Talking about war after more than 100 days of the current conflict in Ukraine is something that seems natural and unavoidable. The devastating event of the war has penetrated the life of the world population through the media and various sources of information, including the millions of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their country, becoming witnesses and protagonists of one of the most violent humanitarian crises in human history.
The local warfare soon engulfed the global scene through unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia and substantial military aid to Ukraine. In these tragic days, it can be useful to rethink what the First World War was like. Are there still lessons we can reflect on and continue to learn from the first terrible carnage that befell Europe and the world?
Our attempt to answer this question is divided into two parts. First of all, a reflection on the origins of the WW1; secondly, a closer look at one of the least studied and known aspects of the conflict: the so-called “white war” that was fought on the Dolomites and the Italian-Austrian front.
In the concluding paragraphs, I argue that the time of war belongs not only to human history but also to natural history. Forgetting this reflection is at the origin of the hubris that characterizes human civilization and is increasingly evident in the time we call the Anthropocene.
Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914
Our point of reference in trying to reconstruct the origin of the first world conflict is a book entitled Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (2012) by Christopher Clark a professor of modern European history at Cambridge. In this book, he maps carefully the complex mechanism of events and misjudgments that led to the war. Its methodological approach is highly innovative and substantive. For Clark, first, we need to consider that the war originated from a very intricate and multilateral political crisis and that we have an oversupply of sources, hundred of thousand pages written on World War 1, most of which are committed to attributing to the enemies the faults of war.
Then, he continues, we need to ask ourselves what is the crucial question to ask: why did the war begin or how it did begin? He invites us to realize that while the “why” question looks for absolute and categorical causes of the war, the “how” question instead looks for the multilateral interaction that produced the war scenario. Moreover, whereas the “why” question is after guilt and responsibility, the “how” question is more oriented toward a broad and open understanding. Even though the two questions can be considered interdependent, for Clark it is crucial that we let the “why” answers grow out of the “how” answers rather than the other way around.
What strikes me in Clark’s approach is the fact that he draws our attention to the “how” question and holds that far from being inevitable this war was in fact improbable at least until it actually happened. In other words, he supports the idea of contingency in the unfolding of the war as opposed to over-determination implicit in the question of “why” the war started. Clark’s approach is highly original as he avoids what most historians do, inserting the question of culpability at the center of the discourse on the war. In this attitude, these historians repeat what was established by the 1919 peace treaty of Versailles in which the victors asserted that German and their allies were morally responsible for the outbreak of the war.
Also, Clark’s approach contrasts the idea held by most historians as they suggest that the pre-war European system had somehow locked itself into a system of alliances from which war was the only way out. This point of view for him is a form of over-determination. On the one hand, the pre-war European system of alliances included the Triple Alliance that was formed in 1882 between German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. It was a defensive alliance. On the other hand, there was the Triple Entente (1907) which included Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. The latter was not an alliance of defense as was formed to counterbalance the power of the Triple Alliance. For Clark the pre-war European situation, notwithstanding this system of alliances, was still very much dynamic and open to different possibilities.
The war started after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist. This event triggered the July crisis after, on July 23rd, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia. This series of events led to the outbreak of World War One. These events include the complex web of alliances that we mentioned but above all Clark insists on the miscalculation that brought many leaders to believe that war was in their best interest; or that a world war would not occur. This combination of factors resulted in a general outbreak of hostilities among almost every major European nation.
The war started in August 1914 by May 1915 every major European nation was involved in it. Christopher Clark concludes that there is no smoking gun in this story; rather there is one gun in the hands of every major character. The war viewed in this light was not a crime but a tragedy. In the last pages of his book, Clark explains why for him the European leaders in 1914 were sleepwalkers: they were watchful, he says, but unseeing “they were haunted by dreams and yet blind to the reality of the horror that they were about to bring into the world” (562).
It could be said that unlike the First World War at the origin of the current war in Ukraine, the smoking gun exists: Russia invaded Ukraine unilaterally. But similar to what happened at the genesis of the First World War, before us we have the unfolding of a tragedy of which the protagonists do not seem aware. From this point of view, all the governments involved and the powerful of the world today closely resemble the sleepwalkers of 1914. However, there is a further difference between the two situations that should be noted. Compared to 1914, the destructive potential of technology has grown exponentially, to the point of contemplating the destruction of the planet with the atomic threat. This makes the actual sleepwalkers’ sleep even more dramatic.
The Italian Front
A confirmation of Cristopher Clark’s analysis comes from the study of how Italy entered the war. In July 1914, Italy still had the possibility of not entering the war or entering it otherwise. Italy still was a partner in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary but decided to remain neutral; at the same time, it developed a detailed military plan to attack France preparing to fight on the side of Germany and Austria.
However, the majority of the Italian population did not want the war which was then imposed from above by Italy’s King and political authorities. Before anything else, it was a media war through which an aggressive and violent minority imposed itself on the majority. A prominent figure in the war propaganda was the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. His public speeches were meant to create high tension in the country and collective emotions in favor of the war.
Among the most ardent nationalists and supporters of the war in Italy are the Futurists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder, and leader of this artistic and literary avant-garde movement argued that war is the only hygiene in the world and used a particularly violent language during the so-called Futurist evenings to endorse the war.
As is the case today, the manipulation of news and the ability to build and disseminate false information has been fundamental in exacerbating the nationalistic climate, carrying out the military plans, and in consolidating the full support of the internal and external public opinion.
For Italy, the decision to enter the war turned out to be a gamble, fabricated on uncertain geopolitical alliances and unsteady military calculations.
During the immediate pre-war years, Italy started aligning itself closer to the Entente powers for economic support; in April 1915, it negotiated with the Entente powers the secret Pact of London by which Italy was granted the right to attain the Italian-populated lands from Austria-Hungary, as well as concessions in the Balkan Peninsula. Subsequently, in May 1915, Italy resigned from the Triple Alliance and declared war against Austria-Hungary.
The will to conquer the status of “great power” in the Adriatic and Balkan area is what drove the Italian King Victor Emmanuel the 3d and the Italian government presided by conservative Antonio Salandra to enter the war. Besides the prevalent conservative forces, there was also a minority of democratic interventionists, like Cesare Battisti, who wanted to liberate” Italian-speaking populations from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to emancipate the Danubian and Slavic peoples from what they considered their despotic government. In Italy, the majority of the population and the majority of the parliament were against the war but the opposition to the war was not effective.
The Italian military command (general Luigi Cadorna) rapidly adapts to the new situation which resulted from the fact that Italy had abandoned the triple Alliance in favor of the Triple Entente. However, the Italian army was characterized by unpreparedness, lack of coordination, slowness in carrying out the military plans, miscalculations, especially the idea that the war would last only a few months. The Italian front was called, the Alpine Front (Gebirgskrieg); for the Austro-Hungarian command, it was considered the Southwest Front. For the rest of the world, it was called the Austro-Italian Front.
The strategic plan of the Italian army was based on a defensive attitude in the western sector, where the Dolomites were located, and an offensive in the east, trying to reach the heart of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. After occupying the frontier territory, in June the Italians launched their first assault on the Austro-Hungarian fortified positions, lined up along the course of the Isonzo river. The assault was attempted eleven times all of which failed. These are called the eleven Battles of the Isonzo.
