for their bleak desolation were rehabilitated in the Romantic era. Travellers now appreciate such scenes for their grandeur and great beauty. Attitudes towards the people who lived in the hills changed too. Once widely stigmatized as uncultured primitives, they came to be praised for their moral virtue.

A striking thing about the Coronavirus pandemic, when so many of us were confined to home for a spell, is how we were suddenly challenged to change our perspective, to see the world in a different way. Horizons diminished as we could only explore that which was close at hand. For some, exploration was restricted to a balcony or the back garden. For others, slightly more fortunate, it extended to roads, woods and parkland in the immediate vicinity of home.

There are many who, during those difficult days, recounted that they missed the hills. They were, for the most part, city dwellers who visit the Alps - or other mountain regions of Europe - a handful of times each year. Our shared cultural imagination tends to value mountain landscapes, and generally the wilder and more dramatic scenes are prized all the more. It seems that many of us can never quite get enough of the Eiger and the Matterhorn.

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