Tag Archives: Art

Site-specific Perception. Philosophical reflections on the impact of environment on perception

The question raised here is about the differences in perception between people due to different environmental backgrounds. The assumption is that we learn to perceive and that the environment is essential for this learning. This is discussed by taking a classical philosophical view on perception from Leibniz and Baumgarten’s aesthetics, recently revived in the concept of atmosphere, as proposed by Gernot Böhme. The conclusion points to questions of the consequences of the environment for our perception as well as to the importance of aesthetic education in training perception.

Continue reading Site-specific Perception. Philosophical reflections on the impact of environment on perception

Dom Holdaway & Filippo Trentin (eds.), Rome, Postmodern Narratives of a Cityscape (London & Brookfield: Pickering & Chatto, 2013)

Rome qua its sprawling peripheries, immortalised by Italian literature and cinema in their bleakest and most dramatic aspects (e.g. Pier Paolo Pasolini), has also become a well-known aesthetic trope, which is itself parasitic upon Rome’s paradigmatic historic centre, whose time-honoured beauty and wealth stand in stark contrast to the more recent peripheries. Whilst the former aesthetic reception of Rome is tied indissolubly to the classical age and later classicism, the latter is a standard case of modernity qua urban phenomenon, i.e. the pre-modern city centre being surrounded and eventually dwarfed by ever-growing circles of newly populated areas marking the inexorable advent and advance of the modern age.

The contributors of the volume hereby reviewed attempt to overcome this aesthetic dichotomy and present a postmodern understanding of the city, drawing primarily from architecture, psychoanalysis, art history and film studies, the book’s cinematographic references spanning from Enrico Guazzoni’s 1913 Quo vadis to Michele Placido’s 2005 Romanzo criminale. Whereas classical and modern narratives aim at establishing fixed points of reference and final evaluations, a postmodern one contents itself with their plurality, which reveals implicitly the irreducible variety of perspectives characterising human affairs and the incessant flow of human life, individual as well as collective, which no abstract concept or conception can truly grasp once and for all.


The first three essays in the book pursue their postmodern interpretation of Rome by focussing upon: (1) the ever-changing urban landscape around, against, through, within, beneath and upon the Aurelian Walls (“Between Rome’s Walls: Notes on the Role and Reception of the Aurelian Walls”, by Marco Cavietti); (2) the impressionistic and idiosyncratic depiction of ancient and modern Rome in Federico Fellini’s cinema, which has itself become part of the internationally shared imagery of the city (“The Explosion of Rome in the Fragments of a Postmodern Iconography: Federico Fellini and the Forma Urbis”, by Fabio Benincasa); and (3) the further expansion of the re-presented Rome in recent Italian films, which bear witness to the gradual cultural acceptance of more and more sections of the modern city in the same imagery (“Centre, Hinterland and the Articulation of ‘Romanness’ in Recent Italian Film”, by Lesley Caldwell).

The second lot of three essays focuses instead upon specific places and notable artefacts in Rome, the fame of which may often hide the very different meanings that they have had in the course of their history or with regard to their observers. The chosen items are: (1) a number of famous buildings, monuments and neighbourhoods in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1979 film entitled La luna (“Topophilia nd Other Roman Perversions: On Bertolucci’s La luna”, by John David Rhodes); (2) the 2nd-century equestrian bronze statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius and emperor Augustus’ 1st-century BCE Ara Pacis (“Marcus Aurelius and the Ara Pacis: Notes on the Notion of ‘Origin’ in Contemporary Rome”, by Filippo Trentin); and (3) the gigantic gas holder built in the Ostiense area in the 1930s to provide the citizens of Rome with cooking gas and street illumination (“A Postmodern Gaze on the Gasometer”, by Keala Jewell).

The concluding three essays discuss Rome’s two-way links with foreign architectural experiments. Specifically, they address: (1) the growingly innovative and daring architecture of the churches built outside Rome’s historic centre in the 20th and 21st century, especially after the 1962-5 Second Vatican Council, in line with analogous developments in Glasgow (“Ecclesiastical Icons: Defining Rome through Architectural Exchange”, by James Robertson); (2) the thirty-year-long international success of the itinerating architectural exhibition called Roma interrotta, in which twelve architects from different countries reinterpreted Giambattista Nolli’s seminal 1748 Great Plant of Rome (“’Roma Interrotta’: Postmodern Rome as the Source of Fragmented Narratives”, by Léa-Catherine Szacka); and (3) the influence of Rome’s architectures on two of the most influential 20th-century American architects, i.e. Charles W. Moore and Robert Venturi (“Las Vegas by Way of Rome: The Eternal City and American Postmodernism”, by Richard W. Hayes).


The volume edited by Holdaway and Trentin is the second instalment of the Warwick series in the humanities and it offers an engaging exploration of Rome as an evolving cultural hub of important significations for architects and artists, well beyond the firmly established waves of classicism that, recurrently, have swept the shores of Western creativity. Also, it offers a convincing example of coherent application of “postmodernism” as a useful hermeneutical tool and an established category of academic thought. Although the level of scholarly detail of the chapters is not homogenous, the overall quality of the volume is noteworthy, since this book offers many a refreshing perspective over a city about which countless perspectives have already been offered. Moreover, interesting considerations about the city’s demography, politics and economic life punctuate the chapters and make this book even more appealing. Above all, a genuine fascination with Rome’s vast and complex architectural and artistic history informs the whole endeavour, turning the book into an erudite act of love for the city. The reader who has never visited Rome will feel compelled to do it. The one who has already visited it will wish to do it again, in order to savour it in a new way.

Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)


This book offers a straightforward definition of Symbolism as the starting point for investigating a complex and imprecisely understood art movement. Following a clear and easy-to-handle structure, the book opens immediately with an attempt to give a simple and comprehensive description of what Symbolism is: “a Symbolist work of art is characterized by 1) an artist’s desire to represent ideas and 2) a manipulation of color, form, and composition that signals the artist’s relative indifference to worldly appearances”. Facos does not take any term for granted. On the contrary, she defines and explores anew seemingly well-established concepts like evocativeness, dream, genius, spirituality, hedonism, occultism, Idealism and Decadentism, just to mention some of the most important.

Sometimes the reading suffers from Facos’ schematic approach, but that is the only way to master such a wide field of research material. Symbolism is possibly the only ‘modern’ movement that, even with a founder and a manifesto (Jean Moréas in 1886 published the Symbolist manifesto in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro), did not create a well-defined, recognisable group of artists. Symbolism’s borders are so underdefined (do they exist at all?) that they could include an enormous amount of 19th– and 20th-century artists.

The book follows a chronological line of analysis, from a survey of the precursors of Symbolism to Symbolist currents in the 20th century. The history of the movement is revealed through a manifold collection of relevant facts, artists, literary works, music, philosophical reflections, technological innovations, in a constant dialogue with equally diverse cultural and social aspects, i.e. the actual contexts within which Symbolism developed. These aspects act like mirrors, each rendering a part of this multifaceted movement. Facos’ approach to Symbolism includes also modern categories of analysis, such as gender studies (she investigates the role of woman in Symbolist art, as a muse, a sphinx, an angel or a demon), as well as practical aspects, like the chapter devoted to the promotion of the artists through art fairs, journals, exhibitions, unions and brotherhoods. In other words, Facos provides an attempt to describe the history of the movement from the perspective of the artists too. I include below the cover of the book. It is a photograph, not a painting: Hypnos, by F. Holland Day, dated 1896. It reveals the author’s choice to explore Symbolism by means of an unconventional path.

As my scholarly interests are in mural painting and the revival of earlier techniques, I would have liked more space to be given to art mediums, for their symbolic and ideological meanings. Among the commendable qualities of the book, I wish to emphasise the broad geography of Symbolist art, which includes artists from less commonly studied countries such as Poland, the former Czech Republic, Scotland, Russia, and especially the Scandinavian countries. The bibliography is also quite extensive and genuinely international. In addition to the Italian authors quoted by Facos, I would like to remember the studies on Symbolist art by Luigi Carluccio, Maria Mimita Lamberti, Gianna Piantoni and Maria Teresa Benedetti. With her new book, Michelle Facos confirms herself one of the main scholars in 19th-century art, and among those who brought new life into the art history of Northern Europe, on a par with Patricia G. Berman for Norway and Denmark, and with Salma Sarajas-Korte, Marjatta Levanto and Riikka Stewen for Finland.