In October 1917, the Central Powers carried out their own offense, known as the Battle of Caporetto, in which the Italians were defeated with huge losses. The bloody aftermath of Caporetto was vividly described by Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Farewell to Arms. Driven south after the Battle of Caporetto, the Italian Army was able to regroup and form a defensive line along the Piave River. The Austro-Hungarian Army tried their last offensive of the Great War in June 1918 and failed. In October they were defeated by the Italians in Vittorio Veneto which was the last battle of the war on the Italian front. To conclude, the war on the Italian front was not decided in the battles on the Dolomites mountains. The decisive battles were the battle of Caporetto (1917) in the valley of the river Isonzo and the final battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918).
World War I historiography on the southern front has recently progressed over the bleak picture painted by Christopher Clark. Of course, the commonplaces and negative myths that the conflict’s protagonists have conceived towards their enemies have remained. For example, to the Italians, Austria-Hungary was represented in terms of the eternal oppressor enemy during the conflict. Conversely, to the Austrians, Italy had been designed as an unfair ally and morally condemned. These two stereotypes continue to re-emerge in narratives and reconstructions of the war. Just as the idea spread by Italian propaganda that the opposing troops were in numerical dominance and always better fortified than the Italian ones is hard to die.
However, today there is a historiography that wants to be transnational and overcome the nationalist propaganda extremism that reached the point of arguing that the enemies were completely alien, not even human. A noble example of this kind of transnational, more objective historiography is the volume curated by Nicola Labanca and Oswald Überegger, La Guerra Italo-Austriaca, 1915-1918).
The White War
From 1915, the high peaks of the Dolomites were the area of the widest and most extreme mountain warfare. Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater.
Austrian soldiers entrenched themselves first in the highest mountains, leaving only the lowest positions to the enemies. For the strategic conceptions of the time, the highest position was erroneously considered an advantage; the valleys were believed dangerous as exposed to shelling and unfavorable to carry out assaults. This concept was in fact contradicted by the battle of Caporetto in the valley of the river Isonzo, won by the Austrian soldiers.
Italy had hoped to gain the territories of the Dolomites with a surprise offensive that was carried out too slowly to be effective. The Italian front soon was transformed into trench warfare, a war tactic that was commonly used everywhere in WW1. In trench warfare, the two sides fighting each other dig trenches on a battlefield to stop the enemy from advancing. Barbed wire fences became part of the landscape very everywhere.
The living conditions in the trenches were terrible. The area between opposing trench lines (known as “no man’s land”) was fully exposed to artillery fire from both sides, creating a situation in which it was possible to die even for friendly fire. Hundreds of deadly assaults on both sides produced no substantial change in enemy positions due to the extreme hardships that the mountain opposed to the advancement of the troops including the landslides that killed thousands of soldiers.
The war transformed dramatically the mountain landscape. For the first time in history, men brought modern technology up the highest mountains building roads, cableways, telephone and electric lines, and accommodations for thousands of troops. Supplying the mountain outposts would prove challenging for both armies. Much of the equipment had to be carried by hand with the help of horses and mules. Delivering heavier loads required mechanical improvisations. Sometimes even mules could not make the trek. Indeed, the destruction of the war affected not only human beings but also animals whose sacrifice is not always reported in history books.
In the winter, the trenches were built with snow and into the ice. The Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites, was the site of a year-round “ice-city” where both sides dug into a glacier. The Austrian Corps of Engineers dug an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms—out of the glacier. Soldiers had to drill holes into the ice to place explosives and begin the massive task of digging a tunnel under enemy lines.
A unique element of mountain warfare was the gallery, a man-built cave in the mountain rock serving as a place of relative protection. Variations in the design could turn the gallery into a partly shielded observation, artillery, or machine-gun post. Both belligerent sides had to adapt to the mountain, soon realizing the impossibility of conquering these inaccessible sites. A stalemate soon arose whereby the war then moved inside the mountains, turning into an exhausting war of mines with unprecedented violence that deeply affected the Dolomites landscape, leaving indelible marks. The opposing armies used mines to dig tunnels and galleries.
I briefly recall a famous example before concluding: the Lagazuoi mountain (2,835 meters; 9,301 ft), in the heart of the Dolomites. While the Austrian troops had occupied the crest of the mountain, the Italians attacked from below. From the end of February 1917, the Italians had begun to dig the first tunnels in the solid Dolomite rocks with the intention of surprising the Austrians on the summit of the mountain by blowing up a mine. They had occupied important positions on the side of the Piccolo Lagazuoi including a thin ledge renamed Cengia Martini after the name of Captain Ettore Martini.
The Austrians had already tried twice to blow up the Lagazuoi in order to drive away the Italians, without succeeding. At this point, the Italian soldiers dig a corridor over a kilometer long inside the Piccolo Lagazuoi, working day and night for the construction of a tunnel, two meters high and two meters wide, proceeding at a rate of six meters a day. At the end of June and early July, this unprecedented enterprise was completed and the mine was detonated without producing any substantial change in the war of position between the two armies.
But the mine war had devastating effects on the Dolomite peaks. The most powerful of the Austrian mines detonated May 22, 1917 blew up a part of the wall of the Piccolo Lagazuoi 199 meters high and 136 meters wide; while the mine of 32,664 kilos of explosives detonated by the Italians on June 20, 1917 caused a gigantic landslide still identifiable along the side of the wall just to the east of the cable car that climbs from the Pass to the top (Marco Avanzini and Isabella Salvador). A beautiful 1931 film by Luis Trenker, Berge in Flammen (Mountains on Fire), immortalized the memory of those destructive explosions in highly effective images.
The Lagazuoi Gallery is today the longest gallery of WW1 among those preserved in the Dolomites. The Italian tunnel, 1100 meters long, has been totally restored and equipped with ladders and steel rope.
The excursion going down the tunnel not only represents an exceptional experience due to its particular characteristics but also offers an immediate synthesis of the extreme difficulties in which the soldiers of both armies operated.
Never before had a war been photographed and represented so systematically through the photographic image. The Italian Army Photography Service included 600 photographers that produced a total of 150,000 negatives. The images were filtrated by the censorship that allow only positive representations of the Italian soldiers that were then published in newspapers and magazines such as l’Illustrazione Italiana.
The images of dead soldiers were prohibited by censorship and self-censorship but death was a daily reality in the trenches and among civilians on the Italian Front; ultimately counting hundred of thousands of deaths on both sides out of the total number of 10 million dead soldiers of WW1.
The traces and remains of some of these dead are inscribed in the Dolomites landscape and even today, when the ice melts, some corpses of dead soldiers re-emerge like the ones you see in this picture.
The White War was a period of history frozen in time until the 1990s when global warming started to reveal corpses and relics of WW1. Thousands of soldiers have been killed by avalanches, falling down mountains, or hypothermia. Dozens of corpses, some still in their uniforms, have emerged from the melting ice over the past decades (Leander).
From this point of view, the signs that can be read in the Dolomites landscape are exemplary in communicating the essential fact that the violence done to the environment is destructive and deadly for human beings as well. Their life in wartime does not belong only to human history but to the natural history, to the history of the earth. This is what the images of soldier corpses emerging from the mountains suggest: over time humans remain literally inscribed and buried in the landscape like any other natural element. This is a lesson that must be learned today, in the presence of a war that risks turning into atomic war and global warming that seem to jeopardize the survival of human life on earth.
