National Gallery: The Alps

The 1,200 square miles of mountains that make up the Alps have been both frontier and a venue for fun.

Spanning eight European countries (and, of course, predating them all), the Alps have meant different things to the various people who have confronted them. As this juxtaposition of troops and tourists shows, the 1,200 square miles of mountains have been both frontier and a venue for fun. The Romans felt aversion to the Alps and crossed them in pursuit of imperial expansion; later, pilgrims and Holy Roman emperors travelled in the opposite direction. During the Enlightenment, they inspired a theory that mountains were debris deposited by the Great Flood; later, their geological study helped prove this was not the case. The Alps have inspired science, art and feats of endurance, but a further proof of their historical importance can be found in their metaphorical value, here neatly employed by the US editor and writer E.W. Howe (1853-1937): ‘Some men storm imaginary Alps all their lives, and die in the foothills cursing difficulties which do not exist.’


Hannibal Crossing the Alps on an Elephant, Nicolas Poussin, c.1625.

Rome’s notorious foe carries out the feat for which he is best known. Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps en route to face Rome in the Second Punic War in 218 BC. He led an army of various sizes depending on the source – Greek historian Polybius (who placed great emphasis on factual integrity) asserted 90,000 foot soldiers, 12,000 horses and 37 elephants. Though his route is unknown, the achievement is testament to a truth articulated by the classicist Walter Woodburn Hyde: ‘The Alps have never formed an impassable barrier to plants, animals or men’.


Swiss board game, c.1910.

What a difference two millennia make: more than 2,000 years after Hannibal’s crossing (in which many men and all but one elephant died from the cold), author and mountaineer Leslie Stephen described alpine Switzerland as ‘the playground of Europe’, in a travelogue of that name in 1871. This mountain-themed board game, produced around 50 years later, embraces this soubriquet literally.


La Tropheé des Alpes postcard, 20th century.

Built in south-east France around 6 BC, the Tropaeum Alpium marks Augustus’ subjugation of 45 alpine tribes, whose names are inscribed on the monument. Rome’s war with the people of the Alps began under Julius Caesar, who, in 44 BC, became unable to complete the task for well-documented reasons. Achieved by 7 BC, Augustus became the first of only two rulers to control the entire range (Charlemagne being the other). As Woodburn Hyde writes, the Romans built roads along existing trails and ‘never developed any sentimental interest’ in the mountains. 


The Devil’s Bridge, J.M.W. Turner, 19th century.

Roman aversion to Alpine scenery was not shared by the 19th-century artists known collectively as the Romantics. Pictured here is J.M.W. Turner’s evocative painting of the rebuilt ‘Devil’s Bridge’. Crossing Schöllenen Gorge in Switzerland, it was built in 1230, rebuilt in 1595 and collapsed in 1888. Its name comes from a legend which postdates the original bridge by hundreds of years, but, with satanic involvement or not, its construction in the 13th century made the Gotthard Pass a primary route between Italy and Germany.


Goldenes Dachl postcard, Innsbruck, 1906.

The great imperial Habsburg city, Vienna, lies north-east of the Alps – but, as this postcard reveals, alpine Innsbruck also has a regal past. The Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) made Innsbruck his capital due to its proximity to medieval Europe’s biggest silver mine at nearby Schwaz. But his most famous legacy comprises a different precious metal. Beneath the coat of arms is the Goldenes Dachl, or Golden Roof (a fact not apparent from this monochrome rendering). Built in 1500, it overlooks Innsbruck’s Old Town square, giving the emperor a view of festivities beneath. 


Stereoview photograph showing monks at the Great St Bernard Hospice, William England, 1860s.

As well as roads and bridges, pilgrims, travellers (and even emperors) required shelter on journeys over the mountains. Among the most famous due to its position on a busy route, the hospice at the Great St Bernard Pass was founded by Bernard of Menthon in 1050. Bernard dedicated his life to converting alpine peoples and was confirmed as the Alps’ patron saint by Pius XI in 1923. The hospice is also known for the breed of rescue dog kept there since at least the early 18th century. 


Detail of a map of Switzerland by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, 1713.

In 1291, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, the Swiss cantons surrounding Lake Lucerne, rebelled against Habsburg rule. This Old Swiss Confederacy was later joined by Zurich, Glarus, Bern, Lucerne and Zug, forming the basis of the Swiss Confederation. The Swiss folk legend of William Tell celebrates the country’s defiant formation. Here, the Matterhorn defends the border with Italy in the southern canton of Valais.


Summit of Rigi-Kulm, Switzerland, c.1900.

Tourists survey the Rigi massif in a photo which helpfully includes the peaks’ various heights. From the Enlightenment, the Alps provoked scientific curiosity. The theory that mountains were formed by tectonic plate movement was not widely accepted until the 20th century, but the Alps had long inspired pioneering ideas; Thomas Burnet’s ‘Sacred Earth Theory’ (1681), for example.  


Neuschwanstein under construction, 1880.

One of the Alps’ most recognisable landmarks, King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Schloss Neuschwanstein inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Designed ‘in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles’, construction began in 1869 (the scaffolding is a giveaway). Ludwig was not alone in seeking refuge in the alps; Adolf Hitler spent much of the Second World War at his alpine residence, Berghof. 


From Narrative of an Ascent of Mont Blanc, John MacGregor, 1855.

The first recorded ascent of Mont Blanc, the Alps’ highest peak, was achieved by Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard on 8 August 1786. The pair won a reward from the Swiss geologist Horace Benedict de Saussure, who, having failed the climb in 1757, offered an incentive to the first person who could. Other alpine summits were climbed in the early 19th century; the decade between 1854 and 1865 became known as the ‘Golden Age of Alpinism’. The first mountaineering society, The Alpine Club, was founded in London in 1857. 


Chair lift in Grindelweld, Switzerland, 1964.

Tourists arrived in the Alps en masse in the 19th century. Where tourism arrives, disapproving comments are never far behind. Amelia Edwards, the British Egyptologist, complained of ‘hackneyed sights, overcrowded hotels and the flood of Cook’s tourists’ as early as 1872. Alpine tourism accelerated with the railway and – pictured – the ski lift. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel of wealthy American expats in Europe, Tender is the Night, protagonist Dick Diver overhears a British couple aboard a cable car: ‘I can see it would be a terrible thing for Switzerland if a cable broke.’ 


From Alpine Architecture, Bruno Taut, 1919.

In 1918, towards the end of the First World War, the pacifist German architect Bruno Taut produced Alpine Architecture, a series of annotated drawings which presented his vision of a utopian city made of glass in the Alps, to be built at the Monte Rosa massif between Switzerland and Italy. Dedicating his book to Kaiser Wilhelm II – who had abdicated by the time of the book’s publication in 1919 – Taut argued that the cause of war was boredom. The pan-European creation of such a city might prevent another. Sadly, no glass metropolis was created and the rest is history.