Facos Symbolist Art Cover


In Praise of Illusions: Giacomo Leopardi‘s Ultraphilosophy


Romanticism was largely a reaction to the rational and materialist pursuit of modern science and the secularism of the Enlightenment philosophy. In Germany, a number of Romantic poets rejected Immanuel Kant‘s vision of art as being governed by reason, and rather saw art as juxtaposed with nature as a second language communicated by God to the human being. In this way, however, they also joined forces with science and philosophy by attempting to comprehend being, albeit through different means. The ‘productive imagination’, a notion originally coined by Kant in his Kritik der Urteilskraft, was conceived as a basic power of all creative potencies. It was held to simultaneously beget and behold, and that its beheld ideas were no arbitrary occurrences within the subjective mind, but revelations of nature, of the first cause of existence, of the world-spirit, of God. Novalis, for example, saw this task of realizing ideas as connecting the philosopher and the poet: the former works with concepts, the latter with symbols and signs. Both Novalis and Friedrich von Schlegel speak of philosophical or transcendental poetry which they see as necessary in the time of German Idealism.[1] From this point of view, art does not constitute an isolated sphere, but promises on the contrary a profound kind of knowledge and understanding. Friedrich Schelling went so far as to regard art as the organ of the absolute, in which “the invisible barrier separating the real and the ideal world is raised.”[2] For the Romantics, then, art became Kant’s ‘intellectual intuition’. This was a complete break from the Platonic view of art as identified with lies and deceptions – art now became the organ of absolute truth.

At the same time in Italy, however, Romanticism did not find much fertile ground in which to sow its seeds. On the contrary, it rather sowed seeds of distrust in the Italian mind. There were in particular two reasons for this. Firstly, Romanticism introduced a radically novel kind of poetry that both implicitly and explicitly threatened the Latin classicist tradition. The Italian classicists, who found their artistic ideals in the mythological language of Cicero, Horace and Virgil, reacted furiously to to this new foreign movement that now provoked both the structure and the content of both classical poetry and thought. Secondly, however, its “barbaric Anglo-Teutonic” and Protestant origin aroused suspicion and aversion in Catholic Italy, not because the Italians were all rigorously Catholic (in fact, many had turned away from Christianity), but because Protestantism was decisively renounced as if by instinct. Outcries were frequent against the Gothic, the Nordic, and Romantic literature, as well as against the despotism of “the Huns, the Goths and the Vandals”.[3]

Leopardi’s reaction to Romanticism, as well as the German, including the Kantian, philosophy, certainly contains elements of the general tone of protest in Italy as depicted above. However, his responses differ from the mainstream due to his own rather idiosyncratic philosophy. He provides an anthropological explanation of Romanticism and German philosophy as distinctive expressions of Nordic culture, concentrating on physical factors as being the determinants of the general Nordic character. His attitude to German philosophy, moreover, is complex. On the one hand he decisively rejects it, but on the other he expresses his admiration. This may seem paradoxical but will be elucidated in the following. In the first part of this essay, however, I will discuss Leopardi’s main existential perspective as well as his rather bleak view of modernity, scientific progress and the Enlightenment philosophy of the eighteenth century.

Leopardi was concerned about the consequences of modernity for human life. He strove to find ways to bridge the abyss separating the old and the new order of Western society and thought. This is summed up rather neatly by Antonio Gramsci:

In Leopardi one finds, in an extremely dramatic form, the crisis of transition towards modern man; the critical abandonment of the old transcendental conception but not as yet the finding of the new moral and intellectual ubi consistam which would give the same certainty as the jettisoned faith…[4]

Scientific progress and rationalization had undermined both religious faith and any kind of foundation attempting to ground a metaphysical significance of human life. According to Leopardi, the universe emerging from this development turns out to be mechanistic, material and deterministic. Influenced by French materialist thinkers such as Julien Offray de la Mettrie and Paul-Henri Baron d’Holbach, he conceives of all phenomena, including the human being, as connected blindly in an endless chain of cause and effect according to which they will all be destroyed and their substance amalgamate into other beings. In Leopardi’s “Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander”, the wretched Icelander who travels all over the world only to find a spot where he can be free from pain and suffering, gets to hear this harsh truth about the world from Mother Nature herself:

You plainly show that you have not realized that the life of the universe is a perpetual circle of production and destruction, both linked to each other in such a way that each of them constantly serves the other, and is necessary to conserve the existence of the world; which, if either of them should fail, would swiftly be dissolved. Thus, if anything within the world were free from suffering, the world itself would be harmed.[5]

As Gramsci notes, Leopardi represents the emotional shock in Western culture brought about by a new level of understanding that undermines meaning in an existence that now presents itself as being merely contingent. Leopardi accepted this new understanding and consequently renounced Christianity to take up a radical kind of materialistic atheism, yet dedicated his life to find a remedy for the existential evil of modernity.

In this endeavour, Leopardi adopted a stance to life that could be termed eudamonistic.  He identifies happiness as the sole aim of human life. As with the utilitarian thinkers, he further identifies happiness with pleasures, and regards pleasures as both sufficient and necessary means to obtain happiness. However, ‘pleasures’ in his understanding of the term do not explicitly refer to sentiments, but is a catch-all word for everything actually desired by living beings.[6]

Leopardi further states that the human being’s desire for pleasure, and thus for happiness, is a natural instinct. Just as all sentient creatures, human beings are self-loving beings. This merely means that they want to fulfil their desires since they believe that the objects of their desires would lead to happiness, for otherwise they would not be desired at all. From self-love also emanates the tendency to self-preservation, or, in other words, the love of life. But since the love of life emanates from the love of self, and is therefore a secondary derivation from human beings’ instinctual gratification through pleasure, the object of their love is not life as such, but the happiness for which life is an indispensable condition and instrument: “a happy life would undoubtedly be good; but as ‘happy’, not as ‘life’. An unhappy life, for the very reason of being unhappy, is evil.”[7]

The problem with the desire for pleasure is that it is unlimited, because it is not a desire for specific concrete pleasures but for the pleasure, an abstract, absolute, infinite, unlimited pleasure. The existential problem in human living emerges in the actual desire for particular existent pleasures, for these are all finite and thus cannot satisfy the desire for the infinite. Leopardi illustrates this with the following example:

If you desire to possess a horse, it seems to you that you desire it as a horse and as a particular pleasure. But in fact you desire it as an abstract and unlimited pleasure. When you then find yourself in possession of the horse, you encounter a pleasure that is necessarily restricted, and, because of the unsatisfied state of your actual desire, you sense a feeling of emptiness in your soul. And even if it were possible to satisfy it in terms of extension, it would be impossible in terms of duration, because the nature of things also commands that nothing is eternal.[8]

Pleasures accessible to the human being are therefore all limited both in time and space, whereas the desire for pleasure is without limits in either dimension. Failing to find its end in any of the finite pleasures of the world, the desire is condemned to remain in a state of unfulfilment until it is terminated altogether as life itself comes to an end. This is the core of Leopardi’s pessimistic view of human life: the inability of innate natural desire to reach the infinite climax in finite terrestrial reality causes life to be an essential misery.

But in what sense is this a particular characteristic of modernity? Leopardi follows, to some extent, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view of the human being’s corruption and alienation from nature. From Leopardi’s point of view, it especially has to do with the thirst for and acquisition of knowledge:

I believe that within the natural order, the human being can be happy also in this world, provided that he lives according to nature and like animals, that is, without grand or unique or vivid pleasures, but in a more or less constantly equal and temperate state of happiness… But I do not believe that we are any longer capable of this sort of happiness after having acquired knowledge of the vanity of all things and of the illusions as well as of the nothingness of the natural pleasures themselves, which is something that we were not even supposed to suspect.[9]

It is, in other words, the realization, the knowledge, of the nullity of things that constitutes the human being’s corruption. The conscious awareness of the natural contradiction that nature lacks the capacity to satisfy the human being’s desires adds to his unhappiness to such an extent that life becomes unbearable. When this realization becomes ascendant in someone’s mind, that person will find himself in the terrifying state of boredom, or noia. Leopardi’s complex notion of boredom seems close to what is usually termed nihilism. Psychologically, boredom comes to the fore when someone becomes fully cognizant of the futility of the innate desire for pleasure and thus sterilizes it. The desire is fully present, and above all sensed, but it is sensed as a desire detached from its objects, because the subject knows that these cannot be reached, and therefore renounces them.