War, what Leonardo da Vinci called “beastly madness,” highlights precisely the natural and animal elements of humans, their being subjected to the landscape which they claim to conquer. The emergence of anthropogenic residues from the mountains on the one hand makes them available for the historical archive and museum, on the other hand, it helps to recall the existence of an immemorial, geological, and biological past, which precedes the very formation of the human landscape, museums, and archives as we perceive them today. The bodies of the dead soldiers and their opposing uniforms before entering the historical archive belong to the mountain, the landscape, and its geological time that remains looming in the background.
The nuclear risk and the destruction of the planet had already emerged in the consciousness of human beings at the end of the first great world conflict. In those years the Trieste writer Italo Svevo wrote at the end of his novel Zeno’s Conscience, that human madness and disease would disappear from the earth only with the destruction of the planet made possible by a more powerful bomb than all those seen in the first world war:
Perhaps, through an unheard-of catastrophe produced by devices, we will return to health. When poison gases no longer suffice, an ordinary man, in the secrecy of a room in this world, will invent an incomparable explosive, compared to which the explosives currently in existence will be considered harmless toys. And another man, also ordinary, but sicker than others, will steal this explosive and will climb up at the center of the earth, to set it on the spot where it can have the maximum effect. There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness. (437)
Beltrame, Achille. Domenica del corriere 23-30 maggio 1915 Anno XVII n. 21, Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44184004
Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Internet resource.
Labanca, Nicola, and Oswald Überegger. La Guerra Italo-Austriaca, 1915-1918. Bologna: Il mulino, 2014. Print.
Leander, Roet. “Global Warming Is Thawing Out the Frozen Corpses of a Forgotten WWI Battle.” Web. Motherboard. January 15, 2014.
Leoni, Diego. La Guerra Verticale: Uomini, Animali E Macchine Sul Fronte Di Montagna : 1915 – 1918. Torino: Einaudi, 2019. Print.
Map Europe alliances 1914-en.svg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 1 Jun 2022, 20:34 UTC. 6 Jun 2022, 04:47 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg&oldid=660669963>.
Photos from the Historical Museum of War in Rovereto
Rusconi, Gian E. L’azzardo Del 1915: Come L’italia Decide La Sua Guerra. Bologna: Il mulino, 2005. Print.
Svevo, Italo, and Weaver, William. Zeno’s Conscience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Print.
Thompson, Mark. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919. London: Basic Books, 2010. Print.
Vedere la Grande Guerra. Istituto per la storia del Risorgimento italiano. https://www.movio.beniculturali.it/mcrr/immaginidellagrandeguerra/it/
This reflection on borders begins with the Monument to Victory in Bolzano, built by the Fascist regime in 1928 to remember Italian soldiers who fell in the First World War and to celebrate the victory over the Austro-Hungarian army. A reading from Hermann Hesse’s Wandering will follow.
The monument was controversial and opposed by the German-speaking majority in the province of South Tyrol that was annexed to Italy after WW1. Today the monument remains controversial despite being somehow accepted by the entire South Tyrolean community.
Since 2014, it hosts along a permanent exhibition (under the title “BZ ’18–’45: one monument, one city, two dictatorships”) focusing on the history of the monument, within the context of Fascism and the Nazi occupation during WW2.
In the museum inside the monument you will find inscriptions that concern above all the historical time and the idea of borders and boundaries like the following expression of Fascist nationalism that can be read in Latin on the facade monument itself: “Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point we educate others with language, law and culture.”
The exhibition is particularly critical and self-reflexive about the role of this monument and the monuments in general in keeping traces of the past alive. What is the function of the monuments? Is it still needed? Are there alternative ways to remember the past?
These are some of the questions that the visit to this monument-museum poses.
At the beginning of the precious little book by the German born writer Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) entitled Wandering (1919-1920) there is a profound ethical reflection on borders. The author was able to remain true to the highest spiritual and cultural values amid the collapse of European civil society during WWI. While participating in the war as a volunteer in the imperial army –where he was assigned to the care of prisoners of war– he refused the general war enthusiasm of the time and in 1914 wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”) published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung to appeal to his fellow European intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic folly and hatred. As he write in his autobiographical notes for the Nobel Prize he received in 1946, “when the First World War broke out each year brought me more and more into conflict with German nationalism; ever since my first shy protests against mass suggestion and violence I have been exposed to continuous attacks and floods of abusive letters from Germany.”
Wandering (Wanderung) is one of Hermann Hesse’s most poetic works. It records thoughts and observations of someone who is traveling to rediscover the meaning of life and death and the importance of invisible spiritual values, such as the mystical sense of belonging and love for life and nature in all its forms.
In his autobiographical notes he lists his philosophical and spiritual influences,
“of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy.”
Another significant influence on Hesse, not listed in his autobiographical notes, has been St. Francis. Notably, Hesse wrote a biography of St Francis (1904) and derived from him and some of the sources listed above (Indian and Chinese philosophy) the idea of the divine presence first and foremost in nature, in trees (see post of March 21, 2019), streams, meadows, clouds, or birds. Hence the mystical and religious sense of life so widespread in Wandering, which is capable of establishing a dialogue, an intimate conversation with the small creatures of the earth and the particular attention to the most apparently insignificant details of animated and inanimate life in the style of conversation with the birds of St. Francis …
The juxtaposition of St. Francis to the Eastern Buddhist mysticism that we see in a certain way in Hermann Hesse recalls that between Milarepa and St. Francis which is established by Reinhold Messner in his Museum of the Mountain of Bolzano. Messner also insists on the importance of human dialogue with the mountain, nature in general in the formation of mystical human spirituality
Immediately after the end of World War I, Hesse embarked on a journey south. Throughout his life he has been a traveler and this trip to Ticino –where he resettled alone in the town Montagnola near lake Lugano and renting four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi– is one of the most important of his life in incorporating the reflections, experiences and premises of the great masterpieces that will follow.
He crossed the Alps hiking from North to South experiencing the moment in which German architecture, German countryside and language come to an end. He wanted to get away from a world that, although familiar, he did not accept anymore. He needed to rediscover his own world; he was looking for a new meaning in his life after the horror and agony of war. After millions of military and civilian casualties fallen in the war to defend national borders, how could one now think of borders? What was their value? Here is his answer:
The hike and crossing of the borders of the Alps is counter posed to the farmhouse that he leaves behind to undertake his new journey.
In drawing his farmhouse he reflects,
According to historian George Duby, the contemporary situation in the Mediterranean appears to be characterized by two trends that are the result of tendencies already established in previous centuries. On the one hand, there are the consequences of European colonialism that make the difference between the North and the South, between Europe and the rest of the Mediterranean world, more evident than ever. The imbalance persists and worsens in a worrying manner. The countries freed from colonialism live in growing poverty, partly linked to exuberant demography. Europe appears increasingly wary and closed to the Southern part of the Mediterranean world. The dramatic social and economic problems of our time, together with all the fundamentalist identities both cultural and religious, originate from this situation. On the other hand, our time appears to be characterized by the moment in which tourism takes a “pathological form” both from a social and cultural point of view (30). European tourism, argues Duby, is the bearer of a closed and contemptuous sub-culture that produces serious and negative effects on local cultures.
