The Alps comprise the great mountain system of Europe. The relatively low base level of these peaks emphasises the majesty of their summits and allows a great diversity of climate and vegetation on various levels. Many valleys contain large lakes, while above the timber line there is a wealth of characteristic plants, and still higher, vast glaciers and a perpetual mantle of snow. Jon Mathieu presents a modern history of this diverse landscape, from earliest times to the present. The book is historical, taking as its starting point human society in its temporal existence and succession. In this respect, it differs from numerous geographical and anthropological studies, which have their own subject perspective.
The Alps have been traversed by botanists, travellers and mountaineers, as well as armies – the most well known being Hannibal’s crossing into Italy to attack the emerging Roman Empire. This is deeply inscribed in popular tradition, however, as the author explains, Alpine history began much earlier. In a work that will be welcomed by academics and the general reader alike, Mathieu points out that the Alpine region was used seasonally some 50,000 years ago. Continuous settlement began after the end of the last Ice Age, around 13,000BCE.
The modern period, from the 18th century on, is of particular interest. This saw the emergence of travel culture and, where the range had previously formed an obstacle for those on their way to Italy, now it began to acquire an intrinsic value, with naturalists paving the way for this change in perception. Mathieu points out that the term ‘tourist’ emerged around 1800 and from the 1870s, mountaineering ‘Alpinists’ were also distinguished. The proliferation of these newcomers made the Alps a literary landscape. From a barrier between north and south to a passage of transit and a living space, the Alps have always figured at the heart of European military episodes, as well as cultural and economic development.
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