Leopardi attributes this unhappy state to the development of human rationality. Not that reason as such is evil, but it has crossed the borders within which it can function as a useful and, indeed, necessary tool for the human being, and thereby changed into a rather different entity to which Leopardi refers as acquired or unnatural reason. The original ‘primitive’ reason fully conforms with nature in mediating between premises and conclusions by means of simple but crucial judgments. If I experience hunger and feel inclination toward food, ‘primitive’ reason draws the conclusion from these premises that food is something good. It therefore makes value-judgments, or, as Leopardi puts it, beliefs (credenze), without which the human being would be unable to remain alive.[10] Thus, the human being in a state of nature makes perfectly rational judgments. However, such reasoning is not exclusively human. Every animal makes comparable kinds of judgment, relative only to itself and its own well-being. As long as reason’s function is limited in this way, to merely making judgments relative to the interests of those it serves, it promotes life according to nature, or a happy life. However, as soon as it transcends this simple function, it begins to be harmful:

Human beings, and, proportionately, animals, are rational by nature. I therefore do not condemn reason to the degree that it is a natural quality and essential for life, but only to the degree … that it grows and modifies in a way to become the principal obstacle to our happiness, instrument of unhappiness, enemy of the other natural qualities … belonging to human being and human life.[11]

This acquired kind of reason is a corrupt kind of reason that will not limit itself to fulfil the modest task assigned to it by nature, but begins to aspire to truths in conformity to itself, that is to say, truths independent of the relative needs of living beings and the utility for their lives. Instead of being satisfied with subjective beliefs, this developed kind of reason aims at objectivity and absolute truths. Leopardi often identifies this reason with the analytical, calculative and scientific raison of the eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy: it is the instrumental reason of progress and development, of accumulated truths, and of the identification of the true with the good. For the human being, the evil consequences of this reason derive from its aspiration to absolute truth, for such can never be found. The only truths that can be found, according to Leopardi, are those derived at by ‘primitive’ reason in order to serve the interests of the living being in question. For anything resembling absolute truth would require knowledge of all the relations of that truth with other truths. Nothing can be known as such, or in itself, for nature or existence is a system in which things only manifest themselves relative to other things. Therefore, since

…it can be said that we cannot know any truth perfectly, however insignificant, isolated or particular it may seem, as long as we do not know perfectly all its relations with all the subsistent truths, [we can just as well] say that no truth (however minimal, however evident, clear and simple) has ever been or will ever be perfectly and entirely known from all sides.[12]

This would seem to imply epistemological relativism, and in another passage Leopardi explicitly confirms it:

It is said that every proposition has two aspects whence it is deduced that every truth is relative. But let us note that every proposition, every theorem, every object of speculation, every single thing has not only two but infinite faces, from the point of view of each of which one can consider, contemplate, demonstrate and believe with reason and truth… And anything can be affirmed, and also denied, about every single thing; which demonstrates most vividly and directly that there is no absolute truth.[13]

Given this incommensurable antagonism between nature’s relativity and reason’s aspiration to non-relative unconditioned truths, reason is doomed to failure, resulting in two interrelated and deplorable consequences for the human being.

First, the further reason travels through the universe the more worlds it discovers, demonstrating the smallness and insignificance of the human being. For instance, when Copernicus disclosed an apparent infinity of worlds functioning in much the same way as our own, he “debased the idea of the human being”[14] by depriving him of his former uniqueness as a focus of the universe. Secondly, however, and more importantly, since reason cannot function ‘positively’ by discovering absolute truths, it can only function ‘negatively’, that is, by eliminating prior errors. Even the truths that it conceives of having discovered are later refuted by itself. Thus, great discoveries are nothing but discoveries of great errors. The same applies to the modern (eighteenth century) philosophical ideas themselves:

Modern philosophy affirms that all ideas held by the human being proceed from the senses. This may seem a positive proposition. But it would be frivolous without the prior error of innate ideas, just as it would be frivolous to affirm that the sun heats, because no one has believed that the sun does not heat, nor affirmed that the sun cooled. Rather, the intention and the spirit of the proposition that all our ideas come from the senses is really negative, and the proposition is as if one said: the human being does not receive any idea other than by means of the senses…[15]

In this way, reason has become a sort of inquisition against errors and superstitions that were previously held to be truths. This negativity of reason entails that the progress it claims to uphold is itself purely negative:

It is true that the progress of the human spirit consists, and hitherto consisted, not in learning but principally in unlearning … in realizing that the human being always knows less, in diminishing the number of cognitions, and restricting the vastness of the human sciences. This is truly the spirit and the principal substance of our progress from the eighteenth century until now, even though not everyone, indeed not many, have come to this realization.[16]

Through its desctruction of the illusions of antiquity, this regress, usually termed progress, has gradually brought about the realization of the nothingness of the world. Not that the things that exist are nothing, for in one sense they are something by virtue of existing. But for human desire that can only be satisfied with infinity, all the things and pleasures that exist, are, because of their finitude and transience, as good as nothing. “In this way, they are nothing to the human being’s happiness, while not being nothing in themselves.”[17] Only the illusions have been able to deceive the human being by giving the appearance of infinity and eternity, and thus make him retain a belief in a meaningful world in which he takes passionate interest.

In this very same process, Christianity, itself a philosophical empire basing itself on the domination of reason over nature, of the spirit over the body, played a crucial role by destroying the beliefs and illusions of antiquity. Now another philosophical empire, namely the rational empiricism of the eighteenth century, is conquering Christianity. The last chain in the sequence has been broken and the world stands there in its meaningless nudity. Half a century before Nietzsche, Leopardi decisively declares God’s death:

It is clear that the destruction of the innate ideas destroys the principle of the good, beauty, absolute perfection, and their contraries. This applies to perfection, etc., which would have a foundation, a reason, a form anterior to the existence of the subjects containing it, and would therefore be eternal, immutable, necessary, primordial and existing prior to these subjects, as well as being independent of them. Now where does this reason, this form, exist? And in what does in consist? And how can we know and recognize it if every idea derives from sensations relative to only existing objects? To suppose the absolute beautiful and good is to return to Platonic ideas, and to revive innate ideas after having destroyed them. Since these have been removed, there is no other possible reason for things having absolutely, abstractly and necessarily to be as they are … [except] every factual thing, which in reality is the only reason for everything, and is thus always and solely relative. Thus nothing is good, beautiful, true, bad, ugly or false, if not relatively; and therefore, the correlation between things is, so to speak, absolutely relative… It is certain that when the Platonic forms pre-existent to things are destroyed, God is destroyed.[18]


By claiming art to be the potential solution to the problems of modernity, Leopardi certainly incorporates a Romantic tendency. But he severely criticizes the Romantic outlook, and his criticism is in line with the contrast that he sees between reason and nature. By having explained its occurrences, reason has deprived nature of its previously held mysterious qualities and, instead, reduced it to mere mechanical laws. Having been disenchanted in this manner, nature is now unable to concede the pleasures that it offered so spontaneously before. This radical transformation, however, is not a transformation having taken place in nature, but in the human being. Given that the ancients, with all their ignorance of the workings of nature, gained pleasure from poetry, Leopardi insists that we should concentrate on and investigate their methods of drawing from nature all the pleasure emanating from its imitation. For, as he says, “the beauties of nature … do not change with the changes of those who observe them…”, in fact, “no mutation of human beings ever induces an alteration in nature…” Therefore, since “nature does not adapt to us, it is necessary that we adapt to nature, and, moreover, poetry must not, as demanded by the modern [Romantics], undergo mutation, but is in its principal characteristics immutable like nature itself.”[19]

Leopardi agrees with the Romantics that the poet must imitate nature, but his conception of nature is the unmediated, spontaneous, physical, non-thinking life of passion. Since the faculty of imagination is a part of this nature, the poet produces images that are natural. Correspondingly, he severely attacks the Romantic understanding of nature as a metaphysical or ontological entity. Such ideas, he says, are ultimately the outcome of the enhancement of reason. Hence the Romantics are not poeticizing about nature but about civilization, and this, in Leopardi’s view, is not poetry at all.[20] The same complaint applies to the task assigned to poetry by the Romantics as being an ‘organ of truth’. To use poetry as a means to obtain truth simply obstructs its proper task of providing pleasure, for poetry must be deceptive in order to fulfil the second task. The negative consequences of the Romantic quest for truth, Leopardi further argues, can be seen in its insistence on the exploration of pathetic sentimentality, a form of ‘scientific psychology’, which is purely artificial, having nothing to do with natural sentiments and merely expressing the sickness of modern civilization.[21]

