Is Gstaad Romantic?07.03.2022 Arts & Culture
With redolent traces of Valentine’s Day lingering in the air, chalet hearths teeming with still-warm embers, and posh boutiques nearly bereft of bijoux, the answer seems self-evident. But is the Saanenland Romantic? Was our fair valley a feature on the great Continental itineraries of the 18th and 19th centuries? Mais, certainement, but to a rather limited extent.
Romanticism was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe in the late 18th century, and in most places reached its zenith from 1800-1850. The movement, partly a reaction to the Enlightenment’s scientific rationalization of physical phenomena and the Industrial Revolution, was characterized by the idealization of nature and an emphasis on intense emotions, especially fear, horror, and awe, as conduits for exploring, e.g., Edmund Burke’s (1757) new aesthetic categories encompassing the sublimity and beauty of the natural world. Beauty, as we are often reminded, is that which pleases the eye and other senses. Romantics venerated the sublime: that which has the power to compel or destroy us.
In late 17th century in Europe, a prevalent view held that mountains, not having been part of the original Creation, only came into existence after the Flood and represented divine punishment of the earth for the sins of humankind. Scottish cleric Gilbert Burnet (1685) described them as the “vast Ruines of the first World.” The Swiss Alps were seen as a terrifying, savage, and barbarous place, filled with demons and monsters. Even the Swiss scholar-naturalist Scheuchzer somewhat skeptically included pictures of dragons in his Itinera alpina (1723), not wanting to discount the earnest assertions of local inhabitants.
Albrecht von Haller’s captivating poem Die Alpen (1732), and its many translations, was a sensation in Europe and presaged a tectonic change on Alpine perspectives. It extolled the virtue and health of simple mountain folk and their environment, contrasting them with the corrupt and decadent existence of lowland city-dwellers. Thirty years later, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the new Heloise (1761), perhaps the best-selling book of the century with its amorous imagery of a lover’s tryst in a cozy chalet, further inspired a feverish attraction for the grandiose Alpine massifs, and inspired Romantics quickly penciled Switzerland into their itineraries.
Their enthusiasm cannot be overstated. In 1800, an eager English party crossed the Great St. Bernhard only three months after Napoleon during the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802), narrowly avoiding murder by French soldiers in the Val d’Aosta during the ongoing conflict. The Treaty of Amiens (1802) gave later English visitors a brief, yearlong window to further experience Switzerland’s pristine and awesome grandeur before the onset of the Napoleonic Wars.
Though the first rush of post-conflict Oberland novelty seekers keenly bustled straight down to Interlaken, and thence up to the glaciers of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, others chose a calmer, more sedate route. But the Saanenland was often transited with scant description – something difficult to imagine today. Of Goethe’s and William Turner’s journeys in our area, we know little. Lord Byron’s 1816 passage through ‘Gesenai’ is only mentioned in his traveling companion Hobhouse’s fishing expedition on the Saane. In truth, Felix Mendelssohn’s 1831 description of Saanen as verdant, “fresh and gay,” and Swiss painter Caspar Wolf’s depiction of the Geltenschuss in Lauenen (c. 1778) are some of the few definitive local testimonies of that era.
Thus, the Saanenland certainly is Romantic, if hardly well represented by the travelers of the time. While Switzerland’s Alpine panorama is replete with objets de délice, one can only have sympathy for these voyagers’ oversight. Guests today know better.