The human signs have “civilized” the highest peaks and most remote parts of the earth. Consequently, the mountain no longer offers itself as a unified and sublime image. Contemporary artists tend to emphasize this new dimension of the mountain landscape and the breaking of its magic. Here are two photographs by Andreas Gursky that represent the extreme human possession of the winter mountain landscape. Born in Leipzig in 1955, he is famous for representing the places of vacation and entertainment favored by tourism. The long queues of ski tourists draw the back of the mountains with serpentine waves that use the mountain as a writing medium.
The people represented in their swarming look like a row of ants. In these photographs there is no shadow of a human personality, only a movement of nameless multitudes.
But there are artists who are still able to rediscover the wonder and charm of the mountains even and despite the consumerist wave of mass tourism. Georg Tappeiner, the photographer born in Merano in 1964 who lives in the Dolomites exposing himself to their magical beauty, has proved capable of catching the breath of their majestic sometimes disturbing presence on earth. In his photographs the Dolomites emerge with the force of an archaic epic poem as if they were the “heart stone of the world” that pulsates in the sky in the infinite movement of light and clouds.
The Dolominites have recently been included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage for the beauty of the landscape and the importance of their geological history. This fact has led to an increase in mass tourism in these mountains. The problem therefore arises of making this new tourism sustainable to avoid what Geneviève Clastres has recently called “the tourist paradox” that produces overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets. This problem is common to all UNESCO World Heritage sites. For sure, tourism brings money, growth and hope, but at the same time can have negative consequences because visitors tend to “destroy the sites they admire wearing away the soil around the standing stones at Carnac, causing gully erosion in the Puyde-Dôme, damaging the cave paintings at Lascaux, trampling over Machu Picchu” (Clastres).
Clastres article based on the French situation closes with a pessimistic note because France does not have an independent tourism ministry since 1995 letting the commercial aspect of tourism to become very much dominant. The Nepal article on the unsustainable tourist treatment of Mt Everest also ends with a pessimistic note. He underlines that the Nepalese government earns US $3.3 million annually in Everest-related climbing royalty and is “not truly committed to making sure that its mountaineering peaks are not polluted.”
These examples make it clear that it is very difficult to find a balance between ecological and commercial needs in the absence of a precise orientation in this sense from public authorities. From this point of view, it appears remarkable that the Article 9 of Italian Constitution states that the Republic “protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation.” Regarding the Dolomites a first step in this direction has been taken through the process of candidacy and the consequent enrollment in the World Heritage List. The Italian State that was part of the Convention along with the regional, provincial and local administrations involved, committed to ensuring the protection, conservation, the presentation and transmission to the future generations of the Natural Heritage. In other words, they committed to develop sustainable tourism not only in the core and buffer areas of the Dolomites UNESCO, but also in the surrounding areas.
The Management Framework of the Dolomites Heritage UNESCO, document elaborated a series of indications on the sustainable tourism management of the site. Among the main objectives the document highlights that of the “promotion of a gradual transition
from mass tourism to forms of quality tourism and responsible hiking” (Province of Belluno, Autonomous Province of Bolzano – Alto Adige / Autonomous Province of Bozen – Südtirol, Province of Pordenone, Autonomous Province of Trento, Province of Udine, Friuli Venezia Giulia Autonomous Region 2008, cited in Elmi and Wagner, 13).
Interventions and state and local government awareness in favor of responsible tourism are very important, as well as the conscience and action of each individual citizen. Similarly, the work of artists who re-create and re-invent the mountain landscape is significant, as it goes beyond pure preservation to renew its vitality in a creative way. L’Echo (2003), the video installation by Su-Mei Tse, the artist born in Luxembourg city in 1973, gives us a sense of wonder in front of a mountain landscape that also appears distant and impenetrable but at the same time responsive.
The artist and her cello are near the edge of a vast mountain canyon. She is still and silent then plays, pauses and listens. The echo of the mountain reverberates establishing an intimacy between the artist and the landscape in the common musical breath. But the intimacy is only momentary and interrupted by a sublime silence.
Clastres, Geneviève. (2019, 07). “Overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets; the tourist paradox.” Le Monde Diplomatique English ed.; Paris [Paris]01 July 2019.
Duby, Georges. Los Ideales Del Mediterráneo: Historia, Filosofía Y Literatura En La Cultura Europea. Barcelona: Icaria, 1997. Print.
Elmi, Marianna and Wagner Matthias. Turismo sostenibile nelle Dolomiti. Una strategia per il bene patrimonio mondiale Unesco. Bolzano: Accademia Europea, 2013.
Sanjay Nepal. “Everest tourism is causing a mountain of problems.” The Conversation, April 9, 2014.
Su-Mei Tse, L’Echo (2003), Video installation. Web. Preview from “https://vimeo.com/edouardmalinguegallery”.
This legend was published by Karl Felix Wolff in 1905, as part of the folkloric tradition of the Dolomites in an attempt to enhance the Ladin minority that elaborated most of the legends today associated with the Dolomites. In fact, it was first published in the magazine L’amik di Ladins/Der Ladinerfreund (The friend of the Ladins). The most recent studies have highlighted the merits but also the problems of the collection of Ladin myths published by him. Among the merits is undoubtedly that of having saved from oblivion an extraordinary heritage of myths and legends destined to disappear when they were no longer told. Criticism of his work emphasizes the fact that he is a self-taught ethnographer and that he intervened heavily to integrate the legendary material in a personal way where it seemed contradictory or incomplete.
The Pale Mountains explains in an imaginative way the birth of the characteristic pale color of the Dolomites and the existential importance of their flowers like the edelweiss (Star of the Alps) and the rhododendron (Alpenrose). Reading this legend you will learn how the son of the King of the Alps with the help of hundreds of dwarfs prepared for the daughter of the King of the Moon a world of white so that she would never have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had become a flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the clouds …
The time of the story is the immemorial one of the origins and myth. The mountains we are talking about were not yet recognized with the name “Dolomites”. As is well known, the name Dolomites was coined in 1792 by the Swiss naturalist H.-B. de Saussure in honor of the French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu (1750–1801), who had discovered a new type of sedimentary rock, dolómia, made up of crystals of a double carbonate of magnesium and calcium (dolomite).
The central motif of the legend is the moonlight that is associated with the lunar deity, from the moon princess to the salvans. This was an ancestral people in deep contact with nature, able to weave the moon rays that would cover the mountains of the kingdom to alleviate the queen’s nostalgia for the moonlight. To recall Simone Weil’s conception elaborated in another post, Simone Weil and a myth of the Okanagan, in this legend we find a metaphor of divine truth inscribed in the universe. The moon princess is a divine incarnation, a mediator who benefits humans.
As Ulrike Kindl writes, “the legend of the Pale Mountains has its roots in a remote imago mundi, when the order of space and time was still perceived according to powerful symbolic projections, at the center, in all probability, was the figure of a primordial divinity, a numinous power identified with the entire cosmos, a goddess of heaven and earth, imagined as Mater Magna, fertile womb and deadly cave, source of birth, protector of growth and reproduction, and finally guardian of dead souls, until a new cycle begins” (194-195).