Leopardi holds on to the Platonic view of art and poetry as sources of deception. However, he takes this to be a positive function. By insisting upon the deceptive powers of poetry, Leopardi wishes to bring the human being into closer conformity with nature by enhancing the role of the imagination in the human mind. The virtue of imagination is that it deceives our desire for the infinite into believing that it has acquired it. And thus happiness, obtainable only by means of infinite pleasure, can be felt when we, in our ignorance, are unable to behold the limits of the indefinite pleasure that we experience. Hence ignorance is a precondition for happiness:

The faculty of imagination … is the main source of human happiness. The more it rules in the human being, the happier he will become. We see this in children. But it cannot rule without ignorance, at least a certain kind of ignorance, as with the ancients. The cognition of the true, that is, of the limits and definitions of things, restricts imagination.[22]

The ignorance of the ancients brought them happiness and contentment with the world. But, as Leopardi himself realizes, these times are long gone:

I prefer the savage stage to the civilized one. But having set off and arrived at a certain stage, it is impossible to reverse the development of the spirit, impossible to hinder the progress of individuals no less than peoples. For times immemorial, the individuals and nations of Europe, as well as a great part of the world, have been in possession of a developed spirit. To revert to the state of the primitive and the savage is impossible.[23]

The ignorance of the ancients cannot be reconstructed. The illusions that previously produced the appearance of meaning in the world have now been annihilated. However, this does not entail that there are no myths and illusions left in the modern world. On the contrary, the benevolent myths have been exchanged for particularly malignant ones. This is because reason itself is a creator of myths, of “hideous and acerbic myths”.[24] They are brought to expression in the Enlightenment belief in the coincidental progress of truth and happiness, and in the equivalence of the rational, the good and the beautiful. A comparison between the modern human being with all his truths, however, and the human being of antiquity living in midst of deceptions reveals the superiority of the latter in terms of the happiness that it produces:

[the human being] needs to know what works for his sake. Absolute truth … is indifferent to the human being. His happiness may consist in both true and false cognition and judgment. Crucial is that his judgment be truly suitable for his nature.[25]

The problem, however, is that this realization can only be arrived at after truth, with all its dreadful consequences, has revealed itself. Having reached that stage, it is not easy to see how truth could be disposed of and exchanged for a more favourable interpretation of the world. This rather alarming paradox does not escape Leopardi’s attention:

I am not unaware of the fact that the ultimate conclusion we draw from true and perfect philosophy is that we must not philosophize. From this we infer, first, that philosophy is useless, for to achieve the effect of non-philosophizing, we do not need to be philosophers; secondly, that it is extremely harmful, for that ultimate conclusion can be learned only at one’s own expense, and once it has been learned, it cannot be put in operation because it is not in the power of human beings to forget the truths they already know…[26]

When Leopardi refers to philosophy in this manner he means of course the empirical materialist philosophy of the Enlightenment, the “true and geometrical”, as he calls it, which has undermined the plausibility of any systematic metaphysics that attempts to construct a teleological scheme of the universe. A philosophy such as Kant’s, therefore, is to him no less plausible than a dreamy fairy tale, however much he would like to be able to adhere to such “poems of reason”.[27] In his essay, Discourse on the Present State of the Customs of the Italians, he endeavours to explain the tendency in German thought, philosophy and literature by contrasting it with the Italian national character.

He paints a rather bleak portrait of Italian society as hypocritical and morally degenerate. Italians, he says, only care for the appearance of morality, i.e. for the favourable opinion of themselves that they believe others will have of them if they behave outwardly in a certain manner. This is the only foundation left for morality in Italy. The hypocritical character of Italians surpasses by far the hypocricy of other European nations. This is because Italians are in one sense more ‘advanced’ than the nations of Northern Europe. The fact that the Italians are much less fruitful than the Germans, the French and the English in the construction of theoretical philosophy is simply one side of the coin of their being more advanced in the practice of philosophy. In other words, Italians have realized the futility and meaninglessness of constructing fantastic philosophical systems without foothold in reality, while the Italian hypocrisy, egotism and indifference to others is a result of having realized the collapse of the metaphysical foundations of morality, which leaves behind a complete kind of moral relativism.[28]

The anthropological reason for this unhappy state of the Italians is that they are closer to nature in the sense that they possess more inner sensitivity, i.e. are more acutely aware of their environment, than North-Europeans. Being closer to nature might imply greater happiness, but in this case it actually works in such a way that Italians are more acutely affected by civilization. Therefore, they are far less susceptible to illusions which alone can preserve morality. Nordic people, on the contrary, are less sensitive, hence less susceptible to the disillusionment of civilization, and their imagination is more easily aroused.[29] In other words, they are slower in internalizing the inescapable consequences of modernity. The Nordic peoples are now the warmest in spirit, the most imaginative, the most animated and those who are most easily influenced by illusions; they are the most sentimental, have the greatest character, spirit and customs in Europe, and thus produce the greatest poetry and literature. They are much closer to the ancient in that they are less ‘advanced’ with regard to the corruptive effects of reason:

If we can find literature in our times (and in recent times) where systems and opinionated fictions are still in use, it is in England, and much more so in Germany, because one could really say that there is no literate man of any kind among the Germans who does not either make or follow a decisive system, and this is for the most part, as is the case with the usual and the ancient application of systems, a fiction.[30]

The systems constructed by modern philosophy are hence mere ‘opinionated fictions’ or ‘fantastic constructions’ that say little if anything about the world as it really is. The same applies to the philosophy of Kant:

In Germany, and partly also in England, one continually finds systems and fictions in all literature, in every kind of philosophy, in politics, in history, in criticism, and any segment of linguistics through to grammar, in particular related to ancient languages. For the longest time in Europe, there was no sect or school of such a philosophy [of systematic fictions], much less of metaphysics, until very recently in Germany … in the sect and school of Kant, which is precisely metaphysical, and which is again subdivided into diverse sects. Before Kant, it was the school of Wolff.[31]

Kant’s critical philosophy is thus deemed by Leopardi as being derived and deduced from the abstract speculative fantasies that the latter calls metaphysics. He displays clear admiration for German culture, as well as for its philosophical fictions and systems that he claims to be a fruit of the Occidental residuum of the imaginative ‘virginity’ of antiquity. But however enchanting, these constructions cannot be a viable alternative to him, for it is precisely this kind of philosophizing that has been rendered unpersuasive and virtually ridiculous by the modern empirical philosophy of the Enlightenment.


We have seen that Leopardi is fully aware of the impossibility of returning to the primitive natural state. The most we can possibly do is to imitate the superior happiness enjoyed by the ancients; the happiness deriving from ignorance can never be resurrected. Nor can we refrain from philosophizing, even though we know that it would make us happier. But this does not mean that all is lost. Leopardi suggests an attempt to find a certain balance between reason and nature. The following passage could in fact be a reference to Kant and his insistence on the moral law:

Reason is never as efficient as the passions. Listen to what the philosophers say: the human being ought to be moved by reason, just as, or rather much more than, by passion; indeed, he ought to be moved by reason and duty only. Nonsense. Human nature and the nature of things can certainly be corrupted but not corrected … We do not need to extinguish passion with reason, but to convert reason into passion; to turn duty, virtue, heroism, etc., into passions.[32]

Leopardi’s way out of the human being’s dreary valley of tears consists in carrying out even further the Enlightenment quest for truth. Reason’s domination is accepted, and the truth of the human being’s miserable state in the universe cannot be ignored, but by naturalizing reason, that is, by combining it with the natural faculty of imagination, reason can also move into the human realm and discover that which is “truly suitable for his nature”. Therefore,

It is wholly indispensable that [a philosopher] is a great and perfect poet; not in order to reason as a poet, but rather to examine with his cold reasoning and calculation that which only the very ardent poet can know.[33]

This may seem paradoxical, but it is at this stage that reason, and thus philosophy, by inquiring into the quite different truth of the human being’s necessary aspirations, reaches its culmination by realizing its own superfluousness. However, the paradox vanishes as soon as we see that reason has simultaneously been transformed. In addition to the realm of external nature, the scope of philosophy has now been expanded to embrace as well the realm of inner human nature. The discipline of naturalized reason, the new expanded philosophy, is what Leopardi calls ‘ultraphilosophy’. Since reason cannot reverse its development and become primitive again, it has to exceed its own limits and transcend itself. In other words, since reason has eliminated the possibility of reviving the ancient faith in the illusions,

our regeneration depends, so to speak, on an ultraphilosophy that brings us closer to nature by exploring the entirety and the interior of things. And this ought to be the fruit of the extraordinarily enlightened men of this century.[34]

By exploring the particular human domain, this new kind of philosophy does not seek absolute truths or facts but values pertaining to the happiness of the human being. While these values shed a clear light on the harmfulness of philosophy for us, there is no need to delve into the problem of how to dispose of it. For at this stage, philosophy has already developed into a different kind of philosophy, a sort of synthesis of the philosophy of ‘advanced’ reason and the one of ‘primitive’ reason. This new philosophy aims at value-judgments relative to the human being only with exclusive consideration of the special circumstances of modern human life, which is mainly the outcome of instrumental reason’s domination.

