The view that changed the world and its gardens: what Petrarch saw from Mount Ventoux

View from the summit of Mount Ventoux

View from the summit of Mount Ventoux

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), known Petrarch is said to be the first man since antiquity to have climbed a mountain for pleasure alone. His ascent of Mount Ventoux, on April 26 1336, is described in his letter, below, and the view is shown in the photograph above (image courtesy Mark Madsen). The results of this famous climb include (1) humanism (2) renaissance literature and science (3) a re-birth of mimesis as the dominant theory of art and as a zest to ‘imitate nature’ (4) the change from inward-looking medieval gardens to outward-looming renaissance, baroque and romantic gardens (5) the tourist industry – Petrarch is known as the first tourist, in the sense of a man who travels for the pleasure of study, learning and views.
“To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum [Mount Ventoux]. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer. I have had the expedition in mind for many years; for, as you know, I have lived in this region from infancy, having been cast here by that fate which determines the affairs of men. Consequently the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes, and I conceived the plan of some time doing what I have at last accomplished to-day. The idea took hold upon me with especial force when, in re-reading Livy’s History of Rome, yesterday, I happened upon the place where Philip of Macedon, the same who waged war against the Romans, ascended Mount Haemus in Thessaly, from whose summit he was able, it is said, to see two seas, the Adriatic and the Euxine…. At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. I beheld the clouds under our feet, and what I had read of Athos and Olympus seemed less incredible as I myself witnessed the same things from a mountain of less fame. I turned my eyes toward Italy, whither my heart most inclined. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance; the very same Alps through which that fierce enemy of the Roman name once made his way, bursting the rocks, if we may believe the report, by the application of vinegar. I sighed, I must confess, for the skies of Italy, which I beheld rather with my mind than with my eyes. An inexpressible longing came over rne to see once more my friend and my country.
Happy the man who is skilled to understand
Nature’s hid causes; who beneath his feet
All terrors casts, and death’s relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron.

PS apologies for using the hackneyed ‘changed the world’ header for this post.

14 thoughts on “The view that changed the world and its gardens: what Petrarch saw from Mount Ventoux

  1. Adam Hodge

    I would concur, the views from the top are breathtaking, and it’s a site easier driving up than walking.
    Afterwards one just has to visit a few vineyards in the villages of note nearby !! Gigondas & Cairanne here we come.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Robert M. Pirsig (in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values) observes that you can travel across the US by plane or train but it is absolutely not the same experience as travelling by bike. Do you think the same applies to Mount Ventoux? If so, I better be sure to get there before I am too old!

  3. Adam Hodge

    I think the coolest thing would be drive up in an old deux cheveaux or else one of those splendid little put-put motor bikes the French have. Alternatively maybe a Harley. Have a picnic of a baguette, a slab of pate de compeigne ,some big fat juicy tomatoes, a chunk of the stinkiest fromage available and a bottle of either some Cote de Ventoux or a bottle of the local fizz and take in the vast panorama slowly ,presuming it isnt covered in mist !!

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    Nice. But it reads more like an idea for changing my belly profile than for changing my perception of the nature of the world – or does Cote de Ventoux assist in this department?

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    I expect there a cultural chain from Mt Ventoux to the bungy jump. And I regret that Petrarch has led to so many of the world’s beautiful places being drowned in concrete hotels.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    An extraordinary film and and an extraordinary story. Why can’t the ‘developing’ world learn that being a ‘developed’ country is not the be-all-and-end-all of life on earth? In India they admire Mahatma Gandhi but forget his comment that ‘I think it would be a good idea’ when asked what he thought of Western civilization.

  7. Christine

    Hmmm. Cultures of European origin? Perhaps a wider lens (which includes Europe) is needed when we look at what the world has to offer us all?

    Yes, it is good to question ideas about development. [ ] It seem the US has led the way in the national parks movement. Yellowstone is reputed to be the first national park in the world. [ ]

    Vanautu is an extraordinary place. The views are also spectacular under the ocean. However it does not have world heritage protection is deserves.
    [ ]

    As the island of Surtsey demonstrates we can learn much about development from observing a pristine environment. [ ]

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    I prefer the term Natural Reserve to National Park – because ‘park’ (meaning ‘imparked’) has the strong overtone of ‘for the use and enjoyment of humans’. The result is that National Parks come to look like this . The Wiki entry on nature reserves gives a Buddhist origin (in Sri Lanka) but goes on to conflate the idea with National Parks. Since the US National Park idea was partly inspired by a landscape architect (
    Frederick Law Olmsted) and partly by a desire to ‘compete’ with Europe’s cultural treasures, I much prefer the sacred origin and the term ‘reserve’. But I fear Petrarch, as a Christian humanist, would have supported the ‘park’ idea. Christianity is more man-centered than the older belief systems.
    Note: Mount Ventoux is part of the Tour de France

  9. Christine

    I suppose the best way to distinguish the modern national park movement from Sri Lankian ideas is the difference in purpose – conservation v resource management.

    The Sinhalese (Buddhist) and Tamals (Hindu) are predated in Sri Lanka by the ‘Wanniyala-aetto’ self-described ‘forest beings’.
    [ ]

    In 2006 there were said to be 2000 Wanniyala-aetto. (There is archaeological evidence for the existence of the ancestors of the Wanniyala-aetto in Sri Lanka over 31,000 years ago. The Sinhalese in the ‘Dipavamsa’ (4th cent) and ‘Mahavamsa’ (6th cent) justified conquest on religious grounds.

    Perhaps this places Sri Lankan forest laws in a very different context from conservation? Are there parallels with the experiences of Indigenous populations in North America? Perhaps.

  10. Tom Turner Post author

    I did not know of them. The Wiki entry states plainly that ‘Animism is the original religion of Veddas’ and since this is also true of the Hindus (and therefore Buddhists) I think it is sufficient to say that the veneration of forests comes from ‘ancient Asia’ and ‘the Americas’ and probably from Africa. So forestphilia is probably in all our psyches – and should be in our laws.

  11. Christine

    According to anthropologists the myths and cave paintings of the Wanniyala-aetto tell of the colonisation of their island 2000 years ago (so 10BCE). Predating both the Sinhalese and the Tamals in Sri Lanka with another colonising group.

    In the mid-1950s the Sri Lankan government flooded their hunting and gathering grounds and cave dwellings in order to construct a hydro-electric dam (completed in 1983) and now part of the Maduru Oya National Park. It is now a criminal offence to hunt or forage in the park.

    The Wanniyala-aetto are one group considered to have experienced language shift as a result of contact with other language groups.

    Click languages are spoken mostly by hunter gatherers.

    The Damin (speech register of Lardil, TANGKIC) northern Australia speak with clicks (17%) as a phonemic speech sound. It is claimed that the language was developed in Dreamtime. Linguists say that the click in the Damin register is a rare example of a click arising as an independent language innovation.

    “This is a fully functional speech form used in an Australian Aboriginal group by second degree male initiates to ritually related community members….Lardil and the initiate register Damin are mutually unintelligible so the latter can be considered to a certain extent to be a separate language.”

    Tom Guldemann, ‘Clicks, Genetics and ProtoWorld from a Linguistic Perspective’.


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