Once upon a time there lived the son of a King. His father’s kingdom lay in the southern territory of the Alps, with its green pastures and shady forests, and steep mountains with black rocks. The inhabitants lived as hunters and shepherds, loved their country, and considered themselves happy. One, alone, was not content with his life and the world about him – the King’s son. He felt tormented by a desire which no one could grant him – he wanted to visit the Moon. He had already consulted all the wise men of the kingdom as to what he should do in order to reach the Moon, but nobody knew how to advise him. The Prince, therefore, was discontented and sad. In vain his companions endeavored to distract him and to turn his thoughts to other things – he talked and dreamed only about the Moon. At the time of Full Moon, he always became very sad. From evening until the morning he wandered restlessly around on the rocks and meadows, gazing all the time at the Moon. The most expert physicians came to the Court but no one was able to cure the strange malady of the Prince. And it continued to become worse.
One day, while hunting, the Prince left his companions and lost his way in the forests. When evening came and the sun had set he found himself in a lonely, high valley, all covered with Alproses, and surrounded on three sides by steep ridges and mighty towers of rock. No longer hoping to meet with his hunting companions again that day, the King’s son decided to spend the night there. So he lay down on a green lawn in the midst of Alprose bushes and looked thoughtfully, in the distance, at the red clouds and mountain-tops which were just fading away. As he felt very tired, however, he soon fell asleep and had a curious dream … he stood on a meadow all covered with strange flowers, and spoke to a wonderful girl whom he had never seen before. All around, as far as the Prince could see, it was white, but he himself held some red Alproses in his hand, and gave them to the beautiful stranger. She, smiling, accepted the flowers, asking him what this country was like, and after a while she told him that she was the daughter of the Moon King. On hearing these words the King’s son felt an indescribable joy, and awoke.
It was already past midnight; the Moon stood high, and its silver light shone into the deserted clefts and on the pointed rocks of the lonely high valley: the Prince looked up and his joy changed, becoming deep sorrow. The usual ardent longing took possession of him, and for a long time, he gave free play to his sad thoughts. Finally, a gentle breeze passed through the Alproses, and the King’s son thought of what should happen if he really should meet the Moon Princess. So he began to gather the beautiful Alproses and to make a bouquet, and he was occupied with it for a long time. All at once, he thought he heard someone speaking high up in the rocks. He listened, but a great silence ruled, except that in the distance a waterfall murmured.
The Prince gathered some more flowers, but for the second time, he heard words, and now very clearly. The sound came down from the highest rock tower, and the top of this tower was wrapped up in a thick white cloud. Up there mountain-demons have to dwell, so the King’s son thought, and he grasped the hilt of his sword. Without putting away the Alprose bouquet he slowly strode to the tower, went around the foot of the mountain walls, and began to climb up on the back wall which was not so steep. The speaking became more clear, but it was not yet possible to distinguish words. Soon the King’s son came into a cloud, the moonlight could no longer get through, and he only groped his way forward. Finally, he struck something hard, a door was opened, and the Prince stood before a brightly Illuminated little space where two very, very old men were sitting.
They rose, frightened; but he calmed them, excusing himself by saying that he was a hunter who had lost his way in the mountain wildness. On hearing these words both went to meet him, asking him to come in, and they became very friendly. They talked of one thing and another, and the Prince asked them if they were old men of the mountains. But the two old men replied that they were inhabitants of the Moon who had made a long journey all around the world and that they were on the point of returning to their own country. Hearing this, the King’s son became quite pale with excitement and he told them that for years and years he felt an ardent desire to make a journey to the Moon. The two old men laughed, saying that if he wished to join them they were quite content and that they were starting immediately.
The Prince was very happy, thanking the good old men with endless words. Meanwhile the cloud had drifted from the rock summit and began to sail towards the Moon with increasing speed. During the long journey the Prince told the two old men many things concerning his father’s kingdom, and they told him how things were on the Moon, and how one had to live there. Thus, they informed him that an inhabitant of the earth could not stay for a long time on the Moon because everything there was white-plains and mountains, plants and cities – all shining in silver sheen, and an inhabitant of the earth became blind, after a time, from this dazzling brightness. So also, said they, a Moon dweller could not remain for a long time on the earth because of the dark colors of the forests and rocks, which are saddening, and if such a one could not return soon, very soon, to the Moon he would surely die from too much pining for the white fields of his country.
With such conversation and considerations did the three Moon-travellers beguile their time. At last, the cloud on which they were, came down upon one of the mountains of the Moon and rested there. The first part of their journey was over, now they had to proceed on foot. The two old men explained to the Prince that they had to turn westwards, and they advised him to travel towards the east in order to reach the Capital as soon as possible. The Prince said goodbye and went down the mountain in an easterly direction. All the country around about was white, especially because of little white flowers which covered the surface of the Moon in endless numbers. But, in addition, the ground, which in some places was bare, appeared white, and even the flaming walls of rock had faint bright colors.
After a while the King’s son saw the houses and tower tops of the Capital. All these buildings, however, were made, from their foundations to their battlements, of white marble. With quick steps, the Prince hastened to meet this white splendor until he was stopped by a hedge that barred the way. This hedge was made, with great skill, of sparkling metal, and its slicks bore strange decorations. Beyond the hedge, a gardener was working. As soon as he noticed the stranger he advanced slowly, saluted, and inquired, in an astonished manner, as to the origin of the red flowers which the Prince was holding in his hands. These were the Alproses which he had gathered during the night. The Prince explained that he had come from the earth, and that the flowers grew there. Now, the gardener told him that in the castle, which stood in the background, lived the Moon King and his daughter. The Princess was very fond of rare and beautiful flowers, and she would surely reward the stranger in a royal manner if he would leave the red bouquet for her.
The Prince laughed and said that he would give his Alproses to the Princess with great pleasure, but that he would seek no reward for them as he himself was the son of a King. At this, the astonished gardener opened the gate and invited the stranger to enter the garden. Then he ran up to the castle. After a while here returned, breathless, begging the Prince to go with him to the castle. The King’s son followed his guide through many, many halls and corridors, looking amazedly at the walls of alabaster white, and at the bright arms which adorned them.
The Prince was received by the Moon King and his daughter in a large illuminated hall and was welcomed in a very friendly way. The Moon King was a very old man with a long silvery-white beard; but, on seeing the Princess, the Prince recognized that wonderful girl whom he had met in his night-dream. She accepted the Alproses gratefully, praising their glorious color, and asked the Prince if there were many such flowers in his country, what kind of people lived there, and how large was his father’s kingdom. It was only after a lengthy conversation that they parted, the Moon King telling the Prince that he was to consider himself as his guest.
The Prince remained then for a time at the royal castle, taking long walks through its surroundings, and became well acquainted with the Moon to which he had so often looked up with longing. After some weeks the Moon King asked his foreign guest, at lunch, how he liked the Moon. The Prince replied that the white, shining landscape of the Moon was the most beautiful he ever had seen, but its unaccustomed brightness was so affecting his eyes that he feared he would go blind if he did not return soon to his own country. The Princess interjected that she did not share the apprehension of the earth Prince and that with time he could accustom himself to the splendor of the landscape. A wise old courtier, however, ventured to contradict the Princess, saying that it really was not advisable for an inhabitant of the earth to remain too long on the Moon. After that, the Princess said no more.
At the time that the King’s son lost his way while hunting, his companions searched for him everywhere in the gloomy forests and among the pathless rocks, but though their quest lasted for many days they were unable to find him. They were obliged, then, to return to the royal castle and to inform the old King of what had happened, but he sent them away, warning them that they should not dare to appear before him again without his son. At the same time the whole kingdom was informed that anyone who could bring any tidings of the Prince might expect a great reward.