Being naturalized, Leopardi´s ultraphilosophy has disposed of the value-laden dualism that typifies the Platonic-Christian tradition. Rather, there is a turn towards celebrating the body. The human being is, in Leopardi´s understanding, a mere body, but, more importantly, the human being´s happiness consists in the vividness of sensations and of life, a vividness that is never as great as when physically experienced.[35] Leopardi seeks to revive the importance of the passions and of physical activity, and, accordingly, reduce the tendency to contemplation, which to him is a sure sign of corruption. Contemplation merely enforces the inner sensitivity of life, which, because of its conscious non-spontaneous character, merely leads to unhappiness. On the other hand, the multiplicity, novelty and singularity of physical sensations distract the mind from recognizing the limits of things, and by fulfilling many little pleasures the human being would have the impression and illusion of infinite pleasure.

This is precisely what Leopardi means by imitating nature. He agrees with the Romantics that imitation is not equivalent to copying, but with ‘nature’ he means creative spontaneity. However, he rejects the Romantic ontological view of nature and sees it instead as a constantly impulsive physical entity. What Leopardi sees as good in nature is precisely its spontaneous vital spark, its constant movement and unpremeditated motion.[36] His endorsed vitalism is meant to bring the human being closer to the mobility and spontaneity of both nature and animals. It is worth noting, in this respect, that Leopardi decisively turns away from the tendency in Occidental thought to aim at constancy, at the fixation of the human being´s natural and social environment through eternal Platonic or even Kantian transcendental ideas. An excessive effort to freeze or paralyze nature, both in its workings outside of the human being but not least within him, merely serves to enhance his conscious misery. If we want to reduce such feelings, Leopardi says, we must succumb to nature and try to live in harmony with it by adapting to it.[37]

It is significant that the poet-philosopher who opts for the enhancement of the body and adaptation to nature is an enlightened philosopher. He has become keenly aware of the metaphysical meaninglessness of being. But in order to release himself from the oppressive consciousness of his awareness, he indulges in ‘natural’ actions, i.e. corporeal activities or imaginative conceptualizations, in order to put it temporarily aside. In this sense, while in a state of distraction, he is ignorant of his unfortunate but inescapable fate, and, for a moment, imagination reigns. The completely enlightened person is, in other words, capable of producing in himself a semblance of ignorance that temporarily imitates the ignorance of the ancients. And this can only happen through artistic experience: “The human being hates inactivity, and wants to be liberated from it through fine art.”[38] Fine art, and poetry in particular, arouses the imagination, deceives the senses, and can produce a certain ‘second sight’:

To the sensitive and imaginative person … the world and the objects are in a certain sense double. His eyes will see a tower, a farmland; his ears will hear the tolling of a bell; and, at the same time, his imagination will see another tower, another farmland, hear another tolling. It is the objects of this second kind that contain all the beautiful and pleasant aspects of things.[39]

By reviving its mythological language, poetry not only distracts the person from his dread of living, but also induces in him a particular view of life, a curious combination of a pragmatic and an aesthetic view of life, which, on a cognitive level, is known not to correspond to reality but which both produces happiness, and, by strengthening certain values, gives rise to action. Leopardi often argues that ancient values such as patriotism, virtue, heroism, glory and honour, all illusions, were the cornerstones of true morality, a morality of conviction, when moral actions were believed to be ends in themselves, not mere means to the agent´s own egotistic ends. Not only did these values preserve morality but also provided life with precious meaning and produced happiness by provoking physical action, and preventing the human being from delving into excessive contemplation. Although these lost values cannot be revived, Leopardi contends that the ultraphilosopher is capable of adopting a certain aesthetic world-view conducive to his happiness. However, it also requires the adoption of conscious illusions:

The illusions cannot be condemned, disdained and persecuted except by those who are illusioned and believe that this world is, or could be, really something, and in fact something beautiful. This is a major illusion: and therefore the quasi-philosopher combats the illusions precisely because he is illusioned; the true philosopher loves and preaches them because he is not illusioned. And the combat against the illusions in general is the most certain sign of a totally imperfect and insufficient knowledge and of a notable illusion.[40]

Among the primary functions of the myths of antiquity was the transformation of the numinous indefiniteness, of the overwhelming powers of the unknown, into a nominal definiteness; they made the strange familiar and addressable, and thereby delivered the human being from the terror of being surrendered to an immensely more superior reality. Today, after the myths have collapsed, we must look mechanistic reality straight in the eye. But we can decorate and anthropomorphize the world so that it will, at least, have the appearance of being a world belonging to us – and a world in which we belong. It is the Apollonian transfiguring dream – but which must be known by the dreamer to be a dream.

Leopardi’s aim is therefore not to return to or preserve the past, but merely to find a substitute for the hope that we once possessed but have lost somewhere on our way. Such a substitute can be found in the faculty of imagination that momentarily enables us to regain the joy of living. Pleasure and joy must be the proper aim of poetry and art, for it is joy, not melancholy or sentimentality, that brings about the best results in dealing with the world. As Leopardi, says, the world does not like to hear crying – but laughing.[41] Sentimental poetry of lament, characterizing much of Romantic poetry, only serves to demonstrate the dreary truth of the human being’s vulnerability and insignificance and thus to obstruct the path towards happiness. This path, however, is arduous, and the force of the obstacles consists in their seductive powers; one is often tempted to collapse against them with a weary sigh and admit one’s surrender.

This applies not least to Leopardi himself whose poetry is not altogether free from Romantic sentimentality. In some passages he also expresses strong doubts about the possibility of resuscitating anything resembling the innocent joy of life as found in ancient poetry. In his later poetry in particular, however, he expresses this sentimentality with an unmistakable hint of cynicism. He often demands that we at least show enough strength to face nature’s evil creator and destructor with a cynical laugh; if we cannot laugh despite our misery, then the least we can do is to laugh at it:

I believe it to be much worthier of the human being and of magnanimous despair to laugh at our common ills rather than sighing, weeping and screeching together with the others and instigating them to do the same.[42]

To be sure, the Leopardian laughter still echoes in many valleys of Occidental thought.

[1] Paul Kluckhohn. Das Ideengut der deutschen Romantik. Fifth edition (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1966), p. 174.

[2] Cited from ibid, p. 160.

[3] Francesco Flora, “La Rivolta romantica e la Poesia come Verità”, in Leopardi. Discorso di un Italiano intorno alla Poesia romantica, con una antologia di testimonianze sul Romanticismo, ed. By Ettore Mazzali  (Bologna: Cappelli Editore, 1970), pp. XXff.

[4] Antonio Gramsci, Gramsci’s Prison Letters (Lettere dal carcere), A selection translated and introduced by Hamish Henderson (London: Zwan Publications, 1988), p. 235.

[5] Giacomo Leopardi, ?Dialogo della Natura e di un Islandese“, Operette Morali (Milano: Garzanti, 1984), p. 129.

[6] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, in Tutte le Opere, con introduzione e a cura di Walter Binni, vol. II (Firenze: Sansoni, 1969), 178.

[7] Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogo di un fisico e di un metafisico”, Operette Morali, p. 98.

[8] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 165-6.

[9] Ibid, 56.

[10] Ibid, 1681-2.

[11] Ibid, 1825.

[12] Ibid, 1091.

[13] Ibid, 2527-8.

