The Project

Leverhulme Research Project: British amateur topographical art and landscape in NW Italy 1835-1915

Many British tourists visited the coast and mountainous interior of North West Italy in the nineteenth century. The number of visitors rapidly increased after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and from 1835 onwards more and more of these visitors settled along the coast in search of health and warmth. Several English-speaking colonies of resident retired clerics, colonial officials, aristocrats and industrialists were established and by 1900 there were large residential communities at places such as Alassio, Bordighera and San Remo. Many visitors and residents were keen amateur artists and in this project we will identify and analyse drawings, paintings and photographs by British visitors and residents in North West Italy (Western Liguria, Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta) 1835-1915.

This project brings together approaches from the disciplines of geography and history to re-evaluate the importance of amateur topographical art which until recently has been largely ignored by academics and dismissed as mundane or hackneyed. We will contextualise these amateur works by evaluating the artists’ intellectual and cultural influences. We will create a database of amateur art which survives in public and private archives and analyse the art to provide insights into the way landscapes were appreciated and understood in the past by visitors, tourists and residents. We will examine how their ways of seeing influenced and interacted with the landscapes they chose to depict and use the images, in conjunction with maps, archives and fieldwork, to deepen knowledge of past land management history and traditions. The project is directed by Professor Charles Watkins and co-directed by Dr Ross Balzaretti. The Project Research Fellows are Dr Pietro Piana and Dr Ivan Tekic.

The landscapes of North West Italy have changed dramatically over the last hundred years. The coastal areas are now characterised by dense development of hotels, houses and industry linked by many new roads and motorways. The inland areas in contrast have suffered from intense rural depopulation and land abandonment. This means that many former pastures and cultivated terraces are now covered with naturally regenerated woodland and traditional forms of agriculture and woodland management have disappeared. We will examine the extent to which amateur topographical art is a way of rediscovering former cultural landscapes obscured by such recent ‘re-wilding’.

The analysis of the images and comparison with present day landscapes and intervening historical maps will be used to demonstrate the extent and rapidity of change, provide insights into forgotten and hidden geographies and help to generate ideas about how lost landscapes might be recreated. The detailed analysis will make use of GIS and draw on the database of art and the systematic analysis of similar views by different artists to interpret environmental change. The project seeks to establish amateur art as a novel archive which can be interpreted to help solve current environmental issues brought about by both rural land abandonment and extensive coastal development.

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