But it was all to no purpose. No one knew anything, and the Prince was not heard of again. Everyone believed that he had perished at night on the mountains, when suddenly, it was reported through the country that the Prince had come back, bringing with him the Moon King’s daughter as his wife. The simple people of the Alps were very glad, and they all went to the palace to try to see the Princess as they could not imagine what an inhabitant of the Moon should look like, but she differed only from the women of the earth in that a bright light seemed to emanate from her, and that in the meadows each tree shadow vanished as soon as she appeared. The people were astonished at the white flower which grows everywhere on the Moon, and which the Princess had brought with her. This flower spread with time over the whole Alps, and even today the bright stars salute one from the rock walls, they are called Edelweiss.
The Princess for her part was enchanted by the colored meadows and pastures of the Alps, never getting tired of admiring the variegated flowers and the green lawns. She also loved the blue mountain lakes, and, ever and always, she praised the variety of the earth’s surface, comparing it with the monotony of the Moon landscape, where everything was white. A proud satisfaction came over the Prince when he saw that the Moon daughter was so well and happy, and he delighted to show her everything, the valleys of the kingdom and their different curiosities, and all the beauties of the country. Both of them fell very glad and cheerful, and had no other thought but to remain like that.
Once, however, when the King’s son returned late one evening from hunting he saw his wife standing on the balcony and looking up at the Moon. He thought it was strange. He went up softly, surprising the dreamer, and asked her why she was looking up so thoughtfully at the Moon. She smiled and was silent, but on being asked again she confessed that she had been pining for the white Moon-fields. The meadows and valleys of the Alps are beautiful, she said, but the confusion of dark mountain tops which extend themselves threateningly towards the sky, like the black fists of gigantic demons, give the landscape a gloomy closeness, and this in time presses like deep sorrow upon the soul.
On hearing this complaint the Prince grew afraid, for it recalled to his mind what the two old men said to him when he went up to the Moon: they said that a Moon dweller would soon miss the white beauty of his country and die, languishing for light …..
At present, of course, there was no cause for a serious fear, and the Prince hoped to be able to release his wife from her dangerous homesickness by amusement and all kinds of diversion. He was mistaken, however, for her condition became worse little by little. Just like the Prince before his journey to the Moon, she now gazed at the Moon for hours and hours, becoming finally so pale and weak that there were grave fears for her life, and always she lamented about the black rocks which threatened down in such a ghostly way, just as if they would darken the valleys. And just as once no one was able to help the Prince, so now, also, nobody could bring deliverance. In the meantime, the suffering of the Princess was becoming worse, and the words of the two old Moon dwellers seemed to be terribly true. The Prince felt desolate, and those about him were helpless.
As soon as the Moon King heard that his daughter was in danger of death, he left the Moon and came down to the earth to visit his son-in-law who told him about her terrible home-sickness, which grew worse and worse and was now about to kill her. The Moon King said he could not let his daughter die, and, therefore, that he wished to bring her back to the Moon. At the same time he invited the Prince in a very friendly way to accompany them if he wished to do so, but said that in case the Prince should be obliged to stay on the earth he would be very sorry, without, however, being able to change his resolution to take the Princess back to her country.
Now people from all parts besieged the Prince, begging him to think of the kingdom he was appointed to rule, to remain among his native mountains and to renounce his wife. They praised the great future he had before him, advising him to undertake a campaign in the beautiful south, but the Prince would listen to no such speeches, and went with his father-in-law and his sick wife to the Moon. Here she recovered her health very soon, but long before she was perfectly healthy the Prince perceived with horror that he was seeing less from day to day and that he would be blind after a short time. The old Moon King now advised him to leave the Moon before it was too late. The Prince struggled against it, but seeing the danger growing more and more apparent he finally gave it up and returned, wretched, to the earth.
Now the Moon-home-sickness took hold of him more strongly than ever. At full Moon time he was never to be seen in the castle but was wandering restlessly around on the mountains. During the day she slept in caverns and under trees, and at night he climbed high peaks, looking steadfastly up at the Moon. With the new Moon, then, the Prince would return but so changed that scarcely anyone could recognize him. Eventually it wearied him to see people at all, and he no longer went down to the valleys, so completely wild did he become. Ceaselessly he traversed the large forests and rock deserts of his kingdom, climbing every mountain-top.
Nowhere could he find consolation and peace. Many weeks had passed since the King’s son had last seen or spoken to anyone. One evening, in a rubbled valley-end, he was surprised by a thunderstorm and obliged to flee into a cavern. There he met a strange little man, hardly three shoes tall but with a long beard and a serious face and a golden crown upon his head. The Prince spoke to the little man and soon realized that he had found a fellow-sufferer, for what the little man with the golden crown had to tell about his fate was very pitiful and sad.
The little man was the king of the”Salvans” (Salvan in the Ladin language, signifies cavern-inhabitant, wild man). From olden times they had inhabited a beautiful kingdom in the far east. This kingdom, having reached the height of its glory, and possessing as many inhabitants as a large forest has leaves, was subjected to an invasion of hostile foreign forces who devastated the country by fire and sword and killed so many Salvans in protracted battles that the survivors had to flee from their own country. Then the king, with the remainder of his people, marched from one neighboring kingdom to another begging for a mountain, or a marsh, or some other piece of ground so that his people could settle there. No sovereign would listen to him, however, and everywhere the Salvans were ejected with scorn. At last, they found shelter in a distant country, but they were obliged to work so hard that many of them died and others escaped in order that they might not witness any longer the misery of their brothers. Thus, it was with the king.
Having related this, the little man sighed and said that no creature could be more unhappy than a sovereign whose people had entirely perished and he unable to prevent it. The Prince then sympathized with the dwarf king on the hard fate which had befallen him but he said that his own destiny was no less cruel and he, too, related his distressful history. At first the dwarf king listened with a gloomy look but, little by little, his face began to brighten, and at last he smiled, quite pleased, and when the Prince, who did not notice this, had finished, the little man jumped up, clapped his hands and cried out joyously: Prince, be happy, we are now both saved. On hearing such an unexpected exclamation the Prince was almost afraid to look at the dwarf, for he thought that the little man had surely lost his reason and gone crazy.
But the dwarf king had not spoken without reason and he now began to explain his meaning quite clearly. He pointed out that the Princess was only obliged to return to her own country because a Moon child, accustomed to light could not bear the look of the black rocks for long. If the mountains of the Alp-kingdom were of the same clear color as those on the Moon, the Princess would never have been attacked by such a home-sickness. The little Salvans, he said, are a clever and skilled people and they would be willing to cover the innumerable dark mountain tops, from head to foot, with the whiteness of the Moon landscape if only the King of the Alp-kingdom would give them permission to live there forever without being molested. This would give help to both, to the Prince as well as to the dwarf-people.
The Prince listened to this promising speech half astonished, half unbelieving, and then he said he did not think it would be difficult to obtain permission for the Salvans to remain in his kingdom but that he did not understand how they could make a dark rock wall white. The dwarf-king smiled in a superior way and then he said the Prince could rest assured about that because the dwarfs had already done things that were more difficult. The Prince then hesitated no longer, inviting the little man to come with him to the court. The Salvans agreed and in addition, as the storm had ceased, they immediately left the cavern, walking on together. They had to wander for two days through desert solitudes before they reached the principal valley and the castle.