[14] Ibid, 84. Nietzsche expresses a strikingly similar thought in his Genealogy of Morality, which, however, cannot be an influence of Leopardi‘s, since the Zibaldone was not published until 1898: “Isn’t it the case that since Copernicus the self-diminution of the human being and his will to self-diminution have been progressing without halt? Alas, the faith in his dignity, his uniqueness, his irreplaceable position in the chain of being has gone. The human being has become an animal, not a metaphorical animal, but absolutely and unconditionally — he, who in his earlier faith was almost God (“child of God,” “God-man”) … Since Copernicus the human being seems to have brought himself onto an inclined plane. He‘s now rolling at an accelerating rate past the mid-point. But where to? Into nothingness? Into the “penetrating sense of his own nothingness”? Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, Kritische Studienausgabe 5 (München: dtv/de Gruyter, 1988), 3:25, p. 404.

[15] Ibid, 2713-14.

[16] Ibid, 4189-90

[17] Ibid, 2936.

[18] Ibid, 1340-42.

[19] Giacomo Leopardi, “Discorso di un Italiano intorno alla Poesia romantica”, in Giacomo Leopardi – Opere. La Letterature Italiana. Storia e Testi, vol. I (Milano and Napoli: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1982), p. 781.

[20] Ibid, pp. 788ff.

[21] Ibid, pp. 812ff.

[22] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 168.

[23] Ibid, 4186.

[24] Ibid, 1841-2.

[25] Ibid, 381.

[26] Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro”, Operette morali, p. 269.

[27] Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 2616.

[28] Leopardi, “Discorso sopra lo Stato presente dei Costumi degl‘Italiani”, in Giacomo Leopardi – Opere. La Letterature Italiana. Storia e Testi, vol. I (Milano and Napoli: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1982), pp. 854ff.

[29] Ibid, p. 873.

[30] Ibid, p. 875.

[31] Ibid, p. 875.

[32] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 293-4.

[33] Ibid, 1839.

[34] Ibid, 115.

[35] Ibid, 2017.

[36] Cf. Cesare Luporini, Leopardi Progressivo (Roma: Riuniti, 1980), p. 39.

[37] See e.g. his prose “Elogio degli Uccelli” (Operette morali, pp. 225-237) in which he expresses his admiration for and even envy of birds that can never suffer from boredom because of their ability to move swiftly from one place to another.

[38] Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, 2362.

[39] Ibid, 4418.

[40] Ibid, 1715.

[41] Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri, in Giacomo Leopardi – Opere. La Letterature Italiana. Storia e Testi, vol. I (Milano and Napoli: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1982), §34

[42] Giacomo Leopardi, “Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro”, p. 266.

Imagine A Collective Landscape



The 150th year anniversary of Sir R.F. Burton and the Speke East Africa expeditions’ (1857-59) discovery of the Tanganyika and Victoria lakes has been celebrated in 2008 (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1 – LakesVitctoria and Tanganika discovered by Burton and Speke 1858 – Stamp
(Source: http:/Burtoniana.org)

This event is conceptually connected to both the Ólafur Elíasson’s (2008) The New York City Waterfalls [2] art project and the Yõko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower (2007) art project in Iceland (Fig. 2) .


Fig. 2 – The New York City Waterfalls, Ólafur Elíasson, June 28-Oct. 13, 2008

The link is made by the Iceland on the brain concept elaborated by Sir R.F. Burton in Ultima Thule; or, a summer in Iceland (1875; preface) [3].

Landscape nostalgia is at the roots of both Sir R.F. Burton’s and Ólafur Elíasson’s works.

Cultural Landscape

Landscapes treasure past, frame current and affect future environmental, socioeconomic and cultural change. Assuming that landscape is made of what is visible has more than one implication. What does it mean for landscape to be visible? Visible by whom and from where? The last centuries increased use of images makes these questions necessary. Cinema, colour printing systems, satellite pictures and the internet have all contributed to speeding up the circulation of images as well as stimulated and widened imagination. As custodians of the time-space interface and of the sense of place, landscapes also encourage our territorially steered memories, emotions, perceptions and knowledge, as well as our interests, decisions and actions.

At the beginning of the 20th century both flight technologies and the diffusion of electricity have dramatically changed the perception of landscape as well as its representation. As a consequence, cultural landscape changed and its manipulation became a common practice. In this context, landscapes are the media through which the existing and emerging identity features of places and regions are generated, recorded, assumed and claimed. In short, landscapes are constitutive elements and factors of changing territorial identities.

In the 1940’s, designer and cartographer R.E. Harrison understood the potential impact of the bird eye vision and indirectly concurred in modifying the landscape concept [4]. He used a new and unconventional point of view. His innovative maps were published monthly by Fortune Magazine and in Look at the World: The Fortune Atlas for World Strategy [5]. As a consequence of a new landscape perception cartography changes as well. Harrison’s zenithal projection showed an unusual landscape. In his three dimensional maps as in those of cartographers of the 16th century, mountain profiles were painted onto the profile of the globe. This way of seeing the world, previously made popular by the catholic western vision, had until then been the prerogative of god, angels and saints. This zenithal vision has been well represented in both sacred paintings and frescos. In 19th century, man entered the upper spaces until then considered sacred, and transformed his perception of places. Marc Chagall’s and Osvaldo Licini Amalasunte’s dreamlike landscapes are an example of the ongoing change in landscape perception. A new vision which has anticipated John Lennon’s song Imagine [6].

As a result of this new way of dealing with landscape R. Harrison emotionally reached President Roosevelt’s New Deal America and gave an example of hegemonic use of landscape. Meanwhile – as a consequence of a more and more technological official cartography – ontological landscape elements acquired flatness and conventional colouring while conventional contour lines became a distinguishing feature of landscape representation.

Iceland on the brain

At the turn of the 19th century, a new organization of both global space and global time emerged: the conventional time zones. Industry as well the construction of the extended American rail road system needed workers. Migratory waves of workers brought people from Europe to North America as it also had happened with the previous slave traffic from Africa. The emergence of a new middle class ends in a new expressivity.

Exploration of the continents has begun. Von Humboldt with his expeditions chronicles (1798-1804) to the equinoctial regions opened new frontiers for the geographic and colonialist culture at the beginning of the 19th century. In the same context Sir R.F. Burton (1821-1890) travelled to Africa, India and Near East. During his East African expedition (1857-59) the Tanganyika and Victoria lakes were discovered. Almost fifteen years later (1873) he travelled to Iceland. In his book Thule; or, a summer in Iceland (1875, 2 volumes) he delivered a great quantity of deluded comments about the destination. The most cited and significant, of those comments stands in the book’s preface: Travellers of the early century saw scenes of thrilling horror, of majestic grandeur, and of heavenly beauty, where our more critical, perhaps more cultivated, taste finds very humble features. They had “Iceland on the brain” [3 p. X]. Burton derided the imagination of those who (…) found the landscape thrilling, in his opinion, the only people who were entranced by Iceland where those who had limited experience outside their own country [7]. Burton seemed persuaded that only the other travellers take with them a preconceived idea of Iceland, but in the preface of his book he expressed at least three statements which are in conflict with this assumption:

– The subject (Iceland) is, to some extent, like Greece and Palestine, of the sensational type: we have all read in childhood about those “Wonders of the World”, Hekla and Geysir, and, as must happen under the circumstances, we have all drawn for ourselves our own Iceland – a distorted and exaggerated mental picture of what has not met, and will not meet, the eye of sense [3 p. IX]

– I (Burton) went to Iceland feeling by instict that many travellers had prodigiously exaggerated their descriptions, possibly because they had seldom left home [3 p. X]

– A friend described to me life in Iceland as living in a corner, the very incarnation of the passive mood; and travelling there as full of stolid, stupid risks, that invite you to come and to repeat coming, not like the swiftly pursuing or treacherously lurking perils of tropical climes, but invested with horror of their own – such was not my experience. [3 p. X, XI].

In a way, Burton admitted and denied, within the same text, his preconceived mental image of Iceland.

The Icelandic cultural landscape

There are places where the supernatural, even if well apart from fate and religious practice, is somehow inscribed in the landscape. They are those places and spaces where human settlement is rare and where the genius loci is more often a personal rather than a collective experience. In this kind of deserted sandy or icy landscape, specifically the Icelandic landscape, human survival depends on the aptitude to read landscape and interpret sounds, odours/scents and colours. In this kind of landscape, human survival can be betrayed by an erroneous perception of reality. Senses involved in landscape perception may be thwarted by extreme conditions of nature and amplified by the constant need to remain alert against disorientation, frost, fatigue, wind, light, darkness and possible starvation, as a means of survival. Because of these features a new landscape arises: the parallel world landscape. The invisible peoples (huldufólk) landscape hidden in the visible cultural landscape is definitely a peculiar type of Icelandic cultural landscape.

