‘The view from the summit is unsatisfactory’

Friedrich Wanderer

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Over the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

This is what Karl Baedeker said about Mont Blanc[1] in his 1844 Switzerland guidebook – I don’t know why he thought it unsatisfactory – perhaps it didn’t meet his Romantic notions of mountain views as described in Schiller’s poetry and as Friedrich captures in this ‘iconic’ painting.

This quote from an online essay by Edward Mendelson (1985) gives us an idea of what Baedeker thought was satisfactory:

“Karl Baedeker introduced the star system. Beginning in 1844 he marked with an asterisk those few points of interest that hurried travellers should not fail to see. Later he added a second asterisk for especially stellar attractions, and extended the system to his lists of hotels and restaurants… he awarded them with careful and sometimes idiosyncratic discretion. Mont Blanc, during his lifetime and for almost half a century after, earned no stars at all: “The view from the summit is unsatisfactory.” The view from the Eggischhorn (one star) was better, from the Rigi-Kulm (two stars) very satisfactory indeed.

“The view from the Rigi-Kulm at sunrise was enough to excite Karl Baedeker to a manner that can best be described as cautionarily ecstatic: An hour before sunrise the Alphorn sounds the reveille. [In the hotel] all is again bustle and confusion, everyone fearful of missing the sun’s ascent. Little by little the corridors empty, as, with drowsy eyes, wrapped in shawls, cloaks, even blankets, all hasten to the summit to hail the sun’s first rays. Happy is he on whom they shine unobscured! Scarcely one out of four travellers to the Rigi can boast such good fortune, and the old visitors’ book records many hopes deceived by fog, rain, or snow. Yet the struggle of the sun against the fog and cloud is often extremely striking, and the Alpine hunter in [Schiller’s] ‘Tell says justly: And under his feet lies an ocean of mist, He perceives no more the cities of men; He beholds the earth only through rifts in the clouds, Beneath the deep waters, the verdurous plain. [Die Schweiz, fifth edition, 1853]”

‘The view was unsatisfactory’ seems to me the type of peevish comment tourists have been making for decades – ‘the wine wasn’t sufficiently chilled’, ‘the hotel room was not clean enough’, etc.

Around the same time, Charles Heaphy in Wellington, New Zealand drew the view this lithograph was made from:

Heaphy birdseye view

Heaphy, Charles, 1820-1881: Birdseye view of Port Nicholson, in New Zealand, shewing the site of the town of Wellington, the river and valley of the Hutt and adjacent country. Drawn, lithographed by T. Allom [from a drawing by Charles Heaphy]. Printed by Hullmandel & Walton. London, Published by Trelawney Saunders, [1843?]. Ref: C-029-006-b. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22875686

Heaphy can’t have been in the air to actually see this view, he imaginatively reconstructed it from maps and drawings he had already made. It wasn’t made to entice tourists, but settlers – Heaphy worked for the New Zealand Company and they wanted more immigrants to come to New Zealand. He gives the impression there is more flat land in the distance than there is in reality, as this Google Earth image shows. He made the view ‘satisfactory’!

Wellington google maps

I haven’t seen the view from Mont Blanc; but I thought the view from Mürren, near Lauterbrunnen (Switzerland) was satisfactory when I visited many years ago.

Lauterbrunnen 1


[1] I read this in Simon Garfield’s entertaining book On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does, Profile Books, 2013, p. 302


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