Rediscovering Lost Landscapes

Rediscovering Lost Landscapes treats a fascinating aspect of landscape history by focussing on a rich archive of material created by visitors to a beautiful part of the world at a time when painting and drawing, and later photography, were serious pastimes for many of them.  

We had been researching the landscape history of Liguria since the early 1990s working closely with colleagues at the Università di Genova and local historians. Much of our research, using field surveys, archives, historical maps and oral histories, developed from annual field courses with geography and history students from the University of Nottingham based in Varese Ligure, inland from the coastal resort of Sestri Levante.  

In the early 2000s we noticed entirely by chance that the art dealers Abbott and Holder in Museum St, London had for sale a number of small early nineteenth century watercolours. One that sprang out from the gallery wall, in a revelatory moment, was entitled ‘Sestri from the ascent of the Bracca’ and dated 3 November 1829. We recognised immediately the landscape inland from Sestri Levante with its characteristic stone pine trees and olive groves. The paintings were by the, to us, then entirely unknown amateur artist Elizabeth Fanshawe (1779-1856). Her detailed images provide a remarkable insight into a forgotten landscape history. This discovery gave us the idea to explore the value of such paintings by frequently obscure British visitors to Italy as a way of understanding changes to North West Italian landscapes over the last two hundred years or so.  

Large numbers of wealthy British women and men settled along the coast in Liguria and travelled in the mountains of Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta in the nineteenth century. By 1900 there were several English-speaking residential communities at places such as Alassio, Bordighera, Sanremo and Portofino. The Baedeker guide of 1913 extolls the ‘almost uninterrupted series of winter-resorts’ extending ‘along the Ligurian Riviera’ which ‘is one of the most beautiful regions on earth’. Moreover, many of these tourists and residents were amateur artists keen to document and memorialize their visits. 

Funding from the Leverhulme Trust allowed us to extend our research to answer a series of questions. Who were the British and Italian artists making topographical views in North West Italy? What traditions of painting did they work in? What were the interconnections between topographical art and photography? 

It is the identification and analysis of over 900 sketches, drawing and paintings scattered today in private and public collections in Italy and Britain, which forms the basis of this book. The images are used, together with historical photographs, maps, archives and fieldwork, to deepen knowledge of past land management traditions and demonstrate how this knowledge can be used by current land managers to conserve landscapes. We show how topographical art can be used to rediscover cultural landscapes now obscured by twentieth century urbanisation and dense naturally regenerating woodland. Such art can be used to demonstrate the extent and rapidity of change, provide insights into forgotten and hidden geographies and provide ideas about how lost landscapes might be recreated.  

Dr PIETRO PIANA is Research Fellow at the Università degli Studi at Genova; CHARLES WATKINS is Professor of Rural Geography at the University of Nottingham; ROSS BALZARETTI Is Professor of Italian History at the University of Nottingham. 

Rediscovering Lost Landscapes: Topographical Art in north-west Italy, 1800-1920
by Pietro Piana, Charles Watkins & Ross Balzaretti
9781783276318, Hardcover, £45.50 / $64.35

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