In 2006 film maker Nisha Inalsingh, presented the documentary titled Huldufólk 102 [8] (Fig. 3). In it she iterviews people (e.g. teachers, historians, farmers, film makers, folklore researchers etc.) regarding the existence of a parallel universe and recounts the interesting and charming landscape related aspects of the Icelandic culture.


Fig. 3 – Huldufolk 102
(Source http://www.huldufolk102.com/home.html)

She says that the movie“(…) is about an idea. How often do you see a documentary that’s about an idea? They are usually about a person or an event or a place, and here we are looking for something that in reality may or may not exist. (…) The charm of the film lies in a blend of breathtaking beautiful scenary worthy of a travel film and the way the Icelandic believers are presented as perhaps eccentric, but never delusional. We get a nice mishmash of history, folklore and first-hand encounters. In the end the impression is of the rare place where the proponents of Christianity were never able to entirely destroy the old gods and beliefs and wisps of Norse goddess Freya still hang in the air. The soundtrack backs up a deliberately ethereal feel. That feeling you get in Iceland, the isolation and also this idea of really being in nature and with nature, we have to be there and get the whole crew feeling that [9]. The documentary is presented on the net with the following words: Beneath the quiet veneer of Iceland lies an invisible nation of huldufólk (hidden people). This fascinating phenomenon, rarely discussed with outsiders, not only pervades Icelandic culture, but also impacts its infrastructure (e.g. road construction and buildings).

(…) Winter’s darkness allows the dazzling and supernatural Northern Lights to pervade the country with its amorphous shapes; casting brilliant colours of yellow, pink and green downward to the land below. Black lava rocks, green mossy rocks, geysers, volcanoes, and glaciers all play their role in this mystical landscape, where the wind snow and light show the power of nature. This spectacular displays reveal the paradoxes that man must contend with-the simplicity of things that we see on a daily basis versus the complexity of things we are unable to see within the world [8].

In the Icelandic landscape the cultural aspect is not only determined by the visible landscape but it includes all kind of related energies.


Fig. 4 – Vík (South Iceland) from Reynishverfi
(M.S. Campanini, 2006)


The understanding of the Icelandic cultural landscape relies on syntonic vibration of sounds and colours waves, as well as light waves, soils magnetism and poisonous gas or vaporous soil exhalations (Fig. 4, 5, 6). All these phenomena are well described by some of Iceland’s painters, like Kjarval, who depicted the elusive and mysterious sense of the lava fields in his painting.


Fig. 5 – Námaskard, Iceland:
(M.S. Campanini, 2006)


The need of orienting oneself in space and time is primary for humankind. Interpreting landscapes depends on cultural categorizations. The latitude of places and spaces plays a key role in the process. Landscape perception involves the interaction of the five senses generating an emotional response which is then filtered by cultural assumptions. Due to the climate change, at the beginning of the 21st century, the newly acquired accessibility to the Arctic region, until then considered marginal, disclosed the conception of new landscapes. The conception of these marginal landscapes emphasizes both sounds and colours and the need to understand the richness of the native cultural landscape.


Fig. 6 – Búlanstíndur, Iceland
(M.S. Campanini, 2006)


Global village landscapes

The modern globalized world, is in part the result of 20th century technological improvements in the field of transportation, which changed the economic value of spaces. This along with the impressive escalation of the media culture’s dissemination (e.g. press, television, cinema, internet etc.) has paved the road for a large scale migrating landscapes phenomenon. Cultures are nowadays influenced and somehow touched by the landscape other by several means:

exoticism          travel offers

information       events



entertainment    movies

                           image projection


memory sharing migrants (immigrating and returning home)

                            travel industry

These influences satisfy the human need to appropriate somebody else’s landscape and sense of belonging to a peculiar landscape.

Active and passive actions are part of the two steps paradigma process:

1 – acquisition of a landscape (it is part of my acquired culture)

I know it        passive action        

– I’ve been there        active action

– I’ve seen it        active action

2 – sense of belonging to a landscape (it is part of the acquired culture)    

– it is the cultural landscape of my origins

. to which I go back when possible            

. from which I come

. from which I ran away

. for which I feel nostalgia

– it is the cultural landscape in which I recognize my cultural identity

All together these migrating landscapes evolve into both place and space social representation, as a shared landscape. In few words the phenomenon develops a dynamic of the genius loci based on the emotional need to evoke and materialize a mental genius loci. Little difference stands between the original and its representation.

Due to their ability to evoke emotion, images of landscapes are now being marketed by the media and advertising industry in order to sell products such as cars, life insurance, telephones etc. This type of marketing boomed in the last two decades of the 20th century. The automobile industry for example often uses scenes of Iceland’s uninhabited landscape to advertise cars.

Landscape nostalgia

In 1937 W.H. Auden e Luis Mac Neice, back home from a travel to Iceland, sponsored by their publisher, wrote Letters from Iceland [10]. In this epistolary book MacNeice writes a poem to his travel mate in which he says:

…you replied

That the North begins inside,


How much is this intuition true? Can it be universally accepted? Answering it is difficult. Sir R. F. Burton in his two volumes book Thule; or, a summer in Iceland made evident his estrangement, which was probably difficult for him to identify. As a matter of fact, while trying to diminish the prodigious Icelandic landscape, he keeps on confronting it with the landscape of places previously visited.

What is the origin of this obsessive need to compare? The uniqueness of the genius loci makes the place. Being in a place, and especially being in Iceland, activates space and time related senses. Burton was instead disinterested to find both alpine flora and glaciers on the sea level and 24 hour sun light which put man in the centre of the sun dial. He compared the Icelandic experience with previous ones ignoring that they are filtered by a different circadian rhythm . Burton seemed to be imprisoned in a chaos of rigidly, mentally catalogued landscapes collected during his life of adventure and travel. Burton’s brain was contaminated by landscapes. Is it possible to suffer from overexposure to landscape?

Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson’s approach is different. In each of his works he expresses the Icelandic-ness of his DNA. Elíasson has totally interiorized the surprising fickleness of the Icelandic landscape which enabled him to transform it into a cultural art product. His astonishing art works are inspired by the cheated senses (senses bewildered by extreme weather conditions). They are samples of migrated Icelandic cultural landscapes. The New York City Waterfalls project, with its four waterfalls, reproduces the Icelandic need to contaminate the others landscape with the Icelandic one (Fig. 7, 8).


Fig. 7 – Waterfalls in Thjórsádalur, Iceland
(M.S. Campanini, 2006)



Fig. 8 – The New York City Waterfalls (Ólafur Elíasson, June 28-Oct. 13, 2008) are on display at four waterfront locations in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Governors Island.
(Source:http://www.nycwaterfalls.org/sections/about/waterfalls_brochure.pdf, p. 6)


In the New York Waterfall project – the exhibition of four man-made waterfalls of monumental scale are on view until October 13 at four sites on the shores of the New York waterfront: one on the Brooklyn anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge; one on the Brooklyn Piers, between Piers 4 and 5 near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade; one in Lower Manhattan at Pier 35 north of the Manhattan Bridge; and one on the north shore of Governors Island [11] – the artist plays with the topos and the names of places. The word island in the Governor Island (North Shore) name may be read in both English and Icelandic languages. Iceland in Icelandic is Ísland, the name of the island from whose cultural landscape the project is derived. The Icelanders’ need to anchor their space-temporal orientation to peculiar landmarks became evident at the beginning of the 20th century when the state owned ships were named after waterfalls. The location Elíasson chose for his project in New York is on the East river which is part of the New York harbour Estuary system. That means it is a place where fresh water (from the Hudson river) and salt water (from the Atlantic Ocean) meet. The location simulates, in some way, a typical Icelandic phenomenon: the confluence of the icy waters of glacial rivers with fresh water rivers (e.g. the confluence of the river Sogn in Jökullsá in southern Iceland). A similar inspiration and emotion arises also from another art work by Elíasson: the Green river (1998) (Fig. 9).