The old King was very pleased al the return of his son but he considered the request of himself and his companion a strange one. He did not bother about to look at the mountain-tops but he thought he could not agree to the immigration of strange people. It was only when the king of the Salvans had explained that they would never lay claim to the rich valleys, meadows, and fields, but be satisfied to remain in the forests and wild rocks, that the Alp King and his advisers gave their consent. The agreement was confirmed by documents and both parties swore to observe it faithfully.
The dwarf king departed immediately to look for his poor people and to bring them the good news. Some days later the exhausted little people were seen to cross the frontiers of the kingdom in long columns and turn towards the high mountains. After having selected their dwelling places under clefts and rock sand behind waterfalls, the dwarf king sent word to the Prince that the Salvans would begin next evening the work they had undertaken by contract. The Prince who could scarcely restrain his impatience was in addition, tormented by doubts, for it seemed incredible to him that the dwarfs would be able to accomplish the difficult work. He ascended one of the highest mountain-top to await the evening.
As soon as the moon had risen, seven Salvans appeared, forming a circle and beginning to make all sorts of contortions. Their little hands worked convulsively, like the waves of a torrent. Astonished, the Prince watched this performance; finally, he asked the little men what they intended to do. They answered that they were about to weave the moonlight, and, sure enough, after a while, in the middle of a circle, one saw a clew which radiated a soft but continuing brightness. The dwarfs worked busily, the clew was growing and became a large bundle. The Prince gazed steadily at the seven little men, while hour after hour passed. Then he looked in the distance and behold, on every mountain top a point of light was glowing: everywhere stood little dwarfs who had spun the lights.
In deep astonishment the Prince looked at this wonderful picture; the stars seemed to have fallen down on the dark sea of mountains tops. Already the valley had become all black, and the Moon shone only on the highest peaks, then it sank down beyond long wavy borders. The Salvans did not rest but immediately began another task; they pulled apart their bundle of light, drawing glittering threads down from the tops over the declivities, and they went around the mountains wrapping them, little by little, into a net of light. As soon as every edge and top had been spun over, the meshes were drawn closer together until finally, every dark plain vanished and the whole ground radiated a pale glimmer.
The next day no one, down in the valley, could believe their eyes, for the high mountains all around, once towering aloft so gloomily, were now all white, and their bright color formed a strange contrast with the maze of mountains which remained black beyond the frontier. In a single night, the dwarfs had covered all the mountain tops in the kingdom with the white color of the Moon-landscape. When the Prince arrived at the castle highly pleased, a messenger was brought before him with a sad message: the Moon King informed the Prince that the Princess had contracted an illness which endangered her life, and had expressed a desire to see her husband once again. The Prince made no answer, not even a single word, but when the messenger departed he was his companion.
As soon as he arrived at the Moon, he hastened towards the glittering palace. On reaching the hall the Prince was informed that the Princess was on the point of death. But he ran to her, crying that she must not die now, for all their sorrow was ended: the mountain tops of his kingdom were glittering like Moon-mountains; she must return with him once more lo the earth, as he had prepared for her a world of white where she would never again have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had now become a flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the clouds.
These cheerful, happy words revived the spirits of the Princess, and soon it was obvious that she had recovered again. After a short lime the Prince was able to bring his wife back to the earth, and how joyful was the astonishment of the young Princess who had lain so near to death, when she beheld the shining landscape: the smiling Alp-garden united in its white rocks, green meadows and variegated flowers, the Moon’s regions of light with the rich color-beauty of the earth. Never again did the Moon-daughter sigh for her own country, as it was now more beautiful on the white mountains than in the Moon.
The pale mountains are standing there today, and they are called the Dolomites. The kingdom as such has ceased to exist for a long time, but the Salvans still dwell in the wildness of the rocks and forests. But not only does an enchanting brightness still cling to those pale mountains -they are haunted by the deep home-sickness of that Moon-Princess, for anyone who has ever been there, is always called back to the marvel of the light-girded Dolomites by an infinite longing.Continue reading…
What are the origins of mountains? In particular, how were the Dolomites formed? Is the geological narrative the only way to explain the orogenesis of these mountains? A comprehensive, truly ecocritical approach to these questions does contemplate the most current scientific answers and a reconsideration of the legends and myths that over time have accompanied the narrative habitation of the mountainous territory and the invention of the places within it.
The following legend, The Mirror of Misurina, explains imaginatively and creatively the fantastic creation of Mount Sorapìs (the mountain that still stands before Mount Cristallo), and of the beautiful Lake Misurina, in the Italian Dolomites, northeast of Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the province of Belluno, Veneto, northern Italy.
The legend provides an anthropomorphic explanation of orogenesis. However, at the basis of the tale remains the myth of the perennial metamorphosis of matter. This aspect introduces in the legend a more than human dimension.
Richard Buxton, a scholar of the human etiology of landscape, writes “it is too simple to say that a geological narrative in terms of plate tectonics and vulcanology is just “true’, and that the tale of a doting giant and his capricious daughter is just ‘false'” (194). In other words, we have to admit that there are different ways of perceiving our relationship with the landscape’s past and its presence in our time.
As Karoly Kerényi writes in Essays on a Science of Mythology, “Mythology always tells of the origins or at least of what originally was” (Kérenyi 9). It is essential to consider mythology as “founding thought” with features that belongs to the world of orality. In this sense, it cannot represent a simple etiology like the one developed in the alphabetic world of modern writing and science. Mythology does indicate “causes,” only to the extent that “causes” are considered “beginnings” or “first principles”.
The reference to the Greek Presocratic thinkers can help us get closer to these concepts. For them, the beginnings consisted of primordial elements such as water, fire, and earth. These were not conceived as mere causes but as primary, boundless, and cosmic substance. In other words, for the earliest Greek philosophers, beginnings were “primary states” that cannot age or be surpassed. They produce everything and form the ground or foundation of the world, since everything rests on them. Everything individual or particular goes back to them out of which it was made, through a continuous metamorphic vital cycle. These primary states are ageless and inexhaustible as they live in timeless primordiality. “The past for them is imperishable because of its eternally repeated rebirths” (Kérenyi, 9).
This idea of origins as an eternal metamorphic process takes us to the heart of the myths that can be glimpsed behind the legend of Misurina. For Kérenyi, the ultimate goal of the Eleusinian mysteries and associated myths such as Hecate, Demeter, and Persephone is the awareness of the drama of human life and the continuity of life even within death. We have discussed this central idea in each myth in two other posts of this blog, Simone Weil and a Myth of the Okanagan and the Pale Mountains.
The best way to get out of the sterile critique of mythological and legendary representations and the idea of a trivial scientific determinism of the geographical space is to think that space is not an objective reality but a metaphor. In this sense, humans, not only geographers, may be explorers, not because they discover new lands but because they uncover changes, territorial innovations, and new meaning in the metaphorical landscape of the earth (De Matteis, 139, 149).
The Mirror of Misurina
Once upon a time there was a father and a child. The child was called Misurina and Sorapìs the father. Dad was a giant, and Misurina a tiny little wagtail, that could very well be in his waistcoat pocket, yet what do you ever want? that tiny little wagtail could at ease make fun of that dad as big as a mountain.
It is the fate that comes to the dads too good with little girls who do not deserve any goodness.
