Project (2004-2005)

Laboratory Landscapes. The Alps as a Medium of Physiology around 1900

This dissertation project aimed at the historical encounter of experimental physiology and alpinism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and is centered around two main theses, both concerning the mutual interactions between the life science and the landscape.

As for the Alps, physiological considerations have played a crucial role in Europe's encounter with its mountainous centre since the eighteenth century. The aesthetics of the sublime conventionalised how the overbearing impression of alpine landscapes could be mastered poetically, i.e., how initial trembling and speechlessness could lead to pictures and words.

However, since mountains were no longer beheld, but climbed, i.e., since Horace Bénédict de Saussure's famous expedition to the summit of Mont Blanc in 1787, the experience of the sublime has turned thoroughly medical. Beyond the tree line, mountaineers could no longer master their silence by means of symbolic convention, and instead of romantic depictions of the high Alps, accounts of physiological failure piled up during the first half of the nineteenth century. Somnolence and vertigo kept subduing the gaze.

Since 1850, however, the gap of alpine representation has been filled with mechanical pictures: i.e., with photographs on the one hand, showing the high regions of eternal snow for the first time; and with physiological curves on the other, showing the corresponding bodies of the mountaineers. Together with the representational shift from signs to traces of mountaineering, the experimental culture of alpine physiology emerged, translating the sublime encounter of man and landscape into graphic studies on blood circulation, breathing, fear, and, above all, fatigue.

As for physiology, the study of fatigue turned into one of its most prominent subjects during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Being regarded as the physiological counterpart of thermodynamics' second law, the law stating the inevitable loss of convertible energy and the increase of entropy over time, fatigue both raised fears of degeneration and hopes of physiological understanding and control of the working body.

Against the background of such popular sentiments, fatigue was subjected to experimentation during the 1880s. Eventually, the new branch of physiology would yield the material and theoretical foundations for the science of work that emerged throughout Europe in the wake of the twentieth century, aiming to analyze, reform, and improve the conditions and efficiency of industrial labor.

However, Angelo Mosso, the Italian founder of fatigue studies and virtuoso of the graphic method in physiology, and other eminent life scientists of the period conducted their research not in the factory, but in the Alps. Their science of physical and mental exhaustion was less linked to the contemporary experience of industrialization than to the practice of alpinism, i.e., the almost obligatory sport of the young Italian kingdom's political class since Quintino Sella, the subsequent minister of finance, had founded the Club Alpino Italiano in 1863. Mosso's alpine physiology of fatigue emerged as the experimental backside of bourgeois mountaineering, from which it adopted its culture—such as the aesthetics of the sublime, the symbolic building of the young Italian nation, the romantic cult of the individual, and the modern cult of arduousness—and to which, at least partly, it owed its success. In this history, the Alps appear as a space on the edge of modernity, where the latter's theoretical obsession for energy could be saturated with contemporary social life and secular aesthetic traditions, thus forming a science of fatigue that was at the same time highly self-evident, popular, and applied.