Fig. 9 – The New York City Waterfalls, Ólafur Elíasson, June 28-Oct. 13, 2008
(Source:http://www.nycwaterfalls.org/sections/about/waterfalls_brochure.pdf, p. 4)

Ólafur Elíasson’s art stresses how light makes visible or invisible landscape features, modifies colours perception and switches on the epyphisis: the biological watch which ties the body to the environment/habitat. The gland seems to have a regulatory function that lets the body survive in all kind of different habitats. This happens through the hormonal secretion of melatonin which works as biological synchronizer and is rhythmically secreted (starting from the syntesis of serotonin) following the light and dark (day and night) alternation [12].

As told by MacNeice and ignored by Sir Burton: the North begins inside! [10]

Landscape for peace

The icelandic imaginable landscape has been widened by two events: the construction of the Hring vegurinn (Road n° 1) finished in 1974 and the 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that Iceland obtained in 1975 [13].

Both events moved the landscape perception from the horizontal to the three levels vertical axis: the sea bottom, the island surface, the space above [12] (Fig. 10). The point of view on landscape was renewed. The cultural approach as well.


Fig. 10 – The three levels vertical axis of Iceland
(Source: Studi Urbinati, 1993)

The mix of cultural landscapes (sea, land and sky) derived from this new viewpoint is vertically crossed by the four primordial elements: fire (magma and eruptions), earth (formed by emerged magma), water (ice generating rivers and sea), air (sky, clouds and winds).

Due to its strategic location during the Cold War era, and to renewable energy resources such as hydroelectric and geothermal energy, Iceland gained acces to the world geopolitic scenario.

On October 9th, 2007 John Lennon’s birthday was commemorated in Iceland by Yõko Ono with a work of art. Imagine Peace Tower is the work of art she dedicated to him [15]. With her work Yõko Ono has enlighted, switched on, the landscape giving visibility to Lennon’s dream of peace for our globalized world [16] (Fig. 11).



Fig. 11 – Stamp Imagine Peace Tower, October 9, 2008
(Source: Frímerkjafréttir 3/2008 Iceland Post, Reykjavik)

Her work, as she explains in her web page’s You Tube video, is inspired by both the Icelandic nature and the architectural elements of a recently man-made Icelandic landscape.The heat of the ground is transformed into light to penetrate the sky. Yõko Ono’s work makes visible also the theory of the three levels vertical axis of Iceland and transforms the high temperature magma heat in a peaceful spear of light.
Iceland is now seen as a tower of peace in the panarctic landscape. In Agust 1941 Harrison conceived the Arctic zenithal projection which generated the comprehensive map titled One  World One War [17]. The same projection was later used to elaborate the UN flag. It is now time to change the title of the map into One World One Peace.
John Lennon defined himself as a dreamer. 

You may say I’m a dreamer
… [18].

Yõko Ono gave ontological form (visibility) to a dream. Iceland is facing a critical moment in its overall weak economic history. It is time to dream and free new energies. Due to the near default of  the Icelandic economy (october 2008) for many people in Iceland everything seems lost. Yõko Ono’s art work might appear as a life-belt.[19, 20] (fig. 12, 13).



 Fig. 12 – Revolution by Johann Smari Karlsson
Mostra fotografica




Fig. 13 – New year’s eve in Bessastadir (Jan. 2010)
(Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2010 Nr. 2 / Seite 15)


Quoting Lennon’s song Imagine, Icelanders are solicited to elaborate a new cultural landscape and become actors of peace:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
… [18].

At the turn of the new Millennium, new global economic and cultural landscapes arise  from the Arctic, the  top of  the world. The key of a globalized peaceful future stands on the concept of time 0 and space 0, The point (place) where meridiens as well as time zones virtually start.



Fig. 14 – Time 0 and Space 0 [p.105 modified]
The point (place) where meridiens as well time zones start



A new deal can arise from the Arctic core (where time and  space originate). Iceland, strategically located in the Atlantic corridor which accesses the Arctic Ocean, plays  a  new  role  [22]. The country which hosted the Reagan-Gorbachev historical meeting in 1986, should now  (almost  thirty  years  later)  be  able  to  promote peace by means of its landscape features. Iceland, the terrestrial guardian of the two marine  corridors which give  access  to  time  0  and  space  0, should offer humanity its imagined landscape for peace.



According  to  Burton,  Auden,  MacNiece,  Kjarval, and Elíasson the dialogue with landscape is very personal and intimate. It may include or  ignore the   rhythms of nature and their alternation. Ólafur Elíasson in New York (MOMA, SP2 and New York City Waterfalls) stresses the two-way dialogue between art and cultural landscape:

– cultural landscape activated by art
– art contaminated by landscapes natural features.



Yõko  Ono, in the Imagine peace tower, stresses the power of land art as a landscape element to promote peace. Peace is the new Icelandic genius loci. The world changes, but again and again landscape, art and the written word will appear to be tied together by aspects of the personal and collective identity as well, as the personal and collective perception of landscapes.



You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one


Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world…


You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will live as one

… [18].




[1] http://burtoniana.org, (accessed on January 28, 2010)


[2]http://www.nycwaterfalls.org/sections/about/waterfalls_brochure.pdf, (accessed on January 28, 2010)


[3] Burton, R.F. (1875) Ultima Thule; a summer in Iceland, Vol. 1 – 2, W.P. Nimmo, London (Preface Vol. I, p. X)

Google digital copy: ref. 1.267.061 Library of the University of Michigan, accessed on 28 Jan., 2010


[4] Schulten, S. (1998) Richard Edes Harrison and the challenge to American cartography in Imago Mundi: The International Journal for the History of Cartography, 1479-7801, Vol. 50, Issue 1, pp. 174-188


[5] Knopf, A.A. (editor) (1944) Look at the world: The Fortune Atlas for World Strategy, New York


[6] Lennon, J. (1996) Imagine: a celebration of John Lennon, Penguin Studio Books, New York


[7] Oslund K. (2005) The “North begins inside”: imagining Iceland as wilderness and homeland in the GHI Bulletin n. 36 (Spring 2005), (p. 92)


[8] http://www.huldufolk102.com/home.html (accessed on January 28, 2010)


[9] Arpe M. (2006) A little trip into the mystic. Toronto Star, October 27, 2006


[10] Auden W. H., MacNeice L. (2002) Letters from Iceland, Faber and Faber, London


[11]http://www.publicartfund.org/pafweb/projects/08/eliasson/eliasson-08.html (accessed on January 28, 2010)


[12] Foster, R. Kreitzman, L (2007) I ritmi della vita. Gli orologi biologici che controllano l’esistenza di ogni essere vivente (original: Rhitms of Life, 2004), Longanesi, Milano


[13] Jónsson H. (1982) Friends in Conflict . The Anglo-Icelandic Cod Wars and the Law of the Sea, C. Hurst and Co Ltd, London


[14] Campanini. M. S. (1993) Percezione del territorio islandese attraverso le metafore dell’ultimo millennio (da Snorri Sturlusson a Einar Jónson) in Studi Urbinati, B Geografia p. 25-53), Quattroventi, Urbino, p. 48


[15] Friðarsúlan í Viðey in Frímerkjafréttir Ny Frímerki september-nóvember 2008, 3/2008 Iceland Post, Reykjavik, p. 6-7


[16] Lennon J., Ono Y., Sheff D., Golson G.B. (1981) The Playboy interviews with John Lennon and Yõko Ono, Playboy Press, New York


[17] Klinghoffer, A. J. (2006) The power of projections: how maps reflect global politics and history, Greenwood Publishing Group, Boston


[18] http://www.john-lennon.com/songlyrics/songs/Imagine.htm(accessed on January 28, 2010)


[19] Insel des Feuers, (2010) Wirtschaft, Süddeutsche Zeitung Nr. 2/Seite 15, Munchen


[20] Karlsson, J.MS. (2009) Revolution – Mostra fotografica (Bartolucci. M. editor), Roma


[21] Campanini M. S. (2005) Three Posters, Borgo del libro, Cavi, (p. 2)


[22] Campanini M.S. (2009) Spazio e Tempo sul planisfero. Il punto di vista non è univoco. Suggestioni per un PERCORSO DIDATTICO POLARE CON TRAUSTI VALSSON, p. 85-112 in Campanini M.S. a cura IPY 2007-2008 Esperienza transnazionale per il Laboratorio di Didattica della Geografia, Lampi di Stampa Messaggerie, Milano


[23] Atlante Geografico (2007) Grandi tascabili Istituto Geografico De Agostini (p. 105 modified) Novara: Istituto Geografico De Agostini


01  02