– But it’s so pretty – said Sorapìs when his wife reproached him for excessive indulgence that he had for his little daughter.
– But it’s so small.
But it is this, but that is, for one reason and another, father Sorapìs always allowed to be fooled without even noticing it. And Misurina grew fizzy like pepper, to the desperation of others.
At the castle of Father Sorapìs all fled her like the tertian fever, court men and chamber valets, company ladies and kitchen women, but the tertian fever jump on everybody even if you run away, don’t you? and Misurina did the same.
When less thought was given to her, she produced the worst tricks, and those poor guys, gesummaria, they always had some to tell the king.
– Sire, Misurina stole my wig.
– She hid my sword sheath.
– She blinded the horse with the salt.
– She cut off my steed’s tail.
– Oh, oh! – snorted Sorapìs trying in vain to look serious.
– This is serious, let’s see, we need to find a remedy, honorable isn’t it? But the little girl is so tiny! you had to excuse her.
– Sire, Misurina poured the ink into my coffee.
– She stole the buttered croutons.
– She has …
– My children, be patient – said Sorapìs – I know, I know, it’s not pleasant drink coffee with ink, or remain without croutons, but the poor creature is so lively!
– Sire – said the ladies – Misurina tramples on the train.
– She overturns our face powder.
– She steals our perfume.
– She …
My ladies – Sorapìs moaned – I know, I know, Misurina is a little brat, but she is so much a dear child! We will find a remedy, won’t we? We’ll fix this.
But the poor man did not fix anything. On the contrary, the little girl growing up became more and more unbearable. What desires she had! What demands she had! If someone had brought her the moon, she would have shrugged her shoulders and said, “Is this all? Beautiful stuff! For me we need something else! ” But these were roses. His biggest flaw was curiosity.
It was impossible to meet a girl so curious all over the world.
Se wanted to know everything, she wanted to see everything, she wanted to have her court and her kingdom on her fingertips.
She wanted, if possible, to read in the soul of the people.
– Peanuts! – the nurse told her one day.- For a young lady like you, adored by her father so much as one loves the sun, one needs to have so much as the mirror I know everything (tuttosò).
– Eh! – exclaimed the child, reddened by emotion – And what is this mirror?
– A mirror where it suffices to mirror yourself or let someone mirror himself or herself to know everything about him and her.
– Oh! murmured Misurina. – Curious! And how can I have it?
– Ask your dad who knows everything. And Misurina went to her father hopping like a sparrow.
-Daddy, – she began to shout before reaching him. -You have to give me a present. –
– If I can, my little jewel.
– Yes you can. – Then let’s hear.
– First swear that you will give me this present.
– I can’t swear if I don’t know what the gift is.
Then, Misurina began to cry and to despair and cooing to bring that poor father out of his mind, and he was consoling her and promising while sighing.
– All right, I swear to you, whatever the gift you want, I’ll do it for you.
And then Misurina clapping her hands expressed her desire.
– I want the mirror I know everything.
– You don’t know what you ask me, child.
– Yes, I know.
– But don’t you know that the mirror belongs to the fairy of Monte Cristallo?
– And what does it matter! You will buy it.
– You’ll steal it.
– Listen, Misurina …
– You promised, dad, you swore it.
– And that demon of a child began to cry and to sigh and to roll on the ground. – And if you don’t bring me that mirror, I’ll die.
To die Misurina! Let’s imagine! The poor father put the crown on his head, dressed the ermine cloak, he took the scepter as a stick and set off. He walked and walked, he walked a little because the fairy lived two steps away from him, right in front of him, and as soon as he came to the castle, he knocked on the door.
-Come on, – said the fairy who sat in the throne room with her bridesmaids. – Who are you and what do you want?
– I’m Sorapìs and I want the mirror I know everything.
– Strawberry trees! – laughed the fairy. – Only? As if it were strawberries.
– Oh, fairy, fairy don’t laugh; if you don’t give it to me, my little girl dies.
– Your little girl? And what does she know about the mirror? What does she need it for? What’s the name of this girl?
-Misurina, – replied the king.
– Ah! ah! said the fairy. – I know her by reputation. Her cries reach me when she is acting up, and this is a whim well worthy of her. All right, I’ll give you the mirror, but with a pact.
-Let’s hear, – the king agreed.
– See how much sun beats from morning to night over my garden?”
I see,” replied Sorapis.
– It burns all my flowers and bores me. It would take me a mountain to throw me some shade; behold, as big as you are, you should be content with turning yourself into a beautiful mountain. At this agreement I would give you the I know everything mirror.- Eh, eh, eh! – said Sorapis scratching his ear and sweating coldly.
– Take it or leave it – said the fairy. – Well, what do you want to do with it? If there is no other way … give me the mirror – the poor king sighed.
The fairy drew from a casket that was close to her a large green mirror and handed it to him, but since she noticed that poor Sorapìs had become lifeless, she had pity on him, and said to him:
– Let’s do something; I understand that you don’t have too much desire to transform yourself into a mountain, and it is natural, but on the other hand you are afraid that your little girl will die if you do not keep the promise you made to her.
-Word of king must be maintained,- Sorapìs moaned.
– Yes, yes, but I would have given to her some spanks in your place; this is the way to cure whims. But as I said, let’s do something. You return to your castle and tell her the condition for which she can come into possession of the mirror; if she loves you she will renounce to possess it in order not to lose his father, and you will send me back the mirror, and if not … don’t blame me.
-All right,- answered the king, – thank you very much and goodbye. – He was sure to send her back the mirror.
And he left again.
Misurina was waiting for him sitting on the highest battlement of the castle and as soon as she saw him:
– Well – she shouted – did you bring it to me?
-Yes, I brought it to you,- the poor man gasped, dripping with sweat; and after taking the girl by the hand to talk to her better, he told her about the embassy of the Mount Cristallo fairy.
Misurina clapped her hands.- Is it just that? Daddy give me the mirror, and don’t think about it. To become one mountain must be a beautiful thing. First of all you will no longer die, then you will cover yourself with meadows and woods and I will enjoy it.
The poor man paled, but there was anything he could do, his sentence had been decreed. As soon as Misurina had grabbed the mirror, Sorapìs broadened, expanded, swelled, he seemed rising in the sun; he became petrified, and in an instant was transformed in the mountain that still stands in front to the Mount Cristallo.
Misurina suddenly found herself raised to that prodigious height, on the crest of a white and bare mountain, where gradually his father’s eyes died. She cried terribly and, taken by dizziness, with her green mirror fell down. Then, tears began to fall from Sorapìs’ almost lifeless eyes and tears and tears kept falling, until the eyes died out and the tears no longer rained. Those tears formed the lake under which Misurina and the mirror lie and in that lake the Mount Sorapìs is reflected and looks with his dead eyes for his dead child.
Jung, C G, and Karl Kerényi. Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973. Print.
Pina Ballario. “Lo specchio di Misurina” in Fiabe e leggende delle Dolomiti. Firenze: Giunti, 1973, pp. 17-30. Print. The English translation is mine.
Richard Buxton. Forms of Astonishment : Greek Myths of Metamorphosis. Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
De Matteis, Giuseppe. Le metafore della terra. La geografia unama tra mito e scienza. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1985. Print
“Joos de Momper the Younger, Anthropomorphic Landscape c.1600-1635.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 19 Jun 2018, 16:18 UTC. 29 Jun 2019.